As far as books go, An Oral History of AFL/VFL Footy is a bloody big topic! I’ve spent the last 1 ½ years travelling the country by hook and crook, doing whatever manual labour jobs that will pay for the next leg. Along the way there’s been a few beaut adventures. I’ve met some ripper blokes who just happened to be legends. The key is, the book will be 100% quotes of the blokes that were out there. No writers or journalists. Just blokes and their careers, from birth to now. Just footy stories.
Kevin Bulldog Murray is a great man. We talked for five hours, cracked a few beers. He told me bonza tales of Fitzroy. One involved his playing days, a handicapped kid he and teammate went to see in hospital. Kevin kept in contact with the kid and his family right up until, decades later, the fan died, and Murray brought his playing jumper, unannounced, to drape over his coffin. It was an incredibly moving, passionate story that said a hell of a lot about the Fitzroy legend.
I found Kevin through Norm Brown, another Fitzroy beaut. We talked in a quiet, polished pub in a very different Fitzroy to the one he played footy in.
I came over from Tassie on wood cutting money to talk to Simon Madden, who said, incorrigibly:
“You’ve spoken to Greg Burns! If he saw a hand in a pack he’d stomp on it as hard as he could on the off chance it was an opponent’s!”
Once Jimmy Buckley broke Burn’s nose. “Next time we played Carlton I was so fired up to get him!” Greg told me. “But he was quick! I was reported three times before I’d reached him.”
One bloke from a successful club told me of a door the players would go to in the city. They would knock, an envelope slot would open. Eye contact would be made, a hand would poke out with an envelope full of “under the carpet” money.
“We called that door the Thing, from the Addams Family,” he smiled at me.
Some, like Luke Power, are the best of blokes, but not great story-tellers. That’s fine. Any time is appreciated.
Robbie Flower was, and is, simply a gentleman. We just talked.
“When I was a kid I’d put a bucket on one side of the house, go to the other side, kick the ball over the roof, then run around the back as it went through the air, and see if it landed in the bucket,” he told me. And: “My father was mad Collingwood, my mother Melbourne. Dad got the first kid, I was the second brother, so I was Melbourne, Dad got the third. Our backyard games were always two-on-one for the Premiership.”
Both stories explained a lot.
Collingwood Premiership little man Thorold Merrett, who I found through the brilliant Loretta Bartholomous, told me:
“As a kid back on the farm, for practice, I used to use the footy to round up the cows.”
Dennis Carroll told a beaut story of how Ian Stewart let him know, in no uncertain terms, his fledging career was on a knife’s edge before a practice match. Yet, when the game started Dennis found Stewart standing on the boundary, coaching him from his wing. Then, when he swapped at quarter time, from the other wing. Carroll never looked back. It made him.
A Doggy player from the 50s who never made it at Footscray got the chop, then, came home to find Teddy sitting on his doorstep. “Come on, Son, get in the car. I’m taking you to Richmond.” Where the player had a good senior career.
Gary “Bull” Baker, I tracked down at his ripper, classy Hobart restaurant. “I’m just happy people remember me. Even if it is for a bloody beard,” Gary said. The Wild Mountain Man, one of his ex teammates called him. I bet I only got 1/1,000th of his stories!
Gary put me onto the great Robbie McGhie! A real boyhood hero! He told me how he grew up poor, and the kids used to kick newspaper bundled up into a ball with string, until sunset. When it rained the “ball” got impossibly heavy.
He also told me about the Footscray pre-season incident that landed him in jail and lead to his transfer to Richmond and two Premierships. I swear, everything he said was passionate, golden!
Some blokes say to me, like fact, it’s just a game. To some it’s more. A famous Collingwood player said how football saved his life when someone close to him died. “I was gone from footy, from everything. Tommy Hafey physically forced me onto a plane for a practice match to help distract me.” To this day he’s still involved in footy.
Russel Ebert had no time for apologies when I was late. A hard, down the line man through-and-through. An absolute corker. He told me “Football is about family. If you don’t like it you’d better bloody piss off now because it’s going to dominate your next 20 years.”
A Melbourne player from the 50s and 60s told me of how Hawthorn would never have won its first Premiership if not for a cunning full-back blatantly cheating in the death-throws of a Semi.
Ken Hunter explained a moment of shame that made him so courageous. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone so agreeable. It was an honour to share lunch with him.
