Almanac Footy: Ron Barassi – An old heart beats true for red and blue

 

 

YOU didn’t need to be a Melbourne supporter – but it was great if you were – to enjoy one element in particular of the massive media build-up to the Preliminary Finals.

 

There he was in the paper and on multiple TV news bulletins, red and blue scarf around his neck as he warbled the words to “It’s a Grand Old Flag” and, with a cheesy grin, announced that “hell, yes, we can win this.”

 

Ron Barassi was back where he belongs – on the Demons bandwagon.

 

There was nothing new or surprising about this, of course. It wasn’t a big story as such, just a bit of colour and movement designed to keep the footy front and centre of the news cycle – as if it ever isn’t! – but in reality it was a welcome reminder of what the game has lost since the distant days when the love of the guernsey was its most powerful motivating force.

 

The concept of loyalty in footy – whether its been effectively dead and buried for decades – re-emerged as a controversial topic just as Barassi reappeared.

 

That had nothing to do with him – it was because the hottest news of the day was Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale weighing up whether to walk out on Brisbane and returning to the club he had already departed three years earlier, Fremantle.

 

Neale copped a lot of flak for it before deciding he was happy to stay where he was, the hostile reaction suggesting that footy fans do still have mixed feelings about what obligations clubs and players have to each other, and whether they – the supporters – are entitled to claim “ownership” of their heroes.

 

The concept might not be as obsolete as it usually seems – not for everybody, anyway.

 

For those who can remember footy in the 20th century, there was something reassuring about seeing Barassi re-appearing in public enthusiastically affirming the old adage that home is where the heart is. But the irony would be lost on nobody, of course.

 

In his heyday in the fifties and sixties, no player and club were more closely associated with each other than Barassi and Melbourne.

 

Ted Whitten might have been more Footscray than the Bulldog mascot, you couldn’t get any more Collingwood than Murray Weideman, South Melbourne hung its hat on Bobby Skilton and Fitzroy might have fallen apart sooner than it did if not for Kevin Murray.

 

There were plenty of others in that category, of course, but these great champions never  wavered in their devotion to their clubs, each playing hundreds of games in the same colours and, mostly, wearing the same numbers on their backs.

 

But there was no more readily identifiable symbol than the red and blue No 31 guernsey that the incomparable ruck-rover wore in all but one of his 202 games with the Demons, which included six winning Grand Finals.

 

Which is why it was such a bombshell when in 1965 Barassi walked away and joined Carlton as captain-coach, playing another 50 games before hanging up his boots and then masterminding the 1968 and 1970 premierships.

 

Thanks to Barassi’s pragmatism, ambition and vision, the game was never the same again in terms of faithfulness to flag and, in a footy sense, family.

 

It took a long while for it to sink in that this was probably no bad thing as the old semi-amateur Saturday afternoon suburban pastime began to develop into the fully professional national juggernaut that it is now, with players (and coaches and administrators) jumping from club to club – often two, three or four times across a career – as a matter of course.

 

Does anybody still have reservations about that dynamic?

 

Well, as much as many players do still pride themselves on being one-club stalwarts, that generally runs a distant second to imperatives such as money, opportunity and geography, so no, it’s rarely an issue of any great importance, or a source of much angst.

 

It’s a business as much as it’s a sport, after all, and sentiment is a commodity not valued as much as it once was.

 

Neale was accused – unfairly – of somehow acting unethically, and with insensitive timing, leaving the Lions in the lurch in the immediate aftermath of a shattering semi-final defeat.

 

But given the Lions had poached him from Fremantle in the first place, it was hard to see why they should complain about betrayal if he wanted to do the same thing in reverse. And to their credit they made it known they wouldn’t attempt to hold him against his will.

 

That’s how it should be – and usually is.

 

Barassi’s departure from Melbourne was the start of a long and highly distinguished journey through all parts of the footy world, notably also coaching North Melbourne (to two more premierships) before an unsuccessful return to the same job with Melbourne and then onto the Swans, as well as a strong media presence and an all-round unofficial ambassadorship for the game, which still boasts no more famous face, especially in Victoria where no local identity was more recognisable up until he quietly faded from view a few years ago.

 

To his many friends, associates and acquaintances – and I count myself somewhere midstream of those categories – it is no surprise whatsoever that home is now where his heart is, unambiguously and forever. At 85, it’s not easy for him to get out and about much anymore but that doesn’t stop him getting to the MCG to watch the Dees every chance he gets. The TV cameras always go to him, he is still one of the faces of the old club.

 

He was born with red and blue blood, his father Ron senior, also a Melbourne premiership player before his death during the war, and he spent some of his most formative years living with his old coach Norm Smith, also among the most famous of old Demons.

 

He captained the Demons to their last premiership – under Smith – in 1964, a match that sticks in my boyhood memory more than any other because not only was Barassi my mother’s hero, and therefore mine too, but I happened to be standing  right behind the goals as back pocket player Neil Crompton’s unlikely winning goal sailed straight over my head.

 

The AFL have not yet announced who will present the premiership Cup to the winners in Perth, with covid protocols limiting their choice.

 

If there were no such restrictions and the game was at the MCG many have expressed the view that if the Demons win – and by the time you read this that may already be academic — the most appropriate person would be former coach Neale Daniher, a hugely-admired figure for his courageous battle against motor neurone disease. Without wishing to diminish Daniher’s diverse contributions in any shape or form, he played for Essendon, not Melbourne.

 

If any living person can be called Mr Melbourne Football Club, it is Ronald Dale Barassi, No 31.

 

There is no-one to whom this year’s flag would mean more, as anybody who saw, heard and read about him this week can now vouch. Plus, he hasn’t forgotten the words of the song.

 

More from Ron Reed can be read HERE.

 

The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in the coming weeks. 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 right now HERE

 

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Comments

  1. Malcolm McKinnon says

    I just ran past Barrassi’s bronze effigy on my lap of the (sadly underpopulated) MCG concourse. Great to see that someone has scaled the tall maybe base to tie a fresh Demons scarf snuggly around his neck.

  2. What a legend is RDB, Ron.

    I can still recall going to watch training at Arden St on Thursdays in the late 70’s and being enthralled by him as I wandered through the change-rooms as a kid.

  3. Legend
    Just recently found and read his biography by Peter Lalor at second hand book shop.
    Definitely a great read especially for those like me that only remember him as a coach at Melbourne and Sydney.

  4. Barassi has been the Godfather of Aussie Rules, over the decades I’ve followed the game. Even growing up in Perth in the 70s we knew Barassi was a cut above.

    In 1983 I was in a play about a teenager selected by a VFL team. The director handed out The Coach to the cast with the explicit instruction, read this book to get inside the game’s heart and soul.

    Your essay is a mighty tribute to RDB and the arc of the game itself. There are many greats of the game but Barassi is the giant whose shoulders the greats have stood on to see the future.

    A good friend, a mad Dees supporter has played chess with Ronald Dale every fortnight or so for the last few years. With his age his health and faculties might not be pristine these days, but I’m assured RDB continues to be sharp as a razor playing the game.

  5. The pressure is on Bailey Fritsch to do the number 31 proud.
    Apparently Crosswell and Barrassi had some epic chess games. Crosswell wrote a brilliant article about their contests.

  6. That’s such a great clipping, Dan. Always appreciate a dive into the mind of Tiger as writer!

  7. Daryl Schramm says

    From the clipping . .
    “A war is only lost if one thinks it is lost”. Substitute war with election. . .
    Haven’t played chess in decades.
    Thanks for the great article Ron.

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