Almanac Book Extract: ‘War Games’ by Ron Reed – Oh Brother, Jezza’s Joy

The Footy Almanac is happy and proud to be associated with Ron Reed’s new book War Games. With the permission of both Ron and his publisher, Wilkinson Publishing, we tempt your (reading) taste buds by previewing Chapter 11.






Like most supporters of the Carlton Football Club during the high-flying but turbulent latter half of the 20th century, I occasionally wished there were two of Alex Jesaulenko, that the club’s most gifted player of a glorious era could be cloned. One day I was astonished – although not half as much as he was – to learn that there was, indeed, a second Jezza. And he could play football a bit too.


Football, like most sports, has always been full of human interest stories but there haven’t been many to match the arrival in Jesaulenko’s life of the brother he had never met and never really knew whether he still had, the older son his mother had given up for dead before Alex was born.


Of the thousands of stories I wrote across more than half a century in sports journalism, none gave me more pleasure than the one that appeared, exclusively, on the front page of the Herald Sun on August 13, 1994.


It was headlined MY JOY – it referred to Jezza’s joy, not mine.


It stayed exclusive for a few days because after hearing a rumour at a footy funeral I had been able to confirm it with him only when he rang in to provide his weekly column in our Sunday edition and then disappeared back into the NSW bush where he was fishing with mates, unreachable by phone. The day it was published, I flew off to Canada for the Commonwealth Games, leaving the rest of the media tearing their hair out in frustration at being unable to speak to him until he returned to Melbourne.


The report told of how a letter had arrived from the international Red Cross tracing service, the night before Jesaulenko’s 49th birthday, informing him that a relative of his mother was seeking information about her and permission needed to be given for that to be provided.


The inquirer was named Aleksander Loj, who said he was born with the surname Altuchowa, his Russian-born mother’s maiden name. He had all the right information about the family history so Jesaulenko had no reason to doubt that he was who he claimed to be – his own mother’s first-born son. ‘This is just unbelievable,’ he said – but that’s just a figure of speech, of course.


Wera Jesaulenko – that’s the English version of the family name, which is actually Esavlenko – was then a frail 71 year old living in Noosa, Queensland, to be closer to her other two off-spring, Viktor and Larisa and she could scarcely believe her ears either.


Exactly 50 years earlier, in 1944, pregnant with Jezza, she had been interned in Camp Annahof in Germany by the Gestapo for six months for buying a blouse that she did not know had been stolen.



There, her infant son became ill, apparently with pneumonia and was taken away by a nurse who knew that children were no more than nuisances in prison camps and were likely to be exterminated. Sick children were sure to be killed.


The nurse took him to a special children’s camp, where the commandant invited local people to take young inmates home. Only 10 of 1240 were adopted. The rest were almost certainly killed, according to the Red Cross. There is now a monument to them nearby.


Mrs Jesaulenko was never told why the baby was taken away or where he went but spent many years trying to find out, unaware that he was simultaneously trying to find her. On release, she found herself in the Austrian city of music, Salzburg, where her second son was born. If you Google Salzburg now, as I did when I was last there in 2018, you will find a list of its most famous people and even though he lived there only very briefly as a small child before coming to Australia, Alex Jesaulenko’s sporting eminence in a faraway country has been enough to get him on it.


Mrs Jesaulenko named him Alex ‘because it made it easier for me’ after losing Aleksander, she told me.


Aleksander Loj grew up wondering about his real family and spent 25 years searching for them from his home in a tiny Polish village, where he had become a father of four, a farmer and a former soccer goalkeeper of roughly international standard


They eventually found each other through the Red Cross tracing service only after a sophisticated computer system enabled the agency to match up the myriad names ‘lost’ deep in decades of paperwork.


A Red Cross official escorted Loj to Melbourne four months after contact was initially established. Aleks and Alex did not speak each other’s languages but that didn’t stop them having a Christmas celebration to remember.


‘I am numb, ‘ Mrs Jesaulenko said. ‘It’s a dream you couldn’t even think about. But it was always in my heart that I would see him again. I was sick a couple of weeks ago but I never stopped praying. I thought I have to see him before I die. Now my prayers have come true.’ She had another 14 years to live before succumbing in 2008, having well and truly earned her happy ending.


