Almanac (Footy) Memoir: Wrong side of the river

 

 

Playing in front of the big crowd. (Photo: The Author)

 

 

After leaving school in 1977 I had a brief but unsuccessful try-out at Hawthorn but wisely left to avoid any further humiliation and landed at a bush footy club, Queenscliff, for three very enjoyable years. By 1981/82 I had travelled to Perth with my mates with the intention of playing in the SANFL or WAFL but after successfully completing my teaching degree had landed a job at a private school in Melbourne.

 

Looking back, I think I was employed more for my sporting credentials than my teaching prowess as I ended up coaching the school’s 1st XVIII footy team and the 2nd VIII rowing crew. I was still in my early 20s and wanted to pursue playing footy, but my Saturday school sport commitments meant that playing traditional club footy on a Saturday afternoon was out of the question.

 

Back in the early `80s the Victorian Football Association (VFA) was the only competition played on Sundays, so it was my only option. But which club?  I was teaching and living in Melbourne’s bayside suburbs so clubs such as Mordialloc, Caulfield, Frankston and Sandringham were the logical choices.

 

But for some reason my newly acquired mate Merv Harbinson convinced me to travel from Brighton, up St Kilda Road, through the Melbourne CBD, onwards to Carlton and up Bell Street to City Oval, Coburg just two dropkicks from Pentridge Prison where most of Melbourne’s criminal dropkicks resided. Mervyn had convinced this middle-class private schoolboy turned private schoolmaster to pursue his football career in one of Melbourne’s staunch working-class suburbs, Coburg.

 

I’d met Mervyn at the notorious 1980 Australian University Sport Games where he and I played together for Swinburne Tech. Merv was a mate of my brother who convinced him that despite a broken arm it would be a good idea to help the team out by spending the week in Adelaide. Merv was playing for Coburg in the VFA and felt that his enforced lay-off would be well spent in Adelaide hovering around the forward line and avoiding much of the in tight contests. So, for a full week Mervyn would try and disguise his heavily plastered arm with skin coloured tape and chime in for two or three goals a game. And he chimed in at night with a little more than two or three schooners of West End Lager.

 

He was a good bloke Merv, and he convinced me that my footy would improve by playing with a dominant VFA side. So, in 1982 I would jump in my blue Sigma three times a week and make the journey from Brighton to Coburg to join the Lions. I had a reliable cassette player in the car and INXS, Cold Chisel, Icehouse, Mondo Rock and Skyhooks would feature prominently on the hour-long journey.

 

In 1982 the club had appointed former Preston strong man Harold Martin to replace John ‘Big Nic’ Nicholls who had an inglorious coaching stint at City Oval. Martin had played one game with Fitzroy in 1968 then moved to Sunshine as captain-coach from 1975 to 1977. He took Preston to a Grand Final in 1978 where they were defeated by Prahran, but Martin went down swinging as he went toe-to-toe in a fist fight with the flamboyant ‘Slamming’ Sam Kekovich. After another Grand Final loss with the Bullants in 1981 he was quickly snapped up by Coburg for the 1982 season.

 

The club had the core of its victorious 1979 Premiership team intact and with players such as Laurie Burt, Garry Milroy, Brad Nimmo, Garry Sheldon, Brian Allison, Robbie Smith, Dean Herbert, Terry Dohnt and Phil Cleary the club were perennial finalists and always challenged for the Premiership.

 

When I arrived at the club Martin welcomed me by asking when had I arrived down from Queensland. I was somewhat puzzled, but he got his wires crossed. I said I had come from Queenscliff – ‘Cliff mate, Cliff’! He knew I played predominantly at full back and quizzed me as to how I would play on the great Fred Cook. Thinking back to my Queenscliff days I immediately thought of ‘The Frog’ and explained my tactics on that power forward. And of course, I omitted to explain that ‘The Frog’ was virtually unstoppable in a one-on-one marking contest. Coburg had plenty of key defensive options with the likes of Mick Laidler, John Douglas and Brad Nimmo so it was going to be tough to get a game in that line-up.

