Divine Intervention

 

 

 by Smokey Dawson

 

With the 2017 AFL finals series approaching after one of the most competitive home and away seasons on record public opinion is divided on who will be 2017 premiers. The complexity of confidently selecting the winner is perhaps best illustrated by the famous Western Bulldogs premiership in 2016.

 

If we reflect on 2016 the Western Bulldogs were unquestionably the form side of the 2016 AFL final series. Equally, there is no doubt that prior to embarking on that famous finals campaign they were far from the form team of the home and away competition. What was the catalyst that transformed the Dogs? In all likelihood there is no single factor to explain the rapid transition from unfancied contenders to premiers but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a single defining event changed the nature of the Doggies’ finals campaign. Only those close to the Club would know.

 

A single random event transformed a discontent underachieving but talented team I was involved with in the early 80s from first semi final underdogs to 1985 Latrobe Valley Football League Premiers.

 

I first became associated with the Morwell Football Club after arriving back in Victoria from a teaching stint in Tanzania. Morwell Technical School was not a sought after teaching appointment but I needed the work and, after all, I was assured it would be only be for the final term of 1980.  I would like to think I had a transformative impact – akin to Sydney Poitier in ‘To Sir, with Love’- on revitalising the thirst of the youth of Morwell for higher educational attainment and thus my subsequent failed attempts for a transfer to Melbourne were due to fact I was considered irreplaceable. I quickly came to realize that a Valley teaching appointment was more akin to a prison sentence; I would have to serve my time.

 

The Valley of that era was the heavily unionized economic powerhouse of Victoria. It was as difficult to find a house to rent in Morwell then, as it is in Melbourne, now. There was no hint of Geoffrey Kennett on the horizon. The town was an absolute union stronghold.

 

When discussing my intentions to play with the Morwell Tigers in the forthcoming 1981 season with longer-term residents than I, I was occasionally looked at somewhat incredulously and asked why I would want to play with the ‘Groupers’? It took some time to realize that an influential figure of the period whom I had previously only encountered when turning off his weekly Sunday television show across to World of Sport wielded some influence on the politics of the Latrobe Valley and, indirectly, on the fortunes of the Morwell Football Club. In the past some influential supporters of the Tigers, if not exactly card-carrying members, were – at a minimum – perceived as sympathisers of Bob Santamaria’s National Civic Council – hence the reference to the ‘Groupers’. Understandably this perception ensured that the Morwell Football Club had not enjoyed the 100% embrace of the local community over many years.  The 70s had been a grim decade on the field for the Tigers.

 

However, in 1979 a similarly transformational figure arrived in Morwell, equally committed to a socialist nirvana but embracing a markedly different philosophy. He was not Che Guevara but Stephen Rae of St Kilda and Richmond fame. Thus began a three year coaching stint that transformed the Morwell Football Club and enhanced the lives of those not only associated with the football club at the time but also many Morwellians fortunate enough to meet Stephen and Morag Rae through their grass root community activities throughout this period.

 

In addition to being an outstanding football coach and leader, Stephen was also an excellent classical pianist and – god forgive – a vegetarian. It is fair to say that a vegetarian football coach in the Latrobe Valley in that era was treated with some suspicion.  But, unlike Forest Green Rover players today, Tiger players were not required to become vegans and the personal peccadillo’s of a unique individual and popular coach were tolerated although never universally embraced.

 

In those days the after match activities were held in an ancient green shed on the side of the grandstand. Almost to the second of 7.30pm after each home game a cry would go out, ‘…. the men’s urinal has overflowed’ and all and sundry would decamp to the more salubrious surrounds of the Morwell Men’s Club. At a social event one evening at the Men’s Club the party pies were being distributed amongst the faithful and the Rae’s politely declined to the amazement of the ladies committee stalwart. ‘But these just aren’t any pies they are Wedgwood’s’ she exclaimed, “the ones with the butter crust pastry”.

 

For the majority of ex-league players looking for coaching experience far more appealing destinations abounded. Such as the Ovens and Murray region with its legendary vineyards, quaint villages and nearby snowfields outwardly being far more appealing than the much-maligned Latrobe Valley.

 

However Stephen Rae did not run with the pack and the qualities that Morwell had in abundance – working class solidarity and a close knit community deserving of a successful football team was more appealing than Sunday afternoon après ski activities on the other side of the Great Dividing Range.

 

I became aware of the Rae’s commitment to less hedonistic grassroots pursuits upon visiting their house for the initial time. Mounted on the wall above the hearth was a photograph of a figure I was rather familiar with but which probably did not resonate in the same way with other visitors as it did for a recent arrival from Tanzania.  It was the familiar face of the father of African Socialism, the President of Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere. I do not recollect if there was a copy of The Philosophy of Ujamaa Socialism or The Ragged Trouser Philanthropist on the bookshelf.

 

Any doubts I possessed about playing with the ‘Groupers’ were dispensed with and I commenced a long and happy relationship with a club whose sound core culture and values were being subtly polished and enhanced by Stephen Rae.