By 1994 she and the boys’ Ukrainian father Wasil, also known as Bill, who was a German policeman during the war, had been separated for some years but remained friends until he died about a year earlier. Even before experiencing the atrocities of a prison camp, Wera knew all about the horrors of war. She was in her early teens when she saw her Russian father shot dead by German soldiers. She also lost two brothers in the war.


Perhaps sadly, the brotherly reunion, joyous fairytale though it was, had a limited lifespan.


Aleksander Loj returned to Poland and they never saw each other again, or even kept in touch, although Jesaulenko’s eldest daughter Sally says they parted on good terms. ‘My grandmother stayed in touch until she died,’ Sally said. Does her Dad care? Sally is the one you have to ask about that these days because he prefers to leave all discussion about his life and affairs, past and present, to her. ‘I think so,’ she says. ‘But he was raised to look forward, not backwards. He’s very much like that.’ She has been trying to research her family history to find out more about her grandparents’ background but has found it difficult to get access to relevant documentation from Ukraine, her grandfather’s home. ‘We have a lot of questions,’ she says.


It will come as no surprise to anyone who had much to do with the brilliant Blue in his playing and coaching days that it is difficult now to discover what he is really thinking about his brother or anything else. It always has been.


On the field, he was a flamboyant figure at least in terms of what he could do physically, playing 256 games for the Blues and another 23 for St Kilda. He coached both cubs, twice in Carlton’s case. He was the last captain-coach to win a League premiership when he led Carlton to the 1979 flag and also played starring roles in the 1968, 1970 and 1972 triumphs. He kicked 115 goals in 1970 and was a regular selection for Victoria.


Off the field, there was little or no showmanship. Rarely did he get outwardly excited about anything, always believing that actions spoke far more loudly than words.


Former team-mate Wayne Johnston used to delight in telling a story that Jesaulenko’s coach’s address before the ’79 decider consisted of just one sentence: Get out there and win, or words to that effect.


All his friends and long-time acquaintances – and I have known him professionally and socially for nearly half a century – always wondered what really made him tick, because one thing was always certain: he wouldn’t tell you.


In team-mate Percy Jones’s pub in the heart of Carlton one night, Jones and I tried at length to get him to tell us about his and his family’s background and how they had fled from the ravages of war. He stared at us over his beer and insisted that he didn’t care what had happened then.


Of course, that was highly unlikely to have been the truth and it eventually became clear that there was much he simply did not know, had never been told and did not understand.


But the day did come when he was forced to make a profound statement about who he was and what he stood for, and it had nothing to do with his personal life.


This was a football crisis, at that stage – and probably still – the biggest ever to engulf the Carlton Football Club, which has never been short of political drama in a history dating back to the beginning of football time.


It erupted just a few short weeks after Jesaulenko had masterminded the 1979 premiership, dramatically disappearing into the dressing rooms with an ankle injury minutes before his charges prevailed over Collingwood by five points in one of the most controversial finishes in Grand Final history, when on-baller Wayne Harmes set up the winning goal from a play almost certainly from the wrong side of the boundary line.


‘What’s better than beating Collingwood by 10 goals? Beating them by five points!’ gloated Carlton’s combative president George Harris.


The tough-talking Harris, who had been a prisoner of war, was a polarising figure inside and outside the club, serving two terms as president, 1965 to 1974 and 1977 to 1979, overseeing four premierships, the most of any Carlton president. In his second term he became the club’s first paid president, earning more than any of the star players, as much as $80,000.


Jesaulenko was a fan, perhaps even a disciple.


When the euphoria of the premiership started to dissipate it became clear that Harris was on a collision course with his own committee over his insistence that the club invest in a range of dubious business deals involving such esoteric – and ultimately highly unprofitable – products as spring-loaded chopsticks, wobble boards, foot powder, plastic irons, kiss-of-life masks and a sports medicine centre across the road from its Princes Park headquarters.


