Almanac Footy: Fair Catch That!



Richard Griffiths was Recruiting Manager at the Melbourne Football Club in the mid-1990s. He was led to a talented Werribee high-flier Shaun Smith. Here’s the story:




Smith’s mark [From Richard Griffiths’ collection.]






Liz Burnie and Janet Clayton had managed the Melbourne Football Club’s Finance Department for some years. In the late 1980s to mid-1990s the turnover of the Demons was in the vicinity of $4m. Nowadays the power clubs turn over close to $100m thanks to soft caps, salary caps, broadcast rights, massive membership sales, alternative revenue streams, and lucrative sponsorship arrangements.


Both Liz and Janet were passionate Melbourne supporters and they felt privileged to be working for the club they loved. In 1994 the Demons made it to the preliminary final thanks to stellar seasons from Stynes, Lyon, Viney, Tingay, the Febey twins and the emerging superstar David Schwarz. The Demons went down to eventual premiers the West Coast Eagles and felt very optimistic about their prospects for 1995. The Demons were on the verge of a tilt at the premiership.


During the off season the normal post-mortems were conducted with player de-listings, trade period and of course in November the National Draft and the following March the Pre-season Draft. In assessing the 1994 season it was felt that the club needed a third tall in the forward line. Skipper Garry Lyon bore much of the brunt up forward attracting the best opposition key defender week in week out. David Schwarz was developing into a high flying, athletic and dangerous forward. Prior to being savagely cut down by three ACL knee injuries there was nothing Schwarz could not do. He was quick, could jump at the ball, had a beautiful side-step (thanks to his basketball background) and he had an uncompromising competitive streak.


A third tall would take some of the pressure off our two guns and would provide another avenue to goal adding to our potency. This is where Janet Clayton came into play of all people.


Janet’s husband was President of VFA/VFL club Werribee. Playing predominantly on Sundays Janet would attend most games and help around the club on match day. In having a casual discussion over a coffee with Janet and Liz one morning in the offices at 26 Jolimont Terrace East Melbourne they asked me what I was looking for to complement our list. I was the Recruiting Manager at the time and was gearing up for the final preparations leading into the National Draft. The National Draft is primarily a draft that focuses on the best young talent from around the country – 17 and 18-year-old stars of the future. The March Draft generally gave the more mature or recently de-listed players another opportunity at the big time.


I told them we needed another tall marking forward. Janet’s ears pricked up. ‘Do you know Shaun Smith?’ she asked. ‘Have you seen him play? He was always injured at North Melbourne! He is the best mark I’ve seen. He’s playing at Werribee again this year but he’s training at Fitzroy. He came third in the JJ Liston Medal last year!’


It was January/February 1995 and yes, I knew about Smith and had seen him a couple of times in 1994 starring for Werribee. He had been doing pre-season training with Fitzroy with the hope of re-entering the big time. Prior to the March draft I sent a couple of our scouts to have another look at him. Fitzroy had guaranteed Shaun they would draft him so in their wisdom decided to ‘hide’ him in the last reserves practice match at Skinner Reserve, Sunshine. We got wind of this and sent our recruiters out early. And Shaun didn’t let anyone down booting six goals and taking the occasional hanger! It was around the time David Schwarz tragically went down with his first ACL injury. I thought Smith could add to our forward structure so we entered the March draft with selection 14 (ahead of Fitzroy) and felt Smith would be available around that selection.


Paul Roos was the Number 1 selection in the 1995 Pre-season Draft while Ross Lyon was taken at Pick 6 by the Brisbane Bears, Dermott Brereton Pick 10 to Sydney and much to our delight we secured Smith at 14.


Shaun was born in Bendigo and at an early age his father, who was in the military, was transferred to England for a short period. When in England Shaun played soccer and quickly found himself as a goalkeeper due to his penchant for catching the flying soccer ball as it came towards him. When his father was transferred back to Australia the family settled in Canberra and Shaun played footy at the Ainslie club. He starred at the Under 15 Shell Cup Schoolboys Carnival and was zoned to the Swans. But when the wily Greg Miller left the Swans to take up a Recruiting role at North Melbourne he quickly pounced on Shaun Smith and Brett ‘Fruity’ Allison courtesy of the old Form 4 system. He later snatched Wayne Carey and John Longmire from under the Swans noses the same way.


Shaun made his debut at North Melbourne in 1987. He played 47 games at the Shinboners but, after a run of injuries, was delisted at the end of 1992. He recalls being concussed on four separate occasions in one of those years and missed a full season with a severe liver injury which nearly took his life. In 1987 the Kangaroos played in a final against the rampaging Melbourne and were annihilated by in excess of 100 points. It was around this time where players would come in off the centre square or at boundary throw ins and deliberately ‘take players out.’ Smith recalls falling foul of Melbourne’s Dean Chiron that day and suffering yet another severe concussion. In his short time at the club he demonstrated his high leaping, athletic marking ability and versatility. He found his way to Werribee in 1994 and had a stellar, injury-free season once again continuing his reputation for taking spectacular high marks.


