Almanac Books: Champions All – A History of AFL/VFL Football in the Players’ Own Words – Part 1

Champions All – A History of AFL/VFL Football in the Players’ Own Words 

by Matt Zurbo

Published by Echo Publishing


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”.


Matt’s new book Champions All – A History of AFL/VFL Football in the Players’ Own Words is a great collection of stories and yarns covering Footy’s most significant moments. 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 where Neville Bruns talks about Leigh Matthews.


This is a comprehensive book of Footy tales, Matt has outdone himself with the research, interviewing over 170 players, past and present to deliver an essential publication for anyone interested in truly understanding this great game of ours.


Champions All,  published 1st September by Echo Publishing is available from bookshops, K-Mart/Big W and booktopia or readings.


Here is an extract where the players are discussing the 2010s. This first part covers all the clubs from Adelaide to Greater Western Sydney.


The 2010s

Adelaide 10s

Ben Rutten, Adelaide ’03–14: 2012 we were heading towards finals again. Sando come, and he had an instant buy-in from the group – the players would listen to every word he’d say because, look, he’s come from Geelong!


Craigy’s big philosophy was get out on the track, train. If we lose a few soldiers, then that’s what happens. Whereas any sign of soreness, Sando’d be on the more conservative side with training to get them fit for matches. VB, Thommo and I would be scratching our heads a bit. I thought, ‘This isn’t my concept of hard and strong’, but we were getting results.


As time went on it caught up with us a little bit. We were healthy in terms of fit blokes, but weren’t ready to perform. We hadn’t done the work. Craigy, we’d done the work, but what hurt us was we might have been 10 per cent too much. We lost too many soldiers – or the important ones.


2012 we were so close! We then played Freo, who had just gone to Melbourne and beaten Geelong. Pav had kicked six . . . All the talk during the week was – How are we going to stop Pav? Who’s going to stop Pav? Pav’s going to win the game . . . I shut him down. Totally. Just played close and hard.


He only kicked the one goal, late in the last quarter when the game was done. I was filthy on myself! I wanted a clean sheet, you know? To leave an impression, send a message: Pav hasn’t scored on me.


Then, we played Hawthorn . . . It’s getting late, we’re still too far behind. Then Stiffy (Graham Johncock) comes on as a sub, went up forward and kicked a goal from about 50. That created the energy when we had none, late in the game! We can pinch this . . .


We were just rolling the dice, play on, play on, we had to score . . . Siren. Still five points down. To lose that . . . that was shattering.


I’ve got a great photo of me and Dogga (Michael Doughty), arm-in-arm at the end. Dogga’s got a tear in his eye. It was just that moment when you know . . . It was his last game . . . We’d played so much footy together, over 200 matches . . . Standing out together in the MCG after a loss in a Prelim Final . . . It was his fourth Prelim, no Grand Finals. My third.


It’s one of those things that will niggle in your guts until you die. Those opportunities.


Brisbane 10s

Martin Pike, Brisbane ’01–05: Vossy, some players, they just have that work rate. Even if they’re injured they can still get more fitness than the other bloke, even on a bike. In some ways that’s what let him down as a coach – he had that drive and couldn’t understand why others needed to be pushed harder.


Simon Black, Brisbane ’98–13: Fev wasn’t a great thing for our club. I always felt he wanted to still be at Carlton. When he came to Brisbane he was absolutely brilliant. He trained hard; we got to see some brilliant stuff from him. Then, he had a few injury setbacks and a few other things took over. He’s a bit misunderstood. He’s not a bad person.


In the future, 10 to 15 years, I’d like to think we’re going to be a debt-free club . . . At the moment, we are only going to break even if we make the Top 8. It’s important for us to not just be results based. To be sustainable. That’s where I’d like to see the club.


Like a lot of developing footy clubs, Brisbane have the talent. Harris Andrews, Daniel McStay, Josh Schache . . . if they can have some support from the older, more experienced blokes, they can progress.


2001, 2002, 2003 put Brisbane Lions on the mark. They were a great side, but in saying that, the young Brisbane Lions now want to make their own history.


