When Cronulla finally ended a half-century long premiership drought in 2016, Noel Thornton was brought to tears.
“His boys” had done it.
“Dad was in hospital for their big winning streak in 2016 but every time I’d talk about them with him he’d call them his boys,” Thornton’s son, Peter, told the Leader.
“Then when they won the comp it was ‘my boys have done it.’ It’s like he was back coaching them. It was like going back in time for him. It was such a precious thing for us that they won a comp before he died.”
Thornton, a former Cronulla captain and coach, died after a long battle with leukemia last week aged 78.
He was the first man to ever run out onto what was then known as Endeavour Field, now Southern Cross Group Stadium, wearing the famous black, white and blue. Thornton was the Sharks’ captain for their first game at the venue which Cronulla won 10-7 against Parramatta midway through the 1968 season, ensuring he will always hold a special place in the club’s history.
Thornton captained Cronulla for two years from when he joined the club in 1968. He went on to coach reserve grade under Tommy Bishop in 1973 and called the shots from the sideline during the grand final against Manly that year with Bishop on the field. He then took the first grade coaching job in 1974 before joining Jack Gibson’s coaching staff at Eastern Suburbs a year later.
A husband to Patricia for 58 years and father to Julie, Peter and Michael, Thornton’s family called Wanda home before he relocated to Tweed Heads in 1996.
Despite living more than 800 kilometres away, Thornton never lost his connection with the club he loved.
“You never saw dad cry but he shed a tear that day [Cronulla won the premiership],” Peter said.
“I went to the game with my son and he was at home with the rest of the family all singing ‘Up, up, Cronulla.’ He was over the moon singing and crying. He helped pen that song. They sat down after a game in ‘68 I think it was with Johnny Maguire and one of the other boys.
“They were sat in the sheds there saying ‘we can’t keep singing what we’re singing’ so they made up a song. I don’t know how they did it, if they put a few words together and someone put it to the tune, but that’s what they did.
“He didn’t ever tell me that [he was the first Sharks player to run out onto Shark Park] until  grand final time when there was all the interest in the Sharks and people coming out of the woodwork with stories. I thought ‘wow, I didn’t know that dad. That’s something to remember.’ And he just said ‘oh yeah, I didn’t really think about it until later.’
“And that was the kind of bloke he was. Very humble, he didn’t talk much about footy. I was interested when I got a bit older and started asking him questions but it was when he’d go for a beer with his mates down the club he’d open up a bit and tell us some great stories.”
Thornton’s funeral will be held at the Melaleuca Station Memorial Gardens, Tweed Valley Way, Chinderah on Thursday, followed by a wake to celebrate his life at Seagulls Club.