This came to a head – for the first time – at the annual general meeting in Brunswick on Monday, December 3, when Harris unexpectedly read a letter of resignation, claiming the committee was ‘obviously divided, where disloyalty, distrust, suspicion and constant petty bickering have become the normal atmosphere.’


This, remember, was the aftermath of a famous triumph when the club should have been basking in the glory, not engaging in an ugly civil war.


But worse was to come – especially for the successful captain-coach.


Four days later, Jesaulenko stunned the club – and the football world in general – by also formally quitting, putting his support for Harris in writing and asking for the members to vote to see who they wanted running the club and the team.


Many years later Jesaulenko told author Dan Eddy, whose 2018 book Larrikins & Legends is an excellent reference point for this bitter drama: ‘I could have gone neutral and stayed right out of it but I didn’t want to be sitting on the fence. I wasn’t against the Carlton footy club because both sides were trying to do the best thing for it. They just wanted to decide who was boss.’


The bosses were already changing. Businessman and political identity Ian Rice had reluctantly agreed, at the behest of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who was a Blues supporter, to become interim chairman until the mess could be sorted out. The popular ‘Percy’ Jones, the veteran ruckman, was asked, to his great surprise, to step in as coach and oversee pre-season training and for the season proper.


Harris was convinced that while his resignation was a massive gamble he would eventually prevail in the power struggle because the members would not want to lose their favourite – and best – player.


A showdown was called for Tuesday, February 19, at Festival Hall, an appropriate venue as it had long been known as the ‘House of Stoush’ because it was the city’s main boxing venue as well as a music hall that hosted the Beatles among other headline acts.


The lead-up was like a Parliamentary election campaign, only sometimes uglier and more sinister.  Jesaulenko’s wife Anne received a call at her suburban dress shop saying: ‘Tell Alex to keep out of it. If he doesn’t you’ll have an axe through your head. If that does not worry him the kids will be next.’ Bricks were thrown through the window of the family house. ‘I can’t describe what the past two weeks have been like,’ Anne said just before the meeting. ‘Hell isn’t the word. There must be something worse. You don’t really sleep when you’re going through something like this.’


Harris campaigned relentlessly, phoning me as Sports Editor of The Herald – and no doubt repeating the calls to editors and reporters at other outlets – almost every day to ensure we knew where and when he and Alex would be having something to say. As often as not it would be on the front page because Melbourne had never seen a footy yarn quite like this.


It even got to the Supreme Court, which ruled on the eve of the meeting that any outcomes in favour of Harris would not be legally binding, but refused a request from the club to prevent it being held.


It promised to be manna from heaven for we, the footy media, as we took our seats one floor above the action on a sweltering summer’s night, and we weren’t disappointed.


As one passionate speech followed another, it descended – or perhaps ascended – into vaudeville when 74-year-old Harold ‘Soapy’ Vallence, a crusty old character who had been a star goal-kicker in his day, got up and danced a jig on the stage, and told the former president: ‘George, there’s something shifty about all this.’ He pointed at one wobbly leg and shouted ‘Carlton!’ and then the other leg, ditto. The crowd loved it and as an endorsement of the ethos that the club had to come before any individuals, it was a winner.


When his turn came to speak, Jesaulenko got a standing ovation. But the mood changed when he made the mistake of saying: ‘Greetings to everybody but not to the current membership holders.’ In Eddy’s book, Rice says: ‘They booed him. Jezza was stunned. It was the silliest thing he could have said and he couldn’t believe that a Carlton audience was booing the king. That really ripped through him.’


By the time he sat down, Rice said, ‘Jezza had devalued himself so fast, going from a brand who was valued, plus a wonderful bloke, team man, family man, to suddenly losing a lot of respect.’


When the time came to vote, it was a no-contest, 480 for Harris and 1241 against. The two biggest losers walked off into the night, one never to return. Jones and some of ‘his’ players, as they now were, repaired back to the Social Club for a post-mortem, with me in tow. There was no sense of victory, certainly no jubilation. They had lost more than a coach and an asset to the team, they had seen a mate, with whom they had been through so much thick and thin, and it did not sit well.


