by Jonathan Rivett
The problem with writing about someone you have never met is that your presumptions could so easily be wrong.
Maybe what I’m about to say about Jim Stynes, who died on the morning of Tuesday the 20th of March, is incorrect. Maybe he was not much different from those who came before him. Maybe he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Maybe what I’m about to say is a fantasy version of a good, but not great, man.
I doubt it, though.
Jim Stynes, I think, embodied a rare triumph of idealism in a word grotesquely obsessed with pragmatism.
When he replaced Paul Gardner as the Melbourne Football Club President in 2008, there were quiet sniggers accompanying the pronouncements of optimism and hope. If a global advertising executive, after a Senior Partner at Pricewaterhouse Coopers, after a generous mining magnate couldn’t fix the Melbourne Football, what hope did a mere youth worker have?
Would his status as a club legend make the difference? History said no. There are scarcely two bigger names at the club than Stuart Spencer and Ian Ridley. Spencer was President from 1986 til 1991. Ridley was President from 1991 til 1996. They couldn’t return the club to the uppermost echelon it had once imperiously perched upon and, by 1996, both had decided it was in irretrievable decline.
They had given up hope; they had succumbed to the worst of pragmatism. Football was a business and problems should be confronted with flinty business remedies.
I was 14 when it was proposed, but I knew 50 year olds who felt the same way I did: better the club died with dignity than survived as a hybrid.
Others – many others – disagreed. They scoffed at notions of emotion, passion and even tradition. They too yearned for dignity, but believed that it could be achieved through an amalgamation – once the deal was done, they assured us, Melbourne would quickly, inevitably win its thirteenth Premiership and it would be just as glorious as the previous twelve.
What has this got to do with Jim Stynes?
I think, well over a decade after the merger was scuttled by Hawthorn members, the Melbourne Football Club was still haunted by what had happened in 1996. The merger, I think, (at least in part) was a gross overreaction. It was a disproportionate response to a sense that the club was foundering because, in an age of professionalism and sport science, it was still far too attached to woolly notions that no longer served top-level sporting clubs well. It was preoccupied with its history and gave too little attention to its future. It was more interested in symbolism than it was in practical things (so ‘the Demons’ became dispensable, while ‘Melbourne’ became seen as an ‘asset’). It was stuck in a fantasy world where sentiment counted for too much and financial prudence too little.
Melbourne members, if you believe the figures, voted for the merger. For that reason, there was no moment of vanquishment – no cleansing wave of catharsis. The merger didn’t go ahead, but the shadowy pragmatism remained, not quite so strident as it had been, but most definitely still there. And, strangely, it seemed to be adopted by those who hadn’t voted for the merger, as well as those who had.
Jim Stynes came to the club with this shadow still lingering over it. He proposed to drag the club out into the light – and people sniggered. Bright, bold idealism could never trump earnest, sober, unsentimental economy.
Jim Stynes proved this wrong in the most spectacular fashion, although not instantly. He was a saviour, not a sorcerer.
His first decision was to sack the recently-appointed CEO, Paul McNamee, and for the briefest of moments I was weighed down by the feeling that even Stynes couldn’t wade his way out of the club’s muddy conservatism. McNamee struck me as having exactly what the club needed: creativity, verve, a truly fresh perspective.
It turned out Stynes himself brought all this and a great deal more.
In appointing Cameron Schwab, a decision that got the sniggerers guffawing, he brought back to the club a man who inherently understood that the “football is a business” maxim is true only to an extent. Football, Stynes and Schwab knew, is an industry fuelled by many of the things that the merger proponents had decided were anachronistic – the fluffy emotions, the soft sciences and the ideals of revolutions long past: history, tradition, sentimentality, symbolism, fraternity.
No other person could have erased the club’s debt like Jim Stynes did – that was the feat of a man with an uncommon – perhaps uncanny – gift for inspiring others. But renegotiating an alliance with the MCC, demanding more games at the MCG, pulling the divergent sections of the organisation closer together, building close relationships with the community, turning the emblem from an idea in a theme song into a concrete symbol of everything the club stands for… these were things that didn’t require staggering genius, great insight or scintillating skill to make happen. All they required was a bit of idealism – a stride outside the white lines of the status quo – and that’s what Jim Stynes did.
In doing so, I have no doubt, he saved my club. Not from the swift death that threatened in 1996, but the slow, abject slide into an asphyxiating greyness, a greyness into which unbalanced pragmatism will lead anyone and anything.
Thank goodness for idealism. Thank goodness for Jim Stynes.
I could not possibly be more grateful to him.