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The story of Syd Barker

September 14, 2017 5:17 PM

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Ahead of the 2017 Syd Barker Club Champion Dinner on Friday night, NMFC.com.au looks back at the man behind the medal. 

Below is an excerpt from 'The Shinboners - The Complete Story of the North Melbourne Football Club'. 

The book is available in The Roo Shop

How great was Sydney “Syd” Barker? It was said on his untimely death, (Barker had died suddenly while at work, at the Abbottsford Fire Station, from “an incurable disease”), on 23 March 1930 at the age of just 42, that, “few men have left, or are likely to leave, their impression on Australian football to the same extent as the late Sydney Barker”.

Indeed, Barker holds a special place in the hearts of North Melbourne people, his name living on through the Syd Barker Memorial Trophy which, since 1937, has been awarded to North’s fairest and best player each season. (Since 1970, it has been the Syd Baker medal).  Although Barker only played nine VFL matches with North (in 1927), and those were at the end of his career, in the pre-VFL years (that is, the VFA, 1909 to 1921) he had been the club’s, and the VFA’s star ruckman during an era of North dominance. The best and Fairest award recognises his overall service to the club in those formative, and dominant, years.

A quietly spoken man, with modesty to match, Barker was the ideal figure to lead North during the difficulties of the Great War. He was a fireman, a profession that required him to think clearly, and act decisively; attributes that were indeed transferable to the football field. And lead he did.

He began his football career with VFA club, Essendon, before joining Richmond for its first season in the VFL (1908). It was a short-lived relationship though, and Barker soon returned to the VFA, this time with North. North, during the period just before, and immediately after the war, was the finest team in the VFA. With Barker as its centrepoint in the ruck, ably assisted by follower George Rawle and rover Charlie Hardy, the club won 4 premierships (1910,1914, as well as 1915 and 1918 with Barker as captain)- including a remarkable run of 58 straight matches (which includes non-VFA games). No one encapsulated the invincible moniker more than the brilliant Barker, his ability as a boxer adding weight to his already imposing stature (183cm and 95kg). Barker’s training with the fire brigade enabled him to ruck all day with North and, according to teammate Johnny Lewis, the ruckman would never ask a player to do something he wasn’t prepared to do himself. Moreover, five-time premiership coach, John Worrall, described Barker as “a splendid specimen of man hood.” Worral said that “strength rather than dash made him famous as a player.”

In 1921, it appeared that North would merge with nearby VFL club Essendon, and so Barker and Hardy joined the Dons in the belief that the two clubs would come together. But the deal fell through, and for the next four seasons Barker wore Essendon colours. By 1922 he was captain-coach, and with Hardy and Rawle again alongside him, he led the club to back to back premierships in 1923-24, before retiring from the game. However, he returned to North in 1927, the club having finally been accepted into the VFL two years earlier. As captain-coach, he played another nine matches, but was unable to lift the struggling side beyond 11th position.

Barker saw the game in the late 1920s as being more scientific than it “appears on the surface.” He felt that kicking was the “most important factor of the game”, and that being able to kick on each side was a critical tool in the footballer’s armoury. He preferred a long-kicking game to one with a lot of handballing. And he would stress to youngsters the necessity for playing the game and “leaving the umpiring to the umpire.” He was inducted into the North Melbourne Hall of Fame in 2003.

North fans who missed out on tickets to the Syd Barker Medal on Friday night can stay up to date via a live stream on NMFC.com.au and the NMFC App. The stream commences at 7.30pm EST.