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Farewell Bobby Fulton, a childhood hero

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Roar Guru
24th May, 2021
11

On a black-and-white portable TV, with a screen size about one-fifth of today’s flat-screen, pristine, HD gems, the old rabbit-ears aerial pointed strategically towards the highest hill in the area.

A 1970s footy-loving kid could pick up the ABC’s live Saturday afternoon broadcast to country NSW on what we all knew as Channel 5A on the rotary channel dial.

Or, you could wait until 6:00pm that evening and watch Top Saturday League on Channel 2, with the match of the day almost always emanating from the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Sometimes, the horizontal hold would go, and a combination of dial-twiddling and a few well-aimed thumps with the palm of the hand would be needed to stabilise the picture.

Those early, sometimes grainy, sometimes wonky pictures, were my introduction to the genius that was Bobby Fulton, a blonde-haired, jinking, pivoting, perpetually moving, horizontal hold-defying image on the TV with a number 4 or sometimes 6 on the back of his jersey.

Always seemingly the centre of all the action, his name was certainly mentioned more by ABC commentator Alan Marks than any others in my recall.

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His pace and speed of thought came through in glorious monochrome, and he spearheaded a supremely powerful Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles team to its first two premierships in 1972 and 1973, becoming a hero to a whole generation of Peninsula schoolkids.

The news of Bob Fulton’s passing on the weekend brought those black-and-white memories on the old portable flooding back. Those impressionable days when sports-mad kids would spend school lunch times and weekends striving to emulate what they saw on the small screen.

Rugby league had the world to itself in that era.

There were no Australian Rules clubs outside of Melbourne in the VFL. Rugby union had a Saturday afternoon timeslot on Channel 2 and the Wallabies were a big deal, but they didn’t have the coverage that Sydney rugby league enjoyed.

Football was about to get its face noticed with the Socceroos qualifying for their first ever World Cup, but domestically, there was almost nothing on television, bar the NSW grand final.

No, rugby league was the king of TV sport, and its ruler was Bobby-Bob Fulton (he was called both as a player, but became Bob as a coach).

His two tries in the 1973 grand final win against Cronulla-Sutherland proved the difference in a finale that would have finished as a seven-a-side game if played under current rules.

Former rugby league great and one of the rugby league Immortals, Bob Fulton.

Former rugby league great and one of the rugby league Immortals, Bob Fulton (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

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While big blokes like Terry Randall and Cliff Watson tried to cheerfully commit grand final grievous bodily harm on opposition players, it was Fulton who had early primary school-me jumping up and down on the psychedelically coloured divan in the lounge-room, giving me a new sporting addiction to go with my burgeoning love for English soccer and Leeds United.

But they were thousands of miles away – Manly and Fulton were just down the road at Brookvale Oval.

It’s funny, that ‘oval’ thing. League in the 70s was played on ovals – Cumberland Oval, North Sydney Oval, Lidcombe Oval, the SCG… fans were seated a fair way from the action and maybe that’s why the game translated better on television.

But Brookvale was ‘oval’ in name only, a discovery made on my first trip there with my step-dad and some school friends to see Manly beat Parramatta 53-8 in that same premiership-winning year.

We were sat close to the fence and the rectangular park brought the action up much closer than at most grounds.

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When Bobby Fulton scored a try in the corner, he was almost close enough to touch, and he was in living maroon-and-white colour.

The following year, his Scanlan’s Gum footy card was the most sought-after possession in our classroom. I traded half the Canterbury team and my grandfather tom spag marble for that card, only to have it confiscated by the deputy headmaster, who thought it was distracting me from my maths.

Manly’s premiership run was interrupted in 1974 and ’75 by an amazingly great Eastern Suburbs side, but in 1976, Manly switched to predominantly white jumpers, and Fulton looked the part in the new gear, guiding the Sea Eagles to another premiership success, beating Parramatta 13-10 in the grand final – a far closer, more nerve-shredding affair than my first live encounter between the Sea Eagles and the Eels.

Life towards the end of primary school was pretty damn sweet – and then it wasn’t.

The news that Bob Fulton was leaving Manly to play for the Eastern Suburbs Roosters was this impressionable young kid’s first sporting betrayal.

Fulton was Manly – never mind that the club still possessed a wealth of talent such as Graham Eadie, Terry Randall and Ian Martin, to name but a few.

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It was unthinkable to think of Fulton in anything but a Sea Eagles jersey, and of course I was too young to understand that at the age of 29, Fulton had already given the best of his physical self to Manly in a game that took a great toll on the human body.

Players rarely played much into their 30s in that era, and despite my real tears in the backyard of our home as I swung aimlessly on the Hills Hoist on hearing the news, the sky didn’t fall in, and Manly’s favourite son did eventually return.

That was in 1983, as Manly’s coach, and realistically, he never left “home” again.

Bob Fulton’s presence at Manly as a coach and administrator became far greater than Bobby Fulton’s on-field genius.

The Fulton family name became inter-woven in the club and the district’s DNA. As a coach, he won the premiership twice more, and in 1984, he brought current coach Des Hasler to the club, thereby planting the seeds of another playing and coaching dynasty.

Fulton’s sons Scott and Brett both played first grade for Manly. His daughter Kristie became a club administrator and match-day manager for the Sea Eagles over several seasons.

His grandchildren play in the local competitions and the great man himself became a genial and quietly proud presence at local grounds in recent years.

On Sunday, as the news of Bob Fulton’s passing became public, I received a phone call from a lifelong friend and fellow Manly fan.

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Mark and I made the 190 bus trip to “Brookie” on a Sunday afternoon as kids countless times. He called in tears, to tell me that when he heard the news, he was, completely coincidentally, standing outside the Manly Leagues Club.

“Not Bozo (Fulton’s long-time nickname),” he said. “Surely not Bozo.”

Farewell to a legend, a childhood sporting hero to so many Peninsula kids, a player who defied the horizontal hold on 1970s TVs, who became as big a name as rugby league has ever produced.

Farewell, Bobby.

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