Kevin Sheedy: The Face of Football

Essendon Premiers 1984-85, 1993, 2000

 

“You’re not going to win a Grand Final with a team full of Christians.”

 

KEVIN SHEEDY: THE FACE OF FOOTBALL

 

Eccentric genius. Innovative, unpredictable and incredibly successful. 1000 games and counting… There is no denying Kevin Sheedy’s unique standing in the game, nor his unbounded and unabated love and devotion to Australian Rules Football.

 

As a boy he barracked for Essendon but was residentially tied to Richmond; and joined the club without a clearance. A fierce and fiery competitor, he played a key role in the ’69, ’73 and ’74 Richmond Premierships forming a wonderful relationship with Tiger coach Tom Hafey.

 

It was a half-time comment from his mentor during a losing final that became part of football folklore:

 

“Kevin, fair dinkum mate, you’ve got to put your boot into the ball. You’re too slow to do all this finessin’. Bloody back pocket plumber, that’s what I want!”

 

The ‘back pocket plumber’ worked tirelessly on every facet of his game and by 1974 he had moved up the ground and into the midfield. Two Sheedy hand passes in the 1974 Grand Final encapsulate Sheedy’s quick thinking and rat-cunning that would become his trademark as a coach:

 

Sheedy took a miraculous one-handed mark by the the goalpost and ran in deliberately to take his kick for goal. At the last moment instead of kicking, he nonchalantly handballed over the man on the mark to Michael Green unopposed in the goal square who easily kicked the goal.

 

The second handpass in the same game was even too quick for the great Kevin Bartlett. As the wispy-haired Richmond rover ran into a congested goal-square, Sheedy fired the ball out of a pack directly at his feet. Bartlett’s timing was a split second off and the moment was lost.

 

By the mid eighties every club in Australia were executing the Kevin Sheedy ‘rocket’ handpass – hit above the point of the four seams, angled towards the hitter and spinning in the air like a drop-punt making it easier to catch.

 

At the end of the 1974 season, Sheedy invested $4000 of his own money on a U.S.A. trip to broaden his horizons beyond the confines of Punt Road. By 1978 he was appointed Captain of Richmond and became a master of on-field psychology and antagonizing opponents.

 

Tigerland was brimming with confidence and after their 1980 triumph the Richmond Assistant Coach was approached to coach Essendon. On the advice of a Director’s wife not to wear his favourite tracksuit pants with a hole in the knee at the interview; Sheedy was seen as the ideal candidate to instill some toughness and shed the club’s ‘alter-boy’ image – the beginning of a 27 year association.

 

In his third season in charge, Essendon won three finals and made their first Grand Final since 1968, but were annihilated by Hawthorn to the tune of 83 points.

 

In 1984, The Bombers finished minor Premiers and played a classic 2nd Semi Final against Hawthorn, narrowly going down by 8 points. Essendon trounced Collingwood in the Preliminary Final and again face their nemesis who was hungry for back to back titles – the first time in Hawthorn’s history.

 

¾ time: 10-8 to 5-15. 23 points down in a low-scoring game. Another loss to the Hawks looming. Like looking up the arse of a dead dog. Sapper Sheedy with his back to the wall.

“You either do or you don’t in this game.” Sheedy believes.

 

Sheedy diffuses the Hawks bomb and returns fire – Bill Duckworth and Paul Weston forward, Peter Bradbury half-back to half-forward, Leon Baker to the forward pocket. Terry Daniher to defense.

 

Essendon responded immediately with a stunning counter-attack. 4 goals in 8 minutes. The MCG erupted. Paul Weston’s brilliant left foot snap puts the Bombers 11 points up. Tim Watson kicks the sealer.

 

This Premiership is Sheedy’s Premiership with all the tremendous moves he’s made!” Lou Richards bellowed. ‘Dons fans were delirious. A nine goal onslaught, a trait inherited from Hafey coached teams of steam-rolling the opposition. A 19 year drought is broken. The return of the Bombers.