The Demons entered the 1995 season with much optimism given the club had made it through to the 1994 Preliminary Final but was defeated by the eventual premiers in the West Coast Eagles.


After his sensational breakout year in 1994, David Schwarz injured his knee in the pre-season and again in Round 9 having made a comeback in record time – his season was over. The Demons lost the first six games of the season but rallied with four consecutive wins over Brisbane, Hawthorn, Collingwood and Sydney. A loss to Carlton mid-season was followed by another string of victories. The final game of the year virtually became a mini-final with the winner to proceed into the 1995 finals series and the loser left to lick its wounds.


On Friday 1st of September, The Bears took on the Demons in steamy conditions in front of a crowd of 11,842 at the Gabba which was undergoing re-development. After, a fiercely fought contest the Bears ran over the top of the tiring Demons winning the game 16.14.110 to the Demons 13.11.89. Craig McRae booted a bag and the Bears were destined to play in their first finals series since entering the competition in 1987.


The game was in the balance at half time as the Brisbane players retreated to their change-rooms with coach Robert Walls. The Bears had won five out of its previous six encounters and needed a win against the Demons and the Swans to win the following Sunday for them to clinch a finals berth.


As Richard Champion recalls; ‘Wallsy implored the boys for a special effort in the second half to give us any chance of making the finals. I vividly remember his last words were directed specifically directed at Nathan Chapman as we made our way back on the field. And Chappy – for fuck sake make sure you don’t allow Shaun Smith a run at the ball!’


Mid-way in the third term young gun Demon David Neitz had the ball on the half forward flank some 50 metres out from goal. Neitz booted a high drop punt into the goal square where a pack of players including Garry Lyon, Brisbane’s Richard Champion and Nathan Chapman had gathered. As the ball came in Smith came from about 10 metres back past the lurking Andrew Obst and launched himself at the footy. He was so high in the air he was able to take the ball on his chest. Unfortunately, teammate and skipper Garry Lyon bore the brunt of Smiths acrobatics as his right knee cannoned into the back of his head.







As soon as Smith landed Brisbane’s Richard Champion admonishes teammate Nathan Chapman for not blocking his run at the ball.


‘I couldn’t believe it! I remember being shoulder to shoulder with Lyon in the goal square then I felt a surge behind me. I turned around and saw Smith getting to his feet with the ball. Then I saw Chappy and gave him a massive spray. Fucking hell Chappy – what did Wallsy just say to you? Luckily, we won the game and the Swans did their job and we played in the finals the following week,’ said Champion.


Commentating on Channel 7’s coverage Ian Robertson bellowed, ‘He’s been trying all year Bruce, and he’s got it in the last round – have a look at that!’


To which special comments man Kevin Bartlett says, ‘So Shaun Smith – he must have scared a few of them at Werribee last year playing in the VFA.’


Robertson responds, ‘Scared a few people that fly planes here tonight Kevin!’


‘I’ve never seen anyone as vertical as that standing upright taking a mark in league football, but I reckon that’s one of the best marks in the history of the game,’ said Bartlett.


Neil Balme and I sat at ground level that night up at the East Brisbane Primary School end some 200 metres from where Smith’s aeronautical feat took place. Not trying to show too much excitement I leant over to Neil and said, ‘fair catch that one Balmey!’ The big fella didn’t bat an eye lid more transfixed on the resultant goal to keep us in the match.


Smith recalls the moment well. ‘I remember Neita had the ball about 50 metres out to take a set shot,’ he says. ‘I made a couple of short leads but was cut off on both occasions. So, I doubled back to the goal line between the point and goal post and waited for the ball to come in. It started to drop short, so I took a few steps and launched myself and it stuck. When I landed, I could see Garry wasn’t that happy as I kneed his head on the way up and he was in a bit of pain rubbing it. I kicked the goal which was my 50th of the season so I was happy with that.’


‘Later that week The Footy Show arranged for the lady who took the photo from behind the goals and I to appear on the show. They flew her down from the Sunshine Coast. It was her first game of AFL footy [ever] and she took the pic with a small Hanimex camera. Her name was Nicole Lovelcock and I have the photo framed somewhere. Channel Seven presented me with a brand-new Mitsubishi car so I did pretty well out of that mark!’


Smith went on to play 62 games for the Demons and booted 96 goals. While he acknowledges his Mark-of-the-Century, he cites the day he kept the great Garry Ablett Snr goalless from full-back in 1996 as his career highlight. Shaun was delisted at the end of the 1998 season after playing 14 games that year. He was bitterly disappointed as he felt he had more good footy left in him and became disillusioned with the game he loved. He returned to Werribee for the next few seasons and eventually finished his playing days at the age of 41 in local suburban and bush leagues.


Grand Final eve 2016 I was attending a luncheon at The Emerald Hotel with some footy friends. This notorious South Melbourne watering hole is famous for its Grand Final eve festivities and during the day the pub is visited by various footy luminaries past and present.


