Off Season Odyssey Pt.37.
And STILL the Champion…
Bucket meets Legend.
Me and Tiny, from the Port Douglas footy club, are on the tear. He’s a massive bloke. A personal trainer, all 6ft 3, ripped muscles and tattoos. We’re swaying, flatfooted, somewhere between the pub and street, surrounded by people and noise and thousands of small, squawking nocturnal birds that shit on everything, when he says:
“Did you hear Blighty lives close by?”
Of all people! In this glorious nowhere?
“Serious? What, this way?” I point, and start marching, all wobbly and determined.
“Nah,” Tiny calls after me, and names a spectacular cove about forty minutes down the coast.
“I’ll get there by dawn,” I yell over my shoulder.
Then it rains again.
The water throws down hard, like furious blankets, thundering, hot and sticky, on roofs and streets and people. I turn around, but the bouncers won’t let me back into the pub. Tiny stands in the dry, me in the wet, security in between, both of us laughing at each other.
Then next day I drive down and leave a note on Malcolm Blight’s door. Two days later, after work tree lopping on the forest edge, in the hills above Wonga beach, I receive the politest of phone calls.
I explain the journey, already about four months long, to Blight. Again, politely, always politely, he enquires:
“May I ask, Matt? Do you have a family back home?”
Right off the bat, by reflex, he sees things, knows what’s important, what matters.
Blight’s front door is open. He greets me from the lounge, with a voice that draws me in after it. His place is tidy from the outside, superb from the in. Not flash or tacky, nothing sporting in sight. It’s neither big or small, has a warm, inviting class about its simplicity. His daughter’s there, stunning in black. An interior designer, which explains a lot. I don’t want to sound sucky, so say nothing when she tells me the house was one of her projects.
Malcolm and I are meant to go for a coffee or whatever down the main drag, but neither of us can be bothered, so we slot into his back patio with view that’s breathtaking, everything blue ocean, dolphins, islands, capes and tropical mountain ranges.
The long, yellow beach beneath us seems to be nudist, which is a nice bonus and hell of a distraction. I’m watching a full-bodied woman strolling below when we start talking.
“Why the word Odyssey?” he asks,
“How did you end up here?”
“Tell me about your parents?”
For every question I put to Blight, the man asks two. He doesn’t want to spout, like so many famous people spout, he wants to know who he’s talking to. To have conversations. I get the impression he’s a shrewd man, very wise. That no info is too small.
That he likes, simply, to know things.
Life questions lead to footy stories, that are answered with footy stories and more questions, and, before long we’re just two lovers of life and football, talking.
As if we’ve spoken the same language forever.
“Tell me about your schooling,” he inquires.
“I was no good at it. I failed most things, still can’t spell.”
“I saw that in the note you left,” he smirks. “You just love stories,” he concludes.
“I just love stories.”
So I look him square in the eye and tell him one.
“When I was a kid the easiest way to get me out of your hair was to blow up a balloon. Suddenly I’d be taking slow-mo Malcolm Blights over the sofa for hours. You were my favourite player. It’s amazing that you’re here, at the end of my journey.”
Back then, I had no idea I’d spend most of the next 30 years as a backman. It wasn’t about positions at that age. Blight had the look of a swashbuckler, yet was solid. Took amazing hangers, kicked brilliant goals, yet barnstormed through the midfield. Being a kid was about being fearless, fun, reckless! Adventure!
In an age of individuals there was something gloriously different about ‘Blighty’.
“Yes, balloons,” Malcolm says. “That’s how I taught my kids to mark. If you tried to crush it like a donk, it would pop out again. But if you cupped your hands…” he shows me the separate motions.
His return, one sentence long, involves fun, childhood, a lack of convention, family, learning, football.
Like me, balloons, even.
Malcolm tells more stories, as if they’re random, but they flow like steppingstones. First about him and former North Melbourne Captain, Shimma.
“We used to have some ripper arguments about footy!” he smiles. “I was always thinking outside the box. He was a straight-down-the-line, 200% coach’s man. You couldn’t deviate him from that. He played the same way. It was easier to get him to go out for a beer, and he didn’t do that too often. But when we did, it led to some mighty fury! It wasn’t about bagging the coach, not ever, just footy talk.”
I tell Blight I was a huge rap for Shimma. That I thought he was the Shinboner of the Century. The bloke tried so damn hard, was so bloody fearless! He was the relentless workhorse to Blight’s brilliance.
Having met Malcolm, it makes perfect sense that he should be good mates with such an opposite, like we’re opposites. They had football in common.
Then we talk more. Then we’re back at North Melbourne.
“I was lucky, Ron Casey was a big North man, and head of Channel 7. He’d invite us into the studio on a Sunday, and show us highlights on these clunky video cassettes. No other team had the privilege. It was the first time I’d seen myself play! Suddenly, I became aware of how I took on the game. The team things, the bigger picture. It really got me thinking.”
