Wednesday, 27th July, 2011
By John Casey
The West Football Club is hoping to draw more than 200 attendees to next month’s reunion to mark the 50th anniversary of its famed Mosquito Fleet program.
Considered the forerunner of the AFL’s nation-wide Auskick program, the Mosquito Fleet’s 50th anniversary will be held in tandem with the club’s annual “Old Timers” event on Sunday August 28.
Among the special guests will be four-time premiership player and Mosquito Fleet legend Neil “Winky” Winkler, who says he is looking forward to renewing old acquaintances at the reunion.
“The old timers is always a special weekend for the club and marking 50 years of the Mossies will make it even more important,” Mr Winkler said.
“There were a lot of talented juniors who came through the program which the late George Merrett pioneered with some help from myself and a number of others.
“Colin Casey (former SA, Sturt and West great) was part of that initial group in 1961 and it will be a great chance to discuss the wonderful memories of those early days training the juniors,” Mr Winkler added.
West FC Chairman, Wincen Cuy, said the club was proud to be honouring the Mosquito Fleet program which had been a catalyst for the development of junior football across Australia.
“The junior football programs which now operate throughout the country can all be traced back to George Merrett’s Mosquito Fleet,” Mr Cuy said.
“George, Winky and those other senior players who helped the kids kick the frost off the Renfrew Oval at 7am on a chilly Saturday morning developed the junior program here in Broken Hill.
“Virtually the same premise is behind the AFL’s Auskick program which is taught all around Australia, so again it was Broken Hill foresight that led the country,” Mr Cuy continued.
A champion player who won the Middleton Trophy and attracted interest from Melbourne club St Kilda, George Merrett is credited with creating the Mosquito Fleet in 1958-59 when some 250 youngsters from all over BH joined the program.
But it wasn’t until 1961 that the program was officially recognised, with 15-year-old Neil Winkler named as the first junior coach to assist George Merrett.
At the time Mr Winkler was embarking on his own successfully playing career with the Robins which netted five premierships in his first six years at senior level, including four with West’s A Grade side.
“George Merrett was like a father to me and I always had an interest in coaching kids so when he asked me to be involved I jumped at the chance,” Mr Winkler said.
“We had a great A Grade team at the time (winning consecutive premierships in 1962-63-64) and a lot of the senior players came out on Saturday mornings to teach the kids the fundamentals of the game.”
Mr Cuy added that the object of the Mosquito Fleet was not just about learning football skills.
“George Merrett and Winky wanted to make these young kids better people, not just footballers,” Mr Cuy said.
“That is what we will be celebrating next month. How these kids were taught to be responsible and better citizens for their community as well as how to mark and kick a ball.
“The enthusiasm and dedication that the senior players showed for the youngsters helped build the solid family foundation that our club enjoys to this day,” he added.
Neil Winkler started with the Under-7s group and coached juniors all the way up to Under-17s as well as taking charge of BH combined teams.
He had a number of premiership successes along the way, including his Under-13 team who went through the 1977 season undefeated.
It was no surprise that his three sons, Stephen, Dale and Shane all participated in the Mosquito Fleet program and provided him with some great memories.
“I remember Shane playing in an Under-15 carnival at Merimbula with about 10 other West boys in a BH combined side and they kicked 40 goals in their first match,” Mr Winkler recalled.
“It was an amazing effort because they were only playing four 20-minute quarters and I think that rep team could have even beaten the division one sides at the carnival.”
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Mr Cuy said it was those types of memories that the WFC wanted to re-live during their weekend of celebrations, which coincide with the last minor round of local footy.
“We are really looking forward to the old timers getting back for their annual celebration, but this time it will have added importance,” he said.
“We want to see everyone who had a hand in helping the Mossies - whether they were a coach, ran water or washed the jumpers - come out and help us celebrate 50 years of history.
“It will be a great day for everyone to pay their respects to the late George Merrett for what he created.
“We’ll still have all the usual awards that go with our annual Old Timers function, but the Mossies will be given special attention, including a video presentation from the early days.
“So come out and enjoy George’s Mossies turning 50.”
Further information on the WFC’s August 28 event can be obtained by phoning the club on 0411-281-427 (Heather) or 0407-718-250 (Jason).