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Bill a Blue with a true community spirit

The two No.27s Dennis Armfield and Bill Armstrong AO, together with Bill’s daughter Michele and grandchildren Jed and Josie. (Photo: Carlton Football Club)
The two No.27s Dennis Armfield and Bill Armstrong AO, together with Bill’s daughter Michele and grandchildren Jed and Josie. (Photo: Carlton Football Club)

It’s 56 years since he last donned the No.27 – but Bill Armstrong AO renewed acquaintance with its current keeper Dennis Armfield at the old Carlton ground, members of the Armstrong clan closely in tow.

Armstrong, the club’s 1958 reserve grade B&F whose senior appearances for the old dark Navy Blues were confined to just two through 1958 and ’59, joined his daughter Michele and grandchildren Jed (13) and Josie (11) on the ground for what was a super clinic conducted by the club for the children currently holidaying.

There the fleet of foot former wingman and sometime foot runner met Armfield and posed with him and his family in this picture for posterity.

“This is the third year in a row I’ve brought my grandchildren along to the clinic,” Armstrong said.

“It’s been great to bring them back and I might say that my four children – three boys and Michele – are all Carlton supporters.”

Recruited to Carlton from Chelsea in 1955, Armstrong didn’t take on the game until the age of 17, but was part of Chelsea’s all-conquering Premiership team in that year.

A fitter and turner by trade, he was working beneath the engine of a car in his workshop when two suited gentlemen appeared requesting his signature to play for Carlton as an on-field successor to Laurie Kerr.

“I was a bit staggered by all that, but signed up, played all the practice matches and then played a few reserves matches between games for Chelsea.”

After a year abroad in 1957, Armstrong won his first senior call-up (together with the late John Stephenson) for Carlton’s final home and away match of the ’58 season against South Melbourne at Princes Park.

He remembers how excited he felt in donning the No.27 for his first senior game, which resulted in a two-point win for the home team.

“The thing I remember most is that a lot of my supporters from Chelsea came up for the game,” he said. “In those days they were allowed in the rooms before the game, so there was a fair bit of excitement around.”

Known for his turn of speed, Armstrong revealed that he’d often told people quizzing him on his League career “that I was so fast I forgot to take the ball with me”.

And yet, his natural pace definitely worked to his advantage in his only other senior appearance for Carlton – against Footscray in the second round of ’59 at the Western Oval.

“I remember Ted Whitten chasing me around the ground saying ‘I’m going to get you, you little bastard, but I was fast enough to get away from him,” Armstrong said.

“I played reasonably well in that game, as a replacement for the late Johnny Chick – a great guy and a great footballer.

“The following week I didn’t get selected and I was always a bit disappointed about that because I thought I was worth another try.”

In 1960, Armstrong crossed the Nullarbor and turned out for West Perth. He remembers turning out for a match against East Perth and witnessing first-hand “Polly” Farmer’s genius – “he (Farmer) was uncanny the way he could take the ball and handball it,” said Armstrong, who was also exposed to Nicholls’ greatness at Carlton.

Regrettably a broken leg put paid to Armstrong’s season – a Premiership season for the WA Falcons no less – and he returned to Princes Park to again try his luck. But it just wasn’t meant to be.

Armstrong renewed ties with Chelsea in a golden era, as part of the all-conquering Grand Final teams of 1962 and ’63, and he followed up with a flag representing East Burwood in ’64.

By then, Armstrong had already embarked on what would prove to be his lifelong calling, as a volunteer, first with what he considered “a fairly radical group within the Catholic Church”, the Young Christian Workers.

“I became involved with YCW through my local parish in 1952/’53. I always look back on that period as my university period,” Armstrong said.

“That was where I learnt about life, that to be able to work with people you really have to be prepared to listen to them.”

Armstrong rose to become National President of YCW then joined the Overseas Service Bureau, which assisted with the establishment of the Australian Volunteers International program in 1963.

Through the 1970s, Armstrong committed to an organisation known as Action for World Development, which he said was posing serious questions about poverty and poverty’s cause on a global scale.

Then in 1982, he recommitted to Australian Volunteers International, this time after accepting the position of Chief Executive Officer, a position he held until his retirement in 1982.

During that time, Armstrong oversaw the growth of that organisation from a staff of 12 to 130 people nationally and with it the annual budget from less than $400,000 to more than $20million.

In 2003, Armstrong was awarded the Order of Australia “for service to the international community and the provision of overseas aid and development through Australian Volunteers International, and to fostering greater understanding of different cultures and raising awareness of social justice and human rights issues”.

Today, Armstrong commits his boundless energies to the cause as Board Member of Indigenous Community Volunteers – an organisation whose charter is to offer hands-on help rather than hand-outs.

Not surprisingly, Armstrong looks on with admiration at the commitment to community of all AFL clubs and their players, Carlton included and Dennis Armfield amongst them.

“This is tremendously heartening to me,” Armstrong said.

“It’s extremely important that footballers with such an enormous following are seen to be community-oriented and seen to be leaders in the community, not just on the football field.

"One of the problems affecting athletes in all sports is that you read about their misdeeds, but there’s a hell of a lot of good work being done which tends not to be seen. I know my own grandson Jed was in hospital at one stage last year and two of the Carlton players paid him a visit. That was an incredible thing for him at the local level."