General Footy Writing: No flies on Carlton’s Bulldog Gilbert; he just loves his footy club

By Pia Abrahams

I didn’t expect to be sharing laundry tips with a footy club legend and a pesky lorikeet on a frosty winter morning. But construction at the Carlton Football Club’s elite training facility has landed my meeting with its property steward in the shadow of a gum tree on a Princes Park bench. Shivering, I’m relieved to spot a vision in dazzling white and navy blue striding jauntily towards me. Wayne ‘Bulldog’ Gilbert may have a broad, plucky face but he wears his tracksuit like a three-piece suit.

Perseverance is the name of Gilbert’s game. He’s been working through Carlton’s off-field ranks since 1983; first as a recruiting officer for the under-15s and under-19s, then marshalling property while juggling his job as a panel beater. In 1990 he was appointed assistant to the seniors players’ property steward, who finally handed him the reins after thirty years in the job. Gilbert has now been full time with Carlton’s senior playing team since 1999, and at 62 he insists he’s a long way off retirement: ‘If I get the sack or leave here that’d be it. I couldn’t do the same thing at another club. Me heart wouldn’t be in it’.

His love of the club and the respect he’s earned gets him through the long, often thankless hours managing the stuff most footy fans wouldn’t think twice about: laundering uniforms, maintaining footballs and packing, transporting and allocating them to players, runners, and trainers at every training session and game.

In the early days Wayne’s wife Moira came along for the ride, washing all the training jumpers amd match jumpers for the under-19s, reserves and seniors at the Gilbert home for ‘about a dollar per jumper’. He recalls the mud and grass stains from training on the ‘cow paddock’ at Glenferrie Oval: ‘Luckily we lived on a slope and we used to put the jumpers on the driveway and hose them down to get the mud off before putting them in the machine. My wife was housebound there for a while – she couldn’t leave’.

These days Moira mends torn emblems and other damage to the jumpers. And she sees less of her husband since the club finally installed laundry facilities at Princes Park this year. On match days Gilbert regularly works 14 to16 hours, particularly after an interstate game when he’ll be loading filthy jumpers into a washing machine at one o’clock in the morning before taking the stained ones home to scrub.

The job has changed a ‘heck of a lot’ since the days his predecessor could fit everything into the back of a station wagon. Now his two-tonne van barely gets the gear to Etihad Stadium, let alone to the airport for an interstate game where there’s no going back for a missing sock. Gilbert reels off his ‘list’ like Footy Record stats, except there’s not a spreadsheet or properties register in sight. Describing himself as ‘an old fashioned type’ he says, ‘If anyone wants something (they) just let me know and it’s all organised for match day. It’s all in me head. (The) last couple of years people have been saying you must make a list but I just haven’t got round to it!’

For the record, he washes, dries, pumps, packs and unpacks: one set of game jumpers, one set of ‘blood’ jumpers (in case of soiling or damage), warm-up tops, warm-up jackets, shorts, socks, cooling vests for hot days, and trainers’ and runners’ shirts. There are 45 balls for training, 22 red warm-up balls for matches, 22 yellow warm-up balls for matches (for venues where the roof might close), six new red match balls (when Carlton is the home side), and six new yellow match balls (for roof closure). He’s also responsible for bringing the players’ drink bottles, GPS units and accompanying IT gear, and the doctors’ and physios’ medical packs.

Wayne Gilbert hasn’t missed a single match in 26 years, including night games, practice games, interstate games, and training sessions. He’s never shrunk a jumper and never left anything behind. ‘The only time I can relax is when the game starts and I know that everything’s there and everything’s right’. Other than facilitating costume changes at quarter-time, he sits on the bench where his bulldog temperament can get the better of him. ‘A couple of times I’ve been warned and if I play up again I won’t be allowed to sit there.’

Gilbert was fined $1000 for physical abuse to an umpire in 1997. ‘Thank goodness the doctor jumped on my shoulders and the physio jumped on his shoulders and they dragged him backwards’. He was also thankful the club paid the fine.

His contribution may go unnoticed by Carlton’s fans, but to the club ‘Uncle Bully’ is a fixture whom, according to Anthony Koutoufides, ‘has the respect of the players, even if they take him for granted’. The two men are mutual fans, and Kouta has no hesitation in unabashedly recounting his retirement speech in 2007 when he looked over at Bulldog and burst into tears in front of the team. Bulldog had been involved in Koutoufides’ career since spotting him at Lalor. ‘He always looked after me, even when he couldn’t get to the others’.

Wayne Gilbert is in turn highly respectful of the players, explaining that poor locker room habits don’t necessarily extend to the field. ‘Some fold their jumpers and hand them to you, others – hate to say it – just put ’em on the ground and walk over ’em.’ He cites Brendan Fevola as ‘a bit of a messy character’ who’s otherwise redeemed on the ground. When Gilbert does get ribbed about a bit of mud on a jumper he retorts: ‘You’re not going to a dinner dance – you’re playin’ football!’

Of the glamour and spectacle he admits, ‘I get a little bit of a kick out of it but you get put right back in your spot’. He recalls a boy in Tasmania collecting players’ autographs. When he asked for Gilbert’s, the boy’s father interjected: ‘No he’s nothing!’ Bulldog laughs ruefully, ‘It’s stuck in me mind ever since’.

But Wayne Gilbert knows his value at Carlton, and the consideration goes both ways. Being a devoted husband and father to four girls is a boon, but he concedes to needing mateship as well, and ‘mixing with the boys’ helps him stay young.

Outside football and eight grandchildren (two girls; six boys; eight mini jumpers), Gilbert claims ‘there’s nothing’. The footy fixture rules, and important functions like his daughters’ weddings are planned around Carlton’s schedule. His youngest daughter was married in June, on the auspicious occasion of the mid-season bye.

It’s ironic, given his propensity for cleaning jumpers, that Gilbert’s first memories of Carlton are as a young boy seeing the emblematic guernseys: ‘It was love at first sight.’ It’s also ironic that he was born in the year of a Carlton premiership: 1947. ‘I’m just a football person. Can’t put that in words.’

His actions speak louder. Inside the macho world of an AFL team, Gilbert’s role at Carlton is a nurturing one, though he executes it with the tenacity of his namesake. And those beloved jumpers don’t sparkle because of a ‘nobody’.

As for the tips: Sard for the dirt, cold water for the blood, and Geelong for the premiership.

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    Thank you for that Pia.

    Despite the stereotypes, folk like Bulldog have always outnumbered the Bluebloods at Carlton (like they do at all clubs).

    This was a nice reminder of that fact.

  2. Love the story, Pia.

    I remember my mother despairing at mud-caked footy gear and cursing as she cleaned it before the next game. But clean it she did.

    Never thought of using the driveway. It’s a great detail in your story.

  3. Nick Revolt says:

    Great story………. Go Nappy San

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