Jesaulenko was snapped up by St Kilda, first as a player and then as playing coach when club president, trucking tycoon Lindsay Fox, decided to dispense with the incumbent coach, former Richmond star Mike Patterson, after just two games. Harris went on to make a fast fortune developing supermarkets.


Fast forward almost a decade to a warm autumn night at Princes Park just before the first game of the 1989 season. It’s a typically high-flying, flamboyant Carlton Football Club night out, the men in dinner suits, the women in formal finery as they wined and dined grandly in a huge marquee erected on the field of combat in front of the new John D. Elliott grandstand. They listened to the coach, a favourite son of the Blues, Robert Walls, promise better things to come than the disappointing (by Carlton’s lofty standards) third placing the previous year.


Elliott, the business and sometimes political heavyweight who had succeeded Rice as president six years earlier, as big, blunt and impossible to ignore as the luxurious new edifice named after him, warned the coach and the players that anything less than a distinct improvement would not be tolerated.


In those days, Elliott always meant what he said as all present were soon to discover – but on the night the message may have been allowed to drift away in the euphoria of the highlight of the party.


That was the naming of a composite Carlton team, selected from the many distinguished champions who had worn the famous dark navy blue in the preceding 50 years. The greats had flown in from all over Australia to acknowledge the accolade, standing one by one as the applause rocked the canvas room.


But the biggest and most spontaneous ovation of all was reserved for one familiar figure, a little balder, the trademark moustache still in place, moving with an easy, lithe grace that defied the extra kilograms around the midriff, who extracted himself from a tableful of cronies as his name was read out on the half-forward flank.


Jezza was back home.


It was a poignant moment, one that nobody was prepared to let slip before they had to – least of all Alex Jesaulenko himself. Dawn had well and truly passed into full-blown morning before the last toasts were drunk, the tall tales and true finally laid to rest at Perc Jones’s pub.


And then Jezza was gone again, back to serve another year, to complete a decade of what was, by then, universally regarded as the silliest, saddest, most futile exile in the history of Australian football.


Crystal-ball gazers abound in football but no-one who left that marquee would have dreamed how prophetic the night would turn out to be. Certainly not Jesaulenko. But just ten weeks into the season, less than two years after he had overseen a premiership, Walls was sacked true to Carlton’s unforgiving administrative style in those days, and Jesaulenko was invited back to resume where he had left off in such dire circumstances a decade earlier.


‘I never thought for a minute I would get a second chance, in football not many do,’ he told me. Buoyed by his presence, the Blues immediately won three games in a row against Sydney, North Melbourne and the West Coast Eagles, prompting supporters to start referring to him as The Messiah. After accounting for arch-rivals Collingwood by a goal, even Jezza entered into the spirit of that. Beaming hugely as he walked into the dressing rooms, he said: ‘It was a dry day today so I walked on land.’


His return was good for the club in every way. When the resurgence gathered pace, chief executive Ian Collins took out newspaper advertisements asking supporters to register their commitment. He got 10,000 replies, only one per cent of which were from people already on the mailing list. ‘That’s 10,000 supporters we didn’t know we had,’ he said. Similar ads exhorting people to join ‘Jezza’s Army’ became the norm as the following season approached.


He might have been a long time out of sight but clearly to the fans their old hero was never out of mind.


For him, the scars took a long time to heal. ‘It was a pretty traumatic time,’ he said. ‘It has to be when you put nearly all your physical and emotional energy into one place, call it home … and then it isn’t there.’ But he said the concept of being in exile never occurred to him.


As uplifting as the homecoming was for all concerned, it turned out that the great man was not The Messiah after all. In the 12 games he was in charge in 1989 he won seven, drew one and lost four – giving him at that stage a highly impressive overall coaching record at Carlton (leaving out St Kilda) of 42 wins and a draw from 54 matches – but the tardy start under Walls meant the Blues finished only eighth. The next season they won 11 and lost 11 and were eighth again, which was never going to be enough for Elliott and his born-to-rule cohort. They replaced Jesaulenko with David Parkin, who had already had a five-year stint for two premierships. This time, he was there for a decade, winning one more – in 1995. Carlton have never won again since.


