Socceroos Greats - Where are they now: Bill Henderson

Bill Henderson was one of Australia's best goalkeepers of his generation. Source: Picture suppled

The World Game resumes its monthly feature on Australian stars who left their mark on football in this country. Fifties goalkeeper Bill Henderson goes on a trip down memory lane to talk about an era that was totally different to today's.

Bill Henderson, the self-made goalkeeper who was one of the first inductees in Australia's Hall of Fame, said he still regrets the circumstances that denied him a chance to test his skills against England's 'Wembley Wizard' Stanley Matthews.

Henderson, who is among the oldest surviving 'Socceroos' (the national team nickname came later), was one of Australia's finest and most respected goalkeepers of his generation and was looking forward to a set of matches against the Blackpool club and their famous winger when they toured Australia in 1958.

But politics came in the way and crushed his dream.

"It is the greatest disappointment of my career," Henderson said at his home in western Sydney.

"After the 1956 Olympics some of the lesser Sydney clubs that had 'ethnic' backgrounds started fighting for a chance to gain promotion to the first division but the Australian Soccer Association knocked them back.

"To cut a long story short, the second-tier clubs who had the money, support and facilities split from the association and many players, including myself, went with the new federation.

"FIFA did not take kindly to this and suspended all the players who joined up with the new league. We all got a letter from FIFA saying we were barred from playing against visiting teams because we formed part of an unaffiliated organisation.

"It was at this time that Matthews and his Blackpool club came to Australia and played before big and enthusiastic crowds. I would have loved to face Matthews, who was the star of the 1953 FA Cup final against Bolton. One of my Granville teammates, Ken Hawkins, had the dubious honour of marking the master and he said he never got a kick in."

Henderson spoke at length about his playing days in the post-war era that were so far removed from today's game that he could have been talking about another sport.

What are you doing now?

"I'll be 90 this month. I still keep my interest in the game although I do not attend as many matches as I used to. I am still patron of my junior club Granville Waratah and I like to support them as much as I can."

You were born in Sydney into a football family of Scottish background and soon developed a love for goalkeeping.

"My father and mother, who met in Granville in the early 1920s, both had soccer connections and it's no surprise that I took up the game. But my father Andy, who was a good halfback, tried to talk me out of goalkeeping."

Why?

"He said I had the required speed, height and agility and I would be better off playing on the wing or at centre-forward. But for some unknown reason they put me in goal in my junior days and I rather enjoyed it so I stayed there."

You had no proper coaching those days - let alone goalkeeper coaches - so how did you learn the trade and become one of the best of your generation?

"You have got to remember that television did not come to Australia until 1956 so you had to go to one of those theatres in Sydney to watch some news reels from overseas to pick up something, And I would concentrate only on the goalkeepers whenever a foreign team toured Australia just to see how they played.

"I was particularly keen to watch the great Vladimir Beara closely when his Yugoslav club Hajduk Split came out here in 1949. He was probably one of the guys I tried to model my game on. Other goalkeepers who came out here, particularly the British ones, were solid and pretty safe but Beara had everything, including beautiful ball distribution.

"I envy today's keepers who have specialist coaches. There were a few things I used to do wrong in my early days, like dropping my head and not watching the high ball and diving flat on my stomach instead of sideways, for example."

You guys must have done it tough in the post-war years. No money, no facilities, no technical support, no preparation and basically no recognition: being a footballer was not exactly a glamorous occupation, was it?

"Football was a way of life in the1940s and 1950s and same as today you accepted things as they were and tried to make the best of the opportunities. Remember, in my days there were no replacements and if the goalkeeper got injured he usually ended up on the wing. We had no gloves, the leather balls were heavy and our 'Tottenham Hotspur' boots that protected your ankles were so big they looked like work boots.

"The only time in my career that I had cut-away boots was after the 1956 Olympic Games when a German player, who was after some spare cash, gave me his boots for five pounds. The boots were quite a hit.

"Those days we were all rank amateurs and the one big problem we had was our lack of ball control. I was always known as the longest kicker in the game so the long ball was very much part and parcel of my game."

You spent most of your career with Granville Magpies. Which were the big teams in the Sydney competition from the mid-1940s to mid-1950s?

"Leichhardt, Gladesville, Auburn, Canterbury, Corrimal, Cessnock, Adamstown, Wallsend were the most prominent clubs of the period."

Goalkeepers were given little or no protection in your days. Were you ever badly hurt?

"I had a broken wrist from being knocked from a high position and in a 'Test' match against South Africa in Newcastle I went up for a high ball and their winger came in underneath me and almost broke my shoulder. I still feel the effects of that injury today."

What were your strengths?

"My agility and anticipation. As I said before, possession was not the be-all and end-all as it is today so my long clearances came in very handy."

Your first 'international' match against a South China XI in 1953 was a special moment in your career on two fronts, right?

"I was on the verge of selection for the national team and after a strong trial match I got the nod. There were no emails or text messages those days so I only found out I was selected by going to the city with my dad and buying the paper and my name was on the list, which was fantastic.

"The match against the Chinese in Newcastle was almost 30 years to the day after my dad had played against the same 'country' in Sydney so it was a classic case of history repeating itself."

You and Ron Lord were the top contenders for the No 1 jersey at the1956 Olympics in Melbourne. Why did they go with Lord, who remains to this day one of your best mates?

"The preliminary squad was picked by the Australian selectors and we toured every state, playing 11 matches in all. I played in all matches and I did well. But when it came to naming the final team for the tournament after a few more lead-up matches Ron was deemed by our manager as the better goalkeeper and I missed out. I ended up watching the two games against India and Japan from the stands because there were no replacements those days. If you did not start you would not play. I could not even be part of the action by sitting on the bench."

Which was the best memory of your career?

"Probably standing in the outfield with my father before I played in my first 'international'. It made me realise I was following in my dad's footsteps. That memory still makes me rather emotional."

Football has improved a lot on many fronts since your pioneering days. Do you like today's game?

"The modern possession game does not generate too much excitement as far as I'm concerned. Spectators pay big money to see some action not a never-ending sequence of passing sideways and even backwards. They want to see shots, saves and goals. Watching the modern game does frustrate me sometimes.

"Also there are so many young players with great talent that are wallowing in the lower levels of the game without being given an opportunity to play in the national league. We spend millions to bring in stars who come here for a year or two, thrill us for a few moments then go back home. We should be nurturing our own kids and providing them with a proper pathway to success that would benefit our game in the long run."

Finally, who were the best players you have played with and against?

"I would say Len Quested, an English inside-left who was my teammate at Auburn in the late 1950s. Austrian halfback Gerhard Hanappi was the finest player I faced in my career. He toured Australia with Rapid Vienna in 1955."

BILL HENDERSON FACTFILE

Club career
1946-1956: Granville
1957-1960: Auburn

International career
1953-1956: Australia (6 matches)