 

Post-game Sheedy was already planning and plotting for 1985 and talking up its chances:

 

“We need four or five players for next year and I will be happy. If you don’t you won’t have a chance to win a premiership. We have modeled ourselves to stay on top and not just for one year…”

 

After five seasons in charge at Essendon, Sheedy had achieved breathtaking results that would make anyone keen on numbers salivate: 91 wins from 121 matches; 5 finals campaigns, 3 Grand Finals – all against Hawthorn, and back to back Premiers in 1984-85 returning the Bombers as a football power-house and becoming football’s first full-time coach in VFL history.

 

“I think Essendon had had a part-time mentality up to then, too, and if we really wanted the club to be successful, that had to change too.”

 

When Sheedy ventured into coaching the triumvirate giants of the game influenced his approach – Tom Hafey, Ron Barassi, and John Kennedy, convincing himself to go full time to be successful. From Hafey he was indoctrinated in the principles of fitness, discipline, and hard training. Sheedy recognized Kennedy as a brilliant coach that moulded fanatical players that intimidated teams. Barassi was a little different to the other two – always prepared to try something different. He didn’t quite fit any stereotype that gave him the freedom to think laterally.

 

With Sheedy now full-time at Windy Hill he sought ways to improve and promote the game; recognized the role of women in football, became a staunch advocate for more interchange players, built traditions and rivalries with other club’s, and recruited players from all over Australia and played them in every position.

 

Sheedy became the ideal spruiker for the previously reserved Essendon culture. Membership soared. The Bombers became a national brand. Perhaps his biggest legacy will be his connection to the indigenous community:

 

“You’ve got to understand why someone like Dean Rioli misses his home up in Darwin. Why wouldn’t you – running around barefoot in the sun all day, catching fish, being with your family? You just can’t say ‘come to Melbourne and play football and expect the transition to be as simple as that.”

 

In the 90s he became more intent on building bridges rather than burning them and developed a wonderful understanding with indigenous players, in particular, Michael Long who in 2002 was inducted into Champions of Essendon, No.23 in its greatest 25.

 

“The sort of person he is now, this wonderful ambassador for aboriginal people…” Just think how far he has come from the skinny little Aboriginal kid who played like Pele we got across from South Australia… that’s what it’s all about.”

 

“You can have the best drills, the best recruiting, and the best strategies in the world. But in the end, it’s having people who want to play for each other.”

 

By 1992, Sheedy was re-building the next generation of warriors that were as green as dishwashing liquid. Essendon missed the finals for only the second time since 1981. Youngsters Fletcher, Grenvold, Hird, Hills and Olarenshaw were showing promise but weren’t capable of matching it with League heavyweights West Coast (92 Premiers) Hawthorn (91Premiers) and Collingwood (90 Premiers)

 

In 1993, the AFL couldn’t have scripted a more exciting finale to the season with four teams on 13 wins – Essendon, Carlton, North Melbourne and Hawthorn; and two interstate clubs Adelaide and West Coast on 12 wins to round out the top six finalists.

 

Carlton, under David Parkin was also “re-generating” a list led by seasoned stars Stephen Kernahan, “Harry” Madden, Craig Bradley and Stephen Silvagni. Carlton drew first blood in a thrilling 2 point victory over Essendon in the Qualifying Final. Sheedy, as always, was philosophical:

 

“There was a kick in it at the end of the night, and people tend to forget goal kicking is a lot like putting in Golf.”

 

The Bombers got their putting right against the stingy West Coast defense in the First Semi Final to book a Preliminary Final with Adelaide, who after eclipsing Hawthorn, lost a defensive slog at Waverley against Parkin’s Blues.

 

Half-time, Preliminary Final: 42 points down. Adelaide running rings around Essendon’s defense. Modra unstoppable at full-forward. The ‘Baby Bombers’ not ready to take the next step. Sapper Sheedy with his back to the wall. Again.

 

In the rooms, Sheedy spoke quietly to every individual player. He told Watson who he enticed out of retirement: “This is the comeback year for you. Is this how you want it to end?”

