Fabulous Phil – gathering the story



We all have life-changing events.  On Friday night in August 2015, Geelong played Collingwood at the MCG in Round 23.  As Collingwood dismantled Geelong in the first quarter, my relationship was dismantled over beef ribs.


In the ensuing months, I wished for a diversion, a project.  Something to focus on.  It came out of nowhere through Shane Bond, whom I had met through my mate in 1987.  Shane played for Collingwood and North Melbourne.


Shane called me in December 2015, offering an opportunity to write a book about Phil Carman.  I immediately said yes.  Over the years, Shane said many times that Phil is the best player he’s ever seen.  Having watched Phil play live a couple of times and on television, I knew how mercurial he was.  Mostly what I remembered was the Michael Tuck suspension and the Graham Carbery head-butt.


After giving me Phil’s number, Shane told me to call him.  When I first spoke to Phil, I explained the book couldn’t be based solely on his memories.  The volatility, brilliance and controversy needed testimony from men he played with and against.  Phil understood.  He wanted his story told.


It took six weeks to get to Melbourne.  In that time, I spent hours researching his life and career, exploring dozens of websites, fan forums and newspaper archives.  I ended up with 40 pages of questions.


On February 7 2016, Phil and I sat down in the study at Shane’s house.  He wore a headset and microphone that transcribed (incredibly inaccurately) his words.  Over two days and 11 hours of interview, he didn’t shirk a question and was unflinchingly honest.  We were both mentally exhausted afterwards.  He gave me a box of newspaper clippings and photographs.


When I got home to Brisbane, panic set in after transcribing the interview.  Writing a book seemed impossible.  The diversion I craved was suddenly calamity.  By the end of February, I was struggling badly.  In desperation, I reached out to two authors for help.


Paul Amy, who wrote Fabulous Fred – the life and crimes of Fred Cook, told me to keep writing.  ‘The hardest part is figuring out where to put everything,’ he said.


Matt Zurbo, who wrote Champions All, settled me down.  ‘Just sit at the computer and write,’ he said.  ‘The book will write itself.’


Thank you to Paul and Matt for their time and words.  It wasn’t wasted.  I heeded their advice, putting Phil’s archive of newspaper clippings aside.  There was too much information to get through and the clippings were holding me back.


As the weeks rolled on, Shane gave me phone numbers of former footballers Phil played with or against.  Phil provided a few numbers.  I tracked down a few myself.  Coaches too.  And people Phil knew when he was a kid.


My mate Paul introduced me to Simon Madden.  The three of us sat down for breakfast in an Essendon café.  When I mentioned Phil, Simon’s eyes lit up and he laughed.


‘Phil Carman,’ he said.  ‘Fabulous Phil?’


Everyone I interviewed for the book laughed when I first mentioned Phil Carman.


I called Carl Ditterich and sprung an interview on him.  He needed a cigarette first.  Graham Carbery, the boundary umpire Phil head-butted, was hard to find.  Eventually I emailed a man I thought would know him.  About ten minutes later, Graham called.  ‘I hear you’re looking for me,’ he said.


Graham’s interview, given the infamous head-butt, was pivotal.  Another boundary umpire, Andrew Toy, agreed to be interviewed for the first time about his run-in with Phil in Canberra.  The run-in left Phil with a 10-week suspension.


I interviewed men who coached Phil.  The recollections of Kevin Sheedy, John McBain, Barry Cable, Murray Weideman, Robert Oatey and Barry Davis offered greater understanding of Phil’s temperament.  I would have loved the chance to interview Tommy Hafey.


Michael Tuck was worried that he’d be blamed for Phil missing the 1977 grand finals through suspension.  Michael is not to blame.  He opened up during the interview and gave insight into a brutal era of football.


The book kept growing.  Phil’s wife, Wendy and their children, Georgie and Rhys had their say.  Phil’s ex-wife, Betty talked to me.


Vin Catoggio described the day Phil whacked him in the middle of the MCG during a final.  Ray Shaw, Peter Moore, Rene Kink and Kevin Worthington recalled a brilliant player who wouldn’t conform.  Their frustration remains to this day.


Max Richardson told me a story about punches.  Bruce Gonsalves made me laugh.  John Dellamarta saw it all and is still amazed.


Frank Gumbleton discussed Ron Barassi’s plan to counter Phil’s brilliance.  Peter Keenan, who missed the 1978 grand final through suspension, talked about the impact of costing North Melbourne a premiership.  Ross Henshaw remembers Phil being drunk one afternoon.  Wayne Schimmelbusch remembers Phil being quiet.