So in the time it took Carlton to win the last four of their equal-record 16 flags, three coaches – Jesaulenko, Parkin and Walls – were all successful. The only one who wasn’t was Jones, which is, perhaps, not surprising but there are definitely grounds for feeling a tad sorry for the jovial ruckman.


He was given only one opportunity, a single year in problematic circumstances. An amiable giant of a man who had the same outlook on footy as he did on life – it’s there to be enjoyed – was never really anybody’s idea of a strategic genius or a leader of men, unless perhaps he was leading them to the pub and devising tactics for not being sprung having a drink the night before a game.


But at the height of the Harris drama, somebody had to be put in charge and it needed, in the judgement of powerbrokers Rice and Wes Lofts, a calming influence, somebody who was popular with players and supporters alike, who would not ‘scare the horses.’ There is little doubt it was a temporary appointment from the word go.


Indeed, after the smoke had cleared, I got one more phone call from Harris not long before the first match. He was out to throw one more cat amongst the pigeons. ‘Tell your mate,’ he barked, ‘that it has already been decided that he will be sacked at the end of the season unless he happens to win the premiership.’ Harris was correct that Jones was my mate – still is – and so I decided to pass on the message, believing that forewarned is forearmed. Of course, there was an alternative course of action – say nothing and allow him to proceed without a distraction he probably didn’t need. Decades later I’m still not sure I did the right thing, but one certainty about Jones has always been that if he’s got something to say to someone else – whether it’s an uncomfortable truth or a jibe in jest – he’ll say it himself, regardless of any embarrassing overtones. Sure enough, back in his pub the night of the first game, in which he oversaw an impressive, morale-boosting win over Collingwood at their Victoria Park fortress, he asked me to repeat what I had told him to Lofts, who was drinking with us. So I did, asking Lofts to tell us both whether or not it was true. Needless to say, no straight answer was forthcoming, so that was enough confirmation for me – and, deep down, probably for Jones too.


Jones did not win the flag – and he was sacked, making way for Parkin’s first incarnation at Carlton, where he promptly won the next two premierships.


Jones had one thing going for him, of course – he had inherited a premiership team, one good enough to go on and win another two. So it was no huge surprise that they finished equal top of the ladder behind Geelong, only on percentage, and ahead of the two eventual grand finalists, Richmond and Collingwood in terms of games won. But both those rivals beat them as the Blues exited the finals in straight sets, sealing the coach’s fate.


Ever since then, and he’s well into his seventies now, people have taken great delight in reminding Jones that he was the coach responsible for Carlton not equalling Collingwood’s all-time record of four flags in a row. They’re just having a lend of him, of course, just as he is happy to bait anyone else when he gets a chance, and he takes it all in his good-humoured stride. But he wouldn’t be human if it didn’t sit in the pit of his stomach just a little bit.


For the record, that gives him a coaching win-loss percentage of 77%, compared to the high fifties or mid-sixties of all the greats, such as Barassi, Clarkson, Hafey, Sheedy, Jeans, Smith, Parkin, Matthews, McHale and Malthouse, all of whom, of course, enjoyed much longer careers in the box.


More pertinently, Jones was a significant player, reaching 249 games, playing in four premierships – in one of which he might have been a candidate for the Norm Smith medal for best afield in the Grand Final if it had existed then – and won a best and fairest. He is in Carlton’s Hall of Fame and also the Tasmanian football Hall of Fame and as well as coaching Carlton he did a stint on the committee. It’s a record to be proud of, not always fully acknowledged because of his richly-earned reputation as a larrikin.


He would have cracked the 250 games easily but for him being the first to discover, to his dismay, the unpalatable truth about life under Jezza the coach. Perc was at least a stone overweight, which wasn’t uncommon for him. The previous coaches had let him get away with it.


Jezza sentenced him immediately to a long spell in the Reserves until the excess avoirdupois was removed. The easiest way for Jones to have achieved that probably would have been to stop or cut back on drinking beer, but there was one problem with that. He was still one of the coach’s drinking mates. It took him an inordinately long time to realise that merely shouting first – an unfamiliar procedure for him in any case – was not enough to get him back in the team.


