Almanac Books: Champions All – A History of AFL/VFL Football in the Player’s Own Words Part 2

Champions All - by Matt Zurbo

Champions All – by Matt Zurbo


Imagine you had the inside information on the significant moments of Footy told to you from the people that experienced it first hand, the coaches and the players. Footy Almanac’s own Matt Zurbo has published a new book that has accomplished this feat. In the words of Leo Barry, “History often looks different from the Inside”.


Some of the topics include Bill Williams talking openly about the Bloodbath Grand Final personal perspectives of Grand Final victories and losses, Recruitment, Players talk about Players. There is also a chapter on Neville Bruns talking about Leigh Matthews.


Part 2 in the continuation of Matt Zurbo’s new book Champions All – A History of AFL/VFL Football in the Player’s Own Words.


In this extract players discussing the Clubs in the 2010s from Hawthorn to Western Bulldogs.



Champions All is published by Echo Publishing and is available from bookshops, K-Mart/Big W and online.


Hawthorn 10s

Matt Spangher, Hawthorn ’12–: The blokes who did it tough in the early 2000s, you speak to Mitch and Hodge, and Clarko when he first got there, it was a shambles, an absolute shambles.


The least well run you could imagine. They speak of the blokes of the late 90s and early 00s who were just riding the coattails of the 80s. The club had a habit of hiring Hawthorn people.


Clarko was the first in a long time to come from outside. He’s got the balls to say something if a situation needs to change. Some people say to his detriment, but that’s what the club needed.


A lot of the modern game is still instinct. It’s a massive part of the reason Hawthorn are so successful. We’ve played alongside each other for so long, we have that familiarity, we have that tacit knowledge, as a group, when to stay and when to go.


The thing about Hawthorn’s game plan is everybody moves together. There’s an overwhelming trust. That extends to the ball in hand. Because you trust everyone around you, you trust yourself better. Kicks I would have been scathed for at West Coast, I might miss one out of ten, but at Hawthorn they remember the nine. The bad one they have you covered on.


People see the Grand Finals, three good wins, but forget what it took to get there. Most of Hawthorn’s Preliminary Finals have been won by under a goal.


Campbell Brown, Hawthorn ’02–10: The Tassie/Hawthorn connection happened in my time. I reckon it was perfect, just a perfect fit. They’re as passionate as any supporters in Australia, and were desperate for a team. We got another 10 to 12 thousand members, and the Aurora Stadium, the best surface of all time! Big, wide, good for switching the ball. As a half-back flanker, running and carrying, perfect. We always used to win down there. The powerhouse that Hawthorn is now, Tassie plays a big role.


Matt Spangher: They just love it. For them to have ownership of a club is hugely important. You’d hope every football club has pride, but Hawthorn, maybe the success helps, but it’s everywhere. There’s this great quote in the lift at Waverley from one of the old club doctors, Sandy Ferguson. You see it every day – ‘If you embrace Hawthorn, Hawthorn will embrace you.’ That’s how I try to live my life.


Melbourne 10s


Jack Grimes, Melbourne ’08–: You could just see Todd (coach Todd Viney) had so much pride about the jumper. He was trying to get a lot of that back. Not just for the sake of winning, but for Melbourne as a club. You could hear his passion in the way he spoke to us on game day.


Jade Rawlings, Melbourne defensive coach 2012–: I came back to Melbourne under Mark Neeld. Melbourne were pretty low. Dean Bailey had been sacked, Viney had been caretaker for a few games, there were no crowds and not much going on financially. I just liked the challenge of it. To build something from scratch.


Mark was in a tough slot. He was appointed in crisis, then within 18 months, Jim Stynes got the presidency and died of cancer, Cameron Schwab got sacked, there was the Liam Jurrah issue – a hugely talented Indigenous player falling off the rails . . . meanwhile, on-field went from bad to worse. About as low as a club could get, really.


When they replaced him the club got Neil Craig. He was just fantastic for the club. He did a great job as caretaker.


Russell Robertson, Melbourne ’97–09: Roosy took some talking to get down from Sydney. He came to speak to the boys, and some of them, they were in tears, he spoke with such conviction.


His thing at Melbourne is, ‘I don’t care who you are. If you don’t abide by my culture, I’ll get an average player to do it over a superstar.’ And that’s how it should be.