 

I played in the seconds that year and enjoyed the environment and the standard of footy. Playing on Sundays suited me, and all was good. The VFA was in its prime with plenty of colourful characters. I particularly enjoyed playing against Port Melbourne at the North Port Oval – it just had this great atmosphere and aura about it. Perhaps watching the VFA on Channel 0 then Channel 10 when I was growing up as a kid added to the mystique. I loved watching Fred Cook, Norm Brown, Buster Harland and Kevin Goss playing against Dandenong who boasted the likes of Pat Flaherty, Eddie Melai, Frosty Miller and George Allen. There was nothing better than watching little old ladies hurl abuse and flaying their umbrellas towards coach Phil Cleary as he would make his way up the players race. There was something about Phil that infuriated all opposition supporters and I think he loved that!

 

Playing on Sundays meant training on Friday nights and early Saturday evenings with a bowl of pasta in preparation for the next days game-your weekend was shot. But my flat mate and best friend Len who was a professional tennis coach and worked hard on weekends, came up with the wonderful idea of relaxing with a few convivial drinks on Monday nights. You see, Len figured that those working on weekends in the hospitality industry (mostly young ladies) would let their hair down on Monday nights so dear Lenny thought we should join in on the game. Somehow, he discovered a disco in the heart of Melbourne’s Collins Street called Sheiks – and Monday was its signature night partly due to the $2.50 spirits on offer. So, about every fortnight Len and I would grab a counter meal at Brighton’s Marine Hotel then catch a cab into the city about 10pm. And at Sheiks we would drink copious amounts of Ouzo and Coke, play it cool when Soft Cell’s Tainted Love pulsated throughout the venue and watched the many girls moving and gyrating  on the dance floor resplendent in heavy lip and eye makeup and spectacularly permed blonde hair. It was the perfect way to unwind from a hectic weekend. And that was 1982.

 

I thought my best chance of getting a senior game in 1983 would be to get super fit and using my fitness and endurance to my advantage on the wide expanses of VFA grounds and less congestion with the 16-a -side version of the game. I engaged the services of a running/sprint coach between October and March to improve my running ability. And yes, I was super fit but again failed to play a senior game in 1983.

 

By this time my mate Mervyn had deserted me and gone to Essendon where he was to take out the Reserves Best and Fairest and played in the Essendon reserve grade Premiership team in 1983. I busted my wrist halfway through the season after landing awkwardly from a mark, so I spent the June/July school holidays enjoying the spoils of the Gold Coast eating prawns and drinking cans of Fourex and hoped for a late season return. Unfortunately, the wrist didn’t heal that well, so the season was done by August. Despite Mervs’ departure from Coburg I stayed on for the 1984 season as I enjoyed the footy and had developed some strong friendships with the likes of Mal Webster, Mal Collins and Allan Eade.

 

By 1984 Harold Martin had left to coach in the local league and club legend and personality Phil Cleary had taken on the captain-coach role. Harold bobbed up a few years later at Box Hill and became famous for defying the league authorities by coaching from a cherry picker after being banned from entering the playing field. He was a great thinker Harold.

 

Phil Cleary made his debut in 1975 as a bullocking half forward flanker and played a total of 205 games booting 317 goals. He was a pivotal member of the 1979 Premiership team coached by Col Kinnear who went on for a short stint as coach of the Swans then to Carlton for an administrative role. Phil was feisty and aggressive and never shirked an issue. With his long flowing black beard, the Number 16 would become one of the most recognisable players in the competition.

 

The arrival of a new coach gave me fresh hope of maybe cracking it for a senior game. So once again I put in a massive pre-season of running and skills in preparation for the new season. But alas it soon became evident that I would be destined for another year of early Sunday morning preparations for a 11.15am bounce down followed by cans of VB on the bleachers cheering on my teammates.

 

Not one to drop the bundle I persisted throughout the year, not missing a training session and playing consistent footy in the twos. That year I found myself playing in the ruck and occasionally at full-forward. I had a reasonable season and held a faint hope of getting a game.

 

By late in the 1984 season it was evident the Lions would miss out on the finals and I was getting some feedback that I might be a chance of a senior game. My form was good in the twos and I kept pressing on. The Friday night before the last game Phil grabbed me after training. Phil was a great coach, tough but fair. Inspirational and motivating when needed he had a great ability to unite a group for a common cause. His greatest trait in my eyes was his honesty.

