Almanac Book Review: ‘Born to Play – The Barry Davis story’


Born to Play: The Barry Davis story – Ken Davis


A Man of Great Character

‘Barry Davis could easily be described as the epitome of a League footballer – playing fair, but hard – eyes always on the ball – never shirking a bump – displaying all the basic fundamentals with great skill – and always a gentleman with a character which is beyond reproach,’ 

VFL Football Record 17 June 1974


Ken Davis has written a superb in-depth biography of his brother Barry, the former Essendon and North Melbourne champion footballer. 


This impressively produced book will captivate and delight  all sports fans,  especially football followers with its excellent insights into the making of Barry Davis as a person, sportsman, teacher and all round good guy.  As the author says, Barry is; … ‘the purest of sportsmen…’ held in… ‘awe of his ability and passion, as well as the humility, grace and respect he has had for his chosen sports and those his life has touched’  An excellent summary indeed!


Growing up in the 50s and 60s the Bombers were my team. A champion team with many champions winning two premierships during that time, and Barry Davis was my favourite player. Unfortunately, mum was never able to sew his number 32 onto my jumper because it would not fit! That did not worry me, I imagined the number on my back whenever wearing my red and black footy jumper.


What an absolute thrill when dad took me for the first time to see the Bombers play. In front of me on a wind swept Windy Hill was probably Essendon’s greatest half-back line in the club’s history. ’Two red heads and a boy from Boulder’; namely Alec Epis, Ian Shelton, and Barry Davis. There was the yappy, bustling and showy ‘Kooka’ on one flank, the tough as nails run through anything hard man ‘Bluey’ at centre-half-back, and then of course, the silky smooth, cool, calm and collected, drop kicking and good looking Barry Davis on the other flank. You could not have  asked for a greater contrast in playing styles or personalities with these three players but together they were a most formidable defensive and attacking unit for the Bombers.


Barry Davis was gifted, excelling in many sports and schooling during his formative years.  A willing learner he eagerly absorbed all in front of him. With  a minimum of fuss he committed  and applied his learnings to whatever activity he participated in. Along with a  loving and supportive family behind him, Barry’s levelheaded temperament and positive attitude towards the important things in life, ensured a pathway to ultimately achieving at the highest levels in all his endeavours. This background of a cherished older brother’s developing journey is  empathetically told by  younger brother Ken’s insightful and detailed account of these early years in the book. You soon understand the how and why behind Barry’s successes.


Many anecdotes from former team mates supported and emphasised Barry Davis the footballer, and Barry Davis the person, are a highlight in the book. I particularly enjoyed comments by Geoff Pryor, a progressive political thinker whose thoughts went beyond the footy field. His comments about Barry and the Essendon players’ strike in 1970 were enlightening.  Seemingly opposites in their outlook Barry shows his adaptability to accommodate all viewpoints and had no hesitation in joining  Pryor in the  players strike. His team mates  overwhelming emphasise his attitude and determination in how Davis played the game; always competitive but forever fair, is very profound in their comments. 


Another major point continually highlighted in the book is the opinion Davis was well ahead of his time as a coach. His ideas and the methods he employed then, many believe, would not be out of place coaching a current AFL side today. The concept of teaching and improving skills through specific learning activities and providing  positive feedback  were developed from principles learnt in his teacher training.


Interestingly, Barry is forthright in his opinions of players he believes do not play in the true spirit of the game. Davis has difficulty supporting the view  Leigh Matthews is the top player of the 20th century and his reasons provide compelling reading. Matthews felling Barry Cable in an interstate match ‘a callous act’ he claims.  Davis himself was felled by an elbow to the face by St Kilda player Jim Read in 1965 and missed many matches returning in time for the finals. Amazingly, the first person to Davis as he lay in agony on the ground was his cousin, a nurse, who jumped the fence to tend him!


Having been Essendon all his life, the move to North Melbourne was a new direction for Barry and made without any ill feeling. The decision was ‘one of the best and most profound of his life’ according to Barry. Here was an opportunity to promote and apply  ideas he had been formulating from the principles developed from his educational career.  Putting them into practice would ultimately place him in good stead for a future coaching career. 


The anecdotes surrounding his dismay of the unhealthy habits affecting the training and playing performance of some players are eye opening. How Barry confronts and turns around those issues is a credit to his demeanor  and professional manner underlines the evolving confidence his fellow team mates were developing in him.  His interactions with Ron Barassi, due to contrasting personalities and styles, could have been difficult for Barry but he more than held his own with Barassi is clearly demonstrated  in the book. Davis was a calming influence in many torrid situations. These anecdotes provide readers with a fascinating behind the scenes insight into the development of a premiership  team.


This biography of Barry Davis so wonderfully written by his brother Ken Davis covers all aspects of Barry’s life and career, pre and post footy, some of it well known, some of it not so well known. The reader is privileged to have access to this intimate background that provides a compelling and detailed account of a much admired and outstanding person. Without a doubt, Barry Davis was ‘born to play’. It is a book I thoroughly recommend.



To celebrate the release of  Born to Play: The Barry Davis story,  in a limited edition hardback, you have the opportunity to purchase the book by contacting Ken Piesse at [email protected] for the special offer of $50 post free.



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About Colin Ritchie

Retired teacher who enjoys following the Bombers, listening to music especially Bob Dylan, reading, and swimming.


  1. matt watson says

    In the process of buying a hard copy.
    One thing about Barry that people may not know about.
    His compassion and care for former teammates.
    He wants to make sure they’re okay.

  2. Kevin Densley says

    Good piece, Col, about a model footballer.

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