 

 

In big bold letters in the coaches room Sheedy had scrawled DEMARCATION. Hird and Watson both noticed the incorrect spelling and raised a grin. The focus for the third term was to get within 2-3 goals and have some chance in the final quarter.

 

Essendon owned the corridor in the 3rd quarter and were back in contention – 10 points down at the break. Western Australian goal sneak Darren Bewick was in scorching form and finished with 6 goals, while veteran Watson kicked the last minute sealer to win by 11 points.

 

For the Grand Final against Carlton, Essendon adopted the theme ‘Speed Kills’ – encouraging the players to run and bounce the ball. Along with David Barham, Sheedy constructed a tape highlighting his player’s superior leg speed to the tune of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colours.’

 

Another plan was concocted to nullify the dominance of Justin Madden, where Peter Somerville was to jump early and into Madden, and Greg Williams who Carlton were using as a sweeper  – effectively taking two opponents with him.

 

There were no sluggish starts from Essendon this week. “It was all over in 7 minutes.” David Parkin lamented. They annihilated Carlton inside and outside – Long particularly damaging and raced to a 37 point lead at half-time. Sheedy said nothing. Dimmed the lights and replayed the ‘Speed Kills’ tape again. There was no letting up in the second half. From 42 points down in the Preliminary to Premiers! A staggering turnaround.

 

In 1997, Essendon’s ‘Baby Bombers’ now senior players slumped to 14th on the ladder and the drums were beating for Sheedy to be replaced. Critics, including former players joined in the chorus, claiming his message was wearing thin. An old sporting adage suggests it’s better to be consistently good than occasionally great. In 17 seasons Essendon had been a model of consistency. Essendon’s board held its nerve. The occasional greatness came in 2000.

 

The Bombers were all but invincible in 2000, losing just one match and sailing to the top of the table five games clear of arch rival Carlton. With inspirational Captain James Hird back to peak fitness and form, and spurred on by a devastating one point loss to Carlton in the ’99 Preliminary, Essendon were unstoppable.

 

In a demonstration of their greatness, they kick-started their finals campaign with an emphatic 125 point victory over reigning Premiers The Kangaroos in the Qualifying Final; were too slick for Carlton in the re-match Preliminary, and comfortably accounted for a young, inexperienced Melbourne team in the Grand Final. Sheedy’s fourth title and statistically, his best season – silencing his detractors yet again.

 

One of Sheedy’s strongest adversaries was David Parkin who coached Carlton to the 1981-82 Premierships and took the reins again from 1991-2000:

 

“There were massive winning runs between our teams when I was at Carlton. I think we couldn’t beat them for 18 matches and then there were 16 when they couldn’t beat us. I was a pretty defensive coach but Kevin is the other way. His Achilles Heel was when he had a roll on, and he had you, he couldn’t leave it alone. He wanted to add something different to what he already had. We were always nervous when we were in front; he would produce something unexpected we hadn’t planned for. That was his strength.”

 

Allan Jeans and Kevin Sheedy locked horns in three consecutive Grand Finals from 1983-85. Sheedy came up with a contrived, controversial, and rat-cunning piece of psychology that cut to the bone. Sheedy made the remark:

“Whatever they’re sniffing, we would like something of that too…”

 

The media dined out on the comments – it was front and back page news. At the time Jeans was a highly regarded member of the Victorian police force with strict morals and strong principles, and found the comments extremely offensive. Essendon officials were equally unimpressed.

 

In 1984, Hawthorn lost its aura of invincibility and Sheedy sensed it. Football was Sheedy’s livelihood and his comments, although distasteful and inaccurate, found their designated target. Essendon got the edge on their rival.

 

Ironically, some 17 years later, Leigh Matthews a Jeans lieutenant, as coach of the Brisbane Lions was looking to dismantle Essendon’s air of invincibility – borrowing a line from an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie:

“If it bleeds we can kill it. We reckon Essendon bleed.”

