Almanac Memoir: Caught in the race with Kennedy’s Commandos
John Harms introduces Richard Griffiths:
I’d never met Richard Griffiths until, out of the blue, he rang me in about 2002 to tell me he related very strongly to my book Loose Men Everywhere. So we went to lunch – at the Lord Stanley Hotel just up Stanley St from the famous Gabba.. It was a classic lunch. Richard was then running AFL Queensland. We used to do some NIRS radio together. It was a lot of fun.
Richard is a real footy person. He played at Carey Grammar and then had a couple of games with Hawthorn Under 19s in 1977. He played senior footy at Queenscliff, Coburg and Prahran.
He has worked at Melbourne FC (in the Neil Balme years), was CEO of AFLQ and is now Chief Operating Oficer at the rising GWS Giants.
He loves the game, and the life around the game, as this brilliant memoir ‘Caught in the race with Kennedy’s Commandos’ demonstrates:
by Richard Griffiths
And in Australia we watched our own Johnny Famechon become the world featherweight boxing champion, Lionel Rose was named Australian of the Year, Johnny Farnham crowned King of Pop, Ronnie Burns sang Smiley in protest of the Vietnam War, Harry M Miller produced the Australian verssion of Hair, Rainlover won the Melbourne Cup and Richmond defeated Carlton to take out the VFL Premiership.
We watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider and the Wild Bunch on the big screen and on television Homicide, Division 4, Skippy, Pick-A-Box and, every Sunday, World of Sport much to the chagrin of some mothers hoping for a sport-free day to enjoy the family roast. Even more galling to them was flicking across to Channel O at 2pm to catch Port Melbourne versus Dandenong to the dulcet tones of Ted Henry and Maurie Gibbs and the inevitable blood bath that would ensue featuring the likes of Buster Harland, Billy Swann, Norm Brown and the great Freddie Cook.
As a ten year old from the eastern suburbs of Melbourne life revolved around playing footy and cricket at primary school and religiously following the Mighty Hawks each Saturday afternoon during the footy season. My father was a fanatical Hawthorn supporter (we now call them fans) and we would head off with my brother to watch them play at all of the suburban grounds scattered around Melbourne and of course that dreadfully long drive to Kardinia Park in Geelong!
I have vivid memories of the grounds and standing in the outer on freezing winter afternoons following the fortunes of the Hawks who in 1969 were on the improve thanks partly to a fellow called Peter Hudson who had arrived from Tasmania in 1967 and who had booted a ton of goals in 1968. Windy Hill, Princes Park, Victoria Park, Arden St, Western Oval and Moorabbin Oval each had their own distinct characteristics and landmarks. All were hostile environments that bled the suburban tribalism of the VFL competition of the day.
But it was the ‘sardine can’ bordered by the Ferntree Gully railway line, the Hawthorn Pool, Grace Park tennis courts and Linda Crescent called Glenferrie Oval that I considered my second home-somewhere safe and familiar and a place where magical moments would take place. The old dark brick grandstand towered over me like a monolith, the newer Ferguson Stand housed the away rooms and a small fragile structure on the Linda Crescent side wing was perched for the coach to bellow instructions to his frantic players. There was a small souvenir stall selling knick-knacks (we now call it merchandise) and a funny looking portly character affectionately known as the Peanut Man who would sell brown paper bags full of peanuts still in their shells.
For most games we stood on the half forward flank on the railway line side (right opposite where Peter Hudson was to crumble to the ground in Round 1 1972 after tangling with Melbourne’s Ray Biffen) close to the action and close to my hero Bob Keddie who roamed the half forward line full chested and biceps glistening in the winter sun. Trains would slow down as they crawled past the ground to catch a glimpse of the action and inevitably would toot the horn to everyone’s annoyance.
This was the era of Kennedys Commando’s! Fellows like Don Scott, Ian Bremner, Mick Porter, Norm Bussell, Neil Ferguson, Geoff Angus and Bruce Stevenson. Youngsters in Leigh Matthews and Peter Knights had just arrived and made their debuts in 1969-things were on the way up after some lean years following the 1963 Grand Final loss to Geelong. Gladiators them all – nothing brilliant or flashy but a team based on supreme fitness and unrelenting numbers at the ball to force it forward any way possible to Number 26 who sat one out in the goal square with his opponent-he would do the rest. One glorious afternoon in 1969 this magician booted 16 goals against a hapless Demon defence – the Hawks were on the verge!