Carlton 10s

Heath Scotland, Carlton ’04–14: Andrew Carrazzo, he was a dogged worker, a competitive animal . . . He didn’t have great skills, he didn’t have a flashy part to his game, but what he did have was effort! I loved teammates like that! What it is, he just scraps. He’s leaving it all there, in that moment, in that bit of play.


Andrew Carrazzo, Carlton ’04–15: 2011 we made the finals again. We were in a position to win the two years previous to that and couldn’t close the deal. I’d been in the AFL for nine years and never won one. The morning of the game, the second I woke up, to right through the game, I was nervous.


Heath Scotland: A big crowd at the G, big moment, big game, old rivals. You can talk about the rivalry between Collingwood and Carlton, but Essendon and Carlton hate each other; they were bigger games. We played so well, we snapped them, we ripped it up!


Andrew Carrazzo: Halfway through the last quarter it was just such a great feeling . . . like all those years of hard work were paying off. It was just relief, the monkey was off our back!


Heath Scotland: We finally got to play in and win a final. It was awesome! Next week we played West Coast and, yeah, we should have won that. We had kicked four of the first five. Couldn’t have asked for a better start. But they were a quality side; they grinded us down. They had their momentum. It was an arm wrestle. Andrew Walker was in our goal square and got pushed in the back with less than a minute to go, the ball was whisked away. Beaten by less than a kick, again.


Andrew Carazzo: We probably had our window there between 2010 and 2011, and then 2012, where we had all the pieces to make a deep finals run and for whatever reasons, injuries and a few other things that didn’t allow that to happen.


Heath Scotland: Mick (Malthouse) was two different coaches. At Collingwood he was innovative, passionate, eager, driven. A coach I wanted to play for. Wanted. He just wouldn’t play me.


In Mick’s first year at Carlton, there was a time when Bucks had copped it in the media. Next day I walked into a chat with him and he’s rubbing his hands, talking about it. My opinion, Mick came to Carlton for the wrong reasons. 1. We had made the finals two years ago, and only didn’t the year before because of injury. It felt to me like he was there for instant success. 2. Breaking Jock McHale’s record. 3. Proving Collingwood wrong. It was all quick fix. He wasn’t there to build a club from the ground up. He had no care for our future.


Results versus process. He is constantly talking about being a process-driven coach – he was at Collingwood, but by the time he got to Carlton it just wasn’t true any more.


There’s no doubt in his time at Carlton the club went backwards. List mistakes, key support staff, committed Carlton people were moved on. People who have since proven just how good they are with success at other places . . .


The recruiting manager is being blamed, for example, but a club is holistic. Everything’s connected. Too many other people were being blamed. It starts at the top, and that’s what’s important.


In the end, it became the Mick Malthouse show, a circus. He lost the players, he lost the staff, he lost the club. It should have always been about the club. Such a great club! Carlton.


Andrew Carrazzo: Carlton supporters, their passion is absolutely undeniable! When you come from the history of ours and the kind of success we’ve had, they do have expectations, high requirements on the players and the performance that we put out on the field. I think that’s a good thing.


Heath Scotland: Maybe Carlton have been slow to adapt to the modern football world. Being able to go and buy the best player is huge, but now, there’s strategies to recruiting, to building a list. No doubt we suffered early with losing draft picks, but it’s been a long time since we had any penalties. I think the club has been lost recently, but is on the right track at the moment.


Collingwood 10s

Ben Johnson, Collingwood ’00–11: We were in a bit of trouble a few years ago, when we invested in all these pubs and they didn’t make any money. They just didn’t go well, could have killed us. Eddie got Perty (chief executive ex-Fitzroy/Collingwood full-back Gary Pert). Perty was a tough player, and he’s just as tough in business. He put a plan in place. And now we’re a powerhouse in business.


Ben Hudson, Collingwood ’13–14: In many ways, Collingwood is such a big machine, the amount of staff, people behind the scenes, they’re almost too big to fail. They’re a heroic footy club. They have a facility in possibly the most expensive part of Melbourne. They’re on the back page of every paper; any story that the AFL has gets linked in some way to Collingwood. (chuckles) They’re their own religion among the followers. Supporter numbers, staff, pressure, media coverage, everything is bigger. Nathan Buckley is a different coach. He does well. He’s very thorough in his preparation. You can only imagine what a major pressure he’d be under as an ex-captain to coach that side to success. He managed that well. There’s a whole new generation there.


