For the 17th episode of historical podcast Fabric of the Essendon Football Club, Barry Capuano reflects back on a lifetime spent in and around the Bombers, firstly as a six-year-old attending matches at Windy Hill with his grandmother, to later tasting premiership glory in the No. 12 guernsey, through to the many off-field roles he has performed, including, most recently, as president of the EFC Past Players & Officials Association.
‘Cappy’ was at the MCG on Grand Final day in 1947, when Essendon’s wayward kicking—and a last-minute goal by Carlton’s Fred Stafford—saw the Bombers fall one point short of victory. And he was there again the following year when Essendon, again inaccurate in front of goal, drew the Grand Final with Melbourne then lost the replay. But the arrival of John Coleman, in 1949, changed everything. For a young, starry-eyed local supporter, it was a wonderful time to follow the Essendon Football Club.
“I don’t think anyone really recognised how good he (Coleman) was, until his first game when he kicked 12 goals against Hawthorn,” Capuano explained. “From that time on, he just became an icon in regards to drawing people to the footy. And personally, he’s the best player I’ve ever seen play football. Billy Hutchison was probably my idol before John came, and Dick Reynolds of course, who was getting towards the end of his career but was still a great player. I was lucky enough, when I eventually came to Essendon in the under-19s, in 1958, that my first coach was Bill Hutchison. The next year, I started in the under-19s then went to the reserves, then I went to the seniors and Dick Reynolds was the coach. Then, two years later, John Coleman’s the coach. So, my three icons were my first three coaches.”
Under Coleman in 1962, the speedy Capuano occupied one wing, Russell Blew the other, helping give Essendon plenty of drive throughout a remarkable season that saw the Bombers lose just two games en route to its first top-place finish since 1950. They then easily accounted for Geelong in the second semi-final to move directly through to the Grand Final. But when Geelong drew with Carlton in the preliminary final, forcing a replay the following Saturday, Essendon suddenly had an extra week to bide their time.
“John Coleman was pretty sharp and he organised to play Melbourne, who were out of it by that stage, in a Saturday morning practice match at Windy Hill,” Capuano recalled. “I’d imagine a lot of those Melbourne players weren’t in their best form by that stage, because they’d been out for a few weeks, but it made a difference to us because it kept us in reasonable match condition.” That afternoon, the Blues won their preliminary final replay by just five points, setting up a Grand Final clash between the two long-time rivals.
“Personally, during that Grand Final, I always thought we were going to win,” Capuano said proudly, “even though at half-time Carlton had got reasonably close to us (13 points). We were always on top of them and they’d had three hard games in a row; they ran out of steam in the finish and we were able to win comfortably [by 32 points]. I can certainly remember when the final siren went—it’s an exciting time. But it’s a bit different to today’s end of a Grand Final. We didn’t get medallions or anything like that. Just the cup, and we ran around the ground with the cup. And we did have a very big night after that, then I think I went to work on the Monday. It was quite different in those days, because you worked full-time.”
Capuano missed the 1965 Grand Final through injury. The week before, on preliminary final day, he was seated in the crowd when he became one of very few who actually witnessed one of the most controversial on-field incidents in Essendon’s history. It involved Bomber half-forward, John Somerville, and Collingwood defender Duncan Wright.
“I was on about the half-forward flank to where Essendon were defending, and I just happened to look back and saw John hit the ground and Wright was standing there flexing his muscles. And after that, I think the Collingwood players were as shocked as our fellows were, because we gave them a nice hiding in the finish (55 points). It’s hard to say how it affected John—unfortunately, he’s passed away now—but I know that he was devastated at not being able to play in the Grand Final. In actual fact, he almost bit his tongue off; it was only just hanging on from the blow he copped. The concussion he had, I don’t know if at that stage, mentally, it had any issues with him, but he only played on for another year or so, so it may have had some effect.”
Capuano played his final game for Essendon in round 12, 1966, retiring at season’s end having played 118 games in eight years at senior level. But like many from his era, Capuano’s playing career was only act one in what became an ongoing involvement at administrative level.
“I just got so much great pleasure out of playing for Essendon, when it had been my ambition as a young child to play for the club. Meeting the people around you—not just the players, but the officials and so on—it was a fantastic club and always had been. So, I finished up playing with Essendon then I played and coached elsewhere, but then I came back on the board for three years in the seventies. Then I went up bush for a few years and came back in 1981 as general manager.”
Capuano’s time as GM encompassed one of the biggest transitional periods in Essendon’s, and the League’s, history, with the push for professionalism and expansion of the VFL to a national competition just two of the major discussion points. Many clubs struggled financially during the 1980s, and Capuano—along with many on the Essendon committee—knew the club needed to shore up its future by leaving Windy Hill for the more spacious MCG.
“It was interesting because, in the eighties, we had a very successful team when I was here as general manager. The executive, in about 1984-85, made the decision that we should move to the MCG as soon as practical. At that stage, the board decided, ‘We won’t make an endeavour to move, we’ll just see what happens.’ So, when Ron Evans came in as president [in 1988], he pushed [things to] the next level and that’s how it happened. But it was actually decided in the mid-80s that we should go to the MCG.
“This ground (Windy Hill) would only take 22,000 people, or something like that, and it wasn’t really appropriate for the development of the game to stay here, as much as we all loved it—it was our home. But you have to look to the future and say, ‘Where’s it going to be in 20, 30, 40 years’ time?’ I think if you look back through the records, we didn’t get beyond 10,000 members at this ground, and now they’ve got 78,000, so, you can see that you had to look forward. You couldn’t have 78,000 and play here [at Windy Hill], it just wouldn’t be possible.”
While it was an unpopular decision at the time, leaving the club’s ‘spiritual home’ for the MCG—Capuano was even heckled by supporters at a meeting held at Windy Hill to outline the club’s plans—the decision ultimately proved a game-changer for the Essendon Football Club, with attendances and membership soaring in the years ahead.
For his role in helping to shape the future of the club he grew up passionately supporting—a club that, in the late-1940s and early-1950s, helped provide some hope and purpose to a young boy who was forced to deal with the tragic loss of his father during the war—Capuano remains immensely proud.
“I’ve had so much pleasure out of it, so, if I can give it (support) back to other people now, then I’m very happy to do so.”
Fabric of the Essendon Football Club is a weekly 20-episode series powered by Liberty, featuring in-depth chats between club historian Dan Eddy and 20 of the club’s most adored names across multiple decades. You can listen via Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.