A legacy into which Paul Roos is tapping

Initially Rob Heath was registered as the author of this piece. That was a mistake. The author is historian and writer Dr Lynda Carroll. We apologise to Lynda for that mistake. – Ed

 

 

If football clubs are haunted by the ghosts of those who have made their mark in the past, there is no doubt that, on a busy match day at the MCG, there’ll be a small, suited figure sitting on the Melbourne bench. He’ll be intense; his twinkling eyes squinted in concentration, his mouth pursed, and he’ll carry a small towel to signal the approach of time on to the players. Forget electronic scoreboards, ignore the replays – let’s get back to the basics – just like the little Richmond rover, Francis Vane ‘Checker’ Hughes.

Before he crossed Yarra Park to join his former colleague, Percy Page, who had become MFC Secretary, Checker was a Tiger legend. He came back from the Great War, with a Distinguished Conduct Medal, to play in two Premierships for Richmond. He then coached the Tigers to six finals series, for four Grand Finals and the 1932 flag.

In 1933, Checker came to Melbourne. And, as player Percy Beames remembers, he “took control there and then.” Despite the fact that he was working at Percy Page’s printing works, and turned up in old, dusty, oil-stained clothes, he had an air of capability about him which garnered instant respect. He wasn’t, as Beames recalls, your “typical Melbourne” type. He wasn’t decked out in a suit, and he wasn’t eloquent – although by the end of his time as coach, this had come full circle. He was there to coach, and coach he certainly did. He talked out the side of his mouth – “Like a gangster,” laughs Beames, with a most fetching imitation – and was an independent spirit, never more clearly demonstrated than at his introductory dinner. When the band played God Save the King, the new Melbourne coach was the only diner to remain seated.

Checker was also the first coach of the ‘Demons’. Forget the ‘Fuchsias’ – let’s get a bit of fire and passion into this side! And the Demons they became. Despite the name change, Melbourne won just two matches in the ‘33 season. But, as Page noted in the Annual Report, “Rome was not built in a day, and the foundations are now being laid for successful years – ahead.”

And so it came to pass. In 1936, Melbourne made the finals for the first time since 1928, progressing as far as the Preliminary Final before South Melbourne, ended their charge. By now a new generation of players had emerged to shoulder the weight of Melbourne’s expectations. Maurie Gibb, Allan La Fontaine, Jack Mueller and Len Smith were just a few of those who came on board in 1934, while 1935 saw the arrival of Ray Wartman, Ron Baggott and, of course, Norm Smith. Others to make their way to the club in the mid to late ‘30s included Wally Lock, Ron Barassi Snr, and Richie Emselle – all fine Melbourne names.

In 1939, Checker was repaid for his untiring efforts with Melbourne’s first flag since 1926. The result was repeated in 1940 and 1941, and all involved with Melbourne rejoiced. Once again, Page expressed the sentiments of the club perfectly: “For the ninth successive term, F.V. Hughes was selected as coach and made a continuous and incalculable contribution to the final success.”

Checker was the best in the business and it would take his 1945 return to the club, after a wartime break, to regenerate Melbourne’s flag-winning form. But, despite his three-year absence from the coaching post, Checker remained closely linked to Melbourne. One of his recruits in the late ‘30s had been a cheeky Melbourne High boy, Keith ‘Bluey’ Truscott, who would become a great wartime pilot, twice winning the Distinguished Flying Cross. Like that other Melbourne redhead, Norm Smith, Bluey and Checker sparked off each other and, when Bluey died in 1943, it was Checker who donated the trophy for Melbourne’s Best and Fairest player. The Bluey Truscott Memorial Trophy has been awarded to the Demons’ best player ever since.

Upon his return to the coaching post, Checker didn’t mince words in letting his side know, as war drew to a close, that they were playing for more than they realised:

This will possibly be the last game of football you will play during the war period. During the war, many of you young players have been wearing the numbers of players who have made this club famous. Some of them made the supreme sacrifice. Those players were champions because they would never admit defeat … You have the ability to win. Now go out there and win!