The beauty of such a big club is that those players get to play in front of huge crowds every week. That’s an honour and a privilege. To get to play in the Anzac Day game, to stand on a big oval, listening to the last muster, hearing 100 thousand people not saying a word . . . Yep. (sighs) I can’t complain. I was lucky enough the Pies would have me in my golden years. (chuckles)


Heath Scotland, Collingwood ’99–03: Eddie McGuire did amazing things for that club. It was wrecked when I was there, broken, had no money and it’s gone to being one of the biggest clubs in the world.


Essendon 10s

Joe Daniher, Essendon ’13–: It got to a stage where I was in the senior team and I wasn’t playing very well. Mark Thompson said, ‘This week, if you don’t have fun you’re not playing next week’. That was probably one of the changing moments in my short career, I just went out there and laughed and gave blokes pats on the back and things. Just started to enjoy myself. If you’re having fun in football it’s a lot easier game to play.


I couldn’t speak high enough of James Hird. He’s an absolutely incredible person. When I agreed to come here he was the first person to invite me around to dinner. He’s got a beautiful family, beautiful kids, and you can just see what type of dad he is, and that’s sort of the type of person he really is.


I’m really proud to have worked with him. The Essendon community . . . We’ve moved from Windy Hill in the Essendon region to Tullamarine. Quite a lot of Indians live in this area. The work that we’ve done in this community has been huge. It actually went as far as sending four of us players over to India in the break last year.


The supplements issue . . . It probably affected players differently. The general feeling was shocked, then just really disappointed. But, at the same time, that builds something in the group, and hopefully that gives us another chapter in this small book that’s being written at the moment. Hopefully we get some really good success soon.


Fremantle 10s

Antoni Grover, Fremantle ’99–11: We got a text message about Mark Harvey being sacked, 30 minutes later it was made public . . . . I rang Michael Johnson . . . He said, ‘What’s going on?’ ‘I don’t know, what’s going on?’ ‘I don’t know!’ (laughs) Ross Lyon’s first impression was impressive. Very impressive. Our first meeting not one person walked in with a notebook. By the end of the year, everyone did . . . We’re on the track and Ross would go, ‘Groves what did you learn yesterday?’ Mid training session!


Shaun McManus, Fremantle ’95–0: Everyone was pulling the one direction, it was never going to be unsuccessful.


Josh Carr, Fremantle ’05–08: The culture of the town, the buzz about Fremantle, the anticipation about how good this team could be in pre-season all the time, we talked it up massively.


Expectations were huge. That was a great thing about it because I knew that if we could get it going it’d be a fantastic football club to be part of. Ross Lyon leading the charge. The picture everyone has of Fremantle now is of this hard football team. Quite envious in many ways. I wish we had that when I was there.


Shaun McManus: I view us as a team that’s just come through all kinds of bullshit to be able to be in a great position now. Rode the bumps and we’re still going.


Matt de Boer, Fremantle ’09–: The culture I’ve seen slowly develop over the last six years has really come from the top. From Matthew Pavlich, David Mundy. McGillvray Oval, we had a tough running session. We were all done, everyone is cooked, ready to go. Then you see Pav jogging off to the goals to practice his set shot routine. Next week, myself and a few others go over there and do it as well.

I guess for me Freo is different because we’ll always have that point to prove and forever we’ll be the hunter.


Geelong 10s

Brad Ottens, Geelong ’05–11: Lingy was the key. In 2011 we beat Collingwood in the Grand Final. I think we won because, all year, Lingy was like a coach at the centre bounce.


‘Here we are. There they are. We’re going here. This is what’s happening.’ I would just go, ‘Righto’ and try my best to hit it were he says.


I’m sure the influence of that first flag was pretty profound on the town as a whole. People seemed happier, they spent more. The streets were just covered in blue and white! Two more flags and a few years later, it’s virtually a new team, now.


