1979 Bunbury City Headlines (feature Image)

1979: Bunbury Steps Up to Semi-Professional Football

Bunbury City secured a unique place in Western Australian football history when they faced off with Ashfield Dynamo in a Division Four fixture on the afternoon of April 8th, 1979. The occasion marked the debut of a regional team in the state’s semi-professional football league.

Formed in late 1974, Bunbury were quick to make their mark in the South West Soccer Association. With former State League player Ken Hordell at the helm, the new kids on the block asserted themselves by claiming four consecutive Division One titles (1975, 1976, 1977, 1978) along with the 1977 Cup.

With their dominance of the local league near-total, the club went seeking a new challenge. Club president Win Chatt set his sights on the Soccer Federation of Western Australia and his ambitious plan paid dividends when Bunbury were accepted into the fourth tier of semi-professional competition for the 1979 season.

Chatt sought out former State team captain John O’Connell to coach the team, which trained twice a week at Bunbury Recreation Ground. A heavy loss to Busselton opened a patchy pre-season which included a comfortable win over Division Three side Bedford United and defeat at Belmont Cloverdale, another Division Three club.

Then – a week out from their first competitive hit-out – East Fremantle Tricolore slapped a $500 transfer fee on O’Connell, who had played at the club the previous two seasons without a contract. That situation hadn’t been resolved when Bunbury stumbled 3-0 to fellow south-westers Albany in the Preliminary Round of the D’Orsogna Cup.

1979 Bunbury City Logo

Bunbury’s semi-professional league debut arrived a week later at home to Ashfield. With an injury crisis forcing five players to turn out for both the first team and reserves, Bunbury – wearing white shirts and shorts with black trim – marked the occasion by coming from behind to record a credible 1-1 draw.

A week later they embarked on a 346km round-trip to St Marks CBC where honours were shared at 2-2, and a second away game produced a 1-4 loss to Wanneroo. Things started to click for Bunbury when they hosted Kensington Viola on 29 April, O’Connell netting four times and Steve Rodgers once in a 5-1 win.

Referee Frank Green abandoned the fourth round game against Dianella JUST with 8 minutes remaining and Bunbury leading 2-1. “Fans streamed onto the pitch after a couple of incidents in the game, and a linesman was struck in the mouth in the ensuing fight,” reported the ‘South Western Times’ of 8 May.

Despite the unwelcome intrusion, O’Connell was pleased with how his team was progressing. “The boys are starting to hold their own in this competition and I cannot speak highly enough of the way they fought tooth and nail on Sunday to be leading 2-1. Their’s has not been a flash-in-the-pan effort but has been borne out of the hard work and a willingness to learn.”

Lowly Mt Lawley Serbia scored a surprise 2-1 win over Bunbury, who rebounded with back-to-back successes against Whitford City (1-0) and Rosemount Juventus (5-2). Rodgers played the starring role against the latter by netting four times and setting up the other for Alan Migliore, who had bagged the decider seven days earlier.

Despite Bunbury scoring twice in the last seven minutes, Kalamunda took out a seesawing encounter 3-2. The heroics of goalkeeper Steve Hickman and goals from Rodgers (2) and Steve Blake enabled Bunbury to inflict on Balga their first loss of the season by a 3-0 scoreline. That win moved O’Connell’s team to third on the ladder, just three points off top spot.

But there wasn’t a lot of joy to be had over the month that followed, Bunbury drawing with Ashfield and St Marks before losses to Wanneroo and Kensington. “The club has lost key several players recently through work transfers and the reshuffled side appears to be having difficulty re-establishing its previous highly-disciplined teamwork,” reported the ‘South Western Times’ of 19 July.

O’Connell’s decision to make several positional changes for the rescheduled home clash with Balcatta Etna had the desire effect, a powerhouse display and a 3-1 win. Dianella JUST returned to the metropolitan area with a point and the return fixture against Balcatta finished in favour of the away team.

Bunbury piled on three late goals to score a 5-3 home win over Mt Lawley Serbia. Rodgers helped himself to a hat-trick with Bob Spencer (2) and new recruit Bruno Calabrese also on the scorecard. But a 2-2 draw with second-from-bottom Whitford highlighted how much of a problem consistency had become for the team from the south-west.

Rodgers piled on four goals – three coming in the final 10 minutes – in a 5-2 route of Rosemount only to suffer a 3-1 loss at Kalamunda a week later. Bunbury finished the regular season on a high with another Rodgers hat-trick and a thunderous long-range strike by O’Connell the highlights of a 4-0 thrashing of Balga.

At the end of 22 home and away games Wanneroo sat atop Division Four with 37 points, Balga (35) were second and Bunbury (26) third by way of superior goal difference over Dianella. Rodgers was awarded the competitions golden boot after putting away 30 of the 51 goals scored by Bunbury.

Hopes of Top Four Cup glory were dashed when Dianella struck late to claim their semi-final 2-1. And on the day Bunbury was declared a City, East Perth Vardar spoiled the party by defeating the home side 3-1 in the final of the Bunbury Carnival, an annual tournament that featured local teams alongside those from the metropolitan area.

Bunbury City’s history-making squad of 1979 featured the talents of Steve Hickman, Vern Humble, Tony D’Ascanio, Bob Spencer, Dave Ashworth, P.Cunningham, Hugh Thomas, Colin James, Paul Whincup, John O’Connell, Alan Migliore, Bruno Calabrese, Dave Jacombs, John Voorn, Julian Cantoni, Peter Quinn, Wayne Richards, Steve Blake, Peter Self and Steve Rodgers.

1980 Bunbury City Team

O’Connell would lead Bunbury through their first three seasons of semi-professional football. The club won Division Four at the second attempt and in 1981 became the first team from the south-west to collect silverware at the Bunbury Carnival.

Bunbury competed strongly in the third tier for several seasons only to suffer relegation in 1986, just weeks before winning their second Bunbury Carnival. After placing seventh in Division Four in 1987, they made the difficult decision to withdraw from metropolitan competition due to a declining player numbers and dwindling financial resources.

Back with the South West Soccer Association, Bunbury added three further Division One championships (1988, 1989, 1992) plus a third Bunbury Carnival title (1988) to their trophy cabinet. The club disbanded in early 1993 with the rare distinction of being League Champions in both their first and final seasons.

Over the past three decades the foundations laid by Bunbury City have been built on significantly. In 1990 Bunbury Tricolore entered the metropolitan amateur Division Three and following a trio of promotions were rewarded with a spot in the Premier Division for 1993, when they re-badged as Bunbury United.

That club gained State League status the following year and a 1996 merger with inner-city outfit Ashfield had them compete under the Ashfield/Bunbury moniker for five seasons. The highlight of that period arrived in the form of the 1998 Division One championship and two seasons in the Premier League.

Emerging from the ashes of the union were South West Phoenix. They played semi-professionally between 2001 and 2018, collecting the 2011 Division One title (as Bunbury Forum Force) and played top flight football the following two winters. Phoenix returned to the amateur Premier League in 2020 and will this season line-up in Division Two.

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