Three former footballers from Darwin will walk out of the memories of old teammates and supporters and back into Lockhart this weekend, some 42 years after they were last in town.
George Burri Butler and Norm Hagen played for the Lockhart Bulldogs in the Farrer League in 1975 and 1976 and Dennis Lew Fatt joined them for the second season.
The trio has returned for the first time and will be greeted as warmly as the weather they left behind when setting out on a trip of a lifetime way back when they were in their early 20s.
“The beauty was not only the players in Lockhart, but the whole township itself,” Butler says. “There are a lot of good memories and that’s why we’re here. That bond-ship. That friendship.”
Butler, a backman who’d played in Perth with Polly Farmer, had a family connection to Lockhart and in the wake of Cyclone Tracy, brought Hagen with him.
The first season didn’t go as planned and they missed finals. But Hagen (who still holds an NT record for kicking 24 goals in a game) made a big impression. The centre-half-forward represented the Farrer League in 1975 and was selected for NSW, along with teammate Jeff Nimmo and Collingullie’s Colin Hounsell (who later went to South Melbourne).
“We played against a lot of good footballers. It was a good league in those days,” Hagen said. “I enjoyed myself.”
He lived with teammate Anthony Dowdle’s family.
“We learnt a lot from Normy and I think he learnt a lot from us too. It was good having the boys here. They were more than welcomed – the whole town loved them,” Dowdle says.
Tim Gooden recalls that for a young team, it was an eye-opener: “These blokes just burnt the grounds up. It was unbelievable.”
Lew Fatt, who also represented the Farrer League in 1976, formed a brilliant combination with the late Rod Harberecht that year.
“The big ruckman didn’t have to tell him where to be, because he read him so well from the centre bounces,” Butler remembers. “They won that many rucks and Dennis took the ball out of the centre that many times.”
But it wasn’t all rosy. Lew Fatt says the adventure was something of a shock and he remembers being awfully homesick at times.
“I hadn’t been away much and these guys rolled up one day in a ute packed with players and said we’re going to Lockhart,” Lew Fatt recalls of how he came to Lockhart
“Darwin being a frontier town it was – just join them, so I jumped on! When I first got there, at 6 in the morning… I said, ‘I don’t know, where am I? What the hell am I doing? It was a big struggle, I was homesick. Normy and Georgey had done it. They knew what to expect. But it was pretty hard (for me).
“If I could wind the clock back, I’d do things differently. What’s done is done. I can’t wind the clock back. I left halfway through but I came back.
“The positive thing is we played in finals. But I would’ve liked to have been understanding more about the footy and travelling and playing away from home and I would’ve liked to give another 20 percent in performing.
“But, yeah, I don’t know. I had a crack. I’m just glad we played in the finals. But I thought, ability-wise, we had a very good team that could’ve done anything.”
The season ended with a semi-final loss to Collingullie.
But like the famous five who went to Ganmain at the same time – Joe Daby, Cliff Hampton, Greg Peris, Joel McLennan and Eddie Motlop – they had been among the pioneers of players from the Territory heading south for the winter.
“We ventured down and sort of opened the door a little bit,” Butler says. “(It was good) to appreciate the way we play football and what we bring with us. And blend in with, and strengthen the team with the other players.”
They’ll watch Lockhart take on Billabong Crows on Saturday before being feted at the club’s annual Demon Day on Sunday.
But the memories of another Lockhart, in another league, and another era are flooding back already for Butler.
From the first trip down, when Butler and Hagen’s trip was halted by floodwaters even before they’d left the Northern Territory – and flights on a Fokker Friendship out of Katherine had to be hurriedly arranged – to playing with footballers they’ll never forget.
“There’s a lot of good memories… watching Hawky and big Rob. Watching Nimmo out of the centre. Watching Andy (Dowdle) leading up from the forward line, out of the square. Watching Normy swing round on just about a sixpence and kicking off his left leg,” he says.
They all suffered racist taunts on the field at times but don’t harbour any ill will or hold on to resentment.
“We had our own ways of how to deal with racist slurs and discrimination,” Butler says.
Hagen says he has fond memories of catching up for a beer with opponents – even those who hurled the abuse.
But his warmth of feeling for Lockhart is something else.
He knows not everyone who made him feel at home will still be there, four decades later. And the way he says it is a reminder of how much the experience stayed with them.
“There’s a few people we’ll never see again, they’re gone, you know what I mean?” Hagen says.
“Like our ruckman. And the people that we knew in the township as well. Old people who have passed away.
“Like Mrs Carter, remember? She used to be a Western Bulldogs supporter. I’ll miss her.”