Ross Henshaw lives in the suburbs somewhere. In a nice house, garden perfect, inside clean, tidy. I know his nephew, and think it’s a privilege to be walking up his garden path. He was a boyhood hero. The North Melbourne No. 34 with the Three Muskateers beard, his attack from the half-back, and back pocket. The five Grand Finals. Two wins, two losses, a draw.
Of the thousands of people in the history of the AFL/VFL I have to have a beer with for my book, I’ve landed him first. It feels right. He was no superstar, more an honest player, who got the most out of himself. A backman.
I tell myself league players look taller in real life, and sure enough, there the man is, taking up his doorway, ripper, friendly smile. Fit and strong. I show him my six-pack of Boags and we go inside.
“I guess I’ll have just one with you,” he says.
One? A shame. I get on with talking.
Ross sits back and starts with a softly spoken, firm-as-steel statement. A thing of conviction.
“I take great pride to have been a one club player.”
It’s what he hangs his hat on, what he admires. Blokes like Schimma. Yet he believes in the Ten Year Rule that brought Wade and Davis and Rantall.
Playing at the one club worked for Ross, but he never judges others.
“The Ten Year Rule put the pressure on, in a great way. Barry Davis, I’d be his shadow. I wanted to learn from the best, so I’d follow him in circle work, just to learn how to read the play, where to be. And do extra with him after training. The running.”
I get the impression Ross worships the man. You can buy talent, but experience like that of Barry Davis? Two flags at Essendon, a teacher by trade. An open, giving man. What a recruit!
I try and picture it. The driven warhorse back-flanker, Davis, reinventing himself, at over 30, as an on-baller, and the young ruck-rover who wasn’t quite good enough, Henshaw, insisting to Barrassi on one more chance because he wasn’t done yet, and re-inventing himself as a backman. The Captain, and the young buck with quiet determination to not let go. Both of them out there, under lights, after everyone else has been and showered and gone. Doing extra.
I find these small stories, even without last minute goals or spectacular marks, inspirational.
They’re quieter, but go to the heart of football.
I ask about Ronald Dale.
“He taught us how to win,” Ross says.
He always starts with the bottom line, then fills in the details.
One beer slips into two. Ross is reluctant, but pauses, melts, and joins me.
He makes it clear that the legendary coach was no saint, and, indeed had no faith in Ross, for the longest time.
“But Barassi’s good coaching days way out-weighed his bad. His good points were bigger than his bad.”
He gives me examples of both. It’s all great to listen to.
He tells me how the North board mortgaged their houses to afford the club success, his views on Blight, who was different, but liked, and Carey, who blew it. The more I talk to Ross, the more I get the impression he has no rose coloured glasses, but also no agendas beyond his love of the North Melbourne Footy Club. Without it ever being about him, Ross Henshaw will call it as he saw it, and still does. Like Premiership players are often afforded.
“I like the underrated players. The do-ers. Icke was underrated. Cowton was. He was an unsung hero. Determined. I’ve got nothing but respect for Cowton.”
Then there were the stars.
“Crosswell was unbelievable! Everybody liked him, too, which counts. He could be thrown forward or back as the game suited. He was electric in the first quarter of the ’77 Final.”
And players who were all about character.
“Schimma. An outstanding bloke,” he says, like fact. “A great footballer and a great person! We were playing in a final once, and Schimma was running through the middle. I had stuffed up and came out of a pack hobbling, holding my leg. Schimma said
‘What’s wrong with you?’
‘Hurt my leg.’
‘Is it broken?’
‘Well, keep going then.’
“That was Wayne,” he laughs. “We all think the world of Schimma. It was just a great experience playing with him!”
Soon enough Ross shows me his two medals. Bronze things. He poses for a photo I take, but the image does him no justice. It doesn’t carry his smile. His ripper, friendly nature. It makes him look older than he is. To talk to him, he seems timeless.
I like the way the trophies are in a back room, but the lounge, where we talk, and he leaps for the third beers without my asking, has, simply, a photo of him and his nephew.
I’d like to ask him about family, be stoked to get to know the man, but for today, it’s football.
He tells me about his time as Carlton’s Under 19s coach. How he got Barry Davis to come down as a guest and take drills. The mentor rewarded with remembrance.
“I coached a lot of future Carton Premiership players,” he says, giving names, but doesn’t really stay in contact with them.
He was Brian Peake’s opponent when the W.A. star flew into Geelong in a helicopter and a blaze of glory. There for Blight’s bomb. His first opponent as a backman was Sheedy, who poked him in the eye. Was a teammate of Keith Grieg as he won his two Brownlows. He talks about playing on Matthews, who punched him in the back of the head, and Bartlett. He was Van Der Haar’s first opponent, replaced Pagan as a player at North.
“Not many people remember Barassi got rid of Pagan as a player at Carlton, then followed him over to North and sacked him there,” he says.
“In the drawn Grand Final I had Shaw and Wearmouth. I really rated Shaw. He was great overhead. Ronnie was good, but would always stay down the ground, chasing kicks.”
His career is littered with highlights I never realised. He was there for so much of footy’s history.
“You look at all the players at North Melbourne preceding that first ever Premiership, I’m pretty fortunate. The number of blokes that have pulled on that jumper, they’ve come and they’ve gone, and come and gone, truly great players. And I came along, so lucky, right time, right group of players… football immortality.
“Would you believe, I still get jumpers, football cards, other pieces of memorabilia to sign. I have no hesitation in doing what they tell me to do. And I’m always glad to do it, because I can still remember the elation of those supporters back at the club rooms, after the game. It was just unbelievable.
“Very often I’ll write back a personal note. And I do it almost immediately. I’ve actually kept a lot of their letters.
Barassi has been such a big part of his life. The fire and brimstone, the relentless berating, the Premierships. I ask Ross to sum the man up.
“I played my best football under him.”
Soon enough, we pull the pin, a damn shame! ‘I could talk to him for hours,’ I think, then realise I have. ‘Hours more,’ I correct myself.
As I leave he stands in the doorway, telling me: “I’m pretty humble about my time playing football.” And repeats what he said about pride and privilege. That he’s glad he could contribute. That a modest player like him was afforded the opportunity, and the joy of representing North Melbourne.
Then he thanks me, a country football hack, for coming over, can you believe it?
“To have started in a team that would win only one game a year when I arrived, then rise with it, was something special,” he says one last thing.
“That first Flag, in ‘75… After the game, in the rooms, at the function, the look in the old supporter’s eyes… It was for them. It had to be for them! The next one was for the players.”
Then I’m out of there.
Driving back along the Yarra to the city, fruit bats shaking off their restless, chittering sleep, launching into dusk on wings of leather, I think about my visit.
People like Ross are footy’s ribcage. The bloke calls it straight, sees the bigger picture beyond himself. He’s honest.
My childhood faith seems well spent. The kid I was must have spotted something.
I’m stoked that, of the thousands of ex players, giants and legends I could have begun with, I started with Ross Henshaw.