A skill that can’t be measured

A Skill That Can’t be Measured.

For Simon Black.


Stan Alves is a great man.

We were talking at a pub on a mariner on the Peninsula. Myself and the Premiership player, Grand Final coach, media commentator and club champion. Sitting on the deck in the hot wind and gentle tings of mast ropes, listening to the creak and bobble of tinnies and small yachts going nowhere. He just has a way. Friendly, engaging, like he gives a shit. A bloke who talks so much football and has for four decades, yet still manages to be so warm and engaging, still radiating such a massive love of the game and people.
I was about 120 legends and two years of work into my Oral History of Footy project, when he asked, out of the blue: “What has this book taught you, Matthew?”


A question! Directed at me? What a smart thing for a true teacher of anything, even football, to do! To ask something.

It really got me thinking. Afterwards.

In the moment, a rabbit in headlights, my mouth answered for my scrambling brain: “That it’s much the same everywhere, even at a higher level. People are still people. Hopes, dreams, ambition, hurt, politics.”

The implications of Stan’s question were right – If I’m not learning anything, if I’m just upgrading my storytelling, why bother?

In the three months since I’ve really stewed on that question, because I know my answer was only mostly right. The bit missing from it is a small thing, but small things are everything. They hold great power.


50-plus interviews, three more months on the road later, I have an answer.

I think, at that level, something I never made, there’s talent. No doubt. But there’s also a hunger. Every bloke I interviewed, chatted to, or got drunk with, no matter how nice, how friendly, how gentle, when it came time to talk about what matters had a steel about them.
I asked Gavin Wanganeen when he developed ambition? He told me of when he was about seven and first saw an SAFL game on B&W telly.

“I knew, right then, I wanted to be great at this,” he said.

“To not just watch, to be involved?” I asked.

“No,’ he said. Suddenly I was aware this amiable bloke was glaring, right at me. “To be great.”

It was such a hard fact, so honest. Everything about him made sense after that.

Drew Petrie was, of them all, the best. Just so friendly, so genuine. And when it came to talking about his club, or pack marks, or want, this weight crept in. This mightiness! He took his time, focusing on a spot on the table, determined to get his answer right. Proper right. Then deliver it with full, calm gravity.

He was just so damn passionate! Not in an arms waving way, but, simply, in how much he loves North Melbourne. Only by talking to him did I understand you couldn’t have a more loyal servant.

In how much he loves his club and football, and the work it takes to make it.

Another modern day legend, who’s name I won’t mention here, told me: “A lot of people chew my ear off about how their boy or mate should have made it but for luck or timing. Respectfully, most times that’s bullshit. The system’s hungry. If you’re good enough, and want to work hard enough, long enough, it will find you.”

I admired his frankness.

Those who are there are there for a reason.

Time and again I’ve listened to stories of hunger, of want. Campbell Brown, cut from the Teal Cup Under 16s squad for being too slow, arranged to get running lessons from Hawthorn’s sprint coach. He’d train for his club each night then go around to the Caufield race track, sneaking on after the Hawks or whoever had done their running and did sprint after sprint, night after night, dragging a tire, or knees-up, or backwards, doing whatever was thrown at him, until one night, the Teal Cup Under 18s coach, lingering after the AFL boys did their thing, accidently saw him.

Damian Monkhurst, a far, far smarter man that his doubters think, would go in to the club on his one night off to do running drills. A big, lumbering man, who was already ensconced in the team. It was the difference between him being a handy player and representing Victoria. Eventually his body dragged him down. Maybe big, lumbering men aren’t meant to work that hard at speed muscles? But for a while he found a level above and beyond anyone’s expectations. He worked harder than the rest. He had greatness.

I would hear about how brutal Micky Martyn was on the training track, or the focus and hard yards it took for Micky O to get out of the rough neighbourhood he was born into. How his family was everything to him. Everything. His mum gave him his chance at his dream. Yet even she had to take a back seat when her love cut across his ambition.

Her love and his ambition were inseparable. When he was young and homesick, she forced him to stay in Sydney.

He promised he’d build a house for her through football one day.
“Get off yourself,” she would caringly shoo him off.

When she would make the long, interstate journey to visit and watch him play, he made it painfully clear, he loved her, but footy came first, the discipline of it came first. Even at home. Every bit of it. She came less and less during the season, and more when he wasn’t playing.
Now that he’s made it, he’s built her that house. His proudest sporting achievement.

Sean Dempster was friendly, articulate, a total credit to his club and footy. He has the best story, growing up in a coastal fishing town so small all they had was abut eleven fit blokes, so formed a soccer team. Footy was several hours drive over the mountains away. Yet when he talks about the yards it took to make it into the AFL from there, again, this quiet steel emerges.

Many blokes have had the talent to crack a handful of games. A few seasons. But never had that steel. They could have been so much more. Many blokes realise before it’s too late.

Rhyce Shaw is brutally honest about himself as a youngster. He talks about being a spoilt brat, the waste. Then realising what it would take, the effort. To not just turn around his fortunes, but to alter what he was as a person. Now, when I ask around, he’s the ultimate clubman. The fact he started so far behind is a big factor. He understands. He genuinely knows better. Yet, I suspect, still has a ratbag’s heart, fused with work and care for his teammates.

