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Red, White and Blue Still Rings True for John Bell

The memories and experiences that 92-year-old John Bell holds can only be a figment of the imagination to the current-day Roosters Member.

Packing down alongside the likes of Club Legends Ferris Ashton and Jack Gibson, watching Dave Brown break records at the Sydney Sports Ground and pulling on the famous Tricolours jersey, John has a treasure trove of memories all draped in the famous Red, White and Blue. 

The headgear-clad front rower represented the Club from 1951-1955, and while it was a period of history that was bereft of silverware, it proved to be one of evolution for the Eastern Suburbs District Rugby League Football Club.

Now one of the oldest remaining Roosters, the Scotts Head resident of 46 years still has plenty of wit about him and plenty of tales from the post-war era to recall upon.

“I guess I’m a pretty devout Easts man, being a kid from Paddington,” he said.

“Most of the kids were brainwashed Easts supporters. My dad would take me to the Cricket Ground or the Sports Ground and I watched Dave Brown and all those old players right through.

Meet John Bell: Rooster #390

“I remember him playing on the SCG a few times because we’d always go into the little hill stand, and we’d always go there so you could see the ground as a kid. I can remember Brown quite vividly.

“In those days before the second World War, Easts had a pretty good side. Most of them were internationals; Harry Pierce, “Joe” Pearce, Ray Stehr, Andy Norval, and blokes that played for New South Wales and won a few competitions.

“I went to Paddington primary school and being a Paddo boy I lived between the Showground and Centennial Park for most of my young life. That was the only team I ever wanted to follow.”

After travelling around northern New South Wales following his schooling, Bell returned to Eastern Suburbs and kick-started his career in the Tricolours, recalling the halcyon days of shoulder pads, cricket pitches and three grades playing on a Saturday afternoon. 

"I became a surveyor and got moved up to Armidale after high school," John recalled. 

“I played up in West Armidale in the winter of 1947, moved to Grafton and represented the Combined Group to play in Kurri Kurri. In 1949 I didn’t play football, my mother was unwell and so I went back to Sydney.

“The following season I played for Bondi Beach and we won the competition against Bronte in the final and I got into the Easts President’s Cup side.

“I got picked for third grade in 1951, and somebody from the reserve grade got moved up, so I moved up as well. Then somebody else the next round was injured in a higher grade so I moved up into the first-grade side. So it was only a few lower grade matches before I got into the first-grade side!

Red and White V Revolution: The 1954 Roosters were the first to wear the now famous 'V' design. Johnny Bell was one of those players (centre, wearing headgear).
Red and White V Revolution: The 1954 Roosters were the first to wear the now famous 'V' design. Johnny Bell was one of those players (centre, wearing headgear).

“I had about 54 games for the Club. I got wiped out at the start of ’55, but it was good fun. Everything was contested, every play the ball.

“Everyone wore shin pads because you’d get your legs belted and everyone had scratches. The old boots were up to your ankle with padding to protect your ankles. All the studs were leather with three tacks through them into the sole.

“In those days the only field that didn’t have a cricket pitch in the middle of it was the Sports Ground; our home ground. Every other one had pitches that sometimes weren’t outlined well.

“If there was a rainy weekend, sometimes the surface would be uneven and we’d whack a bit of skin off when you were tackled. If you played on the Cricket Ground you’d run out from the Members’ Stand, scrub yourself down and finish up and have a long hot bath.”

I just enjoyed it. It was the only side I had an inclination to play for really. Even though I moved up here 46 years ago, I’ve still been a follower. When we used to go down to Sydney in the winter, I’d go follow them somewhere.

John Bell Sydney Rooster #390

“I loved playing my football. I mightn’t have been very good, but I loved the game anyway.”

One major moment in Club history that John recalls is the transition from the striped Tricolours jersey to the current 'V' that has become synonymous with the Sydney Roosters.

As part of a five-man committee, John was one of the first in the 1954 season to adopt the new look, which was first pitched to Club executives by teammates Col Donohoe and Ferris Ashton following their Kangaroo Tour to France in 1951.

“When Col and Ferris came back from the 1951-52 tour, Ferris, in particular, was the driving force," he explained. 

“There were about five of us in the group that we discussed and thought it was a good idea. We convinced them, and that’s when it was first introduced.

“I don’t remember it being contentious at all; it could have been with the conservatives in the club – of course, conservatives are very reluctant to change – but I don’t remember much hullabaloo about it at all.

“We grew up watching the Tricolours and I had no objection to the ‘V’, I thought it was an innovation. 

“Once it was introduced, that was our jumper."

Throughout his entire lifetime, John Bell has seen the Roosters raise the Premiership trophy eleven times, and still harbours an affinity for the Club, with the extended Bell family now entrenched as passionate supporters.

Alongside the Best of Them: John Bell (far right, headgear) takes on the St George Dragons in 1953, with teammate Jack Gibson bringing an attacker to the ground.
Alongside the Best of Them: John Bell (far right, headgear) takes on the St George Dragons in 1953, with teammate Jack Gibson bringing an attacker to the ground.

“I still like watching it and I still follow it,” he said.

“(My sons) Steve and Greg, yes, Peter is a rugby man, but the two youngest twins and those two are really staunch Easts supporters. Four out the five wasn’t a bad effort! I’m very fortunate, the kids are all good and have done very well.

“I’ve got thirteen great grandchildren now and seven grandchildren, so we’ve aided the population growth of the Roosters supporters a bit! I’ve brainwashed them pretty well.

“I just enjoyed it. It was the only side I had an inclination to play for really. Even though I moved up here 46 years ago, I’ve still been a follower. When we used to go down to Sydney in the winter, I’d go follow them somewhere.

“I’ve always been a follower and I guess it’s been part of my nature to be a Rooster – to be an Eastern Suburbs player.”