He talks and I can picture it. The 70s. Backward technology.
“When I look back, geez we had some volatile characters at the one club! Crosswell, Cowton, Baker, Cassin, Keckovich, Cable, at least four or five others… It was quite an effort to keep us together.”
I ask if there were blues at training, players with dents and missing bark storming off the oval?
“Yeah, there was some of that.”
I couldn’t imagine there not being.
“And, with all this, of all those people, I was asked to follow on from Barras. It was quite a compliment… and a challenge…. coaching those people.”
North never made it under Malcolm. He doesn’t dwell on it, but, still a player himself, I get the impression he wasn’t ready to tackle such a rat’s-sack of personalities.
Regardless, he was coaching.
“When I started, as a player, people would have told you I was the least likely. I would have told you. Loved a smoke, a beer. A good time.”
I tell him about the greatest coach I’ve ever had. Give him a story or two on Sid Myers, a man who expected men, not boys, as if it was a given.
Malcolm seems impressed.
“Work,” he says. “I don’t know of one great player, from any sport, who does not work. You can’t be the best without working. It’s that simple, why some players make it and some don’t.”
I ask him how he’d fair today.
“I worked, but the players now seem to have the life squeezed out of them. They have to be professionals on and off the oval, always. It’s not for me, I wouldn’t have made it. But, then again…” he thinks on it, “I wouldn’t have known any different.”
Then we’re talking about where I’m from, then where he is.
Due to sport, corporate jobs, and his involvement in interior design, in crafting houses then moving to the next one, Malcolm and his family have lived in about twenty locations, across three states, since his boyhood.
I ask him if he still sees himself as a South Australian?
Then we hit on the Crows. One side of his life leads to the other. It’s never just football.
“MacLeod is a fantastic man! A bit quiet, so I was surprised he’s taken on an assistant coaching roll. He’s older now, I suspect he’s grown into it. Which reminds me, I was going to phone him this week and see how he’s doing.”
“Do you realise how lucky you are?” I laugh. “To be able to say: Oh, I think I’ll just buzz one of the all-time Champions?”
He gives a great grin. He knows it, like it’s a fun thing. Nothing’s taken for granted.
Then we’re talking rucks.
“Rehn was so important to you. As soon as Spider Everett broke his shoulder, I knew you had that Granny,” I tell him. “So few Premierships are won without a great big man.”
“Notice all the people saying ruckmen are overrated back pockets.”
I can tell he’s taking a dig at someone, but skims over it. He does that often. Rides over rust bubbles as if they’re little things. Life’s too damn short. He knows the negatives, gives them plenty of thought, no doubt, but doesn’t seem to dwell on them.
We talk about the positive things.
“I was an on-baller. I know how vital good ruckmen are. Just four hit-outs, turning chaos to a clean-cut drive your way, even the odd mighty thump forward -Bourke was great at that- can make such a difference! Give you such momentum. As a ruck-rover two or three taps landing in your hands delivers so much confidence! Rehn was terrific.”
Then we talk about the difference between his coaching at Geelong and Adelaide.
“A lot was written about that, but the truth is often buried in the detail. I didn’t change that much. I went from having an attacking team on a small oval who mostly played on Saturdays, to a team that played on big ovals on Friday nights, when the ball was wet and dewy. Of course the Crows were better defensively! How could they not be…? But, when in doubt, print the legend,” he smirks.
I ask him which he preferred, which was more satisfying, playing, or coaching, even though, by now, I’m starting to see his bigger picture, and know the answer.
“Playing, by far. I still miss it. Far more than I thought I would, actually.”
I understand. That’s what it’s about, where the fun is. In the doing.
“There were some right-royal knuckleheads in the 70s,” I say. “How did you cope? Did you ever have a dip?”
“Yeah, there were times if somebody riffled me I’d riffle them back, but it wasn’t my thing. Get the pill,” he tells me.
He’s said that three times now. About tackling, and shepherding, in things we’ve agreed on, and others we haven’t. Leaned forward, as he does, with the slightest pause, the slightest grin. Always with that grin.
“Get the pill.”
It’s what he’s done in life, and how he played football.
We talk about the stingers in the Far North water. He’s done his research on them and tells me his theories. Again, there’s that desire to not just accept, but know things. The places he lives, the people he talks to. He notices all sorts of stuff about the view in front of us as we’re watching it. Tells stories.
“See that sand bank about 300 meters out? When the stingers go, there’s a couple who walk out to it from the point and set up a deck chair and umbrella where it’s shallowest, in six inches of water, and sip wine on the ocean,” he smiles.
Me, I notice the nudist has gone, and suggest we drift inside for a while.
Malcolm tells me he likes my footy stories. That after inviting me over he decided to read them to make sure I wasn’t a “Jex-head”. He implies there’s something slightly unconventional about them.