Neil Craig recalled a lot of runs with Phil and his desperation to beat him.  Geoff Southby felt a knife in his back each time Phil kicked a goal against him.


Phil discussed his coaching career with the Sturt Football Club.  I discovered his tireless effort to help save the club.  He recalled the first time he went back to Sturt more than a decade after being sacked as coach.


Former Sturt players, Simon Feast, Brodie Atkinson and Chris Thredgold said Phil wouldn’t put up with any rubbish.  Former Sturt President, Steve Chapman, gave a brutal assessment of Phil.  Mick Weatherald, Phil’s assistant coach at Sturt, talked about the tears he shed.


I harassed Graham Cornes, Eddie McGuire and Dermott Brereton for forewords.


The writing process


Given I live in Brisbane, all but three interviews were recorded by phone.  Most went more than 20 minutes.  Transcribing a 20 minute interview can take an hour or more.  It’s a frustratingly slow process, flicking back and forth between the audio and the document.  I was good for about six or seven words before stopping the recording to catch up.


Then, as Paul Amy said, I had to figure out where to put those words.  I researched each player beforehand and conducted interviews in chronological order.  It was easier to find space for their words that way.


I became obsessed, usually writing two hours a night.  In four months, the book had its bones.  Each interview embedded me further in football history.  It was fascinating.  Friends suggested I should get out more.  I didn’t.


After 10 months, the book had taken shape.  There was just 20 nights when I didn’t write about Phil.  I felt each night without writing was setting me back.


I talked to Shane and Phil two or three times a week about progress and what the footballers were saying.  Phil was always happy to offer clarification or correct my errors.


On December 1 2016, I printed the book.  It was too long and needed a hard edit.  When the book was finished and emailed to the publisher on December 19, I sat at the computer and tried writing about cricket.  I wrote 11 words.  They weren’t in the right order.  For weeks, I couldn’t write.  My creativity was spent.


By mid-January I still couldn’t write a sentence.  But there was more work to be done.  The editor, Julie Zocchi from Brolga Publishing, emailed the book back with track changes.  Julie told me to take a deep breath before I went through her edits.  I did.  Then realised it was a waste of breath.  Julie’s editing was magnificent.  She was a pleasure to work with, as Mark Zocchi and all at Brolga were.


For months, emails went back and forth about the layout, cover and photos.  I wrote captions for photos, a media release and back-cover copy.  Acknowledgements.  I signed a contract.


It is 19-months since Shane called me, offering an opportunity.  It is 17-months since Phil and I sat through 11 hours of interviews.  The book is now in physical form.  It would not have been written without Shane Bond.  I cannot thank him enough for calling me first.


Thanks to Phil for laying his life bare.  There were difficult times during our interview but he answered every question and waited for the next one.


The former players, umpires and coaches I interviewed helped shape the book.  I thank them all.  Only one former player I contacted wasn’t interviewed, despite several attempts.  It wasn’t a refusal.  We just ran out of time.   Everyone else I interviewed was happy to talk.


A few players asked me, tongue in cheek, why no one had written a book about them.  They were players with premierships and medals.  It got me thinking about football history.


There are football books that should be written but are yet to be written.  All they need is an author.


Anyone who wants to write a book about football, go ahead and do it.  It is hard work.  There are overwhelming moments when it all seems too tough and you’re bogged down in words.  It will take a year, maybe two.  But, as Matt Zurbo said, the book eventually writes itself.


So pick a player.  Pick a club.  Pick an era.  Former footballers have amazing stories to tell.  If you tell a former footballer you want to write, there’s a fair chance he will talk.   If you write a football book, there’s a fair chance a publisher will listen.


For years, I wanted to write a book about football and never did anything about it.  Thankfully, because of Shane Bond, the opportunity presented itself.  I got incredibly lucky.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  Make your own opportunity.  Find a football story.  And write…


Fabulous Phil – The Phil Carman Story can be purchased here www.philcarman.com.au


Join Phil Carman and Matt Watson for lunch at the North Fitzroy Arms on Friday June 23.  SORRY BUT THIS LUNCH IS BOOKED OUT.

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. I am really looking forward to reading this, Matt.
    I am sure it will be a wonderful contribution to footy literature.
    Congratulations on it all.