He took me into the tiny club office in the depths of the old wooden stand behind the goals for what I thought would be good news-my debut game. “Griffo, your form’s been good, and you’ve done everything right throughout the season. But I’m playing a kid from Pascoe Vale at full-forward this week. Sorry, but you’re from the wrong side of the river and I’m going for a local product,” said the coach.

 

And with that I said goodbye to Phil and a few of the boys and made my way back over the Yarra River to the middle-class life of the beautiful bayside suburbs of Melbourne.

 

Phil Cleary was not only a great football coach he was a great advocate for the underdog. At the Wills by-election of 11 April 1992 Phil was elected as an independent to the House of Representatives becoming the only non-Labor member to have ever held the seat. His election was successfully challenged in the High Court as he was employed by the Crown (Victorian Education Department) and declared void. He stood again 1993 and won only to lose his seat at the 1996 Federal election.

 

Following the tragic murder of his younger sister at the age of 25 in 1987 Phil has been at the forefront of the campaign to stop violence against women and has written two books on the subject Just Another Little Murder (2002) and Getting Away with Murder (2005).

 

I was starting to think that I wasn’t good enough to play senior football at any level of competition but would not be deterred and started to think about a new VFA club. Now, I was teaching at Brighton Grammar at the time and one of my students a kid called Todd Blamey happened to ask me if I was going to play for Coburg again in 1986. I said no (citing travel fatigue) and that I might run around for the hopeless Mordialloc club coached by former Swan Stevie Hoffman – I thought they were travelling so poorly I might get at least one senior game with them!

 

He told me his dad was recently appointed President of Prahran which had been relegated to the Second Division, had just appointed former Demon Greg Hutchison as Captain-Coach and were looking to recruit new players – and the club was situated on the right side of the Yarra River; Orrong Road no less and the ground was called Toorak Park!

 

So, I tried my hand at the Two Blues and low and behold I was selected in Round 1 of the 1986 season at full-back.  I had a shocker and was duly dumped to the reserves for the remainder of the season. Top cop Peter Lowe coached the reserves and we would dominate the competition.

 

The author swings onto his left.

 

 

Prahran was a great club in that era under the tutelage of Greg Hutchison. He brought a strong Melbourne flavour to the club including the likes of Peter Hamilton, Peter Giles and the volatile Jim Durnan. Jim had a stint at Melbourne under the legendary Ron Barrassi but had a bit of a falling out. He ventured to Perth to further his football development but fell foul of the coach to the point where legend has it that one day at Bassendean Oval Jim decided he’d had enough and left the ground during play, went to his unit, packed his bags and flew back to Melbourne. He played 26 games for the Demons and after being a solid player for Prahran in the mid 80’s became the club’s coach in 1994, its final season in the VFA.  Jim was Recruiting Manager at both Melbourne and Richmond throughout the 80’s and 90’s. In 2002 Big Jimmy created the Australian Masters Irish Tour where mature players travelled to Ireland to play the International Rules against Irish counterparts.

 

Unfortunately, Jim missed out on the glory of the 1987 Premiership as he had badly injured his hip in a marking contest in the first week of the finals.

 

The Giles family was well represented at the Two Blues. Glenn, Peter, Scott and Paul Giles all had forays at the club and on the occasion they all played together watch out if you messed with one of the Giles boys – the whole clan would descend upon you.

 

Then there was the unpredictable and volatile Dean Hipworth who had been somewhat of a journeyman among VFA clubs. He couldn’t quite find his niche despite his talents. I had played with a similar type at Coburg. Robbie Briedis (brother of North Melbourne premiership player Arnold) was one of the nicest blokes off the field but once he transcended the boundary line, he became a veritable nut job. Dean was of a similar ilk.

 

Roddy Cutler was another character. Recruited from Chelsea, Roddy was a prolific ball winner but couldn’t kick over a jam tin. He was always front and centre both on and off the playing field. Little did his teammates know that Roddy would go on to become one of the most famous hair stylists in the world based out of New York. He is the stylist for celebrities and stars of stage and screen including Emma Thompson and Toni Collette. Today, Roddy has multiple salons across New York and espouses the importance of using premium hair product to ensure that silky smooth look and ease of curling.

