Vale Thomas McNeil

In 1955, former St Kilda player Thomas McNeil attempted to form a union of players of the Victorian Football League and the Victorian Football Association. The union was called the Australian Football Players’ Union. He died on Tuesday aged 90.

Thomas McNeil was born in Glasgow, Scotland on June 9, 1929.

He and his sister were evacuated to Australia during World War II to escape bombing raids in the United Kingdom. They arrived in Melbourne in October 1940. They were fostered out to families in Melbourne, with their parents emigrating to Australia in 1947.

Tom, who had been brought up on soccer, and supported the blue half of Glasgow, was introduced to Aussie Rules by a school chum. He was an accomplished junior player and attracted the attention of League and Association clubs. He played eight games with St Kilda between 1951 and 1952.

On a visit to Scotland, McNeil came into contact with John Hughes of a Scottish Football Players’ Union (soccer) who discussed with him the principles and benefits of players having a collective body to represent their interests.

McNeil decided that he would try to form such an organisation on his return to Australia.

Despite a burst of initial enthusiasm by many leading players, the union was unable to attract the interest of enough players due to opposition from the League, Association and clubs.

The union disbanded in early 1956 following an unsuccessful attempt to gain recognition before the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration.

McNeil spent the next two decades as either a player, coach or administrator in various metropolitan and country leagues across the length and breadth of Australia. He eventually settled in Perth in 1969.

In 1977, he was elected to the Legislative Council of the Western Australian Parliament as a representative of the Country/National Party. He developed a reputation as a maverick, someone who was not scared to speak his mind and oppose the party line.

Long-time WA Premier, Sir Charles Court said of McNeil, ‘He never knew how the footballer was going to vote’.

On a number of occasions, McNeil spoke up on behalf of the human rights of players being compromised by rules which restricted their ability to change clubs and, especially, take up lucrative offers in Victoria.

In 1984, he was the Chair of a Parliamentary Select Committee on Sport and Recreation which offered a wide range of recommendations for the reform of community and local sport in Western Australia.

Following his retirement from politics, in 1989, he was appointed Chair of the Racecourse Development Trust, which allocated unclaimed TAB winnings to upgrading safety for both racing and trotting.

He also served on the Healthway Advisory Committee on Racing and Gaming and the fish industry.

Thomas McNeil fashioned a career from his skills as an athlete; as a player, coach, administrator and as a politician.

He consistently advocated on behalf of players, with his failed attempt to establish the Australian Football Players’ Union and his parliamentary and committee work.

He was self-taught, possessed a keen analytical mind, was quick on his feet and had a wonderful, if not wicked, sense of humour. He had an innate ability to get on with others.

The eleven-year-old child evacuee who arrived in Australia in 1940 made an important contribution to Australia; as a father and family man, as a politician to the broader community and as a pioneer in the establishment of a collective body on behalf of players of Australian football.

After a debilitating illness he died peacefully surrounded by his family at 7.30AM AWST on Tuesday March 24.

He is survived by his wife, six children, twelve grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

R I P Thomas McNeil: June 9, 1929 to March 24, 2020