On This Day: The Birth of a Bulldog Legend

April 3, 20200

He was born in a Bulldogs premiership year, became a Bulldogs premiership captain-coach and the club’s best and fairest award bears his name.

By Andrew Gigacz on 

He was born in a Bulldogs premiership year, became a Bulldogs premiership captain-coach and the club’s best and fairest award bears his name.

Today marks the 96th anniversary of the birth of Charlie Sutton, a man whose name is synonymous with Footscray and the Western Bulldogs.

The Bulldogs were reigning premiers when Sutton came into the world at Rushworth in northern Victoria in 1924, and they would go ‘back to back’ in the first year of his life, cementing the club’s prospects of moving from the VFA to the country’s top tier football competition, the Victorian Football League.

Sixteen years later, Sutton was playing Under 18s football for Spotswood when he caught the attention of Footscray talent scouts.  They wanted to sign Charlie to the Dogs, but they needed to act quickly because club recruiting zones were about to change and Sutton’s home address was about to move from Footscray’s zone to South Melbourne territory.

They got there just in time, tracking him down at a cinema in Williamstown.  As Sutton explained in a 2005 interview with Mal Brown, “I was at the pictures there and the people came down – Dick Mullenger and Sonner Armitage.  South Melbourne was due to take over the territory where we lived at midnight that night and it was 10 pm.”

Charlie signed with Footscray and the rest, as they say, is history.  Sutton played eight games for the Bulldogs in 1942, but then put his footy career on hold by enlisting in the army, where he joined the transport unit.  He credits that experience with instilling a great sense of discipline and working “for a common goal”.

Sutton also learnt the value of hard work after the war, working in a quarry lifting heavy rocks by hand, even on the Saturday mornings before games. “That was my job, so I had to do it. It was a good warm-up for a football match.”

From 1946, Charlie Sutton was a permanent member of the Footscray team, first as a back pocket, and later as a centreman and rover. The club recognised Sutton’s leadership qualities and appointed him captain-coach at the beginning of 1951.

The ever-realistic Charlie implored the club from the outset of his appointment to be patient, telling the hierarchy that it would take four years to build a premiership team. How right he was.

After a slow start to the 1954 season, Footscray struck rich vein of form to finish second on the ladder and defeat top side Geelong in the Second Semi-Final to claim a place in the Grand Final.

Prior to their Grand Final clash with Melbourne, Sutton, in his pre-match address to the players, invoked the now famous phrase, “Shop early and avoid the rush”.  It was a statement he’d picked up some time earlier, as he told Ben Collins in an interview for the book ‘Champions – Conversations with Great Players & Coaches of Australian Football‘:

“I got that saying from [legendary Richmond and Melbourne coach] ‘Checker’ Hughes when he coached the Victorian team. It meant get the jump-start on the opposition. And if there’s any rough stuff to take place, make sure you do it early on to upset them and get the upper hand. I’d add: ‘Just to make sure, get to the shop before it opens’.”

The Bulldogs did exactly that. While Charlie handled ‘the rough stuff’, his teammates piled on six goals to one in the opening quarter to set up a 51-point win, securing Footscray’s first VFL flag. As well as handling the rough stuff, Sutton found time to play some pretty good footy, kicking three goals.

Sutton continued to lead the Dogs as playing and non-playing coach until 1957, and he later took the reins for another two seasons in 1967-68. From there he continued to serve the club in a variety of capacities, official and non-official (including a stint as president from 1979 to 1981) for the remainder of his life.

Charlie remained a familiar sight around the club for the rest of his days in the rooms to greet the players and shake their hands at training sessions in winter and summer. And his handshake meant a lot, as Bob Murphy described after he passed away in 2012: “The thing with Charlie Sutton is that as a player we felt him there in the most primitive of ways. You felt the touch of his hand. A hand that had the weight of history in its grip.”

In the eight years since his passing, Charlie Sutton’s presence has continued to loom large over the Western Bulldogs, never more so than in 2016 when the Dogs broke through for a second premiership.

The Sutton spirit continues to inspire the Western Bulldogs to this day.

Happy birthday Charlie.

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