  2. Thanks Smokie,
    Phil deserves a lot of the credit – as do the other players I interviewed…
    If they weren’t so honest, the book and writing process wouldn’t have been so interesting!

  3. Well done Matt. Looking forward to hearing both you and Phil at next Friday’s Footy Almanac lunch, and then, of course, reading the book. I’m sure it will be a great read about a most enigmatic figure!

  4. Huge effort Matt. Well done. I’ll be at the luncheon.

  5. DBalassone says

    Congratulations Matt & well done on all the hard work & for sticking at it. Sounds like a fascinating read, about a fascinating subject – particularly for Victorians and South Australians (and quite possibly a few Canberrans).

  6. Micky and Dips – I’ll see you at the luncheon.
    Be prepared to laugh and be shocked.
    Phil is a great orator.
    DBalassone – Phil really got around.
    There’s a story in the book for a lot of people!!

  7. Congratulations on finishing the book, Matt. Recall reading an article about this some time ago and glad to see the book is finally available. Very much looking forward to reading it.

  8. Thanks Adam,
    Phil left me speechless on occasion during our interview…
    So did the other footballers!

  9. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Magnificent Matt

    I’ll see you next week too. I’m keen to work out whether I can classify Phil as a SANFL Blow-In for Norwood, if not, he can appear in my piece on SANFL gifts to the VFL (when I eventually write it).

    If only Edenhope was a bit further west.

  10. I’ll look forward to meeting you Swish.
    If I can offer assistance, I think Phil is an SANFL gift to the VFL…

  11. Your personal journey of loss and purpose and the writing/researching of the book is very inspirational for me. More power to your arm. Looking forward to reading it.
    As an SA kid I am keen to work out if Fabulous Phil was real or just a figment of our collective frenzied football imaginations? Or his?
    More than any other footballer his quixotic “what nearly was” legend is the stuff of dreams. Like Terry Jenner was to cricket. Other examples?

  12. Peter,
    I’ve thought about other examples of sportspeople who seemed destined for stardom and didn’t achieve our prescribed view of stardom.
    There are myriad sportspeople who were perhaps more grounded than Phil but didn’t achieve nearly as much.
    In terms of success, had Phil played in the 1977 grand finals, he possibly would be much more revered.
    Perhaps Peter Bosustow?? Without the premiership success, where would people rate Bosustow?
    Part of Phil’s ‘confessional’ and his ‘bewilderment’ during the interviews was exactly where he sat in terms of history.
    He has his own space…

  13. E.regnans says

    Congratulations Matt.
    Many congratulations.
    It must feel wonderful to have accomplished this difficult task.
    Well played.

  14. E.regnans,
    It felt good to hold the book in my hands.
    I had it at least a day before my father said let me have a look…
    I haven’t seen it since.
    Something similar happened to the first copy Phil was given!!

  15. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Congratulations Matt.
    Phil Carman was my first vivid footy memory. The murmur of the crowd whenever he went near the ball…only Daicos has been able to do that in my time watching the Pies. Look forward to reading the book. Mighty effort !!

  16. Rulebook says

    Hi Matt Fabulous Phil is the only player I consider the equal of Barrie Robran purely ability wise alas white line fever.I scored for Kensington in cricket as a young kid and watched Fabulous,Neil Crag and Robert Oatey train he was a freak as a athlete.Have sent above to Fabulous,Mick Weatherald and
    Robert Oatey.At Norwood this morning there were 10 in the room including,Roger Woodcock and
    Mike Coligan who played in Phils1st SANFl game against,Port,7 had bought your book
    All the best,Matt !

  17. matt watson says

    You’ll get an insight into Collingwood in the seventies…
    Rulebook, great to read that the book is crossing the border!!
    Robert Oatey had a fair bit to say about Phil!!

  18. Pamela Sherpa says

    Well done Matt . Phil was a true character of the game and deserves a book to be written about him . One of my most memorable experiences as an Essendon supporter was meeting Phil. It happened after Essendon lost a semi or qualifying final at the MCG. In those days a car load of us drove down from Shepparton to watch the Bombers. After losing on this particular day , we felt too demoralised to simply get into the car and head back to Shepparton so we headed over to the Hilton and discovered that an Essendon function was taking place upstairs . We decided to go up and have a look . We sat on the couch outside the function room to which the doors were open . Apparently Sheeds had just given the team the biggest bake of all time and everyone in the room was in a rather sombre mood . Fabulous Phil came out to talk to us and invited us in to sit at his table . It’s an occasion we have never forgottten and our old Shepp gang always catch up for reunions at the Hilton for old times sake.