 

The late, great Jim Stynes joined Prahran for the 1986 season to refine his skills and learn the finer points of Aussie Rules. Jim had endured the terrifying experience of being coached by Ray ‘Slug’ Jordan upon his arrival in Australia at the Melbourne Football Club and needed a season convalescing at Prahran before venturing back to the Demons. Poor Jim must have thought Slug was from another planet.  The young Irishman was a running machine and was great value to the club – and a ripping fellow who embraced the culture of football teams. We know what feats Jim went on to achieve in his illustrious career at Melbourne. While at Prahran he became best mates with Peter Day who stood by Jim throughout his cancer battle.

 

The social scene at the Prahran FC thrived in the 1980s thanks in part to the sponsorship of The Tok H Hotel and thanks in part to the mysterious Camel Club (two humps) of which I was not a frequent attendee.  Each first Monday of the month after the ‘recovery’ session the social committee made up of a select group of bachelors would construct a mini nightclub area under the grandstand and play bad disco music and sell cheap cans of VB and UDL and Stones Green Ginger Wine for the ladies. There was one stipulation-players had to bring a female guest other than their current partners or wives. It made for interesting dynamics.

 

When I was offered the Reserve grade Captain-Coach and senior Assistant coach role in 1987 I happily took the job on. I was coaching the school 1st XVIII on Saturdays and would back up Sunday morning and afternoon contributing to the Two Blues efforts. I was twenty-seven years of age, had crook Achilles/heel spurs which required a good dosage of Voltaren from Wednesday through Sunday so being the reserves coach I duly plonked myself in the goal square and enjoyed getting on the end of a few Derek Hine bullets.

 

I booted 57 goals that year including a 9-goal haul against Sunshine on a beautiful winter Sunday morning at Skinner Reserve. I’d had a reasonable year having 226 disposals, 89 contested marks, 8 goal assists and just the one tackle!

 

I convinced the highly talented and athletic Murray Bingham to join me at Prahran. Murray was the brother of my best mate Len and played his junior football at East Sandringham Boys Club. Muzza was one of these ball sports freaks. An accomplished tennis player, handy quick at cricket, single figure golfer and exceptionally talented footballer he was one of these guys who made me feel sick with envy. Murray found it difficult to get a regular game at the powerful Sandringham club coached by Bob Keddie. One day when playing in defence at Coburg I unfortunately found myself matched up on Murray. He took great pleasure in running me off my feet that day and like so many defenders before and he jumped on my head on more than one occasion to take one of his signatory marks.

 

 

The front cover of the annual report featuring yet another Murray Bingham speccy.

 

 

The front cover of the 1987 Prahran Football Club Annual Report features one of Murray Bingham’s trademark, high flying marks. But I can assure you (and others can attest) Murray took one of the highest marks I have ever seen (save for Shaun Smith in 1995) one day in the goal square at Mordialloc.

 

Murray went on to become a very successful model and was appearing in many a magazine advertising shot for men’s clothing and accessories. He soon joined his beautiful wife Nicky Buckley on Sale of the Century and his beaming smile was on show for all of Australia to see.

 

With  dominant ruckmen in Charlie Walder and Tony Mazarek, Paul “Fridge” Herman at Centre Half Forward, former Demon Mick Reynolds at full-forward, Dale Tapping amassing possessions in the mid-field, the rebounding Wil Walford off half back and the solid Peter Hamilton at full back the Two Blues went on to take out the 1987 VFA Second Division premiership by 19 points over Waverley.

 

The scenes in the rooms after the Premiership win were jubilant and when Jim Stynes walked in to join in on the celebrations the place went ballistic. The day before Jim had ‘famously’ run across the mark as Hawthorn’s Garry Buckenara line up for goal and gave away a 15-metre penalty. The Hawks were behind as the siren went and the resultant goal put them into the 1987 VFL Grand Final. The despair Jim endured was brilliantly captured in a famous photo taken in the Demons rooms after the game showing coach John Northey admonishing the shattered Stynes. For Jim to join in on the celebrations the very next day with his former teammates said plenty about the man’s character.

 

The celebrations lasted long into the night and for many more weeks and was enjoyed by everyone connected with the club.

 

Sir Rupert Steele was the club patron and he bought with him a strong racing flavour to the club. Sir Rupert was a World War II war hero who was despatched to the battlegrounds of France and Germany, was captured by the Germans and was holed up in Stalag Luft 111 prisoner of war camp. Sir Rupert became Chairman of the VRC and lured racing journos in Tim Habel and Adrian Dunn from the Herald-Sun to the club who served as club directors.

