I was lucky enough to get an invitation to Balmey’s Roast last Thursday night. It was a swish affair, sort of like a pie night on steroids, held at the Hilton Hotel both to celebrate Neil Balme’s 40 years in football and to help raise funds for the Zaidee’s Rainbow Foundation and the N.I.C.K. Foundation.
I went with Smithy (Michael Smith) and Feuta (Greg Feutrill) two mates from my old school days at Whitefriars College. Also joining us was Tony Borrack, an old timer who played over four hundred games of footy in his younger days, most of them with the Commonwealth Bank in the ammos. He has the large gnarly hands of an old footballer and gets a twinkle in his eye when the beer tray comes around. These days Tony is a regular spectator at Whitefriars old boy’s games after years of service to the club. The Friars are currently playing in Division D1.
Smithy and Feuta are partners in an accounting practice in Hawthorn and love their footy. Feuta is still heavily involved being the coach of the Whitefriars old boys, and Smithy was still sneaking in the odd game of footy for the Balwyn seconds up until just a few seasons back. Both are just the wrong side of mid forties but haven’t let life’s complacencies get hold of them physically just yet.
They say that opposites attract in all aspects of life and Smithy and Feuta are proof of that in their business. I was lucky enough to play school boy football with them at Whitefriars and therefore got a good insight into their contrasting sporting talents and approaches to life. Smithy played football like he was wearing overalls in the mould Joel Selwood, Dane Swan, and his boyhood hero Stan Magro; no pretense, no fashionable flair, no wasted sentiment and nothing left in the tank at the final siren. We used to shut our eyes with anguish when we watched him charging into packs. Usually he came out OK, but sometimes not. He would have been one of the first picked because the coaches knew exactly what they would get; endeavour and skill and a few sore heads on the opposition’s side. He had legs like marble, a torso like an aged river red gum and he attacked the ball harder than a charging rhino.
Feuta on the other hand played in a suit. Class, polish and time. He played with a low centre of gravity and was able to simply drift away from opponents to find space. He was hard at it but seemed to instinctively rotate or swivel or blind turn until he found a better option than getting crunched. Smart player I reckon. Now he and Smithy help operate their accounting practice together like a well oiled machine.
When we all arrived at the Hilton I was immediately conscious of being surrounded by footballing royalty. Of course Neil Balme was prominent but other “faces” included Dermie, Bucks, Lingy, Brad Sewell, Cowboy Neil (looks the same now as when he was playing), Gavin Brown, Craig Kelly, Brendan Gale, David Neitz, Barry Richardson, and, how could I leave out, Straughnie.
Brian Cooke was there as was Gary March and whilst I didn’t see him there was a large round of applause when it was announced that Jimmy Stynes was in the audience. Sam Kekovich called in via a recorded video message and duly made the whole thing about him (very funny nonetheless), and Neville Roberts from Norwood footy club in South Australia was also interviewed via a phone hook up.
But the night was made by the MC Kevin Bartlett, whose control of the night and brilliant repartee was at times biting, at times controversial, at time hilarious, but always first class.
KB came out with some superb one liners. When Balmey had a go at him for being a lousy tackler in his playing days Bartlett retorted,
“I was no good at tackling because I always had the ball.”
And when he was talking to Balmey about Balme’s sacking from Melbourne as the senior coach by the then president Joe Gutnik, Bartlett added,
“And by the way Balmey, Joe Gutnick sends his regards from a diamond mine in South Africa.”
But the best story involved Balme’s time coaching Melbourne. It was during this time that David Schwartz exploded onto the scene. He went through a purple patch where he was tearing games apart single handedly and due to his size and strength got the nickname “The Ox”. As David Neitz relayed “Schwarter got a bit ahead of himself” when he went out and purchased a Saab convertible sports car and attached the number plate “THE OX” to his beloved machine. One Sunday morning training session, after a tough Melbourne loss, Balmey arrived ill of temper and lacking sleep only to see the Saab with “THE OX” number plates parked in his spot. Balmey decided it was time to deflate Schwartz’s ego a bit, so he stormed into the changing rooms and bellowed at the top of his voice,
“Who the fu!* is THEO-X”
During the night Cameron Ling spoke of Balme’s influence at Geelong and Nathan Buckley about his lasting impression at Collingwood. All through these chats Kevin Bartlett sarcastically referred to Balme as “the world’s greatest football operations manager”. It was done with fabulous humour and underlying respect.
We watched some highlights of Balme’s playing days featuring the inevitable display of “Balmey’s hits” including the infamous belt on Geoff Southby in the 1973 Grand Final. After the video Bartlett quipped that they had invited Southby but his RSVP simply read “Get stuffed Balmey”.
We were then entertained by a collage of photos from Balmey’s past. There was Balmey asleep in a deck chair, Balmey as a teenager with a few mates, Balmey firing a rifle whilst out hunting, and a disturbing photo of Balmey standing on the beach with flippers on his feet and dressed only in speedos. The roasting of Balmey was about complete.
When it was Balmey’s time to speak we got an insight into why he is now so respected in footy circles. He spoke fondly of the game itself, the people he’d met along the way and especially of his time at Norwood. He joked about criticism that he wasn’t great at attending pre season training sessions by saying that “I liked to train in secret a lot”. He talked about how football clubs can be serious places at times but ultimately they are “just footy clubs” and that the most important part of them is the people. His style is naturally inclusive, relaxed and easy going but perhaps the most endearing part of his character is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He would be to young footballers what an inflatable jumping castle is to little kids; somewhere to go to bounce around for a while knowing that you will leave safe and grounded.
The night ended late; far too late. Smithy, Feuta, Tony and I were the last to leave as we stood at the back of the room having a few quiet beers – and shooting the breeze with Balmey.