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It’s fair to say that Stan Watsford didn’t have a lot of luck when it came to making his mark on VFL football. Twice he looked set to finally get a crack at the big time, and twice he was denied by untimely injuries.
He was born in Albury, into one of the most famous Methodist Church families in the country (his father and grandfather were both preachers, the latter, John Watsford, being a particularly well known missionary to Fiji regarded by some as the father of Methodism in the colony), and made his way to Melbourne alongside younger brother Doug. An uncle, Goulburn (better known as ‘Goldie’) had played in Fitzroy’s first ever team in 1884, and would later play first class cricket for both Victoria and South Australia.
The family’s sporting genes evidently flowed through to Doug and Stan. Stan was first seen playing footy with Canterbury in 1893, but then both he and Doug spent two years playing with Strezlecki near Korumburra.
Stan returned to Melbourne early in 1896 and started with Nunawading, where he played alongside both Arthur and Fred Leach, who would later briefly be his teammates at Collingwood. He is then reported to have crossed to Hawthorn (although there were a number of ‘Hawthorn’ teams in those days and it’s not clear which one he went to). He may have gone to WA to join Doug during his year there in 1897, although that is not 100% certain.
Doug debuted with Collingwood midway through 1899 and made a huge impact. So it was no surprise when, after that, the Pies became interested in giving Stan a game too. He wasn’t quite as tall as Doug, but he was still taller than most, playing mostly in key positions or following. He was a good mark and thumping kick. There was a lot to like.
The Magpies decided to give him a run in the penultimate game of the season against Carlton. But on the Friday night before the game, The Herald reported: “Stanley Watsford, a brother of the Collngwood recruit, was to have been included In the team tomorrow but, unfortunately, kicked so hard In practice that he knocked one of his knees out of joint.”
While the cause of the injury sounds unlikely, the outcome was definitive: a late knee injury suffered at training deprived Stan of the chance to make a debut.
But the Magpies didn’t forget about him. For a start he appeared at the club’s smoke social at the end of the season, and entertained the crowd with a splendid rendition of “Out On The Deep”. Over summer he played cricket alongside the Leach brothers with Canterbury, where he was renowned as one of the ‘demon bowlers’ of the competition (he won the Eastern District’s bowling award that season), and the footy club brought him back for the practice matches of 1900.
In the last of those, against Footscray, he filled in for the great Bill Proudfoot at full-back and did well enough to attract attention. He grabbed one “slashing mark” and one newspaper described his game as “now and then effective”.
Even though that sounded like damnation with faint praise, Collingwood selectors chose him for the Round 1 game against Fitzroy the following week, playing in the opposite forward pocket to his brother. But he had little impact on the game and was omitted the following week.
He returned to the senior team two weeks later against Essendon. But this is where serious ill-fortune struck, as he strained his knee early in the game (some reports suggested he was looking lame from the start) and had to be sent home at half-time. The injury forced him out for several months, and was still reported to be giving him problems over the next cricket season. As far as we can tell, he never played football at the elite level again.
His cricket, as previously mentioned, was another matter. He had been a star from his early days, and played in a Korumburra representative team that took on the Melbourne Cricket Club on the MCG in 1895 (he took two wickets and top scored). By the early 1900s he was good enough to represent Richmond in Pennant (District) cricket, and he continued playing for many years in lower-level competitions.
Like his grandfather, father and brother, he followed his faith into the church, spending some time being stationed around Bendigo and later being in charge of St Michael’s Parish in North Carlton. On his death he was described as “a leading preacher in the Anglican church”, renowned for his anti-liquor campaigns and his work with the sick.
His footballing epitaph is much less grand – a good player who was unlucky with injury. But then again, faith was always more important than football to Stan Watsford and his family.
– Michael Roberts
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