Jones was responsible for me committing an act of sacrilege. In footy-mad Melbourne, it is simply not done to change your football allegiance. You learn to barrack for a team as a kid and you’re not allowed to change. Because my grandmother’s brother was Percy Beames, a legendary footballer with Melbourne – and a good first-class cricketer – I grew up as a fan of the Demons, as did Jones for that matter. We both idolised the great Ron Barassi, who was coach of Carlton when Jones realised he had a future in the big league, meaning the Blues had his signature in the bag.


I became so involved with Jones in the early seventies that it made more sense to spend time watching him, and quite a few others with whom I became friendly, playing for Carlton whenever my weekend working hours allowed, than watching the Demons, where I knew no-one. So I switched. It turned out to be a good move. Having enjoyed Melbourne’s run of six premierships between 1954 and 1964, which was destined to be their last, I then got to watch from much closer quarters as the Blues also won six under my newly-acquired patronage.


I met Jones through mutual mates after returning from a couple of years doing the rounds of London and Europe and was surprised one day to see him walking, unannounced, through the door of a Toorak flat I was sharing with one of those mates, carrying a suitcase in either hand. His grandmother had kicked him out, he said, and my other mate – Peter Coster, also a journalist at The Herald – had said, without consulting me, that he could move in with us even though we only had two bedrooms.


That proved to be an interesting arrangement.


It wasn’t long before the doorbell rang at dawn one morning, and there was an agitated Barassi demanding to know where his ruckman was, storming into the bedroom shouting: ‘Get up you loafer!’ and dragging him off to a training session at a nearby park.

The coach wasn’t the only one to come knocking.


One night Jones and Coster decided a party on a balcony at the next block of flats was a bit loud for their liking – an irony lost on them both – and pelted them with potatoes, breaking several glasses and creating chaos.


Within an hour, the cops were at the door and they knew exactly who they were looking for – Jones hadn’t bothered going to the trouble of hiding as he launched the missiles with the highly-suspect bowling action he utilised when we played cricket together. When optimistically asked if they had a warrant, I was unceremoniously shoved aside as they stormed through to the same bedroom on the same mission as the coach had done. The matter ended up in Prahran Court, where the irascible ruckman was fined and admonished, but without attracting any media attention of significance. Imagine the headlines if that happened these days.


When a shotgun was discharged over the heads of a party on the other side of our place one night, eliciting another angry visit from the gendarmerie – they searched in vain for the weaponry, which had been carefully hidden under a bed not belonging to the culprit – and then, one Sunday morning, I awoke to find the back door had been shouldered open because one or maybe both of the others had come home sans door key, we had just about worn out our welcome in Melbourne’s toffiest neighbourhood.


Coster left the country, Jones and I went our separate ways until I decided to follow his modus operandi and gatecrashed my way into his new pad in Albert Park. That turned out to be a good move because he soon worked out that there were two young wenches living next door, to whom he decided we should introduce ourselves. I ended up marrying one of them and 40-odd years later we are still together.


Jones and I also shared a mutual love of cricket and so, together with his Carlton team-mate and business partner in a couple of pubs, Adrian Gallagher, and another sportswriter, Trevor Grant, we formed a team to play in what was then a thriving Midweek Cricket Association, which brought together teams of policemen, firemen, high school and university students and random assorted like-minded people to play 40 over matches on Wednesday afternoons.


We called it the Plastic Eleven – when asked why, we’d say because we cracked easily under pressure – and it lasted for more than 20 years, populated by journalists, footballers, club cricketers of every conceivable standard and quite a few elite cricketers.


In all we had 15 former or future Test players from five countries who played either briefly or regularly, including two future captains of England, Ian Botham and John Emburey, as well as Australians Dean Jones, Rodney Hogg, Gary Cosier, Ian Callen and others. These luminaries, along with a dozen or two first class players, came and went so we were hard to beat for a while and won two or three premierships – and, yes, cracked under pressure just as often.


Jones captained us to one flag – but only one. That was because during one match, he took umbrage at being bounced by a bloke who had played a few matches as a fast bowler for Victoria, and shirt-fronted him from behind, knocking him over, as he walked back to his mark. I was president of the association at the time and we had no tribunal, but the professional umpire in charge of the match wrote me an angry letter suggesting Jones be suspended anyway for appalling sportsmanship. I replied that he wouldn’t captain the team the following season, and nor did he.