I knew John Kennedy Sr. (who I got through his son – also a brilliant speaker) used to study famous orators. I harassed him to name one or two.
“Well, Matthew, Winston Churchill… He didn’t say: We will never surrender. He said: We will NEVER………. surendah!” John boomed.
“You’ve still got it…” I said, breathlessly.
I met Geelong legend Fred Wooller in his auntie’s farm house in Tasmania. By Christ he was still every bit a Premiership Captain! His stories of a locked in Geelong and a 24hr bowling alley half the team seemed to live in were golden.
Another past Geelong great swears an affair, and a very religious Cats hierarchy, was all that stopped Geelong from winning three in a row in the 50s.
I’m getting heaps of behind the scenes mechanisms, on players, on administrations, on why Grand Finals were won and lost. I could do another book on Graham Richmond.
Rene Kink, who I caught a train then rode on a bike without breaks to meet in Castlemaine, was just, plain brilliant. Nobody describes the power of a Collingwood crowd like he does!
Malcolm Blight was ever the thinker. Thoughtful, left of center, but not nearly as much so as people say of him. “Just that 5%, Matthew,” he smirked at me.
I waited five days in a northern state to speak to a Premiership coach, on ten dollars a day. At the interview he gave me nothing.
The best, usually, are the blokes who played hard. They have no reputation or place in the media to nurse. They’re frank and honest. McGhie, Burns, Andy Goodwin, all made this three-plus year journey, which I’m only half way through, worth it. Those three blokes, if I could, I’d stay in contact forever.
Then again, I think the same about Hunter, Weightman, Ken Fraser and Billy Williams.
I always want to talk to the Presidents of the Past Players Associations. My reasons are simple. If they are involved in one they must a\ have loved their time playing footy. b\ love telling footy stories.
Barry Capuano is just a great person! We met, of course, at the old Essendon clubrooms. Sheeds, Tuddy, Premierships, boardrooms, what didn’t we talk about?
One of the Past Players Presidents said: “Mate, I know I was a bit player, you don’t have to suck up. I’ll try and get you some bigger names.” He was missing the point.
Dennis Munari only played 41 games for Carlton and maybe 13 for North while his senior teammates at both clubs were racking up senior flags. But he was one of the best blokes I’ve met and told ripper yarns. We talked for four of the very best hours.
It’s funny. People present the face they want you to record. Then you meet one of their enemies and you get another view entirely. Tuddy didn’t once mention the biff or anger other then to smirk and admit he “didn’t mind bumping into” players in front of John Kennedy, who always stood the boundary at Glenferrie.
Brian Brushfield only played 15 games for Geelong in one of their mightiest periods. For four seasons he was on the fringe, but that gave him a different perspective of Polly and the gang. And his work for 11 years on K-Rock with the great Teddy Whitten was legendary. I found him bloody refreshing.
Henry Ritterman had a short VFL career at Melbourne. He was slotted to be a first rover, but gave it up for a career as an architect. Everybody in life should be so personable, frank and honest.
Imagine if it was just a book of 200-plus gamers? How boring would that be!? It’s about football. All that matters is that they played at the highest level at some stage, and loved or hated it. Or both.
Everybody has a story.
My wish lists, when I can find a target, seem hollow. All I know are the names. The legends. If you, dear reader, know of someone who played at the highest level and can tell a good yarn, no matter how many or few games, I’d love to hear from them!
It’s a mighty slog, really, but will be worth it. Someone said: “Why not take short cuts?” How can you on such a topic? Why would you? If you do something, give it your best. Footy taught me that. 200-250 legends of the game, big and small, in the one book? It should be a belter!
Benny Gale, when asked, at the end of our talk: “What is footy about to you?” started with a conventional answer, then got this sparkle in his eyes, clenched his fingers into claws and said: “Footy makes you feel ALIVE!”
Damn straight I’d want him as my CEO! A ripper fellow. I couldn’t think of anyone better to steer Richmond.
A famous, tough backman and I got so drunk his wife had to come and get him.
Kevin Murray let me wear his Brownlow. He’s just that sort of bloke. He told me when Brisbane won the 2001 flag, next day, amidst the Brunswick Street Oval celebrations, this old timer came up and said “Bulldog, I want you to meet my two boys,” then held his arms out to a couple of lads either side of him. “This one’s Kevin. This one’s Murray.”