By Sasha Lennon
“The fact is you can’t do anything about it post the final siren. You might think what if, what if? But it’s not worth doing that.”
V/AFL Clubs: North Melbourne (1978-86), West Coast (1987-88)
V/AFL Games: 230
V/AFL Finals Appearances: 13
V/AFL Grand Final Appearances: 1
V/AFL Career: 1978-88
V/AFL Goals: 325
Recruited From: East Perth (WA)
Ross Glendinning played in a remarkable 13 Finals matches across a VFL career spanning 230 games, including an elimination final in his second year as inaugural captain with the fledgling West Coast Eagles. That year, 1988, and that match, would also be Glendinning’s last. It was ten years earlier, in his first season playing with North Melbourne when the dashing 22 year-old West Australian had his one and only shot at premiership glory. Alas, it went unfulfilled in an untimely twist of fate thanks in part to the refusal of his original club East Perth, to let him head east a year earlier to pursue his dream.
Glendinning joined North Melbourne from East Perth in the West Australian Football League (WAFL), in 1978. The Kangaroos had attempted, unsuccessfully, to lure Glendinning across the Nullarbor for the 1977 VFL season, and while Glendinning was keen on the move, East Perth refused to clear him. North Melbourne won the Grand Final, against Collingwood while Glendinning, staying in Perth, played in a losing Grand Final with his hometown team.
Glendinning did eventually head east to join the Kangaroos the next year, playing in a VFL Grand Final. However, in a thrilling encounter before 101,704 spectators at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the Kangaroos were defeated by Hawthorn. It was a particularly bitter pill for Glendinning and his teammates to swallow. North Melbourne had finished on top of the ladder ahead of Hawthorn at the end of the home-and-away season only to go on to lose the Grand Final by just three goals.
A nimble yet solidly-built and imposing player, Ross Glendinning was known for his ability to win possession of the ball in defence and in attack, and he was equally capable of playing up either end of the ground. A natural athlete, he maintained consistent form throughout his career, right up until his last season when, after returning home to Western Australia, he was the West Coast Eagles’ leading goal kicker.
Even today, 25 years after hanging up the boots, Glendinning is perhaps one of the most highly decorated and revered figures in AFL football, certainly amongst the North Melbourne and West Coast faithful. One of Western Australian football’s favourite sons, Glendinning is an inductee of: the Western Australian Hall of Champions (1994); the Australian Football Hall of Fame (2000); the West Australian Football Hall of Fame (2004); and the North Melbourne Hall of Fame (2012). Glendinning was also named at centre half-back in both the North Melbourne Football Club’s official Team of the Century and East Perth’s official Team of the Century, 1945 to 2005. The Ross Glendinning Medal is named in his honour and is awarded to the player judged best afield in the West Australian derby between the West Coast Eagles and Fremantle Dockers each AFL season.
At the top of his list of individual honours, is the Brownlow Medal which Glendinning won when at the peak of his powers in 1983. The most prestigious individual accolade in Australian Rules football, the Brownlow is awarded to the league’s fairest and best player as determined by the umpires who vote on the best three players of every match throughout the season.
For a bloke who has achieved so much in football, Ross Glendinning is a humble man. Speaking of his Brownlow win he’s quick to acknowledge 1983’s other contenders – legends of the game like Essendon ruckman Simon Madden, Hawthorn’s Terry Wallace, Richmond’s Maurice Rioli and Essendon captain Terry Danniher. When speaking with Glendinning for the first time, one is immediately struck by his amiable and engaging manner and his optimistic outlook. “Good as gold” is a phrase he uses liberally. But, while he reflects on his Brownlow triumph with pride, that marvellous achievement provides only minor comfort for the premiership medallion he strove for but never attained.
“It (the Brownlow Medal) was a wonderful thing, but it’s very individual. It’s some consolation but it’s not something you can share with the other guys,” he says.
“We had a really good season in 1983 and then during the finals we had a couple of ordinary games and got bundled out. We really should have played in the Grand Final but we were beaten in the preliminary final.”
But missing out on playing in the 1983 Grand Final, after being thrashed in the preliminary final by Essendon, was not Glendinning’s biggest career disappointment. That came earlier, in his first year playing with the Kangaroos. Yet when asked to reflect on the disappointment of losing a Grand Final in 1978, something which can be directly attributed to his WAFL club’s steadfast refusal to clear him to North Melbourne – and a powerful Hawthorn outfit led by Don Scott – Glendinning is diplomatic.