The team also cost Gallagher a leadership position. Once a good opening bat for Carlton at District level – in 1970 he became the first person to play in premierships in the VFL and the VCA in the same year – he was working as an assistant coach at Carlton, footy that is. But on one stinking hot Wednesday arvo, he decided that staying back for a few after-match beers with the newly-recruited Emburey was preferable to turning up to a scheduled training session, so he got the sack.


We still supplied Carlton with a proper coach eventually because Denis Pagan, an enthusiastic medium-pacer and middle-order batsman, was one of our keener participants before he made his name as a dual premiership coach at North Melbourne, later taking over the Blues for an unsuccessful stint.


Two other star Blues, Wayne Johnston and Mark Maclure, and North’s Sam Kekovich, were also among the many footballers who enjoyed time with the Plastic Eleven because their summer training didn’t allow them to commit to weekend club cricket. Eventually, that led to me ghost-writing Johnston’s life story, titled The Dominator. Johnno was a truly great footballer, especially in the four Grand Finals in which he starred, but he was a wild man off the field. I was well aware of that so before agreeing to write the book I insisted that it had to be the unvarnished truth, no matter how confronting some of that might be. Sure thing, he promised. So we proceeded, with plenty of lurid tales about nights on the town and a few in hospitals, with drugs involved. When the manuscript was complete, it was so replete with this sort of stuff that I figured it might be smart to run it by Carlton’s CEO Ian Collins before publication just to make sure it was on the money. Collo took me to lunch to discuss it, and laughed. ‘It’s all accurate,’ he said, ‘but he hasn’t told you the half of it.’ That made me wonder. But it wasn’t the last time Johnston was to do my head in.


Nearly 30 years later, in late 2019, I ran into him for the first time in ages at a wine and food show in a park and he looked fit and well and declined my offer to buy him a drink, saying he was trying to clean up his life. That he certainly needed to do. Now in his sixties, he had recently been inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame, by far the highlight of his post-playing days, which had included far more lows than highs, including the death of his son Matt, at 11, from an asthma attack while playing in a school footy match in Brisbane.


Now, he told me, he was on the way back from a living hell that had involved drugs, alcohol and gambling, the break-up of his second marriage, and mental and physical health problems that included an infection that almost saw the amputation of one of the legs that had carried him to starring roles in four premierships. In an interview with the AFL Players’ Association’s Courageous Conversations website, he said he was so zonked out at one stage that when his sons arrived to rescue him he did not even recognise one of them for four hours.


It had all been his own fault, he told me, and then asked if I would be prepared to write a second book, detailing this descent into self-loathing – and his determination to recover. Why would he want to make all that public? His motivation, he said, was to counsel young men embarking on their own careers in the cut-throat world of professional sport so that they would be aware of the many potential pitfalls. In other words, he wanted his experiences to help others, however unflattering the exercise might be.


It sounded like a noble enough ambition and, after insisting that this time it be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I agreed to write it for him. I also enlisted the help of his old coach, Parkin, who had once said he found the first book almost impossible to read because he never realised how much carry-on, involving so many players, had been going on behind his back. So not surprisingly he had misgivings this time about becoming involved again but agreed that the premise of the new project had a lot of potential upside and came on board with his customary whole-heartedness.


Three months of hard work later, I had 50,000 words done – about 90 per cent of the planned total – and while there were a lot of positive observations to make and insights to glean about the golden era Johnston (and Parkin) lived through at Carlton, the confessions about what ensued in later years made for pretty depressing reading. Suddenly, the subject stopped answering the phone or replying to emails, which set my alarm bells ringing. Sure enough, a message – not a phone call and certainly not a knock on my door for a face to face meeting – eventually lobbed, saying simply that his family didn’t want the book to go ahead and he wished me all the best. Just like that, the project was in the bin. I can easily understand why his sons would be uncomfortable with it, and I am not hostile about it, but perhaps he should have consulted them at the outset, which would have saved both of us a lot of time, effort and heart-ache. At the time of writing this, several months later, I have never heard from him again, which has been a disappointing way to end what had been a friendly relationship going back a very long way. I can only hope that he has, indeed, got his act together because the alternative would have little future.