One day I endured a terrifying experience at Glenferrie Oval. I was caught in the players’ race with Kennedy’s Commandos. Twenty brutes staring down the race with but one intent – destruction.
I had made my way to the souvenir stall before the game which required me to navigate through the milling crowd, away team race and the Hawks race. After purchasing a Hawk pen to mark the goals in the Footy Record, a couple player names for mum to sew onto my duffle coat sleeve and a Hawk button I made my way back. As I entered the Hawthorn race the sliding mesh gate slammed behind me and on the other side an older chap in a long woollen overcoat and cap barked at me to stay put. I was trapped, nowhere to go or move – there was no escaping. Then I heard the sound of the metal stops of the footy boots crunching on the asphalt. A strange smell emerged – a bit like the Vicks Vapour Rub mum would rub on my chest when I had a cold. I later learnt that this green pungent liquid was called Penetrene and it relaxed your muscles ready for a hard game.
I could hardly lay my eyes on the Goliaths before me but I did and I was in awe. The glistening biceps and quads resplendent and shining with copious amounts of oil. Some of them had pristine white ankle supports that contrasted beautifully with the polished black boots some of which had white stripes, a flash or even white diamonds. Moulded soles were on the way in – move aside Ron Barassi steel toed super boot.
Unbeknown to me a photographer had taken a snap of skipper David Parkin leading his warriors out to battle- and a boy trapped among his heroes with no escape until the man himself coach John Kennedy marched onto the ground with the demeanour and candour of the statesman he was.
The photo shows the fierce and determined face of David Parkin almost snarling as he leads his charges, followed by Vice Captain Rod Ollsson in one of his last games before heading to the Apple Isle to captain–coach Sandy Bay. Behind him is the tall and angular figure of Ken Beck the ungainly ruckman. We see a glimpse of hard man Lance Morton and behind him the left footed wingman Des Meagher who was notorious for tumbling punts in the direction of the uncanny Hudson.
I love the fact there are no sponsor logos on the jumper – not even a VFL logo. I love the traditional black home footy knicks with the fly and buttons at the front and those buckle things on the side to make sure they fit tight and snug. The footy jumper was changing in 1969. A more acrylic/synthetic type fabric that was close fitting. Gone was the bulky, itchy woollen jumper with the flapping collar and heavy plastic numbers on the back. Track suit tops for the 19th and 20th men were replacing the woollen dressing gowns – the look of the game was changing as was the game itself. Within five years the League introduced a diamond in the centre of the ground to curtail the Hawks game plan and quell the dominance of Hudson who was still out injured with a bung knee at the time.
When I was finally released from this prison I hurriedly made my way back to Dad to tell him of my surreal experience amongst my heroes. “Yes Dad I got caught in the race with Kennedy’s Commandos and it was great!”
After the game we would drive home in our white Valiant listening on the car radio to 3AW with Harry Bietzel and Tommy Lahiff to get all the round-the –ground scores and match post mortems. Then it was to the Fish ‘n Chip shop or the local Chinese food take away outlet with the stainless steel pots (there were no plastic take away containers in those days) for a serving of Chicken Chow Mein and fried rice. We always arrived home in time for the Channel 7 replay on the His Masters Voice tele and the Vulcan heater on high.
After the replay my brother and I would play kick-to-kick down the hallway with the nerf footy or we would roll up some footy socks to boot at each other. Sometimes if we had the courage we would kick a real leather Lyrebird at each other and pray our accuracy was ‘on song’ so as not to leave marks on the walls – Mum would kill us! When mum said enough so she and dad could watch the FBI with Efrem Zimbalist Junior on Channel 2 I would get out my Mobil footy cards or count how many Scanlen’s footy cards I had so I could calculate how much it might cost me to reach the full set of 44. If I could be bothered I would try and match the back of the cards a bit like a jigsaw puzzle featuring an action shot of the previous year’s Grand Final – Have Fun With Scanlen’s Gum….
Caught in the race with Kennedy’s Commandos is a moment in time that will remain with me forever and typifies the innocence and terror of the game at a time when footy was pure, raw and everything a young kid lived for.