Book Review: A Prodigious Tome for an Epic Tale

A Prodigious Tome for an Epic Tale

Book: The Red Fox: The Biography of Norm Smith

Writer: Ben Collins

Publisher: The Slattery Media Group, 2008.

Contemporary football biographies continue to fill a lucrative corner of the sports publishing market place. Rarely does a champion seem to retire without the close accompaniment of a publishing deal. Usually written in conjunction with a ghost writer or journalist, these efforts sometimes struggle to capture the subject’s authentic voice. Touchier issues in a player’s career are also often left unaddressed for fear of burning bridges still required for further employment in the industry.

When the subject is deceased however, a biographer is generally free to pursue the story in an uncompromised fashion. One such exercise  is Ben Collin’s prodigious biography of Melbourne’s legendary coach, Norm Smith. Weighing in at 734 pages, this is a hefty tome, which is only fitting, because it relates a tale of epic achievement. It also skirts few issues in providing a detailed account of the pre-television world of football, which is often neglected in the modern mind’s eye.

Structured chronologically, we are given an insight into Smith’s working class Northcote upbringing, before moving onto his playing career in Demon colours. Because of his stellar coaching exploits, it is often overlooked that Smith was an outstanding  player. Playing from 1935-1950, he totalled 227 games, 572 goals and four premierships, as well as captaining the club; enough to warrant a book of its own in many cases.

Recruited and coached by the also-legendary “Checker” Hughes, then recently departed from Richmond, an underlying suggestion of the book is that both Hughes and Smith brought a large dose of blue collar ethic to what had traditionally been regarded as a staid establishment club. Between them, these two were to coach Melbourne to 10 of the club’s 12 premierships.

The coverage of this period provides an interesting glimpse of football and society in times of depression and war. During the Depression years, even the meagre player payments of the day were a serious financial consideration. When war began, Smith was employed in a protected industry and had to watch many team mates go off to fight. Some, like Ron Barassi Snr, never returned.

It is telling that Smith had to begin one of the most storied coaching careers of all time at Fitzroy. Narrowly losing the vote to succeed Hughes as Melbourne coach, it was the first of many differences with the Melbourne board. In 1952, Fitzroy’s loss was Melbourne’s gain, and Smith’s reign as coach was to produce a period of dominance we’ll never see the likes of again. A string of premierships from 1955-60 was only broken by Collingwood’s famous Grand Final upset in 1958. One final triumph was achieved in 1964, making it a combined personal total of 10 flags as player and coach.

To examine the secrets of such success, Collins has conducted numerous interviews, and exhaustively combed  archival sources to produce a detailed and even-handed picture of a complex man. A loving father and husband who was also a football tyrant in many respects. A man who held fast to personal principles, and who unwaveringly delivered the truth as he saw it, whether the recipient was willing or not. A footballer and coach completely driven to succeed, who’s permanent mantra was teamwork over individual glory. A man of volatile temper, who also possessed an astute insight into player psychology. An inspiring orator, who was unable or unwilling to pay due deference to the politics of the committee room.

This is also a story of two very contrasting brothers. The younger, fiery, voluble Norm became renowned as a great coach of great teams, and possessed the knack of good fortune and timing. Older brother Len was calmer of temperament, and one of the game’s great thinkers, but poor health and the absence of equivalent good fortune saw him confined to being a great coach of middling-to-poor teams. Many of the game’s greats have acknowledged the influence of Len Smith, and it is one of this book’s notable achievements that it shines light on a man who greatly influenced the modern game, but often flew under fame’s radar.

The book reveals how one football dynasty inspires and informs the next. Ironically, given the grief his teams were to cause Collingwood, the young Norm Smith worshipped McHale’s famous Magpies. Taking much from what became his fiercest foe, the fitness and method of Smith’s Melbourne teams were to influence the likes of John Kennedy, and of course, his most famous protégé, Ronald Dale Barassi. Barassi also learnt much from Len, and Len was to contribute to the Richmond that a young Tom Hafey inherited. Thus, the Smith brothers left a mark on VFL football from the 30’s through to the 90’s.

Some of the great controversies of football history are dealt with in this tale. Barassi’s defection to Carlton was a huge public trauma at the time, and served as a precursor to an even greater eruption, Melbourne’s sacking of Smith during the 1965 season. As Collins relates, both coach and committee contributed to the crisis, but the facts as revealed here suggest the Melbourne board made a monumental decision for remarkably petty reasons. Given the extraordinary public recriminations provoked (as also discussed in much detail by fellow Almanacker Mic Rees here), it is even more remarkable that third parties were able to negotiate for Smith’s reinstatement by week’s end.

But the incident broke bonds that were not to be restored. The glory period was over for the Demons. As one final insult, Smith could not even find a place on Melbourne’s committee when he retired as coach in 1967. Perhaps the old class differences held true until the end? Certainly, subsequent history suggests Smith’s assertions that the club had grown complacent were justified. So it was that the Demon’s greatest coach finished his coaching days at struggling South Melbourne.

Though both Len and Norm were to die whilst only in their 50’s, they left a legacy that will last as long as football is played. This book provides Melbourne fans with a vivid and detailed picture of their club’s most glorious era. It will also provide haunting insight into the long fallow period that followed. For general fans, Ben Collins has produced a meticulously researched and comprehensive biography of football’s official coach of the century.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has been a Carlton member for more than 30 years.

Comments

  1. John – Terrific work. Must purchase a copy following your insightful review.

    Unaware of Smith’s failure to obtain a spot on the board following his retirement as coach – similar to what happened to Jock Stein at Celtic following his resignation as manager.

    MCR

  2. Alovesupreme says:

    To underline Norm Smith’s coaching genius, his swan song at South Melbourne brought the Bloods their only finals appearance after 1945 until 1977. The 1970 1st semi-final was to be Bob Skilton’s only finals match.
    There is of course some debate as to how much responsibility Ian Thorogood (assistant coach to the Red Fo)x had for that South Melbourne team

  3. Barry Thatcher says:

    I’ve seen this book & now having read your review intend purchase a copy. My father who passed away in 1991 was a Melbourne supporter all life, said the Melbourne board’s sacking of Norm Smith was on the scale of Shakespearean tragedy & Melbourne would pay for it, in many years. Little could he imagined that we would be waiting 50 plus years for a another grand final win. Or maybe he did know

  4. John Butler says:

    Thanks for the comment Barry. Interesting to know that anyone is still looking at any of these old pieces.

    As you’ve prompted me to reflect on this book, I’d say that the value of the book lies in its subject rather than its style. Given their significance to football history, remarkably little has been written about the Smith brothers outside of general football histories.

    If you’re a Melbourne fan with any taste for history, this is as good as is currently available.

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