“The experience I had, to be honest, I sat out in ’77 when I did everything bar playing, it was important because it gave me an understanding of what was required on match day. While it was a negative at the time, it turned out to be a positive by allowing me to assimilate to the Melbourne lifestyle and what was required,” he says.
“I came over to Melbourne in 1978 after I’d missed a bit of ’77. An agreement was reached that, after spending the most part of 1977 with North, I would go back to Perth and play the remaining half-dozen or so games with East Perth in the WAFL and then they’d release me to North Melbourne for ’78 and that’s what happened. I started with North in January 1978.”
Asked if his transition from playing football in Perth to realising his dream of making it in ‘the big league’ was an adjustment, Glendinning says it was and although he was humbled and a little over-awed to be playing alongside some of the game’s greats like Wayne Schimmelbusch, Malcolm Blight and Keith Greig, his new club was very accommodating.
“North had won in 1975 and had a revival under (coach) Ron Barassi with the recruitment of some good players such as Doug Wade, John Rantall and Barry Davis in ’75 and then they recruited more interstate players and I was lucky enough to be one of those guys,” he says.
“You’d watch The Winners on TV on a Saturday night in Perth and you thought you knew a bit about it but until you actually came over to Melbourne and played at grounds like Arden Street, Glenferrie Oval, Moorabbin and the Western Oval, you realised how unique the grounds were. They were smaller than you thought. When they filled up with the crowds, say 20,000 at Arden Street with the kids sitting on the boundary or going to Vic Park and the ferocious Collingwood fans, or the home ground advantage Essendon had at Windy Hill – the supporters were fanatical. You didn’t have that in Perth.”
In Melbourne his new club did help Glendinning make the adjustment, arranging a family for him to live with and helping him secure employment in an era when footballers at the elite level were still only part-timers.
“I worked at Budget Rent-A-Car with Bob Ansett, who was involved with the club. I worked at a sports store with Laurie Dwyer, who was fantastic, him and his family, helping me settle in to Melbourne and giving me stability that way. People at the club were just great for having a chat,” he says.
“North was a family club. They talk about Hawthorn being the family club and a lot of clubs would say the same thing, but even today I can very comfortably go back to North and it’s like walking into your second home.”
In 1978 Glendinning played in all bar one game during the home-and-away season. He played in all three of North Melbourne’s finals matches including the Grand Final, by which time he had firmly established himself as a talented, fast-paced, agile and dependable centre-half backman.
However, as any player will attest, compared to a regular match of League football, a Grand Final is played on a different level altogether and by all accounts the 1978 Grand Final was a frenetically-paced, physical encounter between two highly-attacking sides at the top of their form. Even today, the high-scoring clashes between the Hawthorn and North Melbourne sides of the mid-1970s – they played-off in three Grand Finals between 1975 and 1978 - is regarded as one of the great rivalries in VFL / AFL history.
For Glendinning, his Grand Final experience could be considered a case of baptism under fire, for after just a few minutes of play in the opening term, his direct opponent, Hawthorn’s Michael Moncrieff twice beat him for the ball and subsequently had two goals on the board for the Hawks. As written records of the match attest, Hawthorn capitalised on their lightning start and, always moving the ball quickly up the field, they ran North Melbourne off their feet to lead by 19 points at quarter-time.
Yet despite this hefty quarter-time margin, and after suffering a number of injury set-backs at the hands of the notoriously physical Hawks, North Melbourne staged a remarkable second quarter comeback, led by the brilliant Wayne Schimmelbusch, to capture the lead by four points at half-time. Glendinning himself worked his way into the match and by the final siren had amassed 16 disposals to be rated one of North Melbourne’s best players on the day. But it wasn’t enough and in an unrelenting display of skill, speed and aggression, the Hawks rebounded with a goal-kicking spree to lead by 22 points at three-quarter time. After that, they didn’t relinquish their command of the match, winning Hawthorn’s fourth premiership at the expense of Glendinning and his teammates, 18.13 (121) to 15.13 (103).
For North Melbourne it was a tough loss to a fierce rival. As Glendinning recalls in an understated fashion, Hawthorn were simply the stronger and better side on the day, who perhaps wanted it more.
