It was to be a day of celebration which included a few tears, an amazing confession and a fitting tribute to a man upon whose shoulders this great Club was built.
That man’s name was Albert Clift, a gigantic figure in this Club’s history despite his small stature. Born on 21 March 1904, Mr Clift was a former player for South Sydney, former official and director, was the Club’s first mascot back in 1968, held an amazing collection of Rabbitohs memorabilia including the famed timekeeper’s bell from the first game in 1908, a Life Member of the Football Club, and he was the man celebrating his 100th birthday with the people that meant the most to him outside of his family and close friends…the Rabbitohs faithful.
It was Saturday 3 April, round four in 2004, and the Rabbitohs would take on the Sharks at the Sydney Football Stadium. I was the Club’s Media and Communications Manager at the time however as a life-long Rabbitohs supporter I was given the opportunity, the honour, of helping the Rabbitohs Members and supporters pay tribute to Mr Clift to help celebrate his 100th birthday.
My job was to drive Mr Clift in a convertible car around the perimeter of the field before the kick off of the main game, giving our supporters the chance to wish Mr Clift a happy 100th birthday from the stands.
I was nervous about this. I was nervous about meeting a man who had done so much for the Club that I loved; I was nervous about driving a flash convertible on the turf of our home ground; I was nervous about driving too fast or too slow for the Members to get a glimpse of a man who had played such a significant role in the Club’s 96-year history; however once I met Mr Clift I realised I wasn’t the person most nervous about this day.
I met Mr Clift and his granddaughter outside the Stadium near the main gates on Driver Avenue at Moore Park. He was quite frail but clearly sound of mind and he was ready for a chat. We talked about the season so far, the field goal kicked by halfback Willie Peters two weeks prior which sealed victory over the Tigers (a kick that Peters dedicated to Mr Clift in his post-match interviews on his actual 100th birthday), and about his thoughts on that evening’s game against the Sharks.
We were to head to an area called the ‘tractor chute’, a short ramp in the south-east corner of the ground which gave vehicles access to the turf. While we sat and waited for our cue to begin Mr Clift’s celebratory lap, I looked across and noticed he was getting upset. A tear rolled down his cheek at what I thought was his reaction to having a crowd of over 11,000 people pay tribute to this humble gentleman, his emotions getting the better of him on this great day.
I wasn’t sure what to do. Do I leave him to handle his emotions? Do I console him and let him know that it’s out of respect that these people are here to give him a cheer? Do I put my arm around this legend of the Club and give him a hug, despite having met him for the first time 20 minutes earlier?
We sat there for a moment and he must have sensed my indecision, and then he turned to me and said: “Jeremy, it’s my fault he doesn’t play for us anymore.”
I wasn’t sure who Mr Clift was referring to, so I asked him.
“Craig,” he said. “Craig Wing.”
“I feel so guilty about it. He should be playing for us, not Easts. He’s Souths…not Easts.”
It took me a moment to process what Mr Clift said.
“It’s not your fault, Mr Clift,” I said. “How could it be your fault?”
Mr Clift then told me about a meeting he had with Wingy back in 1999 before the Rabbitohs were excluded from the National Rugby League.
“I told him to leave,” Mr Clift confessed.
“We always talked. He came to me for advice one day. He came to my house and said ‘Albert, what should I do? I don’t know if Souths will be here next year. I don’t know what to do.’
“He was only 19. I said to him ‘We’re not going to beat these News Limited blokes. They’re too big. They’ve got us in their sights. You have too big a future in this game to not look elsewhere because I can’t honestly tell you that Souths will be here next year. It hurts me to say it but you have to look somewhere else and have something to go to.’
“I didn’t think it would be Easts, but he had to take the opportunity that was there once we were kicked out.
“He signed with Easts, and then we beat News Limited and we have our team back again, but we don’t have Craig back, and he should be with Souths, he shouldn’t be with Easts, and it’s my fault he’s not with us.”
It was a heart-breaking confession from an elderly man who thought he had done his Club wrong. I didn’t know if he had told other people this, however from his emotional reaction I felt like perhaps I was the first. He was visibly upset at not only the fact that Craig wasn’t in red and green but that he was playing for our fiercest rivals. I knew it wasn’t his fault that Wingy wasn’t playing for us, but he thought it was, and who was I, and how was I, going to be able to change his mind.
I did my best to console him, to let him know that as a life-long Rabbitohs supporter I, nor anyone else in that Stadium that night, believed it was his fault Craig wasn’t playing for us, and that he should enjoy the night celebrating his 100th birthday with his South Sydney family.
I’m not sure if my words worked or not but he didn’t mention Wingy or Easts or the ‘News Limited blokes’ again.
As we drove down the tractor chute and began our clockwise lap of the Stadium, he removed the Rabbitohs cap from his head, held it aloft in his left hand and waved to the adoring crowd as we drove past all 11,000-plus people who were on their feet. They were paying tribute to a man who had done so much for their Club and their game, and the tears on Mr Clift’s face had dried and were replaced with a smile.
We made our way back up the tractor chute after the lap of honour, back to his granddaughter who was waiting for him outside the main entrance to the Stadium so she could help him up to his seats to enjoy the game. And enjoy it he did, watching his mighty Rabbitohs towel up the Sharks 36 points to 12.
Mr Clift passed away on 1 August 2005, aged 101. He wouldn’t see Craig Wing play for the Rabbitohs again. However Wingy did return three years after Albert’s passing to once again wear the cardinal red and myrtle green of South Sydney.
Midway through 2007, we announced that Wingy would be coming back to the Club for the 2008 season. It was an extravagant affair at Sydney Airport in the Virgin Lounge. There was glitz and glamour and media everywhere. I had never seen so many TV cameras and photographers in the one space, not since ‘The Vote’ of 2006 which saw Russell Crowe and Peter Holmes à Court invest in the Club’s future.
Even with everything that was going on that day, running around organising the media for interviews and photo opportunities, I took a moment and thought to myself that Mr Clift would be smiling from above, knowing that Craig would once again be wearing the red and green hoops of his beloved Rabbitohs, and not the tricolours of our neighbours.