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  • Writer's pictureJohn Townsend

Sampi's Glendinning Medal the best football story of the year

The best football event of the year will happen on Friday.

Twenty years after he was officially voted the best player in a western derby, Ashley Sampi is about to receive his Glendinning Medal.

It is more than half his life since Sampi was denied his rightful award, an action that created the greatest injustice in WA football.

Better late than never, I suppose.

It was April 2003 when the 19-year-old Sampi, playing his eighth West Coast match, kicked four goals in a scintillating and match-winning display.

I was one of the five official judges that day whose combined votes made Sampi a compelling winner of the award named after West Coast’s inaugural captain, Fremantle’s chairman of selectors and a true great of WA football.

My individual view was that Michael Gardiner was best on ground, a view allegedly shared by Glendinning himself, who decided to overturn the panel decision and make an arbitrary announcement at the official presentation that the ruckman should wear his medal.

That decision soon reverberated through WA’s sporting and media circles but it might have remained as little more than a curiosity until I had a chance conversation with former Test player Graeme Wood some years ago.

In 2003, Wood was state manager of derby sponsor Carlton and United Breweries and was out in the middle with the official trophy to be handed over to West Coast captain Ben Cousins, coincidently the recipient of the three Brownlow Medal votes but none in the Glendinning.

“You know, you and I were the only two people at the ground that day who thought Gardiner was best on ground,” Wood said.

That comment sat uncomfortably with me for some considerable time before, belatedly, I started a lobbying campaign that, hopefully, played some part in the WA Football Commission and West Coast finally creaking into action.

It was inspired partly by the actions of East Perth player and retrospective Sandover medallist Frank Allen who lobbied gently but persistently for decades for the under-age matches and premiership in which he took part during World War II to be considered equivalent to all other league achievements.

WAFC officials were buttonholed at matches and events, even in pubs and on street corners, to the extent that they would occasionally laugh and say “You don’t need to say anything, the matter is being considered”.

Letters flowed to chairman Murray McHenry and CEO Gavin Taylor, and their successors Wayne Martin and Michael Roberts.

“It was an official WAFC vote,” I wrote repeatedly. “I have an interest because I was one of your judges. And you have since issued retrospective and arbitrary Glendinning medals to players from the first 12 derbies yet a player who was your own official choice has been disregarded.”

Former West Coast chairman Russell Gibbs and his successor Paul Fitzpatrick were sympathetic targets while Trevor Nisbett, the most influential figure in WA football, received his fair share of correspondence.

Yet as the occasional pointed suggestion or yet another letter morphed into something resembling a campaign, both organisations were polite yet neutral on the prospect of a resolution.

It soon became apparent that neither wanted to make the first step: the WAFC would fully endorse Sampi’s medal if West Coast asked them to award it; the Eagles considered it a WAFC award which meant it was not their business to press the matter.

It was a similar stand-off to the State cricket debacle in 2015 when the WACA refused to ask Cricket Australia to apply the standing rules to ensure the Sheffield Shield final was moved to the WACA Ground when Victoria could not host it while CA was not prepared to make that move without a request from the State body.

My greatest regret was not going to Sampi himself in the initial stages of the campaign to seek his permission to lobby on his behalf.

What if he didn’t actually want the medal after the grief of all those years? What if he had moved on and this would simply open old scars?

When I eventually sought and received his permission, Sampi’s eloquent and passionate response was so moving that my regret was instantly multiplied.

Why had it taken more than a decade to instigate the push for a retrospective medal? How much better would his life have been if the support had come in 2003 when the issue was bubbling, not many years later when it was a distant memory?

Whatever the motivation or machinations behind the scenes that will bring Glendinning and Sampi together on Friday, the reality is that justice will finally be done.

It has taken a long time, too long actually, but one thing is true – Ashley Sampi winning the 2003 Glendinning Medal is certainly better late than never.

IMAGE: PerthNow


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