Off Season Odyssey – Part 37: Blighty!

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,

then,

“How did you end up here?”

and,

“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?

“Oh, absolutely.”

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.”

Malcolm agrees.

“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.

I ask:

“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?”

“Greatest?”

“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.

Bucket shepherds…!

 

Comments

  1. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Brilliant Matt. What a buzz- meeting Blighty. He still looks fit enough to play and I bet he could still kick a goal or two!

  2. Richard Naco says:

    Absolute cracker yarn.

    Loved Blighty since his Woodville days (one of the names you just had to have missed would have been Ray Huppatz) (btw, I never barracked for them either), and admired him even more so after reading this. I’ve always got a soft spot for the creative intelligensia of our game (Lingy, Max Rooke, Harry O’Brien, Bob Murphy et al), and Blighty’s right in the heart of that particular pack.

    He is very much that extra 5%!

  3. Cracking piece, Matt. Somehow your character and honesty gets you the best stories whether its Blight, Hudson and Barry; a salt of the earth farmer from the Mallee; or a troubled kid from Gosford. We are all different, yet none of us is unique – and that comes across brilliantly in your articles.
    You may not be able to spell, but you write like an angel, because you have an angel in your heart. It is a privilege to read them on the Almanac, but somehow they deserve a wider audience.
    At another level Blight is one of my heroes. He is the greatest SA footballer of the last 50 years, and would be in the best 10 I have seen. He somehow gets forgotten when we talk Carey, Matthews and Ablett Snr. He was not as consistently dominant as Carey or Matthews, but for brilliance he is a close second to Ablett Snr. And one of the few brilliant players to be a successful coach. The best thing about him was his sacking as Saints coach, which finally convinced me to put a lifetime of suffering behind me, and become an Eagles supporter – not just a member. You can only take so much ‘character building’ in life. Any club that sacks men of the stature of Alves and Blight deserves what it gets.

  4. DBalassone says:

    Magic stuff. One of the great players & coaches of all time, but definitely THE greatest character for mine (and proves that characters don’t just have to be larrikens). Green with envy that you got to spend some time with the great man. Growing up, he used to live a few doors down from us in Doncaster East. I remember knocking on his door one Halloween and he was embarrassed not to have any candy, so he went back to the kitchen to look for something and returned with a bag of peanuts.

  5. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Super piece, Matt. It shows that Blighty really appreciates your love of the game and I think you helped reinforce just how much he loves the game. The game needs more characters like Blighty, who aren’t afraid to explore that 5% where the uncanny lurks and anything is possible, in life and in footy.

  6. Malby Danlges says:

    Love how Blighty is sure that the footy will bounce back to him when he’s kicking it into the hedge (and that it is important). The guru! Terrific stuff Matty.

  7. Andrew Starkie says:

    I’m speechless….Blighty….beautiful Blighty…..aloof, enigmatic, beautiful Blighty…..late ’70s, sitting in the pocket at Arden St with Uncle Al. I was speechless then too…superb Zorbs, superb.

    North is the only Melbourne club without an official AFL ‘Legend’. Blighty deserves consideration.

  8. Richard Naco says:

    Not “consideration” at all.

    Annointment.

  9. Andrew Starkie says:

    Yep. Although there are plenty of others who could go in.

    Carey, Dench, Greig, Cable, Foote, Schimma, Aylett.

    Michael Passmore?

  10. Matt Zurbo says:

    Thanks everyone. Passmore? Haha. Yeah, while Carey was prob the best player of his generation, I always though Blight, with his coaching and success in Adelaide, had a broader, longer lasting influence, and would be a worth Legend.

    But, really, who’s comparing? I’d pick both of them! Ha!

  11. It went through half way up the sticks and landed 6 rows back!
    One of the greatest moments in footy!

    A treasure.

    Your writing is great too.

    Cheers

  12. Adam Ritchie says:

    This is a great read! I’ll be recommending it to others!

  13. Dear Matt, thanks for taking me along on your journey. A wonderful yarn about an unforgettable afternoon. Bless you, keep writing.

    Yvette

  14. Matt – the best one at the end. I love Blighty. Really miss his commentary style on the TV.

    Next time you bump into him ask him why he left Bairstow on Matera for so long in the 92 grand final.

  15. I suggest it is a day that you will never forget M Zurbo. I feel privileged to have shared it with you.

    Thank you.

  16. Matty
    Great stuff…you really brought the essence of Blighty to life.
    It brought back all the memories of watching him play at Arden St;
    I used to go down and watch training also…I remember him being a
    bit lazy on Tuesday and Thursday nights!
    The three greatest North players I have seen: 1-Carey, 2-Blight,
    3-Crosswell.
    Come to think of it, wouldn’t that be a great conversation:
    Brent Crosswell and Matt Zurbo ?

  17. Peter Schumacher says:

    What a great read, I think that you really captured the essence of the man. And as for a bloke who can’t spell, well I wish that I could write stuff half as insightful.

  18. Steve Castieau says:

    Ross Glendenning is the most underrated footballer of his generation.I thought he was a brilliant attcking centre half back for North Melbourne

  19. Matt Zurbo says:

    Geez, Smokey, A dozen beers with Tiger would be close to pissed-talk heaven.
    Thanks Pete, and Steve, Glendenning often went CHF, too. I remember as a little bloke, venturing on my own, down to Arden Street, just to see Jimmy Jess vs Glendenning. I was about 12/13 and loved it.

  20. Steve
    Glendinning had a superb physique for a footballer.
    I remember him kicking 10 against Melbourne at the G one day
    (he was definitely playing CHF that day!)
    Also remember M Moncrieff getting a couple of early goals on
    him in the ’78 GF.
    A great player.
    Smokie

  21. Victor Trumper says:

    Nice story Matt. Ron Casey, not Ron Joseph, was head of Channel Seven

  22. Matt Zurbo says:

    Victor, oop! Right you are. Stoopid me. Will correct.

  23. Blighty, one of my all time greats. For me, in front was the one and only G Ablett, Senior, Blighty though is there with Jezza, and Daicos, as players who could play in a range of positions and literally win the game off their own boot. Oh yes, there was a Brownlow, 2 flags, and 3 runners up to add to his legend; not bad.

    Glen!

  24. Andrew Starkie says:

    Oh Blighty, beautiful Blighty.

    The 70s were about Blighty – and ABBA.

  25. Matt Zurbo says:

    Haha. Blighty… and the Saints! (the band, not the blonds).

  26. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    What a Great read Fascinating in that you captured his achievements which as we all no are extraordinary and the essence of the man The Messiah even in his last season kicked the Ton for Woodville as a South Aust Player he ranks prob just behind Robran and that’s the highest praise any 1 can give
    Blight as a Coach was ruthless when he had to be was known for Crazy antics at times and as a couple of players have said privately if you could accept that side of him he was a amazing teacher of the Game who was meticulous re detail such as how to tie your bootlaces correctly his record as a Player and as a Coach is incredible surely Legend Of The Game Status Awaits Thanks Matt A Great Read

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