“In 1978 we managed to get through to the Grand Final and were beaten by Hawthorn, by about three goals so that was a fair experience. It was disappointing to lose in ‘78 but Hawthorn was a good side,” he says.
And the disappointment took a while to sink in.
“It was disappointing but I reckon I realised the disappointment more in the off-season. The fact is you can’t do anything about it post the final siren. You might think what if, what if? But it’s not worth doing that. You try to do something to rectify it the following year. The club moved on from the ’78 loss pretty quickly. In the 1979 pre-season, Barassi didn’t refer to the Grand Final loss in ’78 very much at all. He was more interested in looking at where we were deficient for the upcoming season and I think that was the right way to go.”
Looking forward and not dwelling on the past defines Ross Glendinning’s attitude to football and life in general. Asked, thinking back to 1978, if he ever reflects on the loss and what might have been, he is resolute.
“No, I’m reasonably cut and dry with that. I’m a realist. What happened is what happened and you can’t change that. It’s a good question. Some people can hold a bit of a grudge and it just lingers. You could become a bit bitter sometimes. You could point the finger at others, but it really doesn’t bother me. Look, everyone would love one (a premiership) but think about the blokes who didn’t even get to play in a final let alone a Grand Final! So, no, I don’t have any regrets at all,” he says.
And at the time?
“Sure, when I was still playing, I would hope to go one better and get there, but now I can separate footy from other parts of my life. I think it’s important to do that, not only for yourself but for your family because they’ve supported you the whole way through,” he says.
After his first year with North Melbourne and that disappointing Grand Final loss, Glendinning would play for another eight seasons with the club and compete in eleven more finals matches. However, he would never have the opportunity again to play in an AFL Grand Final.
Then in 1986, aged 30 and with 190 senior games under his belt, Glendinning began to see the writing on the wall. The body was not holding up as well as it used to; soreness was pervasive and enduring. Retirement was imminent.
“You knew the coach wanted you to play. There was a little voice that would say people will think you’re a wuss or you can’t carry it if you didn’t play. You’d have cortisone or a pain killer so you could play,” he says.
“I just sensed that the last two years at North, 1985 and ’86, my own form was starting to wane a bit. I knew in the back of my mind I wanted to go back to Perth and play with East Perth for a few years, back where I started, just to give a bit back there. My wife Kerry was pregnant with our third and it just felt like the right time. We only intended to be in Melbourne for three years.”
Then there came an unexpected offer which would extend Glendinning’s VFL career as the competition expanded into a national league with the establishment of the Brisbane Bears and the West Coast Eagles. Soon the VFL would be officially re-named the Australian Football League, with a place in it for Ross Glendinning in his home state. The East Perth option fell away.
“In 1986, the guys who were putting the WA bid together for a team to enter the VFL rang me and said they’d like to have a chat and convene a bit of a meeting. I told North and they were aware that was happening. We had a meeting. They (West Coast) made a really professional proposition. It all fell into place and we came home to Perth in late ’86 and I started training with West Coast,” he says.
Always one to look forward, and to the next stage in his life, Glendinning says the move gave him some perspective.
“I got a few niggles out of me and playing at home and having family around, getting kids into school, it seemed like the right move. It gave me a bit of perspective with a bit of responsibility to make sure this new team got under way. It was a bit of a challenge.”
Glendinning was appointed the inaugural captain of the newly-formed West Coast Eagles and whereas at North Melbourne, he played the majority of his football in defence, at his new club he became a prolific goal-kicker.
“I was quite happy with my first year at West Coast. Steve Malaxos won the best and fairest and I came second. In my second year, 1988, John Worsfold won it and I finished fifth or sixth. I played up forward and kicked a few goals but I did find that I started to get problems with my hamstrings. The full-backs coming through at the time – Hawthorn’s Chris Langford and Fitzroy’s Gary Pert – were big strong boys and I was getting niggles. I didn’t want to be one of those players who hung around a year too long and put pressure on the footy department. I wanted to be in a bit of control of that myself.”
So after two solid seasons of football with West Coast he decided to call it a day. At the end of the 1988 season, after playing 40 games and kicking 111 goals for the Eagles, Ross Glendinning retired.