 

The other interesting dynamic at the time was that the player demographic of the Tigers did not reflect that of the surrounding community. The pedigree was more akin to the University Blues than a Valley club. In addition to the obligatory teachers the Tigers had players who flew planes and choppers, were deep-sea divers and fire prevention specialists amongst a host of other interesting vocations. Most were local lads though so they were made of the ‘right stuff’. They worked for a mystery organization up the road called the National Safety Council and thanks to the marines like physical training regime of this shady para-military organization were as fit as fiddles.

 

Topping up this interesting cocktail was a very handy recruit from Hawthorn known as  ‘Feathers’. The rangy unassuming ‘Feathers’ played at full forward and kicked a swag of goals in each of the seasons he played with the Tigers.

 

In common with many other working class heroes Stephen Rae did not achieve the Holy Grail.  Despite re-invigorating a great club and preparing a very good football team in what was recognized as the leading country league of the era, he did not achieve the success he deserved – a premiership.  The ultimate vindication of his era at the club were the three subsequent Morwell premierships in the 80s enjoyed by coaches fortunate to inherit ‘his’ team in the immediate years after his departure.

 

The Traralgon Maroons (or Roosters as they were more commonly known then) are the traditional rivals of Morwell and for most of the club’s shared history have been the dominant club. There is no love lost between the two old rivals. In the 1983 Grand Final Morwell got up to beat the Roosters by a goal in tight low scoring game.  Traralgon were after revenge in the 1985 final series but they were not to know that fate – with the assistance of the long arm of the law – would ultimately be against them.

 

Like Glasgow Rangers when they signed Mo Johnson from Celtic, Morwell had done the unthinkable and poached the successful Traralgon playing coach, Peter Hall, for the 1985 season. It was not to be a match made in heaven and ended in divorce after one season – but what a season. Hall went on to rest off the ball in the forward pocket of the Victorian Legislative Council for many years.

 

Whilst the Tigers continued to win more games than they lost during the season there was something intangible missing in 1985. The coach was an outsider and did not enjoy the same level of respect he previously enjoyed at Traralgon.  Nevertheless the Tigers limped into the finals largely off the boot of the brilliant ‘Feathers’ who chalked up in excess of 100 goals during the home and away season. It was not a side brimming with confidence, which gathered at the rather non descript Warragul oval in September 1985 to take on the Parrots from Leongatha in the First Semi final.

 

The normally quiet and unassuming ‘Feathers’ had experienced personal problems during the season but continued to consistently kick goals despite becoming increasingly withdrawn over the second half of the season. However on first semi final day he was agitated, hyperactive and virtually impossible to communicate with. I was runner that season and as the coach concentrated on preparing the players I attempted to pacify and refocus ‘Feathers’ with the job at hand.

 

Prior to the game ‘Feathers’ produced a pair of gloves and insisted that he intended wearing the gloves during the game. In this respect, ‘Feathers’ was somewhat of a pioneer as the wearing of gloves had only recently featured in VFL night games and then only worn by a handful of players. Fortunately, in the 1980s, the major country football leagues were still umpired by members of the VFL umpiring panel so the request for a player to wear gloves during the game was not a completely foreign concept. The somewhat bemused umpires inspected the lightly dimpled gloves and after some discussion felt they were safe and, given the recent precedent set in the VFL, gave approval for their use.

 

Coach Hall’s pre-game address was a shambles as the players eyes constantly monitored ‘Feathers’ who refused to sit down and join the team and instead paced up and down behind the coach’s back ranting on why weren’t we already on the field. The pre-match build up was definitely not progressing according to the script.

 

Once the game commenced the umpires soon regretted their earlier generosity as the nattily gloved but volatile ‘Feathers’ constantly berated them each time the ball was contested in the Tigers forward line. It soon became apparent to the Morwell ‘brains’ trust’ it would be in the team’s best interest if the gun full forward had a spell on the sideline. This however was not a tactical move ‘Feathers’ intended to embrace.  Frustration with our inability to get ‘Feathers’ off the ground was mounting until an opportunity presented itself when a perfect holding the ball tackle by ‘Feathers’ was not duly rewarded – the harassed umpires already weary of  ‘Feathers’ antics adjudicated a ball up. ‘Feathers’, feeling somewhat aggrieved, exploded and threw the footy like a leading NFL quarterback at the nearest man in white narrowly avoiding decapitation and at this point I judiciously suggested to ‘Feathers’ it would be wise to interchange and, in perhaps his only lucid moment of the game, he took the opportunity to evacuate the playing arena whilst the umpire was temporarily preoccupied with the new part in his hairline, regaining his composure and administering the subsequent 50 metre penalty.

 

On the field the Tigers held their own and enjoyed a 2 to 3 goal lead during the first half. Off the field things were not progressing nearly as well.  ‘Feather’s’ keen to get back on the ground was constantly pacing the boundary line in anticipation and berating the Tiger bench.  I continued in my joint role of runner and ‘Feather’s’ minder. It just so happened that ‘Feather’s’ car was parked on the fence to one side of the interchange bench and this provided ‘Feather’s’ with a welcome distraction from the game during the second quarter. ‘What’s he up to now’ the coaching panel would ask, ‘he’s revving and tuning his car engine’ I replied. ‘Shit’ was the response. Shortly thereafter, ‘What’s he up to now’? “He’s got his golf clubs out of the boot and honing his swing’. Which was no easy task as by this time every kid at the game and a sizeable crowd of intrigued adults was camped around our interchange area intently focused on the off field shenanigans. Half time could not come quickly enough.

