Darrell Cranch

Born in Cairns, Queensland on 23 October 1915, Darrell Oswald Hamilton Cranch contributed to Australian football over six decades as a player, coach, recruiter, designer and interchange steward.

Growing up in Queensland Darrell recalled mostly his holidays spent  on St. Helena Island and memories of the sharks that surrounded the island’s prison. Darrell’s grandfather, William, was prison superintendent from 1926-1929,  “It would be nothing for us to see 60 dorsal fins following the boat.” Darrell spent many happy weekends and school holidays on St Helena Island as a boy, sailing toy boats made by prisoners and helping warders feed food scraps to sharks to deter escapes.

After moving to Melbourne in his teenage years Darrell played a lot of football and was training and playing practice matches with the Richmond Football Club. During one match one of the main blood vessels in his right leg was severed near the calf by the nails of what had been a leather stop. In that era football boots were studded with leather stops which had three nails through the top layer. Often the leather would break away leaving the nails exposed and causing bad lacerations to various parts of the body.

The injury was a bitter blow. Medical opinion was that if the vessel was severed again he could lose his leg below the knee. A football playing career was out of the question. Years later though it was a catalyst to an innovation that changed both footwear and a VFL rule.

In the meantime, unable to play football, Darrell turned to professional athletics to both maintain his fitness and bring in some extra income during the Great Depression. He was quite successful winning races from 75 yards to 1 mile. He also played district cricket for Richmond.

The leg injury also precluded Darrell from enlisting in either the AIF or CMF during the Second World War but he was able to join the Volunteer Defence Corps – Australia’s Home Guard of sorts – and he served with the Fifth Battalion from January1942 to October 1945.

At Victoria Park in round two 1944 Darrel became the 276th boundary umpire in VFL history when Fitzroy upset the Magpies. The Gorillas would go on to win the flag that year and Darrell had the first twelve matches in a career that would last until 1960 as both a boundary and goal umpire.

Darrell was a consistent performer on the boundary being appointed to the Second-Semi Finals in 1949 (Carlton v. North Melbourne), 1950 (Essendon v North Melbourne) and 1951 (Geelong v. Collingwood). The Essendon North Melbourne match was a close game with Darrell involved in a crucial moment.  North trailed by eight points at three-quarter time but hit the front by five points with ten minutes to go in heavy rain. The Bombers got back within three points with thirty seconds remaining. The ball was rolling towards Darrell’s boundary line and just before it crossed, North full-back Jock McCorkell punched it back into play instead of letting it go out. John Coleman swooped onto the ball and passed to McEwin in the goal square. He goaled and Essendon went through to the Grand Final.

One unusual appointment was part of the VFL National Round on 14 June 1952. Matches for premiership points were played all around country Victoria and interstate. Darrell traveled to Albury for the North Melbourne v. South Melbourne clash. The VFL were too frugal to send two boundary umpires and an emergency umpire so they economised by sending field umpire Jack Wallmeyer to partner Darrell and replace field umpire Bill Barbour if necessary.

In 1951 Darrell was working for Kenworth Rubber Company when he harked back to his leg injury. Football boots and stops were still the same and he realized that there would be a market for a safer football boot. He began developing what would become known as the ‘All rubber safety sole’. It was the first moulded sole and was made from the same material as United States Army jungle boots. The rubber would not crumble or crack and was flexible enough to allow for movement under match conditions.

At the time the VFL did not allow for anything other than leather stops. Once they had viewed the prototype and had it successfully tested by such players as Jack Hamilton and Ted Whitten the rule was changed to allow for ‘approved rubber safety soles’.

Unfortunately Darrell was unable to patent the sole because of its similarity to a previously patented hiking boot sole. He was able to register the location of the stops which prevented others from producing the optimum design but not the soles themselves. Later, after Darrell had left their employ, Kenworth attempted to claim the sole as their own, but, VFL Secretary, Eric McCutcheon, threatened to change the rule back unless Darrell was compensated. As the sole was becoming more and more popular this would have meant a big loss for the company and as a result Darrell received both money for development and a commission on all sales for three years. The advent of nylon soles saw the end of Darrell’s design but he was still a pioneer in the football footwear industry.

The year after the design hit the market and having completed 131 matches Darrell transferred from the boundary to the goals. He debuted on 18 April 1953 at the Junction Oval thereby gaining goal umpire Heritage Number 123.

As a goal umpire Darrell was very successful. His 117 matches included three further finals, two of which were the 1955 and 1959 Grand Finals. Both were easy Melbourne victories but in 1959, with only one goal separating them from Essendon at three-quarter time, Melbourne kicked 6.3 to 1.2 in the final quarter at Darrell’s end to run away with the premiership. He was also one of the umpires present at one of the more remarkable stoppages in VFL history. On 27 April 1957 Melbourne played Collingwood in the season’s first match at the MCG. Lloyd Williams broke his leg and there was a twelve minute delay while a search was conducted for the stretcher which had been locked away after Olympics. Unable to be located Williams was eventually carried off on a table top!

While he was still a goal umpire, in 1958, Darrell had taken on the role of summer training and in-season fitness coach for Richmond. Prior to the 1961 season the VFL changed its attitude to the arrangement. They told him to choose between the two and he decided to keep training Richmond. His umpiring career was complete after 248 matches, two Grand Finals and Life membership of the VFLUA, awarded in 1954.

Finishing umpiring simply changed Darrell’s football focus. He maintained his links with Richmond and, after coaching three premierships in the South-East Suburban Football League and VAFA over nineteen years, he returned to the club as Recruiting Officer from 1981-1995 and then took the same role at Melbourne from 1996-1999. Aged 80, he also rejoined the AFL as an Interchange Steward from 1995-1998.

Darrell passed away on his 91st birthday after a life dominated by football. His contribution will be long remembered.