“I decided it was time and the club was really good about it. The coach John Todd told me to take as long as I like to make my decision, even if it was late January. He was prepared to wait which was really good but I said I was done. I didn’t want people thinking I played an extra year too long and not making a full contribution.”
Selfless on the field, Glendinning displayed the same attributes off it when deciding to retire from the game he loves.
“I didn’t play in the WAFL because the standard there was still pretty high. I didn’t want to ‘patronise’ East Perth. If your body is giving you hamstring problems, they don’t go away. Just because I played AFL, I didn’t think I could just easily step into to a WAFL side. It just doesn’t happen without the right preparation,” he says.
“Even now I know it was the right thing to do.”
After retiring from playing the game, Glendinning did what many high-profile players in his industry do – he joined the media. And while it wasn’t planned, it was a move that would last, allowing Glendinning to stay involved in the game without the daily commitment required of a player, particularly as the league transitioned from a semi-professional game to a fully professional sport.
“I had a call from Channel Seven who were interested in me doing special comments for them. I did that for about ten years. That was enjoyable. I could leave footy and do my 9-to-5 work during the week and get my footy fix on the weekend and be done, without the physical concerns,” he says.
“At the time, the change to the next stage, where footy’s gone, and I was preparing for a new job, was pretty exciting.”
And where does footy sit in Ross Glendinning’s life today?
He recently returned to his old club the West Coast Eagles, employed as its Manager Corporate Relations, a role which gives him responsibility for growing and maintaining the club’s sponsors. Outside of work Glendinning spends his time enjoying Perth’s great outdoors, keeping fit and spending time at the beach. And with three adult daughters, he maintains family is his primary interest.
“As much as I’m back in footy now, there are other challenges in what I do, where I’m learning new skills. I can walk out the door and leave it behind. I don’t need to watch footy every weekend,” he says.
“I love the game but I can step away from it. I’m not as enamoured with the game as much as some past players are, you know, they can’t let go. You still have a ripping interest in it but you can let go of it. There’s a time for talking footy and other times there’s not. Some people think because you played in a certain sport that’s all you can talk about. Quite often I’d rather talk about something else.”
For someone who has his name on more honour boards than most people who have played the game, being encouraged to talk about it could be hard to avoid. But Glendinning is appreciative of the accolades and, more importantly, the friendships he’s earned through a stellar football career.
“It’s really satisfying and wonderful in this stage of your life when you get recognised for doing something you love doing and you’re OK at it and you work pretty hard to achieve that. It’s pretty special. The North honour last year was very special. I don’t have a pool room but the awards sit very nicely up in the office,” he says laughing.
“Those things remind you of the great people you’ve met and played footy with. It’s the people you meet through your participation in the sport that gives you the most pleasure, having friendships and connections.”
Glendinning’s interest in people and in particular his close friends and family is evident when the conversation turns back to his Brownlow Medal win in ’83.
“On the Monday of the Brownlow, that was our ‘mad Monday’. We’d gone out for a few beers. My wife Kerry was trying to track me down because I’d forgotten I even had to go to the Brownlow Medal count that night! We were at the Homebush Hotel in North Melbourne and she managed to track us down. I was reasonably ‘chirpy’ at the time so at the count I didn’t have anything to drink because I thought I’d better brighten up,” he says with a laugh.
“Blokes were enjoying themselves and of course it went my way, so the party started again. Ted Whitten used to run the after-party. A few North guys who’d been having mad Monday came in, so I didn’t get home until about 5.30am. Then, Billy Cannon from The Herald newspaper wanted to come in to take a photo at about 7.45am. There’s a photo of me feeding my daughter at the breakfast table and I look pretty ordinary and probably smelt worse! It was a ripping night.”
For Ross Glendinning, a man who has received more footy compliments than most, there is certainly more to life than the game and its achievements. Like anyone who has been in his position, he would have liked to have won a flag, but he’s not hung-up on it. And while his many individual honours bring a great level of personal pride and satisfaction, what gives Glendinning the greatest satisfaction is the opportunities afforded by his AFL career and the life-long friends it’s given him.
In that sense, his 1978 Grand Final experience and the loss to Hawthorn, is put into perspective. As just one chapter in what was an illustrious career which brought a lifetime of memories and lifelong friendships, it was a very positive one.
Good as gold!