by Sasha Lennon
At six foot five inches tall, Damian Bourke looks every bit as lean as the Geelong Football Club captain who retired from the game almost 20 years ago. Making coffee in his suburban Brisbane kitchen, he recalls with fondness his days at Geelong and later at the Brisbane Bears/Lions where he served as both player and assistant coach. Then the conversation turns to the 1989 Grand Final and the inevitable question: how does it feel to have lost the greatest match of the modern era? He pauses, stares out the window and smiles. “You know, more than 20 years on I only think about that match two or three times a day.”
Now part of Australian football folklore, the ’89 Grand Final is remembered for the physical nature of the contest and the resulting injuries sustained by both sides, as much for Geelong’s thrilling comeback, only to be pipped at the post by a resilient Hawthorn.
Bourke captained the Cats from 1987 until 1989. Taking the reins at age 22, he was one of the youngest captains in the history of the game. His last appearance as Geelong skipper was the now-famous 1989 Grand Final when the Cats lost to Hawthorn by just one straight kick.
Himself an early casualty in what became a war of attrition, Bourke recalls that famous sunny September afternoon as if it was yesterday. After leading his side out on to the field, he was injured early in the play. He went off the ground at quarter-time and played no further part in the match.
“It was frustrating to watch and not be able to do anything. There was a few of us that day…we did have this absolute desire to win a Premiership,” he says.
Bourke is eager to point to the fact it wasn’t only the victorious Hawthorn side which was racked with injuries during the match.
“We had six players out of that team that couldn’t have played the next week. Stephen Hocking played out the match with a ruptured testical! Heaven-forbid it was a draw or we would have had the seconds playing the next week,” he says.
One image which resonates with those who follow the game and who remember that match is Bourke consoling his teammates after the narrow defeat. Bourke acknowledges that photo perhaps best encapsulates Geelong’s loss that day.
And while he jokes about how often he thinks about the match, he admits 20 years later, the loss is still a burden he carries.
“To lose it and lose it so close, it was hard,” he says.
“It’s one of those things I suppose that you wanted to achieve and you didn’t, and you can’t undo that.”
The Grand Final loss and the need to take the following season off football to recover from knee surgery were reasons enough for Bourke to relinquish the coveted Geelong captaincy.
But football, as important as it has been to Bourke, was never everything. After leaving Geelong at the end of the 1992 season (a year of another Grand Final defeat for the Cats, this time to the West Coast Eagles), Bourke went on to succeed in football (albeit as a coach) as well as in other walks of life.
Today Bourke lives in the leafy inner-Brisbane suburb of Toowong where he runs a property development company while also studying law by correspondence at Deakin University. And it wasn’t football but the lure of the property market which enticed him to Brisbane in the first place.
In 1993, then-coach of the Brisbane Bears Robert Walls approached Bourke and offered him a playing contract. At that point he’d pretty much given up on football.
“I wasn’t that passionate that I wanted to have a career only in football. My passion was property and ultimately development,” he says.
“As a kid all I wanted to be was a carpenter and build houses. But when I finished school in the early ‘80s, carpentry apprenticeships were few and far between so I got a job as a cadet building surveyor with the local Council. I didn’t even know what it was but it had the word ‘building’ in it so I went for it,” he says laughing.
Never one to consider football his only option, Bourke continued to develop his skills in the building trade, first qualifying as a building surveyor after which he qualified for his Graduate Diploma in Project Management. Following that, he completed his Master’s Degree. All of this has helped grow a property development business with projects in Queensland, Victoria and as far-flung as Canada.
Reflecting on his days at the Bears, Bourke says “it was an exciting period for the club because it was all new to Brisbane”.
He also remembers questioning his decision to pull the boots on again after a year out of the game.
“My first game back was against Footscray. I remember [Footscray ruckman] Scott Wynd running into me and sticking his knee into my head and I was thinking oh my God, what have I done?”
After just 22 games with Brisbane, Bourke’s playing career ended, this time for good. After that, he took up a position as an assistant under Lions coach Leigh Matthews.
It was only when he experienced success as an assistant coach during the Lions’ golden era from 2001 to 2003 that the demons of 1989 began to fade for Damian Bourke.
“Those premierships made me feel a lot more satisfied with my football career,” he says smiling.
“I remember standing there with [then fellow assistant coach] Mark Bayes thinking this is what it’s about…we make premiership players.”
A self-confessed “deal-junkie”, today Bourke spends most of his time between his property development business and his studies.
As his business partner, former Brisbane Lions ruckman and premiership player Clark Keating attests, Bourke’s appetite for the development game is clear.
“He’s always had a passion for construction. In his playing days, whenever he had a long-term injury, he would double-up on his studies, so he always had that mind-set, thinking about life post-football,” he says.
While he’s regularly reminded of that famous loss against the Hawks back in 1989, Bourke maintains football’s always been just football to him. He says he probably couldn’t muster the passion and level of commitment for footy, which is required of every modern player.
“If I was playing today, it would be too much football for me,” he says.
Asked if he’d consider working in the frenetically-paced professional football industry again, he doesn’t rule it out, perhaps in a management role outside the football department.
Keating agrees, where his friend, mentor and business partner would offer greatest value to any football club is on a Board or advisory committee where his talent for business could be put to good use.
But what Bourke likes most about life now is he can go and watch a match with his kids, to enjoy the spectacle for what it is without the physical duress and psychological pressure which every player must contend week in, week out.
While life can be full of disappointments, Bourke has no regrets. As for the ’89 Grand Final, despite the result he believes he’s better for the experience.
If anything, it’s helped shape the well-rounded businessman and family man he is today.
Asked to describe the man, Keating says simply Bourke is “genuine”, a man who loves his family and who always has one eye on the bigger picture.
Balancing commitments between family and friends, his work and study, not to mention the odd football match at the Gabba, life is good for the former Geelong skipper. With plenty of fond memories and a bright future ahead, Damian Bourke is standing tall.