Tom McNeil was a man ahead of his times.
Tom who died on Tuesday March 24 at the age of 90. He was the 947th player to play League footy for St Kilda and appeared in eight games across the 1951 to 1952 seasons.
That small entry in the Saints’ tapestry played a part in his wider involvement in football. On a visit to the country of his birth, Scotland, a couple of years after his time with the Saints, Tom met soccer player John Hughes of the Scottish Football Players Union and talked of the benefits of players having a collective body to represent their interests. On his return to Australia in 1955 Tom McNeil worked to generate a players’ union for Australian Rules footballers.
The Australian Footballers’ Union initially attracted support from leading players, but clubs were quick to oppose the radical concept. It needs to be remembered that this was the Cold War era when there was widespread suspicion of anything resembling Communism. Despite all of Tom’s wholehearted work, the union disbanded in 1956 after unsuccessfully trying to win recognition before the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration.
As a footballer Tom McNeil had a wide journey that traversed much of Australia. He had come to St Kilda from Hampton Juniors and Elwood and in 1951 won the Saints Reserves best and fairest award before breaking into the senior side for the second last round. He added a further seven senior games to his tally in 1952.
He coached East St Kilda to a flag in 1953 then was at the helm for Alexandra in the Waranga North East competition in 1954.
Back to East St Kilda in 1955 he then headed to coach Lake Boga in the mid-Murray League. After that he coached Queensland club Sandgate, then landed at Riverina club Walla Walla for a year in 1958. In 1959 he coached WA side South Bunbury to a flag then back to Sandgate.
Eventually he settled in Geraldton WA where he had further coaching success in the WA League championships. With his effervescent and enthusiastic personality it was no surprise that he served a long career in parliament from 1977 to 1989 as the National Country Party Member for Upper West in the Legislative Council.
He never waned in his beliefs about the rights of footballers and often spoke passionately in the parliamentary chamber about the need for players to have freedom of choice in the clubs that they wished to play for.
On a visit to Melbourne in 2008 he visited the offices of the AFLPA in Albert Park with the intention of joining up as an associate member, and asked to see Brendon Gale the Association’s CEO. Brendon immediately recognised the importance of Tom’s story and he commissioned noted historian Braham Dabscheck to document the vital piece of history. Dabscheck’s superb story in the Sporting Traditions Journal of 2011 can be read by Googling MP477 McNeil and is well worth the read.
It was little wonder that as he stood in the foyer of the AFLPA Tom McNeil marvelled at his initially thwarted dream eventually becoming a reality
I had the pleasure of meeting Tom McNeil at a Saints game at Subiaco. He was, as our CEO Matt Finnis described, “an absolute gentleman”.