Jack Grimes: Paul Roos became coach in 2014. He was the seventh in eight years. To finally have a name that came with so much stature and success behind it, gave the feeling of a bit of security. We knew that things under him were going to change.


Jade Rawlings: The trick is to get the right people around you to support it. Football lifetimes are short, if you’re going to execute a plan and build something that outlasts you, a legacy, the personal are everything.


Jack Grimes: We probably thought it would be more about the coaches. He made it clear it’s not going to be Paul Roos, or George Stone or a Ben Matthews that will turn the club around, it’s going to be the players.


Jade Rawlings: We’re based in Docklands Stadium now. I wish I could say it was amazing walking back into the MCG as a coach but these days Melbourne don’t get there much more than other clubs, really.


Jack Grimes: Of course I dream about a new Melbourne dynasty, like today’s Hawthorn and Sydney. That’s the driving force. The thought that when you ask people what makes Melbourne Melbourne, they’ll say, ‘It’s Melbourne now.’


North Melbourne 10s


Drew Petrie ’01–: Brad (Scott) came in in 2010. He was of the new generation of coach, he was the educator, the mentor, not the yeller and screamer. He was very smart because he knew we had a young group, he knew he had to teach us. He had to build something.


Outsiders might think it’d be the more prominent names who were the ones that would drive the group. Nah, it’s not the case. It’s the unsung people like Spud Firrito.


Sometimes it’s hard keeping up with the game’s evolution, especially when you have a new coach bringing a new game plan. It’s taken us, where we are today, five years to try and perfect Brad Scott’s. Now we’re back playing Preliminary Finals. And hopefully better.


Wayne Schimmelbusch, NM ’70s–80s: I’m 100 per cent sure that in 20 years time there will not be 10 sides in Melbourne . . . the game can’t afford it . . . The clubs with the least money will go. North missed an opportunity, they should’ve gone to the Gold Coast . . . The Gold Coast Kangaroos or whatever and played in blue and white jumpers. Like Sydney, the AFL would have thrown money at it.


North under Aylett changed their name to the Kangaroos Football Club, because he’s a stern believer in the only way they could survive was to go relocate and rebrand. Everybody’s got a different opinion. Not an argument you can ever win. Other than to say that if they stay where they are now, well, they’ll fold.


Port Adelaide 10s


Josh Carr, PA ’00–04 ’09–10: I retired at thirty, I wasn’t playing great footy . . . Port Adelaide, the pressure to win from outside, from supporters, you just had this thing in your brain that losing . . . At the end, I couldn’t deal with losing. We ended up in 2011 where things couldn’t have got much worse than they were.


Kane Cornes, PA ’01–15: We were a really, really ordinary footy team in 2011, 2012 . . . We only won three games that year . . . Primus got sacked towards the end of 2012.


My first conversation with Ken Hinkley, I was doing some weights at the club during the off-season, he walked in with Alan Richardson, and said, ‘You boys are going to be shocked by how much I’m going to get you to train. I think AFL fitness coaches are too conservative, so we’re going to up it and we’re going to do more than any other team.’ So, yeah, his honesty stood out from day one.


Credit to people like Russ Ebert and Fos Williams that have created that family culture. Ken Hinkley brings his sons to probably 90 per cent of the games, and even into the change rooms, and my kids are allowed in whenever they want. So, the tradition’s continued right through down the generations.


Josh Carr, PA assistant coach: Over the last few years, making the Power and the Magpies the one club, that’s made it so much bigger . . . Now that we’re all together, it’s really taken off. The Adelaide Oval has only helped that.


What I feel about this football club is that it makes it happen for some reason; it attracts great people.


Richmond 10s


Nathan Foley, Richmond ’04–15: We’ve got a big thing at Richmond about the jumper. It hasn’t changed for a very long time. I love the simplicity, the colours. Yellow and black. As a playing group we respect it. It’s never allowed to hit the ground, we never wear it in NAB Cup, our VFL team wears a different version. You only ever wear it while playing seniors for Richmond, which I think is amazing.


2013 was a big, big year for the club. I’d come back from the achilles in Round 7. We’d made finals for the first time in a generation . . . The boys lost to Carlton, after the Blues finished 9th, ironically. But Essendon were suspended due to the peptides.