  19. matt watson says

    Hi Pamela,
    That’s a great story. I’ll remind Phil about that when I see him next week.
    There’s a fair bit of his time at Essendon in the book.
    Hope you enjoy reading about one of football’s true characters!

  20. Matt: remind Phil of his coaching and playing days in the Bendigo F.L.
    Mid-80s he was playing coach at Kangaroo Flat. The home and away game when Flat played South Bendigo with Phil out on the park attracted a crowd which paid $3500.
    A semi-final sized crowd.
    Later he was at Sandhurst just as a player. As the half-time siren sounded one match he grabbed an opposition player and they both rolled around on the deck.
    “Waddaya doin’ Phil. I did nothing to you,” said the young bloke.
    “I know, mate,” replied Phil. “But the crowd expects a bit of a barney so let’s give them one.”
    Then when he was coaching and playing at Kennington-Strathdale one day they were at North Bendigo.
    The Northerners were known — and still are — as very keen on a spot of biffo. But this afternoon Phil got involved with some North supporters, not players.
    I’ll let him tell you how he got over the other side of the fence. Was he hoiked over by irate opposition fans or did he leap the divide?

  21. Yep, spot on with Phil’s Bendigo footy career.
    Kept on adding to his wardrobe full of club jumpers.
    At K. Flat 1985-87, Sandhurst in 1989. One day down at Castlemaine Fabulous Phil dobbed seven snags for the Dragons.
    Then onto Kennington-Strathdale who wore St. Kilda colors by that stage of their BFL stint.
    Earlier on well before Phil’s arrival they wore green and gold and were known as the Parakeets.
    Keets for short.
    Then aged in his early 50s Phil was the coach at Kyneton. A Tigers’ guernsey to add to his fabulous collection of knitwear/cotton wear.

  22. Paul Young says

    Congrats on the book Matt. And thanks for sharing details of the journey on the Almanac.

    I’m indebted to Phil who gave me an opportunity to work with Sturt in the late 90’s as a fitness coach. I’d just moved to Adelaide and was looking to work with an SANFL club and Phil opened up a few doors for me.

    I have two amusing stories regarding Phil – the first one was when we were playing Port Adelaide at Alberton. I was in the crowd and heard some commotion from the Sturt dugout. Some guy dressed in black pants & a cream coloured jumper was on top of the shelter giving Phil a serve. Phil was trying to get hold of the bloke but the bloke kept his distance, staying on the ‘crowd’ side of the shelter. Thinking it was some Port Adelaide feral, I walked over grabbed the guy by the back of his jumper and through him against the race., fracturing my finger when I got it caught in the bloke’s jumper. I had him against the fence and was ready to go whack (if needed), when he exclaimed he was a Sturt fan who wasn’t happy with the changes the coach was making. I let him up, we dusted ourselves off and went our separate ways. Later that night at the Social Club, Phil said he was trying to get the guy when he just vanished. He didn’t have a clue what happened until someone told him, I’d sorted it out.

    The second one – in 1999 I was the runner. We were playing Glenelg at Adelaide Oval. Sturt’s Julian Burton was hard up against the boundary about 45m out from goal. Instead of taking the shot, he tried a short pass which didn’t go so well. Phil told me to go out and tell Burton to have a shot next time and not stuff around. I momentarily forgot my role and suggested that maybe the short pass was on but the kick was poor.

    Phil paused for a moment then roared at me: “You aint here to think, you’re hear to run; now get out there and give the f****n message.”

    I skedaddled and delivered the message.

    Great bloke Phil – looking forward to reading the book.

  23. Sean Curtain says


    Congrats, must be an incredible feeling. Really interesting to read about the writing process and what’s involved. I imagine it was a great journey, seeing the subject matter being what it was. I just missed Phil, my only memories are of the head but but this book will be great to read about someone for whom, take away the drama, was I am told a brilliant player,a fitness person before it was seen as important ,and probably like many enigmas, misunderstood. I imagine the book will explain all that, so cannot wait to read.

    Congrats again


  24. matt watson says

    Hi Richard,
    Phil told me a story about getting among the crowd one afternoon in the Bendigo league when the locals were giving him heaps. It’s in the book…
    Paul – great stories about Phil. His exchange when you were to deliver a message sounds like him! Thanks for the memories.
    Sean, thank you – the writing process was at times intoxicating. I, like you, caught the end of Phil’s career but even then I knew he stood out from most of the rest…

  25. Luke Reynolds says

    Can’t wait to read this Matt.
    Really enjoyed reading about the process that went into writing it.
    See you at the lunch!