 

Beating the Bombers ignited Brisbane’s self-belief and nullified Essendon’s aspirations of consecutive titles and Sheedy’s fifth flag. Swings and roundabouts. The former Hawthorn Captain proved to be Sheedy’s biggest headache, twice having his measure on Grand Final day.

 

According to Ron Barassi on match day “Kevin I think, did make too many moves, but it’s hard to be critical from the outside. Coaching is all about making decisions; some in a fraction of a second, others with the luxury of time. When you look at how successful he’s been and how long he has been coaching, you’d have to say he’s been a very good decision-maker.”

 

Every Grand Final team has a hard luck story. Sheedy wasn’t a good deliverer of bad news, preferring to avoid confrontation. Diminutive rover Tony Buhagier was left out of the 1984 side. He learned of his omission via the media and accepted his fate manfully. Others, such as Derek Kickett reacted differently.

 

“That decision and the one to leave out Ron Andrews out of the ’83 Grand Final were the toughest. In the end I didn’t agonize over the Kickett decision. Tactically, I believed Wallis was the right man with his physicality. The hardest part was that I was ready to go into a meeting and Simon Madden, the Ruck Coach at Carlton, was walking around the Essendon rooms getting autographs. I said to Danny Corcoran:

‘I’m not happy with Simon being in the room. How can I announce the team?”

 

Always quick on his feet and not wanting to declare his hand, Sheedy said something like two of you five are going to be selected; the other three are on the bench as emergencies… be prepared to play depending on conditions. Quick thinking. Rat-cunning.

 

In 1994, Sheedy’s young children had to digest the back page of The Age with their morning cereal: I HATE SHEEDY’S GUTS was the headline. A story about the Derek Kickett omission, still bitter twelve months on. There is no romance in football. It’s a tough, hard, brutal business.

 

Carlton and Richmond endured some tough on-field battles in the 70s and there was no love lost between Kevin Sheedy and Robert Walls. Sheedy accused (indirectly) Walls of being a “sniper”. Walls returned fire on national TV with:

“It’s a bit sad that you go so far with your bluff, and when your bluff is called, you back away.” Walls also accused the Essendon dynamo of talking in riddles that made for fascinating viewing.

 

The media have always been captivated with Sheedy’s quirky persona. He sells papers. A headline is always looming. Perception in football becomes reality. On deeper analysis, the 1993 ‘Baby Bombers’ average age was 24. Average games played 86. The West Coast Eagles Premiership side of 1992 was exactly the same age of 24 but less experienced with average games played 80. Enough said.

 

Despite his critics, Sheedy has always been in touch with the human side of coaching and has always acknowledged and welcomed the broader role to play. Mark Thompson duel Geelong Premiership coach now back at Essendon, saw that when they attended Nobby Clarke’s funeral in 2002. A member of the 1984-85 Premiership teams, Clarke had taken his own life:

 

“Kevin was sitting in front of me. He then got up to talk about Nobby. The things he said were just wonderful, and it helped us all come to terms just a little bit better with what had happened. Then he sat down and started crying again. It makes you realize just the amazing person Kevin can be.”

 

Alongside Sheedy’s four Premierships are the time and effort devoted to developing the next generation of coaches that have all benefited from being on the Sheedy roster. ‘Bomber’ Thompson two titles at Geelong; Denis Pagan two Premierships at North Melbourne and Mark Williams coaching Port’s first flag in the AFL give Sheedy enormous satisfaction.

 

After 27 seasons, the Essendon board drew the final curtain on Sheedy’s magnificent rein at Windy Hill, co-inciding with all-time great James Hird’s final game. Sheedy was then linked to the vacant Melbourne role but was overlooked for a younger candidate.

 

A gargantuan figure of the game and the AFL’s master spruiker, Sheedy appeared to be the ideal person to take over the AFL’s newest franchise the GWS Giants. With a broad license to grow and promote the game in the Western region of Sydney, Sheedy has enthusiastically embraced his new role as the face of football in New South Wales.

 

It is prophetic that Kevin Sheedy was born 24 hours before Christmas, for Christmas came early for AFL administrators turning to the best promoter the game has ever seen.

 

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