But they’re still in the mix.


Steven King ’90s–00s: There’s something about Geelong, the way it’s run, everything. In all my time there, and since, they just never bottom out.


Doug Wade, Geelong ’60s: I don’t think a lot of the Geelong people appreciate that Geelong is the only team in Victoria that has a home ground. I can tell you now, Geelong without the Geelong Football Club, it would be a pretty ordinary place.


Gold Coast 10s

Malcolm Blight, GC coaching staff ’12–15: There is absolutely no doubt, if our chairman and board have set something up from dot, is that we want to be a community club. It’s almost going back to suburban footy. If we can retain that we believe we’re serving the fans we are agents of, I reckon that’s a great moral start.


The Collingwood toothless supporters, which is bizarre, but everyone says it, or the Richmond Carlton footy club? We’re Richmond and underpinned by money. Geelong is a country club. The Shinboners, the hard-doers from North Melbourne – everyone has got these little tags to them. If we could be of the Gold Coast . . . that would be special. The players, each year, collectively have 5,000 hours contact with the community.


You can see it catching, cars with Suns bumper stickers on them. You walk through a shopping centre and there are people wearing Suns paraphernalia. I won’t say thousands . . . ! There are tens of, dozens of . . . (chuckles) It’s going to be a long process. We’re getting there, brick by brick.


Without them knowing it, a lot of these players are frontiersmen. The players know they played the first game for the club, they know they’ve won the first game, that hopefully will play in the Suns’ first finals together.


GWS had more concessions than the Suns, and they will be a super side, but having a blue ribbon player like Gary Ablett gave us18 months on them at the compatable time. The whole club, and these players, have put up with heaps.


Maturing, knowing it’s not easy. Us, GWS, we’re the two youngest teams ever.


Dean Solomon, GC defensive coach 2011–: When you strip it back the Gold Coast Suns were gunna have 18-year-olds playing against experienced AFL players for the first couple of years and they had to learn how to compete and compete really quickly. Bluey (coach Guy McKenna) remembered me holding my own on guys like Barry Hall, Matthew Richardson, who outsized me on a lot of occasions. So, with this young side, I fit his needs as an assistant coach.


I knew they were young by their birth certificates but when you walk in the door and you look at the squad warming up for the first time, the first training session I just saw these baby faces with  pimples everywhere. How are these guy’s gonna go?


Campbell Brown, GC ’11–13: When I got to the Suns, Gaz, Bocky, Rischitelli, Brennan, Harbrow, we knew it was going to be tough, obviously, but not as much as it was – on and off the field.


That pre-season, was as enjoyable as you could possibly have, because the seven or eight senior guys, and the 40 young blokes, Bluey sought us out for everything. Feedback, training drills, this, that; we were doing a lot of promotion of the game up in Queensland, selling the message. Everything was new.


Entering that first season, the Suns had a peculiar feeling. I was used to the training standards at Hawthorn. There, they’d say, ‘Boys, training tomorrow’s at 9 am.’ So you’d get there at 8:30, you’d get changed, you might even be doing your warm-up, and nine o’clock, bang, (claps) you’re away. At the Suns, they’d say, ‘Training’s at nine o’clock.’ Young group, not really aware of what AFL standards are. Mate, we had people rocking up at 10 past nine, forgot their footy bag, dawdling.


Blokes missing massage, blokes late to physio, blokes not rocking up to their clinics!


You have to do ice baths after each session, I don’t care if you don’t like being in cold water! But they were like, ‘Nah, fuck I hate ice, I never do ice baths,’ and they’d go home. So you try not to get angry and frustrated, but you would, because you knew what it took to be successful, and you knew where we had to get at, and we were a mile away.


I think the problem was, they weren’t just first-year players, it was a first-year coach, so he’s learning. First-year CEO, first year president, first-year football manager – everyone was new to their role!


It’s probably why, in the second year they got Malcolm Blight in – you need a guy who’s been there, done that.


