After a brief dalliance with Norwood in 1895, when he was just 19, Tommy Vannan really came of age in Sydney as a high-flying, sure-marking player who represented New South Wales in the first Australian Football Carnival in Melbourne in 1908.
"Marking is his forte, though he is short. A few years ago he was a veritable aeroplane," said 'Oldtimer' in The Sunday Times in 1915. "Surely no-one who saw the Port Adelaide-Combined Sydney match in 1907, on the Agricultural Ground, could forget Tom's wonderful skyward leap." With Tom at centre that day, Combined Sydney beat Port 8.8 to 5.14. A year later he was on a half-back flank when Norwood thrashed NSW 13.9 to 2.2 at the SCG.
Tom was at centre half-forward in 1905 when he led NSW against Queensland at the Brisbane Cricket Ground. NSW lost by 10 points then but turned the tables with a 13.13 to 8.11 win in the Jubilee Carnival at the MCG in 1908 with Tom, a NSW selector, at full back. He was twice captain in the 12 matches he played for NSW/Combined Sydney between 1903 and 1908.
Tom was born at Port Adelaide on 23 January 1876, one of nine children of James Vannan and his wife Isabella (née Langley). He began his football career with Ethelton and after a few seasons joined Clifton. "We were only once defeated in three years," he told 'Oldtimer'. "I then threw in my lot with the Australs in the Adelaide and Suburban Association, and had for my clubmate Alf Grayson, who afterwards captained Norwoods and stroked the South Australian eight."
Tom's roving spirit took him to the country. He played at Terowie and Petersburg, earning selection in the North team that played the South at Adelaide Oval. He moved to Wallaroo and was a member of the Yorke Peninsula team which met a combined City of Adelaide side.
"The celebrated Norwood club then claimed me for a time," Tom said. He named Port Adelaide full back Percy Gardiner and follower Vince Coracevich as two champions from those days, then came up with a third. "What about ' Bunny' Daly?" he was asked. "Most Adelaideans I have encountered tell me about the wonderful 'Bunny'." "And well they might," ejaculated Tom. "He was marvellous on the wing. All Norwood supporters could supply you with columns of his meritorious deeds."
After a season with Norwood, Tom was off to Broken Hill, where he played with South Australia, the premier team, before heading for Sydney. He arrived before the game there was resuscitated in 1897 and was "on the shelf for a time. Glebe Rugby Union team offered me the full back position, but I did not fancy the style of football, so declined it."
A quiet, thoughtful man, Tom was a great enthusiast and worker for the game he loved. He played for West Sydney in 1903-1904, then joined Balmain, where he was captain for five years in a row, leading goalkicker in 1908 and club secretary. In 1910 he moved to East Sydney because Balmain was fielding only an under 21 team. He returned to Balmain as a selector in 1913 and reportedly took the field one day when the team was a man short.
Tom married Elizabeth McGrath in Redfern in 1903 and they had three sons, Douglas, Thomas and Carleton, and a daughter, May. Tom died at 60 in May 1936 and is buried at East Ryde
P Robins March 2019
* Picture courtesy Ian Granland OAM, president of the NSW Australian Football History Society