The first half of ’14 was a disaster. We had key players out all the time – Rancey, Lids and Ivan, but we were just playing safe footy. You’d almost feel a bit panicky at team meetings or walking in on a Monday . . . We challenged everyone to just improve 5 per cent – be that in the gym, recovery, on the track, running between cones . . .


First by a half against North, and then three-quarters two weeks in a row against Freo and Sydney, we started to play better footy. Not that it showed on the ladder. Halfway through we were equal bottom on percentage!


In terms of taking the game on, and confidence and that, it’s amazing how contagious it is. All of a sudden we started winning a whole lot of games. Three games to go, it became, ‘Hang on! We’re a chance here . . .’ Then it rolled into Sydney – if you win against the top team, you play finals!


We jumped them; our first quarter was phenomenal. But they pegged us back. In that last quarter, it was close, Goodes was looking so dangerous, it just kept coming in. You could feel the crowd rising! And the players. Alex Rance was incredible.


His efforts in that last quarter, chopping out marks, and Brando’s tackle on Goodes, and then we kicked it down the line and Griff took a big mark, Dusty turned Teddy Richards inside-out on the centre square and run in and kick a goal! We won by three points . . . The most amazing game of football I’ve been a part of. Incredible.

Next week, over in Adelaide, Port trounced us.


I’ve grown to love the Richmond Club song so much. It just holds so many fond memories for me. But the joy of singing it as a group – we just get the circle to ourselves, don’t let any media in . . . The way we give it a slow build up to really get the most out of it . . . . I couldn’t pinpoint why, it’s just so . . .


I mean, ‘Yellow and black’ is just so unbelievable! At the ‘G’ especially, it just echoes! It’s the best song in football.


St Kilda 10s


Steven King, St Kilda assistant coach: Then, end of ’11 Rossy went to Freo . . . It was a bombshell.


Sean Dempster, St Kilda ’08–: We were on the decline, but I didn’t ever feel like he’d left us in a bad spot, I just felt like he found an opportunity that he needed to take for him and his family.


Winning a wooden spoon (2013), oh, it definitely stings. We felt like we were a very young team getting some good game time into our young players that we wanted to fast track. Scott Watters was huge for my football, but to know that teams probably pencilled in a win against us before they’d played us really, really hurt.


I’m pretty optimistic with the future, though. That young talent in the door over the last three years has been impressive.


The character that they’ve been able to bring, not just the skills, that’s what’s important.


The best bloke I’ve met in footy is Kenny Whiffin, who just passed away. I only knew him for a short period, but he’s put over 50 years into this club. So, for over a third of St Kilda’s history he’s been around, behind the scenes, with no accolades, doing what he can – from runner to head trainer, to part-time trainer to coming in here and just being a confidante for some of the players. It’s people like that you’re fortunate enough to meet along the way.


Lazar Vidovic, St Kilda ’90s: What makes St Kilda so special is the supporters. It didn’t matter if they won or lost. I could go back today, and they’d still be there. No matter what the scores. They’re just a special breed. The club motto, ‘Strength through loyalty.’ What? ‘Fortius Quo Fidelius’ Exactly.


Sydney 10s


Rhyce Shaw, Sydney ’09–15: There’s the game plan, but also, at Sydney, we want the way we play to reflect our culture we’ve built up over the years. That we’re a really hard team to play against. The Bloods. We’ll play you anywhere, anytime and we’re going to make sure we give 100 per cent.


Ryan O’Keefe, Sydney ’00–14: John (Longmire) had been at Sydney the whole time Roosy was coach, so we already had a great rapport with him. Our basic philosophy, our core of what we’re about still remained, but, when John took over in 2011, he just tactically took it forward. There was more attacking, we slightly changed the way we defended. Slowly as, that first year he took over we started to getting our head around it.


Matt Spangher, Sydney ’11–12: In 2011 we had lost a couple of games in a row. On the flight back Rhyce Shaw and Tadhg Kennelly went to the coaching panel and said, ‘We’ve got to take these boys out and get drunk.’ It’s the sort of thing that makes the coaches a little nervous, but it was very needed, and got us back on track.


Ryan O’Keefe: And by 2012 we really nailed it.


Matt Spangher: Tadhg wasn’t even in the leadership group, and if Rhyce wasn’t it wouldn’t have changed a thing. He would have done it anyway. If you want to be successful you need players like that.