On this particular day my old AFL Queensland mate and Bears star Richard Champion strolled into the pub. Once described by coach Robert Walls as a Commodore trying to play like a Rolls Royce, Champs is genuinely one of the good guys associated with our game. Humble with a great sense of humour Champs is a media personality in Brisbane commentating footy on Triple M and hosting corporate events. We settled in for a few beers later in the afternoon.


Then lo and behold in walks Shaun Smith! I hadn’t seen Shaun for a few years, and I couldn’t believe the two main players in the Mark-of-the Century were reunited in a Melbourne pub.


We laughed and joked about the mark and the role Champs, Nathan Chapman and Garry Lyon played and eventually I convinced them to pose for a re-enactment photo. So, with pots of Carlton Draught in hand there was Shaun Smith climbing over Richard Champion’s head just as he did way back in September 1995 – all in the front bar of The Emerald Hotel in full view of the astonished patrons.



The re-enactment. [From Richard Griffiths’ collection]



It was a great afternoon. Eventually, Shaun had to move on. It was great to receive a hug from him and a thanks for bringing him to the Demons.


In 2020 Shaun received a compensation payout of $1.4million after his insurance company found he was totally and permanently disabled from brain injuries acquired during his spectacular playing career. The brain injury had changed his life in numerous ways, from affecting his moods to damaging his memory.


‘I’m a pretty easy-going guy and I was getting pretty angry at the drop of a hat. Then I started forgetting a lot of things, my short-term memory especially was not flash. It just goes on and on, and it doesn’t make it much fun for people living around me,’ Smith said.


Smith fought hard for recognition of the damage caused by concussions and the payout helped acknowledge that it was a real thing.


The payout to Smith became a benchmark in terms of the acknowledgement from within all sports that concussion is a condition that creates long term damage and has the impact of creating a total and permanent disability.


These days Smith lives in the outer northern suburbs of Melbourne and spends his time crafting unique timber gifts and furniture under the banner of Wood Pawn. ‘It keeps my mind active and gives me a focus each day.’




Shaun Smith in the workshop [from Richard Griffiths’ collection]



Read more from Richard Griffiths HERE



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  1. Great piece Richard.

    All the best to Shaun as he deals with those issues.

    PS. I recall that night on the Hill very well. I’ll try to dig out the section from Loose Men Everywhere.

  2. Great piece, Richard. Small addition to that day in Perth after you’d lost the Prelim to West Coast. The showers didn’t work and the team bus didn’t turn up. So the Melbourne players had to walk back from the WACA to the CBD in full kit. Jeered at all the way by exultant West Coast fans in every pub. At one pub Balme stops, grabs a jug of beer off a table and skulls it and by the time he’s finished hundreds of West Coast supporters are chanting, “Balmey… Balmey…Balmey…”
    Melbourne arrives back at the hotel, Balme and staff having eaten nothing since breakfast. They’re told by the barman the food is finished. You’re too late. There’s nothing available. Not a morsel.
    “Is that right,” says Balme. “Well I’ll have a dozen oyster shooters.” Then he points at Chris Jones, fitness guy, and says, “And so will he.”

  3. Richard Griffiths says

    Yep I was there that day. No showers and long walk back. We “spied” on Eagles on the Thursday and Mick Malthouse went ballistic and sent henchman Tim Gepp to evict us. Hilarious!

  4. Excellent Richard. I loved watching Shaun Smith play. Always hoping he’d take a grab. I’ve seen the Brisbane grab that many times I can’t recall if I was watching it live or just saw it on replay. Either way its hard to forget. Extraordinary leap.

    All the best to Shaun.

  5. Daryl Schramm says

    Great read. The re-enactment sounds like a fantastic ‘had to be there moment’ for all concerned.

    ajc. Is it possible Balmey had been in said pub in his earlier years while at Subiaco?

  6. Daryl,
    Balmey was a schoolboy when he played for Subiaco. 17 years old, four games. Then the family left for Melb. (Mind you this doesn’t rule it out.)

  7. Terrific story. Concussion and head knocks are thankfully being taken much more seriously at all levels now. Talked to Swan Districts ruckman and most valuable player Corey Gault (briefly on Collingwood list) on Saturday. His second week out with concussion after getting front on contact in a marking contest. A few years ago he would have been pressured by coach and macho culture to get out the next week. There is such a long life beyond football that these risks are not worth taking. Hope the same attitude is trickling down to amateur and country football.
    Similarly our centreman Jesse Turner got 3 weeks earlier in the year for taking a player’s legs out from under him in mid air. Not malicious and he is a very fair player – just dumb and dangerous. Watching it live was scary – the Perth player landed on his head and could have had serious spinal injuries. No sport is worth that.

  8. A great yarn, thanks Richard.

    I hope Shaun stays healthy.

  9. Luke Reynolds says

    Great writing Richard, love the re-enactment photo. Love watching S.Smith play.

    THE greatest mark of all time.

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