We went into Round 1 against Carlton pretty confident. If we played well, we could be competitive, and maybe, who knows? It was exciting; it was good running out there with Gaz as the skipper, I was vice-captain with Nathan Bock, we were on the front cover of the AFL Record for that week. It was a big week for the club. Lot of media at training. That confidence was gone by half way through the first quarter, because they piled on about eight or nine goals. Then it was just a matter of ‘how much’ for them. Yeah, it was one of those moments – a good historical occasion. But we were there to play footy, and the result wasn’t ideal.


In one word, we were irrelevant. And not just irrelevant on the Gold Coast, but in the AFL. No one really cared because they all knew the result – we’d get pumped. We beat Port Adelaide and all of a sudden – ‘Oh, first win. Unbelievable!


They’re here, they’ll be a force soon.’ And then the next week, you lose by 100 points to Melbourne, and then you come down to Melbourne and play Essendon at Etihad and at quarter-time it was 15.1.91 to one point. Back to being irrelevant.


Without Gaz, I dare say how irrelevant we would have been. His performances alone were unbelievable, and the biggest name in footy too, captain of the new club. When you play with a bloke, you understand and appreciate him a lot more, and what he was doing up there in a shit side – it’s a lot harder. A good side you get on the end of it, there’s plenty of inside 50s. But in a bad side it’s tough.


It took Harbrow a few years to find his form. He was playing half-back flank, probably the run and carry and creativity we saw from him as a Western Bulldog wasn’t there, because he was constantly chasing arse the other way, trying to defend. It was the same with everyone.


Michael Rischitelli found himself dropped. I mean, he’s a Best and Fairest winner at Brisbane only 18 months beforehand, getting dropped from the Suns side that had won three games. Jared Brennan was getting dropped. Krakouer got dropped, basically retired after one year. All these guys are thinking, ‘What have we done? We’ve left clubs where we were playing good footy and winning. We’ve come here for this great opportunity, and it’s a fucking disaster!’ But you stick fast, train hard. Even if you weren’t playing well, you could still teach the young guys like training methods, or just about fronting up under adversity.


The Gold Coast and it is what it is, warm winters, beautiful beach, we get a lot of recovery in. We just have to look at other teams, cold, training in layers, to know our club and surroundings are so unique.


A couple of our guys surf. There are so many more now they are starting. By the end of the next pre-season probably about twenty. Personally mate, surfing, I find very important. I knew what to expect. But to sit in the coach’s box on the first game that we played, the Suns, was just a very proud moment. We’re just about to embark on a journey, a long journey.


Greater Western Sydney 10s

Phil Davis, GWS ’12–: Greater Western Sydney was an opportunity too good to pass up. There was the financial benefit, sure, and then some, but the much bigger factor was, it was the start of something. It’s so rare, a new club in the AFL, the thought of being there at the beginning of one was incredibly exciting.


Kevin Sheedy, GWS coach ’12–13: Growing up, the champions you idolised, all I knew is they were Australian. Most of them come from Western Sydney. Richie Benaud, Dawn Fraser, Betty Cuthbert . . . Enormous . . . Nic Naitanui, the West Coast ruckman was born in West Sydney. Izzy Folau, born in West Sydney.


Phil Davis: Western Sydney is a great mix, 3 million people! Very multicultural, working class, but not just that. All sorts.


Kevin Sheedy: To come up and start the club, we were on the road; we were like travelling gypsies the first three years . . .Somebody had to build a fort out in the wilderness. Somebody’s got to go to Parramatta River and say – Look, let’s go up there.


Dean Brogan, GWS ’12–13: Rugby, soccer, basketball, surfing, this and that. Now, kids in the most populated part of Australia have the choice to play AFL.


Kevin Sheedy: Our win/loss record wasn’t great in the first few years, but, I mean, I lost 240 games at Essendon, I don’t worry about losing. I had the most exciting U/19 coaching job in the history of the world.


Luke Power, GWS ’12–: Our first year . . . I knew what I was doing, what I was there for. For the next part of my life. The young boys that made up the bulk of the team had those questions, Can I?, Can’t I?, I’m only young, I’ve never had to live away from Mum and Dad.