Ryan O’Keefe: AFL has chipped away, all the kids now are playing AFL and doing Auskick.’05 put it on the map. 2012 just stamped it – Bang! We’re here, we’re a powerhouse . . .


After 2012 I’d be stopped walking down the street.


Rhyce Shaw, Hawthorn: Getting Buddy Franklin in 2014 was just sensational! It was massive . . . But things did change. There was a lot more spotlight on us, it became harder to fly under the radar like we had in other years.


Ryan O’Keefe: I’m glad to be a part of the Swans ongoing history. Getting old, talk to my kids about it. To be part of that generation that sort of changed the club, and really brought it to where it is, you know, one the powerhouses, something to sit back and say – I was a part of that, I helped that grow.


West Coast 10s


Scott Burns, WC assistant coach, ’08–13: It surprised me how much time and energy was being spent off field. Cousins had gone, now there were a lot of strong, young men that they were drafting in terms of their leadership and their maturity, it was almost like they were drafting for character as much as skills . . .


John Worsfold, WC coach ’02–13: 2010 we finished bottom, but as a coach I was rapt, I was lovin’ it! We had a real clear focus on what we were doing. I could see the talent in young blokes like Selwood, like MacKenzie, like Ebert and Naitanui, Hurn. People were questioning it. The recruiting blokes had been so good, I had to have faith in them. I had to have faith.


They were all going to come along real quick. ‘Just stick with it boys! We have to see this through! Come along for the ride, fellas!’


The headline came out, Leigh Matthews said: FINALS? TELL ‘EM THEY’RE DREAMING!’ Matt Priddis came to me and said, ‘Woosha, I believe in your vision, but when are we going to start winning?’


Scott Burns: So all those young players another year older, Kerr back, Cox back, Glass back, Embley fit. You pick up Gaff and Darling in the one draft . . .


John Worsfold: Next year I got such joy out of watching Prida play in three finals.


Scott Burns: We went from last to 4th . . . Look at the Eagles now. That year set the club up beautifully for the future.


John Worsfold: Having an AFL team is a huge part of WA and its culture. It’s one of those things, we’re far away, it connects us to everybody else, but we still want that rivalry.


Western Bulldogs 10s

Ben Hudson, WB ’08–11: Bob Murphy and I lived basically next door to each other; he let me do what I liked and I let him listen to his crazy country-and-western songs on the way to training. Leading into games and post games, we didn’t really talk footy. The car was always full of conversation, but it was just about life, really.


He’s so skinny. It’s amazing, his durability. The few times he was caught he looked like a rabbit in the spotlight. (laughs)


But he was so quick and nimble, usually no-one got near him.


Steven King, midfield coach ’12–: Now that the Bulldogs have our own VFL team named Footscray, playing games at the Whitten Oval, wearing the old-school, ’54, traditional jumper, it’s opened my eyes a bit more. I’ve realised that it’s not the biggest supporter base in the world but it’s so passionate.


There’s that sort of undercurrent of, not us versus them, but . . . a little bit of that underdog tag.


Michael Talia, WB ’12–15: Just to see the crowds at the Whitten Oval again, to see the enjoyment in them, the happiness on the kids’ faces kicking the ball out on the ground after the game, to see them here on Grand Final day, that sense of belonging, it ties people together. To know what it means to them, it’s another reason to love this place.


Steven King: I’m an old-school person. It’s hard because you want to keep those roots but the club just has to grow beyond just Footscray to remain competitive in a national competition.


Michael Talia: We’re still based in the heart of Footscray. It shows, definitely. I can’t see any other team in the AFL that has more of a sense of belonging in its local community.


Gia in his last year, playing on the vest, pacing the boundary, he became a bit of a superstar for a while there! (laughs) But 300 games, the no-bullshit way he went about it – just a champion of the club.


Luke Beveridge is fantastic, he’s really brought a breath of fresh air to the club. He wants us to be more instinctive, more daring. We’ve stripped it back to basics, lots of players are much more confident. It bodes well for the next few years.


Catch up on Part 1


You can purchase a copy online via this link.


  1. Andrew Weiss says

    Just bought the book today and are looking forward to reading it. Just a quick flick through and it looks great. Well done Matt

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