Robert Murphy and your inner Bob Marley
I still remember listening nervously to Bob Murphy’s Princess Park debut against Carlton in mid-2000. These were the pre-multi-billion dollar broadcasting rights days, so I didn’t have the luxury of Fox Footy’s live coverage. Rather, I stared intently at the radio as my 2:10 Saturday companions Tim Lane and Dwaye Russell on 774 ABC kept me informed with their lyrical description of the game 200kms away in Melbourne. I had read all the coverage of Bob’s debut in the week’s papers with a keener-than-usual eye. Bob was an ultra-scrawny teenager with a pimply face and a head the size of a pin who looked like he belonged in the U/16s. The photos in the paper, which deliberately highlighted his twiggy arms for shock value, didn’t paint him as a gallant warrior. But as a skinny teenager myself, a fellow country boy and a mad Bulldogs fan, I had a ready-made hero. I seriously worried for Bob’s safety that day as he lined up against the might and muscle of Koutoufides and Co. One hip-and-shoulder from the an unexpected direction and it seemed like Bob might just snap in two. But of course, they couldn’t catch him let alone break him. Bob dodged and weaved and danced around his opponents as he would for another 299 games.
As Bob reaches 300 AFL games this week, I have spent some time reflecting on what his career means to the game and to our club. Bob will be remembered as one of the truly unique characters of Australian Football. In a sport (or an ‘industry’, as everyone seems to call it now) where players are moulded from birth and raised in academies and institutes to play at the highest level, Bob still exudes the vibe of a full-time artist, part-time footballer. My favourite photo of Bob is of him holding the recently acquired 2016 Premiership Cup at the Whitten Oval Sunday celebrations in his lambswool-lined denim jacket and Wayfarer sunglasses, like some kind of international rock star. However, the hipster exterior masks something deeper. Bob is a thinking man’s footballer and a romantic who deeply appreciates the history of the game. This is obvious to anyone who has read one of Bob’s famous Age columns. Apparently Bob is an unofficial Bulldog historian and regularly regales his teammates with stories and legends of the past. Bob is also a leader of men with an inner spirit that has helped change the culture of a traditionally down-and-out club. He has grown from a boy among men into a force and I think when the history of our club is read in 100 years Bob will sit alongside EJ as our club’s most important figure.
Bob Murphy is my favourite ever player (although Liam Picken certainly tried his best in last year’s finals series to change my long-held view). He is a reminder that our great game is made for all shapes and sizes, and that skill, ball sense and the ability to read the play a split second before anyone else, are still more important attributes than the size of a player’s biceps. Watching Bob in full flight is one of life’s great pleasures. He has twinkle toes reminiscent of a 1930s swing dancer and glides along the wing like an ice skater. (I have always thought that if Bob wasn’t a professional footballer, he would have been Australia’s only Olympic figure skating gold medalist.) Elegance isn’t usually in the job description of an AFL footballer, but Bob demonstrates why supporters value style as a player trait. His ambidextrous foot skills, which deliver the ball at bullet speed and rarely miss a target, are in the top echelon to have ever graced the football field. Bob would appreciate more than most that modern football is played on bowling green surfaces in enclosed arenas, rather than the suburban mud pits of the 1960s and 70s, where his foot skills would have struggled to reach their full potential. One of the unfortunate consequences of living overseas for many of Bob’s football years is that I have missed him live, where his genius for reading the play is revealed. Because it is from the vantage point of the grandstand with the whole field in view that the spectator can see Bob surveying the play from the half-back line, always thinking two moves ahead.
When Bob has the ball in his hands, no matter the score or the situation, I always feel an inner calm. The coolness with which he handles the Sherrin brings out every Bulldog supporter’s inner Bob Marley: “Don’t worry about a thing. ‘Cause every little thing gunna be alright.” Bob has that rare ability only the true Rolls-Royces posses – Hird, Pendlebury (and now Bontempelli) – where he seems to have more time and space than anyone else on the ground. It is an intuition totally at ease with the frantic movements of the game that cannot be taught. I have a vivid memory of a game at Docklands against North Melbourne in the late-2000s when the Kangaroos stormed back from behind in the last quarter and looked like snatching it. With a few minutes to go, Bob was handed the ball on the run about 50m out and glided towards goal. It was one of those moments when the game seems to freeze and the player with the ball moves in slow motion, frame by frame. I had time to think to myself “Bob has it, Bob has it! Everything is going to be alright.” As the script foretold, Bob slotted the goal from about 40 out. He drilled it low and hard like a tracer bullet to a lucky supporter in the cheer squad and the crowd erupted.
At the end of one season a few years back Bob wrote an article in the Age about how it felt, as his career neared the end, to be down the bottom of the ladder, so far away from that elusive premiership. It was an incredibly honest and open article which few professional footballers would have had the courage to publish in national newsprint. I shed a tear that day as I railed at the injustice of the world, about why it is so unfair that some of the game’s most deserving players seem destined not to win the big one. Robert Harvey, Bobby Skilton, and now Bob. If memory serves, that column was written at the end of 2014, a year that would go from bad to worse as our captain walked out, our CEO quit and the coach was sacked. No one predicted, maybe not even Bob, that just two short years later Bevo’s inspired Dogs would shock the football world and complete one of sport’s great fairytales.
I went for a walk on Grand Final morning last year and thought about Bob. I’d just read his article in The Age, “Our Bulldog clan is uniting and the pain is fading”, which was typically romantic and whimsical. One line stuck with me: “this could heal our football club.” On my walk I thought about the importance of people like Bob – the ones who tell the stories and preserve the traditions – to clubs at every level and to the wider game. I thought about why it was so important that we win that afternoon, so that the generations of Dogs fans to come could hear about the magic and might of Bob and Bevo’s boys and their famous 2016 finals series. Wins like today make football clubs, I thought. They not only heal football clubs, they keep the flame burning for decades to come. I didn’t tell anyone, but after that walk I knew with complete certainty that we would win. I knew we would do it for Bob.
I have thought about Bob a lot since September and often wonder how he’s feeling. Is he frustrated or sad that he didn’t get to join his clan on the field in the history-making final game of 2016? The way I like to imagine him feeling is proud. Proud of the players he inspired, the culture he curated and the spirit he ignited when he took over as captain in late 2014. After all, the 2016 Premiership would not have happened without Bob. I know that it still burns him to an extent that he wasn’t out there on the field on Grand Final day. And I know that he is desperate to sit atop the dais in 2017 as the official Premiership Captain. Of course, I want the same, but I don’t think it matters what happens this year. Bob’s deeds have already cemented him as the Bulldogs’ spiritual leader for eternity. The image that has come to represent our great club that will endure alongside Teddy giving his “You’ve got to inspire me” speech, is of Luke Beveridge handing his Jock McHale medal to Bob saying “This is yours, mate. You deserve it more than anyone.”
Thanks Bob. Thanks for the memories and for redefining what it means to be a Bulldog. Congrats on 300 of the best. I will miss you desperately when you’re gone.