Herb Gilbert might only have played eight premiership matches for St George, but he was an extremely important figure in the early history of the club.
By the time of St George’s inaugural season, Gilbert was established as a football giant: a rugby union international in 1910, Kangaroo in 1911–12, star of club rugby league in Sydney and England, Australian skipper in 1920. A NSW and Australian teammate, Souths’ Billy Cann, rated him the best centre he ever saw. Gilbert’s decision in 1921 to captain-coach St George, for whom he was residentially qualified, gave the fledgling outfit instant credibility, and following his retirement he remained highly influential, as coach, selector and committeeman. He also contributed as a state and national selector. Three of his sons, Herb junior, Jack and Bob, played for the club.
In 1931, Reg Fusedale, who played for St George in 1921 before becoming honorary secretary, recalled the circumstances of the great centre joining the club.
‘Herb Gilbert had announced his retirement before we were admitted,’
‘Such a splendid sportsman was Herb that he spontaneously offered to play with Saints at no other fee than any other member was to receive.’
On 10 August 1940, Rugby League News reported:
‘Herb Gilbert senior missed his first club match since his association with the St. George Club began. It was last Saturday and Herb had to stay in bed. He suffered with ’flu all the week and the inclement weather made it impossible for him to risk the elements. “But I’ll be there in spirit,” he told his wife, who was at Hurstville Oval to help cheer the local boys to victory.’
Six-foot (183cm) tall and broad shouldered, Gilbert cut an imposing figure in his heyday. There were few, if any, opposing backs who could match his imposing physical presence, or his skill. The club’s premiership debut came on 23 April 1921, St George’s Day, when they lost 4–3 to Glebe at the Sydney Sports Ground.
‘Gilbert’s experience was evident in defensive tactics, and he rendered Trojan service in tight corners,’
wrote The Propeller’s league writer. After St George’s first win, 11–9 over Newtown on 21 May 1921, following four losses, three of them close ones, The Arrow wrote that it had been
‘a fresh experience for H. Gilbert and [fellow international] A. Johnston to be on the losing side so often in club football. Nevertheless, St George are shaping promisingly, and building for the future.’
There was turmoil at the club at the start of the 1922 season, when a player revolt led by Albert ‘Ricketty’ Johnston led to the departure of foundation officials Joe McGraw and Allan Clark. With Gilbert having called time on his playing career, Johnston became captain-coach, but the team started poorly, losing its first six matches, and Gilbert was formally re-appointed as head coach in early June. Johnston played only one more first-grade match before retiring because of injury. Saints finished with the wooden spoon. Things improved in 1923 and 1924, as the team finished seventh and then equal third on the ladder (there was no finals series played in the premiership from 1912 to 1925), and some fine players emerged, including winger Frank Saunders, rugged forwards Bill Hardman and ‘Jockey’ Kelly, and hooker ‘Snowy’ Justice.
St George finally got its own ground with the opening of Earl Park at Arncliffe in 1925 and such was the respect for Gilbert, the club decided to give all the proceeds from the first home match, inevitably a lucrative one, to him as a testimonial.
‘The St George club have been indeed fortunate,’
wrote ‘Artemus’ in The St George Call,
‘at having such a man at the helm of affairs to whom they can look to for that coaching and guidance that is needed by young and experienced players whose ambition is to become great footballers.’
He tried to move away from the coaching role during that ’25 season, remaining behind the scenes while skipper Arnold Traynor organised training and tactics. But this didn’t work out, and Traynor quit as captain after an ill-fated trip to Orange in early August 1925 (Saints were thrashed 38–11 by the locals after losing three of their last four premiership games). In 1926, with Traynor back as captain and Gilbert now serving as a selector as well as continuing in his mentoring role, the club won only two games. At season’s end, The Call revealed that Gilbert had ‘reluctantly’ decided to step away from any direct involvement in the team’s preparation ‘owing to business reasons’. The paper, in paying tribute to hard-working prop Clarrie Tye, who had announced his retirement after playing a prominent role in each of St George’s first six seasons, wrote:
‘Tye is the possessor of a wonderful record on the playing fields, having attained every representative honour possible to any footballer. His record in this respect is second only to that of the famous Herb Gilbert of any footballer in the St George district, past or present.’
Saints officials, The Call said, were faced with
‘a difficult problem: to fill a [coaching] position vacated by such a renowned and capable student of the game’.
Their solution would completely transform the club. The red and whites’ loyal fans might not have realised at the end of 1926, after such a disappointing year, but Gilbert, Traynor, Tye and company had built a strong foundation. Their team would march into the finals in seven of the next eight seasons.