  26. Liahm O'Brien says

    Thank you for sharing the story and I love your message at the end. For years I’ve thought that I’d love to do the same as you and write but I have simply not known where to start. However, your article here has inspired me to put what seemed to be years wasted at Uni to good use and find to a focus (which still may be a very tough task). Thanks again, I for one am looking forward to reading your tale!



  27. matt watson says

    Thanks Liahm,
    You will find that the story gives you focus!!
    Good luck.

  28. one of the truly, true greats. should have been at Richmond, we would have won 10 flags in a row as he would have bridged the 74 and 80 teams.

    he was great on Open Mike. an incredible pure footballer and specimen.

    WTF were Collingwood thinking when they delisted him at 28?

  29. DBalassone says

    Peter, my memories of footy are mainly from 1980 onwards, but I reckon Carmen was too hot to handle for the Pies. My first Carmen memory is seeing him as Bomber & the headbutt incident in ’80 and being intrigued by it, because I couldn’t see that he did anything. Older kids at school would talk about how Carmen would have won the Brownlow in ’75 if not injured and how his ’77 suspension cost the Pies. It was all hearsay. He gave away 364 free kicks in 100 games which is a fair stat.
    Strangely enough, I remember watching Carmen play for North against Collingwood at VFL Park in ’82. I think he played full-forward that day (maybe Blight was injured that day) & as a 9-year old, I recall for the first time seeing the beauty of the fast lead being honoured with great pass – I think it was Schimma who hit Carmen on the lead. Dad & I practised this lead & mark drill the next day in our street.
    I realise now I was also at Carmen’s last VFL game – the ’82 Elimination final vs Hawthorn, which was also Blight’s last game (he kicked his 100th after the quarter time siren), and strangely enough, Dermie’s first game.

  30. i went and watched a big chunk of Open Mike again last night. Phil basically blames himself for pushing T-shirt’s buttons too many times. Continuous minor rebellion against the structures. But what highlights, he had that swaggering, slightly bowed run. What a player!

    what a shame the modern game doesn’t really allow for these sorts any more. other than L Franklin, Dusty on one of those days when he can do the impossible etc.

  31. DBalassone says

    Funnily enough, I watched that Open Mike interview last night too, and I gotta say, while’s there’s now excuse for the headbutt, geez that boundary umpire (Carbery?) got right in his face. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an umpy do that before – let alone a boundary umpire. And the subsequent overracting by Carbery was worthy of a WWF audition.

  32. Did graham Carbery die this week, just checking a notice in the age

  33. Stan the Man says

    We arrived at Norwood oval for a Norwood v Port game. The ground announcer said that CHB Peter Mulranney (31) was out of the side and would be replaced by P Carman (9). We thought that’s it Peter Woite the Port CHF is going to have a field day…. we cant win today !!! We were wrong. The new kid had a day out taking about 15 marks and doing what he wanted all day. What a debut !! Since that day we followed his football journey. A champ !! He came back to the Norwood footy club a couple of weeks ago to launch the book. Sitting at his table Woodcock, Dillon, Gallagher and Rosser. Thanks for the memories Phil et al. Got the book read it in a couple nights…. my wife just doesn’t understand as she kept on saying : “Give it a break, put it down will ya”

  34. Brilliant Job Matt, you deserve to get a lot of work . Enormous patience in order to put this great book together.
    Everyone who loves footy should read this book . Sometimes in life we can’t understand why things dont happen.
    Phil Carman should have been in the hall of fame , a legend of the game . But it wasn’t to be
    People who saw him play were amazed at his ability.
    He had the ability to be an Olympic decathlete.
    Once again Matt , you are a talent , keep writing , dont stop .

  35. Thomas Moore says

    I new Phil Carnan in the early 80’s ,during his footbal career in Canberra I considered Phil a friend and a bit of a mate, we enjoyed a beer and sometimes a dinner in the company of others at the Eastlake Club, Your book is captivating and an excellent read, bringing back lots of memories of yesteryear, and it has certainly helped me understand Phil a lot better and now i realise how much i appreciated Phil’s company, i now wish i had spent more time with him, Phil i wish you all the best and a happy life

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