They were powerful words with which to inspire. By the end of 1947, Checker had three former champs in Taylor, La Fontaine and dual Brownlow medallist Warne-Smith on his selection committee, and Melbourne was set for still more success. They had a side the envy of all: Brownlow medallist, Don Cordner, and his brother Denis, Alby Rodda and Bobby McKenzie, Noel McMahen and record goal kicker Norm Smith. Jack Mueller returned for the 1948 Grand Final replay over Essendon, and helped lead Melbourne to a stirring 39 point victory. Essendon would lament kicking themselves to an ignominious draw the week before when scoring 27 behinds – Checker’s Demons didn’t give you a second chance.

This sixth flag was generally regarded as Checker’s greatest triumph, and indeed became known as ‘Checker’s Premiership’. Having taken Melbourne to four Premierships from six Grand Finals, the little master stepped back, handing the reins over to Allan La Fontaine, for the whole team-building process to begin again. Even upon retirement as coach, Checker still had a role to play. In the early seasons of Norm Smith’s coaching reign, Checker was something of a mentor, passing on knowledge to his former player. Though, as Smithy grew in confidence and ability, Checker lost some of his hold on the coach’s decision-making. In fact, Smithy increasingly turned to Warne-Smith – a calming influence and, according to Beames, a “quiet type and a deep thinker” – for advice. Checker was too much like Smithy for the two of them not to clash.

But Checker remained important to Melbourne, and many a Melbourne story involves him, right into the 1950s and 1960s. He and Smith faced many moments together, such as when they were united in dignity following the loss to Collingwood in 1958. As Smith said at the time, “Well, Checker, when Phonse Kyne (Collingwood coach) comes into the room, we have got to be very, very gracious.” There was no doubt that they were, too. Then there was the time when larrikin trainer, Dinny Rattray, released his pet snake into the committee room during a selection meeting. The elderly gentlemen of the committee were swift to react, but Checker really took the prize for his immediate response, leaping onto the bar, his cane more bayonet than walking aid.

That same walking stick played a starring role in another Checker story. Sitting on the bench during one match in 1964, Checker was quick to react when Fitzroy ruckman, Max Miers, came flying across the boundary line into his lap. Checker reportedly prodded the big man with his walking stick – an action that threatened to see him front the Tribunal. Whether they would have forbidden him access to the boundary line, or confiscated his walking stick on match day is moot. No punishment resulted, and a delighted Checker can be seen at the end of the 1964 Grand Final, walking stick in hand, ducking as Norm Smith jumps with glee at victory over Collingwood.

Checker was back in action the next season, once the gloss had worn off Melbourne’s twelfth flag.  Smith was in trouble with the committee and was sacked – albeit for just one week. Checker stood in as coach one more time. It was a game against North Melbourne at the Coburg Oval.  North Melbourne had an upset victory, Dugdale and Dwyer playing well for the victors.  Checker would not coach Melbourne again, but was Victorian coach for five years, and remained a selector at Melbourne for almost two decades. He was the first Life Member of the Former Players and Officials Association, and he had played a part in Melbourne’s fate for nearly half a century.

When he died in January 1978, Checker was aged 83. The Melbourne players were wearing royal blue, with advertising logos stitched to their guernseys. Match replays could be watched on TV and in colour. But it was still essentially the game Checker had been involved in since his playing debut as a swift Richmond rover in 1914. Melbourne, to this day, is known as the Demons, a moniker first bestowed by Checker. With his death, Melbourne and football lost a man rich in the character of the game. Percy Beames’ sentiments perfectly convey his life in football:

When Checker came to Melbourne, he found an amateur football atmosphere. He gave it discipline, dedication and team spirit. He was able to mix with anyone socially, but once he was on the track, he was a strict disciplinarian. Checker had more to do with Melbourne’s rise to power than anyone else. Norm Smith carried on where he left off, but Checker was the man who lifted the club.

Checker had left his legacy. He was one of the best.

Comments

  1. matt watson says

    I read the Norm Smith biography recently.
    Checker featured prominently.
    As far as I am aware, there is no book written about Checker…
    That is a shame.
    Characters like Checker should be honoured with a biography.
    cheers

  2. Dr Rocket says

    Wonderful piece.

    One of the best pieces posted on this site ever!

    Captured it all beautifully.

    Reckon Checker Hughes had a profound effect on Noel McMahen – rather than Norm Smith – when he coached Rochester – he renamed them Demons – to premiership glory!

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