Hobart/Essendon/Richmond/Sandy Bay, Midfielder, 1962-85
> 60 games, 60 goals, Essendon, 1967-71
> 86 games, 93 goals, Richmond, 1972-75
> 99 games, Hobart, 1962-66
> 31 games, Sandy Bay, 1976-78
> Three representative matches for Tasmania, 1976-77
> Richmond coach, 1985 (22 games: 9 wins, 13 losses)
> Hobart coach, 1980-81 (38 games: 20 wins, 18 losses)
> Sandy Bay captain-coach, 1976-78; coach, 1983-84 (102 games: 72 wins, 29 losses, one draw)
> Richmond VFL premierships, 1973 and 1974
> Hobart TANFL premierships, 1963 and 1966 (player) and 1980 (coach)
> Sandy Bay TANFL premierships, 1976, 1977 and 1978
> Life member, Richmond Football Club, 2013
> Named captain-coach in Hobart’s ‘Greatest Team, 1947-2002’ (half forward flank)
There have been a number of VFL/AFL greats who began their football journey with the Hobart Football Club; names such as Ian Stewart, Alastair Lynch, Paul Hudson and Mathew Armstrong come to mind. However few ‘Old Hobartians’ are as consistently overlooked – particularly on the mainland – as Paul Sproule. A ruggedly tough but supremely skilled player, Sproule carved out a successful career in Victoria as a player for nearly ten years, before returning to his native state as a coach, where his reputation as one of the finest football brains ever produced in Tasmania only grew.
Born in December 1944, Sproule’s first appearance in senior football with Hobart came at the age of 17 in 1962, the same year future triple-Brownlow Medallist Ian Stewart joined the club. Hobart were in the middle of a period of great success. Under captain-coach Mal Pascoe the Tigers had won league and state titles in 1959 and gone back-to-back in the TANFL the following year. It did not take long for the teenage Sproule to cement himself in the senior team, and he was a premiership player in 1963 and. By this time word of Sproule’s obvious talent had reached the mainland, and the 22-year-old headed across Bass Strait to join Essendon ahead of the 1967 season. After failing to make a senior appearance in his first year due to a badly broken leg, Sproule finally made his debut in the Bombers’ opening match of 1968 against Hawthorn. It was to be an outstanding introduction to VFL football, with Sproule booting five goals and gathering 17 disposals in a 73-point win. He missed 12 games with a torn medial ligament and after kicking 6 goals in the reserves second semi-final against Richmond was selected to play in the preliminary final and losing grand final against Carlton, a total of nine games for the season.
In his five seasons at Windy Hill Sproule made 60 senior appearances for a return of 60 goals. In 1971, however, after playing 13 of the first 14 games, Sproule missed the rest of the season with a severe groin injury. After completing the 1972 pre season a disagreement with the new coaches saw Sproule leave Essendon and commence training with Richmond. Richmond general manager Alan Schwab had first seen Sproule playing for Hobart when on a recruiting mission for St. Kilda in 1965, and had subsequently (unsuccessfully) attempted to convince the Saints to recruit him. Schwab could not believe that Essendon were prepared to release a player of Sproule’s quality and skill and wasted no time in approaching Sproule – along with coach Tom Hafey and secretary Graeme Richmond – about making the move to Punt Road. Sproule took some convincing but eventually he agreed and was traded from the Bombers in the third week of the season for a sign-on fee of just $2,000. It would go down in history as 2,000 of the best dollars Richmond ever spent.
Debuting for the Tigers in Round 4 of 1972, Sproule soon became an indispensable member of the strong Richmond side of the early 1970s, with his second-to-none footy brain, incredible ability to find the football, and uncanny goal sense making him a huge asset to the already extremely talented Tigers midfield. He was a member of the Tigers’ back-to-back premiership teams in 1973-74, and the fact that he was named amongst his team’s best players in both matches is a testament to his ability to perform on the big stage. This was especially true in 1974. With North Melbourne 11 points up early in the second quarter Sproule was shifted into the middle of the ground. His impact at the centre bounces was immediate, and in the next 15 minutes Richmond piled on six goals and were never challenged again. Had the Norm Smith Medal been awarded at the time it is widely acknowledged that Sproule would have been heavily favoured to win it.
After 86 games in four seasons with Richmond, Sproule returned home to Tasmania in 1976 to take on the captain-coach position with Sandy Bay. The Seagulls were in the middle of the greatest era in the club’s history, having developed into the most professional side in the TANFL under super coach Rod Olsson. They had subsequently contested every grand final since 1971, but had lost their previous three deciders. Under Sproule, however, the club rediscovered its spark, and between 1976 and 1978 Sandy Bay waltzed to a hat trick of premierships, becoming the first team to win three consecutive flags since the North Hobart sides of 1939-41. Sproule retired as a player during 1978 and resigned as coach after the 1978 triumph, and after spending a year away he returned to his roots in 1980, taking charge of his original side Hobart. The Tigers had collected consecutive wooden spoons in 1978-79, however the Sproule factor and the professional attitude that came with it resulted in the club surging back into finals football in 1980, ultimately taking out their first premiership since 1973.
A leaner 1981 saw Sproule depart the Tigers at year’s end, and after another year away from the coach’s box he found himself back in charge of Sandy Bay in 1983. The Seagulls were a far cry from the dominant side he had led in the late 1970s, and despite a preliminary final finish in 1983 the Bay suffered a horrific mid-season collapse the following year to miss the finals, signalling the end of Sproule’s second stint with the club. It was at this point that he was approached by former Richmond teammate Barry Richardson, now club president, about taking on the role as the Tigers’ senior coach. The position had become known as something of a poisoned chalice since Tom Hafey’s departure in 1976, with four individuals having held the job over the subsequent eight seasons and all four being sacked. Nevertheless, Sproule accepted, signing with the Tigers for the 1985 season.
The year started well, with Sproule guiding the Tigers to four straight wins from Rounds 3-6, however their form fell away late in the season to finish with a 9-13 record, missing the finals. Despite being guaranteed a minimum two-year tenure when he signed and impressing many with his performance as coach throughout the season, Sproule’s name was added to the revolving door of Richmond coaches when he was sacked by the board at season’s end. He was not the only casualty of the decision, with Barry Richardson, who had guaranteed Sproule’s tenure, stepping down as president in protest at the board’s decision.
Sproule returned home to Tasmania after his time at Richmond ended. He has maintained a strong passion and involvement with the game ever since, most notably in his role helping bring AFL football to Tasmania as a part of the AFL Task Force, set up by then-premier of Tasmania Jim Bacon in 1998. He also served as the state government’s representative for the York Park and Inveresk Precinct through his role as Director of Events Tasmania, and in this capacity was a major figure in the redevelopment of York Park (later Aurora Stadium) into a top-class AFL venue, and also in brokering the deal that sees the Hawks play four matches a season at the ground.
However it is Sproule’s indelible contribution to the game of football on the field that will be remembered most fondly by everyone associated with the game, and these contributions have been celebrated with appropriate vigour in recent years. In 2001 Sproule was named as one of Sandy Bay’s greatest three coaches, and in 2002 as captain-coach of Hobart’s ‘Greatest Team: 1942-2002’. He was recognised as a legend in the Tasmanian Football Hall of Fame in 2007 and in 2013 was awarded life membership of the Richmond Football Club.