 

Things appeared a little better after half time, ‘Feather’s’ was still agitated and pacing but at least beginning to listen to reason and the possibility of returning to the game was not completely out of the question. However as the game progressed the intriguing situation surrounding the Tigers bench was attracting an ever increasing and engaged crowd intently following the Tiger coaching bench deal with a game situation definitely not envisaged in the tactical planning sessions during the week preceding the game.

 

The gathering of a large, milling and unexplained throng in a public place in the Latrobe Valley during that era was guaranteed to attract the interest of the police as quickly as a CFMEU gathering today. However in the sedate dairy farming community of Warragul it was more likely the police initially assumed it was as orderly crowd of autograph enthusiasts. Thus it was not until half way through the third quarter a trio of police made their way through the ever-increasing throng to acquaint themselves with the inexplicable reason as to why such a crowd of people continued to mill around the Morwell bench. The forensic skills of Inspector Clousou were not required to establish the focus of the crowd was on the Tigers’ full forward and the lead police officer commenced to ‘interview’ ‘Feathers’ as to why he was not actually participating in the game. Unsurprisingly, the gun full forward took umbrage and suggested in no uncertain terms he was engaged in the match and why don’t they take their leave and undertake more conventional policing activities elsewhere. The merit of ‘Feathers’ seemingly sound suggestion was not well received by the young officer leading the intrepid trio.  Rather than attempting the recommended textbook conciliatory approach intended to diffuse a delicate situation the officer continued his verbal interaction with the Tigers gun full forward and, to the delight of the swelling throng, the verbal encounter soon became a physical scuffle with the Tigers full forward more than holding his own as he was manhandled over the fence and into the masses by the three officers and after a not insignificant period of time eventually overwhelmed and led away by the long arm of the law.

 

At this point a Tigers half forward signaled to a rather harassed and distracted runner and pleaded ‘Feathers’ be bought back on the ground as the ball was constantly rebounding back from an undermanned forward line. The Parrots were starting to gain the ascendancy. I pointed across to the paddy wagon circling the ground past the back of the goals and said ‘Feather’s’ was in the back and you blokes better redouble your efforts.  I will never forget the look on Hendo’s face.

 

Somehow the Tigers found a way to win or perhaps the Parrots found a way to lose. After this unlikely victory the players were imbued with the conviction that if they could overcome the travails of the afternoon and achieve a win against all odds then they were more than capable of winning the remaining two finals games.  The intervention of the law was an unforeseen but positive psychological intervention transforming a group of misfiring individuals into a focused cohesive team with the conviction they could overcome any obstacle on their way to a coveted premiership.

 

Three weeks later the still featherless Tigers were 30 odd points behind arch rivals Traralgon at three quarter time in the LVFL 1985 Grand Final and the cars were flowing out of the Moe Football ground. Against all odds the defiant Tigers produced a withering 10 goal last quarter and won comfortably in the end. It was the premiership no one anticipated prior to the 1985 finals and, to this day, I am convinced the Morwell Football Club has one young, undisciplined Warragul police officer to thank for providing divine intervention of an unintended nature imbuing a talented but underachieving group of individuals with the self belief that – for the next three weeks – no mountain was too high to climb.

 

What was the trigger that provided an underachieving Doggies combination with the mental strength and physical endurance to go from contenders to 2016 AFL Premiers?

 

Outstanding coaching? Inspirational oratory? Superior fitness? Tactical superiority?  Or an unforeseen incident or situation providing an intangible and transformational impact on a club culture so significant that no challenge experienced during the final series would prove insurmountable in the quest for the coveted, long elusive AFL premiership.

 

Comments

  1. charlie brown says:

    Excellent piece thanks Smokey. Really enjoyed that.
    Feathers’ performance reminds me a little bit of the Geoff Hayward character in The Club when he was gazing up at the sky after tripping on weed or similar!

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Smokey, make sure you get down for the Almanac Grand Final lunch, for the annual Smokey/Smokie Dawson count.

    Any clues to Feathers’ identity? (Don’t worry, I’ve just found it online)

    Tremendous stuff!!!

  3. Peter Fuller says:

    Wonderful story, Smokie, brilliantly told. So many aspects worth noting. I loved the multiple political allusions, and it would seem that you should do a series on Stephen Rae, genius coach. The implications of the geographic raffle allocation by the Education Department for its victims in an earlier era resonate powerfully.

    I have a Julius Nyerere anecdote which I must share with you when I next see you, although unlike you, I have never been to Tanzania.
    Charlie, I seem to recall that Geoff Hayward wasn’t a threat to public order and peace, which accords with the reputed mellowing effect of his drug of choice. Whatever was troubling Feathers in Smokie’s account, he does not seem to have employed any calming substances.

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