At a club built around hard yards, he has become their poster boy. As driven as it gets on the track, while still being himself, full of personality. I couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather have an off-season beer with.

Everybody talks about how good Bobby Skilton was. Not many people know about the summer running he did five nights a week with an athletics coach. Back in the 60s! Unheard of.

Time and again I hear of blokes with the talent, but were too nice. Unable to push their teammate out of the way to get his position. One all-time club champion said: “Mate, if a teammate was in the way of my AFL career I’d cut his fucking Achilles” Haha. And he meant it. Yet he is also the most generous to his fellow clubmen. And boot-studders, through to supporters and committee people.

He loves football, loves to give. Yet nothing was going to stop him making it.


There are always a few exceptions, but on the whole, what I’ve learnt while coughing up, when I’m done, three years of my life talking to these blokes, is also the best bit. Andrew Embley, Robby Flower, John Worsfold, Kevin Murray. Seeing the faces of these blokes slightly shift, melt, from being warm, engaging, sociable, to something harder when discussing the core matters. Then, when done, watching the colour flood back again.

I’m envious of their drive. Of their pain barriers. Above all else, they all love the word “work”.

That’s what I’ve learnt, Stan.

When I ask them what’s most important to them, some talk of character, some of skill, or mateship or memories, or family. Yet they all mention the word ‘work’ many times, often without realising. As if they own it.

Some people do have that work, that steel, and still don’t make it. Genetics, lack of talent. They’re the unlucky ones. They’re also the minority. Those traits should see them right in life in general.


But the ones that do make it? Usually you can feel it. Their hunger. There is something different about them.


  1. brilliant read. Should be handed to every AFL draftee.

  2. Right on Matt. Have you interviewed John Barnes? Strikes me he is the kind of bloke who would suit this sort of interrogation.

  3. Nice one Matt. Does the other species still exist? Often to be found roving a forward line, supremely talented but somewhat inscrutable in terms of their hunger and motivations more broadly. The true freak – are you getting inside some of those heads or do they not exist at the highest level?

  4. yet another great read Matt – the book is bound to be an absolute beauty.

  5. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Terrific insights Matt,
    The paradox of having to be ruthless while still being a team player? That’s a tightrope few can walk across.

    Stan Alves has felt the highs and lows in footy and in his personal life. I was too young to remember Stan playing vividly, but years later bought the DVD of the Drawn 1977 GF. His first half on the wing was incredible. That drive to be great, to be part of a premiership after many lean seasons at Melbourne was in every fibre of his being. Worth a look.
    Learned heaps reading this Matt. Thank you.

  6. Neil Anderson says

    Terrific insight into the way AFL players who have made it think. All those ‘good guys’ you wrote about, you have now confirmed really are the best of the best.
    One of the best pieces of writing I have read for quite a while. I’m sorry I never got the chance to transcribe some of your interviews Matt because it would have been a pleasure.
    Can’t wait for the book to be published.

  7. Yvette Wroby says

    Brilliant writing Matt. And good on Stan for asking. You yourself have the right stuff when it comes to this project you have taken on, you are doing the work and if this writing is any indication, you’ll be a champion too.


  8. Thanks everyone.

    Gus, no mate. He would have been great, but I am super happy with the blokes I did get from his era. Maybe in the next edition.

    Dave, a very good question. Nick Davis was certainly like that. A part of his job as Sydney now is to make sure no-one else is. I think there are bound to be a few. I could guess, but only the clubs would know who they are for sure, though.

    Neil, all good mate. It just got too much to keep up with, here and there.

    Thank you Yvette. x

  9. Really enjoyed this Matt. The insights and honesty you are getting out of these blokes is a tribute to you. They can see and feel how genuine and committed you are in your search for the elusive grail.
    The book will be a ripper.

  10. I always enjoy your yarns, Matt. Keep them coming.

  11. Peter B, (any relation to Sloop John by any chance?), after having their pleasure of transcribing one interview, I can vouch for the interviewer’s skills and ‘connection ‘ with the interviewee. Kindred souls that in the particular case of my transcription showed a deep common cultural understanding beyond footy. Matt disarmed what could have been a reluctant, gruff bloke by knowing the same streets, names and gangs of a real youth. It ended up with both blokes talking over each other as the beers flowed. Bloody nightmare to make sense of but funny as!

  12. Great “work” Matt. A telling read.

  13. Ease up, Gus!

  14. Great stuff Matt. I’m not much interested in full biographies, but I do enjoy interviews and writing which keeps to the core issues and experiences, so your book will be a gem for me. Looking forward to it!

  15. matt watson says

    I want to read your book.
    I think it is fantastic that you’re doing this.
    And another great read.
    I was old enough to watch Stan jump off the dais after getting his premiership medallion. From memory he was the only one to do it.
    You could feel how much it meant to him.

  16. Keiran Croker says

    Great read Matt. Really looking forward to the book. Sorry I could not help with the transcribing too!
    All the best.

  17. Hugh O'Brien says

    That is one book I am sure to buy. Great work Matt.

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