Captain & Coach Gordon Lewis “Sonny” Maffina, Sandover Medalist
Played 114 games 1948 -1958
One of many fine players to emerge from West Australian Goldfields National Football League club Boulder City, Gordon ‘Sonny’ Maffina first came to the attention of coastal scribes after putting in a near best afield performance for a combined GFL team against East Fremantle in 1947. With inadvertent prescience, a football reporter for ‘Kalgoorlie Miner’ wrote that Maffina “exhibited marking ability, pace and the courage of a Bengal tiger, never shirking a hot corner, and pursuing the ball through the crushes with tenacity”.¹
From the very next season, and for the 10 after that, Maffina’s tigerish approach to the game would find a perfect home with WANFL club Claremont – the Tigers – for whom, after a somewhat inconsistent start, he would develop into one of the all time greats.
Claremont during Maffina’s time there was persistently unsuccessful, qualifying for the finals only once, and more often than not engaging in a season’s long battle with Swan Districts and Subiaco for the wooden spoon. Amidst all the ineptitude and almost weekly thrashings, however, ‘Sonny’ Maffina, whom many described as ‘the complete footballer’, stood out. He won both the Sandover Medal and his club’s fairest and best award in 1949, and the following year, as one of three Claremont representatives in Western Australia’s Brisbane carnival team, was awarded the Simpson Medal as the state’s best player of the series. Somewhat astonishingly, however, he failed to gain a single Tassie Medal vote.
Playing mainly in the centre, Maffina was quick, decisive and, belying his slight build, fairly strong. His ball-handling and disposal by foot – most notably by means of the stab pass, of which he was one of the most adept exponents of his era – were a delight to behold. In 1951, Maffina took over from Les McClements as Claremont captain, and the following season saw him assume the coaching mantle as well. He enjoyed immediate success, too, steering the Tigers to their first senior major round appearance since 1941, and their first finals win since 1940. However, after overcoming the challenge of East Perth in the First Semi Final, eventual premier South Fremantle proved much too strong a fortnight later.
After a disappointing 1953 season which saw the club slump to second from last on the ladder, Maffina was replaced as coach by ‘Hobart Harry’ Carbon, and as captain by John Munro. He continued to give the Tigers fine service as a player, however, for another five seasons, finally retiring in 1958 with 114 WANFL games to his credit, a tally which would have been much greater had he not been continually beset by niggling injuries during the closing phase of his career. He also made eight interstate appearances for Western Australia, earning a reputation as one of the most talented centremen in the land.
In 1957, Maffina resumed as captain-coach of the Tigers, but they managed just four wins from 21 matches for the year to finish seventh. The following year saw him hand over the captaincy to Kevin Clune whilst carrying on as coach and, sporadically, as a player, but the side endured its worst season for many years to end up with the wooden spoon. Almost inevitably, this brought the curtain down on ‘Sonny’ Maffina’s league career, as both player and coach (although he later served as assistant coach to Jim Conway when the Tigers broke through for a flag in 1964), but in the view of those who saw him play he deserves to be remembered and extolled more for the on field performances that made him arguably Claremont’s greatest ever centreman, than for his comparative failure as a coach.
Author – John Devaney