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VALE BILL STEPHENSON – 1937-2010


St Kilda Football Club is saddened by the news of the passing of former player, Bill Stephenson.

It says a lot about Bill Stephenson that when Tony Lockett arrived at St Kilda he reminded old Saint fans of Stephenson’s brief time in front of goals.

Stephenson, who died on Tuesday aged 73, was the subject of huge media scrutiny back in 1962 when he injured his knee and directly affected the course of the season. To put it in context when he went down with the injury, Stephenson had kicked 20 goals in three and a half games. If he had kept going at that rate he would have kicked 102 for the year. This, in a time when the leading goalkicker of the previous season had tallied just 54 for the season, made Stephenson a headline act in a low-scoring era.

At the moment Stephenson was injured he was the spearhead for the Saints - a glamour side of the competition coming off a 1961 season when they had made the finals for the first time in 22 years. He was injured in the match of the day against Essndon and with Stephenson bagging five goals in the first half, St Kilda had control with a three goal lead. But with him gone Essendon turned the game around and won by four points. They would only lose two games for the season and go on to a runaway Grand Final win. St Kilda on the other hand, missed the finals altogether.

Stephenson recalled in later years that when he collapsed with the knee injury he loudly said “I’m buggered!” and Bomber ruckman Don McKenzie who had been shifted onto him after two full-backs had already been disposed of, responded “thank Christ for that.”
The amiable Stephenson chided McKenzie for the remark in later years, but it was a fair indication of Essendon’s relief that the unstoppable full-forward could inflict no more damage on them.

The aura of a spectacular goalkicker was a mantle that had only recently been thrust onto Stephenson. Up until 18 months earlier he had been a ruckman/centre half-forward - and a very good one at that - talented enough indeed to have played twice for Victoria. The parallel with Tony Lockett was in Stephenson’s vice-like marking and immovable presence in front of goal. His marking was so strong that Allan Jeans has declared him to have had the best hands of any player he coached at St Kilda. In his prime Stephenson weighed just under 15 stone and full-backs found him incredibly difficult to counter.

A left-footer, he was not always accurate in front of goal, so he tailored his game at full-forward to make sure he never travelled too far from the big sticks. Writing for The Sun, Lou Richards dubbed him “cricket pitch” to describe the manner in which he never stayed more than 22 yards from the goalsquare.

Around the same time that Stephenson injured his knee, Geelong’s superstar recruit Polly Farmer also suffered a knee injury. Bulletins on their progress dominated the football press and a photo exists of the high profile pair comparing their respective joints. It was a time when knee surgery was far less advanced than today. Farmer would return to the field and confirm his high standing in the game, although folklore tells us that Geelong people believed he never leapt as high again as he had in the pre-season games before his injury.

For Stephenson the subsequent story had no happy ending. He tried to play again in 1962 but broke down, then had an extensive rehab program before a much-vaunted return against Collingwood early in 1963. He booted seven goals in a storybook return and joked later; “It was probably the best day of my football life. I won an overcoat and two electric shavers!” But he add with a sombre tone; “I was never the same after that match”.

He struggled through a few more games before being rested for a month. Some encouraging efforts in the reserves led to St Kilda gambling on a recall for the first semi final against Melbourne, but he struggled and was booked in for more surgery. Just when things looked to be coming good he broke down in a practice match. At 27, his career was over.

By the time his great mate Alan Morrow took the famous mark at the end of the 1966 Grand Final, Stephenson was well and truly retired. It was a sobering thought that Stephenson was three months younger than Morrow, and like Jim Guyatt (27) and Ross Oakley (24), he had been denied the chance to be part of the Club’s greatest moment by a knee injury.

If that preyed on his mind he never let on. The ever ready smile and the welcoming nature of both he and his wife Alma made visitors feel welcome at their Sale home.

Big Stevo had a fine career which could so easily have been a great one.

BILL STEPHENSON

Born: 14 February 1937
Died: 10 August 2010
Played 1957-1963
88 games, 140 goals.
Represented Victoria vs WA, SA - 1960