Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer: Australian football star who revolutionised the game

He overcame physical adversity and racism to dominate the sport in the 1960s

Kenneth Shenton
Wednesday 21 August 2019 19:41 BST
Farmer played at the top level of his sport for 18 years
Farmer played at the top level of his sport for 18 years (Getty)

Graham “Polly” Farmer overcame personal adversity, not least a teenage bout of poliomyelitis that left him with one leg shorter than the other, to become one of the sporting heroes of his generation. Farmer, who has died aged 84, played top-level Australian rules football for 18 years, his innovative, crowd-pleasing style helping to raise this challenging game to unprecedented heights.

A Noongar from the southwest of Western Australia, Graham Vivian Farmer, known as Polly on account of his constant chatter like a parrot, was given up to the care of Sister Kate’s Children’s Cottage Home in Perth by his mother, Eva, when only a few months old. He remained there throughout his early years. Educated at Forrest High School, it was there that his prodigious sporting talents began to emerge and arouse the interest of local clubs. However, government policy – specifically that of the Nature Welfare Department of Western Australia – dictated that, at the age of 16, Aboriginal youth would be sent to the countryside to work on the land.

In 1952 a Perth newspaper, using Farmer as an example, rallied support against that particular policy to such an extent that the local authority backed down. This rare victory gave the aspiring sportsman not only a degree of social acceptance in Anglo-Australian society, but would also bring him a measure of future economic independence.

His sport, Australian rules football, having initially developed during the gold rush of the 1850s, offers an Antipodean variant of traditional rugby. Intensely physical and highly combative, this 18-a-side game is played with an oval ball on an oval shaped pitch, complete with goal posts at either end.

Signing for East Perth aged 18 in 1953, Farmer’s innovative approach, using hand ball as an offensive weapon rather than a defensive tactic, helped to bring modern running and a fast-passing game into the mainstream arena. Having honed his throwing skills while working as a mechanic, constantly spearing balls through open car windows, he could pass a ball further than many players could kick it. Also extremely strong with a superb physique, he proved a constant and dominating presence in the ruck. A non-smoker, teetotal and a fitness fanatic, he was also able to rise above the inherent racism then prevalent throughout the game.

With rivals Geelong tantalisingly close to success in the early 1960s, they were missing one essential element: a champion ruckman. The recruitment of Farmer in 1962, though he missed most of that season with a serious knee injury, did pave the way for their 1963 premiership triumph. Though rules were in place to cap wages and outlaw bonus payments, Farmer, now at the top of his game, was able to command the highest wages in the league, a guaranteed job as a car salesman and extra payments for the rent on a property. Geelong also slipped East Perth cash in return for releasing the player. Throughout the course of the next five years, despite their extensive outlay, Farmer’s ability to attract record crowds undoubtedly repaid the club many times over.

Moving to West Perth in 1968, Farmer brought the curtain down on his illustrious playing career three years later. Amid 356 club appearances, he also represented Victoria on five occasions and Western Australia a record 31 times. Between 1956 and 1969, each team he played for contested the finals every season. He won three Sandover medals, four Simpson medals, a Tassie medal, six premiership trophies and 10 Fairest and Best Awards. He later took charge at West Perth and Geelong, once again breaking down barriers as the game’s first Aborigine coach. Later, in 1996, Farmer was among the dozen former players to have an elite Legend status bestowed upon them.

In later years Farmer worked as a radio commentator while running a Perth motel. In 1998 he lost his life savings when the Asian economic downturn forced the closure of the business. To survive he sold his sporting medals.

His wife Marlene, whom he married in 1957, died in 2015. He is survived by two sons and a daughter.

Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer, Australian rules footballer and coach, born 10 April 1935, died 14 August 2019

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