There is always a silver lining. In this case, Parkin provided me with the written feedback he circulated to Johnston and every other player after the winning Grand Finals in 1981 and 1982. These reports, which he called ‘Retrospectives,’ make great reading if you’re an old Blues supporter like me – and not for just us. Collingwood fans with long memories – and there’s a lot of them about – would be intensely interested in one part of Parkin’s essay after beating them in ’81, which I don’t recall ever having been made public at the time. It would cause uproar these days.


He revealed that he had a long post-match conversation with his opposite number Tom Hafey, who he admired greatly as a coach. ‘He has achieved much with a limited bunch of footballers over the past few years,’ Parkin wrote. ‘At the risk of being a little unethical or unprofessional, I want to pass on a couple of points he made.’

The points were:

1: His five top salary earners are his worst trainers.

2: His five top salary earners are his greatest wingers and excuse men.

3: His five top salary earners hardly touched the ball in Saturday’s last quarter.

4: His five top salary earners lack the courage which is found in men with real strength of character.

5: His five top salary earners cost Collingwood the chance to win its first premiership in 23 years.


It was unclear whether Hafey, who has since died, named the culprits and if he did Parkin did not identify them – but he said ‘it’s not too difficult to work out who those players are,’ adding that he wouldn’t know who Carlton’s best-paid players were and wasn’t really interested in finding out. ‘From each according to his ability, and not according to his salary,’ he wrote. ‘There were very few stars in our team but no non-contributors either.’


So who might the Collingwood wingers and non-goers have been?

This is the team that lined up:

B: Ian Cooper, Peter McCormack, Ray Byrne.

HB: David Twomey, Bill Picken, Graeme Allan.

C: Rick Barham, Mark Williams, Warwick Irwin.

HF: Peter Daicos, Craig Davis, Rene Kink.

F: Ray Shaw, Ian Brewer, Craig Stewart.

Rucks: Peter Moore (c), Michael Taylor, Tony Shaw.

Inter: Stuart Atkin, Noel Lovell.

Presumably exempt from the coach’s withering accusations would be the best players, who are listed in the AFL guide as Picken, Williams, Twomey, McCormack, Taylor and Stewart.


Here are the rudimentary match stats, disposals and, in brackets, kicks, marks and handballs.


Allen 6 (3, 0, 3), Atkin 11 (6, 3, 5 and 11 hit-outs), Barham 13 (9, 5, 4 and two goals), Brewer none listed, Byrne 10 (1, 3, 10), Cooper 7 (4, 4, 3), Daicos 18 (14, 1, 4 and one goal), Davis 11 (9, 5, 2), Irwin 15 (12, 1, 3), Kink 15 (9, 2, 6 and two goals), Lovell 8 (4, 1, 4), McCormack 11 (9, 3, 2), Moore 9 (5, 4, 4 and one goal and eight hit-outs), Picken 21 (17, 5, 4), Ray Shaw 11 (10, 0, 1 and one goal), Tony Shaw 25 (12, 1, 13 and one goal), Stewart 15 (10, 4, 5 and one goal and four hit-outs), Taylor 27 (19, 2, 8 and one goal), Twomey 16 (10, 1, 6), Williams 17 (14, 1, 3 and two goals).


The fall-out was dramatic. The following year, Collingwood did not make the finals, plunging to 10th, Hafey was sacked mid-season, and Moore, the captain, a Brownlow medallist and dual best and fairest, left the club and finished his career at Melbourne.


Carlton, meanwhile, sailed on like the good team that they were. The premise of Eddy’s book is that this group – The Dominator and his many like-minded mates – probably should be recognised as the protagonists of the greatest era in the famous old club’s history. He gets no argument from me. Certainly, it was a memorable time to be a Carlton supporter – even if you had just adopted them for convenience’s sake, as I had.





For further details about the book and purchase options click here.


For details of the lunch with Ron Reed on Friday April 23 click here.


The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in 2021. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order HERE



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