“In football, in the corporate world, 95% of me is a totally rational person. Totally!” he insists. Then he hunches like secrets, pinching fingers, grinning. “But there has to be that… 5%… out of the box. You need that something, a way of thinking… just… a little different, I reckon.”
And in that smile, I see his genius and failings. His wisdom and vision. His ability to stay calm, to take in what’s great, what matters, in everything.
I see a good person.
“What’s so important about footy? Why do we love and need it?” I ask him.
“Sport is amazing in that it perforates through whatever we do. In all my corporate travels, it’s still the rarest thing when I meet someone who doesn’t know me from football. It’s a form of communication, a glue. Everywhere.”
“But what’s so special about Aussie Rules as opposed to other games?” I insist. “What makes it so vital to us?”
“It’s ours,” he tells me.
Malcolm reels off a few stats to show how much we love the game, then adds:
“Americans and Gridiron, Europe, as a whole, and soccer. The Canadians have Ice Hockey. The Irish and Hurling. Those sports are theirs. Footy’s ours. We made it. It defines us.”
Somewhere along the way I notice we’ve totally overshot Blight’s lunch appointment. I mention it.
“Oh, bugger that,” he smiles at me.
“At the risk of sounding like an interview, Malcolm, you’ve played in North’s first two flags ever, coached Adelaide’s first two Premierships, won a Brownlow, a Magarey, all-Australian, a Coleman when you kicked 100, took Geelong to three Grand Finals, you are a genuine Legend of the game. What was your greatest day in football?”
“The one that stood out, above all others.”
He leans the furthest forward yet.
“My first game for Woodville,” he almost whispers.
“Why?” I ask.
“I was just a kid, and suddenly I’m playing alongside all my childhood heroes! All these legends!”
His answer really sticks. Is selfless and perfect, like a ratbag’s victory.
All these years on, and Malcolm Blight’s first football emotion is still awe, still amazement.
He names Woodville names, but they pass through me. All I have to do is picture the early 1980s Fitzroy side and I understand him.
“After the game I didn’t go out or anything. One of the few times ever. My Mum was stunned. I was just drained, emotionally. Exhausted.”
I tell him that was the feeling I had when, as an over-the-hill hack, I won my first senior flag at the age of 43, after 28 years of trying. And he smiles more. As if the kid in us and the old dog in us know exactly what each other is saying.
Soon, we’re tapping into now. Malcolm is on the board of the Gold Coast Suns. Still giving. He even helps out at North now and then, away from the spotlight, almost on the hush, however he’s able.
He speaks about his latest club with passion. Obviously puts in a lot of hours there.
“Yeah, I have no title at the Suns. The board is pretty informal,” he says.
I couldn’t imagine him doing it any different.
Eventually, we finish it. Hanging with Malcolm. It seems like we’ve been talking forever and feels as if we’ve barely started.
“One last thing…?” I ask, opening my footy bag.
“Oh, sure,” he says, grabbing a pen and pulling the footy out. “Where do you want me to-“
“Nah, I don’t need a signature to remember ya!” I protest. “ Want you to kick it!”
“Oh,” he says. “Right-o.” And we’re in the street out front of his garden, which is about 70 meters off being long enough. After all, of the many things he’s done, Malcolm Blight is probably still best known for kicking a wet, muddy ball through the sticks from the wing to win a game after the siren.
We talk kicks as we dick about with the ball. Talk torps.
“I think they’re going to make a comeback,” I say. “Kicking’s not about size or build, its about flexibility. Timing. The full-backs are so nimble these days. They’ll be devising kick-ins to the middle around it.”
“I agree,” he hurries the words out, keen to get on with showing me how to nail one.
“Kicking is so simple. They over-analyse it. Put 200 wired up pads on people. It’s all the one motion,” he shows me.
“Bring it on,” I tell him.
“I’ll aim for that bush so it’ll bounce back to us,” he nods at a few trees and hedges in his garden.
Thongs on, he drops it perfect. Gives it the smallest tap. CHOOM. The footy punches through his hedge like a bullet!
‘Hmph. It spun right…” he raises his eyebrows.
“You’re surprised?” I grin.
He has another go. CHOOM! Gone. I can’t believe it doesn’t cut through his lawn, house, and land half way to the Daintree, on a nudist.
“Hmph,” he says, surprised again.
Malcolm Blight has an eternal love of football. Of everything that’s fun and free about it, and, in that, about living. He has the most laconic way, an easy way, that can’t quite hide his obsession with thinking. Yet not all dreamers are soft. He takes those dreams and does with them. He is who he is and begs no-one’s pardon for it.
A firm believer in balloons, family, hard yards and football.
The weather’s cleared, which means I can get another half dollar day in if I work until sunset. I leave his place and head back up the coast, into the tropics, but the glow of it won’t leave me.
The green ants bite, the paper wasps strike. I barely feel them.