 

Club stalwart Les Bartlett played 60 games for Footscray and found his way to Prahran where he coached the Under 19s, reserves and seniors in his time and in 1987 was Chairman of Selectors. He bought with him from Footscray our runner the energetic Arthur Karanicolas who ran many a mile week-in-week out. Tony Holding and Peter Danks ensured the team was super fit and our trainers including Joy Gelly were dedicated to ensuring the players were looked after at training and matches.

 

Our property steward Ernie Garner was a loyal and much-loved servant and he revelled in the premiership festivities. Former Demon player of the late 60s and early 70s John Foster was the club Manager and he was instrumental in re-building the club, winning a premiership and returning it back to its rightful place in the VFA’s First Division.

 

Like most footy clubs we had a loyal and passionate young supporter who would attend all games. Shaunie Gallagher loved the Two Blues and would be at the ground well before the reserve grade games to urge on his heroes. He was besotted with Glenn Giles and was never afraid to give the forward some tips leading into each game. Shaunie also loved the races and in 1986 spotted legendary Channel 7 commentator Bruce McAvaney at Flemington and asked if he could join him in the commentary box. Shaunie and Bruce remain good friends to this day.

 

From that era many players found their way into administrative and coaching roles at VFL/AFL Clubs. Jim Durnan became Recruiting Manager at both the Melbourne and Richmond Football Clubs whilst Derek Hine has been the long-term Recruiting and List Manager at the Collingwood Football Club. Mark Evans, a handy left footed mid -fielder at the Two Blues, has held senior positions at the AFL including General Manager – Football Operations and is the current Chief Executive Officer of the Gold Coast SUNS. Greg Hutchison became Development Coach at Melbourne and caretaker coach in 1997 following the sacking of Neil Balme. In 2000 ‘Hutchy’ joined Richmond as assistant to Danny Frawley and eventually made his way to St Kilda as Football Manager in 2009. After a coaching stint in the Amateurs Dale Tapping was appointed mid-field coach at Collingwood in 2012 and coach of its VFL team from 2013 to 2015. Dale is currently mid-field coach at the Brisbane Lions FC and touted as a potential senior AFL coach.

 

And I found my way to the Melbourne Football Club in a Development role, then to Recruiting Manager to eventually the Football Manager position till the end of the fateful 1996 season. Then it was off to the northern states and AFL Queensland and eventually to the 18th AFL club, the GWS GIANTS.

 

 

Read more from Richard Griffiths (about his Hawthorn days, his Cliff days, his uni days, his music days) 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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Comments

  1. Richard have you seen Top Cop Peter Lowe recently? Ex-Cop about to Pop. He ain’t small. I’m a mate of his brother, Bruce the Goose. And played British Bulldog against big Peter at Gowrie Street State School in Shepp in the 60s. Like running into a Tiger tank. Good people, the Lowes.
    Could be wrong about this, but I seem to have a recollection Peter might have edged a bloke named Gangitano in a street scuffle one time. He could certainly fight.

  2. Richard, this is a truly cracking yarn.
    Brought back many fond memories of the old VFA days.
    Phil Cleary certainly copped plenty from us boys on the hill at Williamstown.

    I am amazed at the number of figures from the same era who progressed into AFL management roles.

  3. Great memories, Richard. I note you had a season off between Coburg and Prahran – where did you play in 1985?

    I spent a year at Prahran in 2002 which was shortly after the Two Blues’ admission into the VAFA – this occurred after they cleared the books and took over the licence from Southbank. Plenty of the names you mention had returned: Tim Habel was President, Derek Hine was senior coach, Wil Walford was still playing and Ernie Garner was still volunteering. I was only a reserves player and by that stage the club was having to recruit from regional networks in order to stay in Section C – within a couple of years they had dropped into the D1/D2 regions of the VAFA and stayed there until the merger with Assumption College. Junior numbers were (and still are) strong but those kids had been lost to private school footy by the time they were ready to progress into senior grades.

    I met Phil Cleary in another capacity years later when I had the opportunity to call VFL footy with him. His charisma is what stands out – every match felt like an occasion and it was wonderful to see how many contacts he still had at every venue. Phil just ‘gets’ the tribal aspect of footy.

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