Phil Davis: I was only 21 when I came over and was told I’d be captain. I think I was ready for it. Captaincy of a new club is an enormous honour . . . I had Luke Power, Jason McDonald, Dean Brogan, Chad Cornes all around me. So many experienced players.


Dean Brogan: In my eyes my last, real, true AFL game was at Adelaide Oval with Port. That was my big send off. The other stuff, two years with the Giants, was just a bonus. I was running out there to help kids.


Phil Davis: At Adelaide I was the youngest bloke by a mile. Everybody had spent years in the system. When you get a young bloke into this new, daunting environment, surrounded by all this experience, it doesn’t take long at all for him to learn and acclimatise. Good habits come quick because you’re surrounded by them. When you’re starting, and there are so many young players, new players, and you’re trying to teach them all at once, it’s going to take much, much longer.


Luke Power: Everyone who was involved had to do a fair bit for themselves, including the player list, developing a new culture. Unlike Sydney, Brisbane, Port, Freo, West Coast, there was nothing pre-existing. No former VFL team or football culture.


Dean Brogan: My first day going out to Blacktown . . . we rock up and we’re training on a baseball diamond – this can’t be right?


Phil Davis: The Giants first victory didn’t come straight away, we were 0–6. There was a lot of people on our backs – They’ll never win one – We were playing the Suns, only up by three points with about five minutes to go, then we kicked four goals, bang, bang, bang, bang. Big Joffa Giles was in the backline for some reason, when the third went through we gave each other high-fives, that we knew we’d get there. Our first win! History . . .

Dean Brogan: First time the Giants played against Port, myself and Chad (Cornes) were in the team . . . We gave our players a lot of info on them, we knew how we could unsettle them, devised a plan and got the win. Before the game Chad and I thought – If we win how good would that feel! But it actually went the opposite, we felt really bad . . .


There was never a dull moment with Sheeds! He’s got a very, very artistic football brain, he sees things that no one else sees, sometimes good, sometimes bad . . . for two years our kids saw Kevin Sheedy go out of his way to speak to the guy who’s got no money and no shoes on. Or spend the extra five minutes and sign all the autographs. What a lesson. Character.


Each year since, we win a few more games than the season before. It’s full circle, like when I first got to Port – bottom of the food chain . . . The talent, the maturing process, the club will be a force. No worries.


Phil Davis: We’ve got a fantastic supporter base at the Giants . . . it’s already bigger than most NRL ones. If we play well, if we can capture the imagination of even a fraction of that population base, the club will have a mighty future.



You can purchase online at booktopia or readings.


  1. Malby Dangles says

    Great selection of interviews, Matty! Am looking forward to savouring the whole book soon. You are a pioneer in terms of compiling a monster of a book about VFL/AFL from the players point of view. Well done!

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I hope I get this on Sunday. Huge effort Matt.

  3. Mark Duffett says

    *171*! Truly astonishing. And quality – I almost teared up just reading Truck’s extract, hope it’s not a harbinger of the coming weeks. It deserves to sell a million.

  4. Ditto Swish and Mark

  5. and Malby

  6. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Congrats Matt. Wonderful effort to compile all these stories. Very much looking forward to reading the book. Cheers

  7. Extraordinary piece of work Matt. The vision. The hours. The patience. The determination. The sheer volume of work. Like a 3 year pregnancy. Must be great to finally have it out. Congratulations.
    I look forward to reading it soon. What I can see from the extract is that those of us who think we know something about the game from the outside, get some real inside perspectives – not the standard PR spin. Huge. A unique perspective.

  8. Yvette wroby says

    Hi Matt have not been able to order online. Any tips?

  9. HI everyone. and thanks. especially Peter B. Great words mate. Thank you.

    Yvette, yeah, there is some problem with the new distributors. Everyone is having that problem. I’m told you can try Readings online if it has not been solved by now.

  10. This is the book every long term footy fan should read. Not the usual sanitised and cautious footy book that is normally published. Fantastic read, this is the sort of book we footy fans want to read.
    Well done to the author, a huge amount of work to put this book together and I certainly appreciate it.
    Hopefully the footy media get onto it and give it some plugs as it is the best footy book that I have read in a very long time

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