Fathers’ Day

 

We didn’t really get to celebrate Fathers’ Day this year. There was way too much happening on the first Sunday in September, September 2nd. My son Samuel had his Under 14 soccer game in Gisborne in the morning. Daughter Tallulah was in a one act play in Kyneton early afternoon, and then, that night, she was leaving on her Uni gap year two month trip to Europe. I called my dad at home in Perth – 92 this year and still sharp of mind, but his body is letting him down a bit – to share a moment or two. Luckily there was no football that day as it would have been difficult to find time to have a peek. But it was the AFL-decreed pre-finals bye round and everyone was having a break. Including the West Coast Eagles who had finished the home and away games with the longest road trip in footy – Perth-Brisbane return – and after a gruelling season, travelling every second week, they would probably be the playing group that had most need of a rest.

The club had already lost its best player Andrew Gaff two weeks before, through a moment of madness when he had missed a chest shove on Docker Andrew Brayshaw and broken his jaw, resulting in a season-ending suspension. Remarkably, Brayshaw’s father Mark – in his day, a serviceable player for Claremont and North Melbourne – went on radio a couple of days after the hit and stunningly said his big concern was for Gaff and his family and what this would do for the reputation and career of an otherwise good young man and mentor to his youngest son, Hamish. It was noble, selfless stuff.

A distraught Gaff, for his part, was at his parents’ home in Melbourne. It turned out that Andrew’s father – a well-known local tennis coach – was about to undergo heart surgery and the club had given him leave to be with him and the family as his dad went through the rehabilitation. And Andrew went through his.

The Eagles had already had to deal with the human consequences of illness and death early in the season when young defender Tom Cole’s dad, Russell, suffered a deterioration of liver and bowel cancer and, in the week before Round 1, Tom rushed home to Bendigo to be with him and his family. During that stressful and emotional week, the family received a surprise visitor to their home two hours north of Melbourne. It was Eagles coach Adam Simpson who took time out from the preparations to visit Russell and tell him that Tom was going to be in the team for the first game. Tom told AFL.com that it was one of the last times he saw his dad smile, because later that week he passed away. Tom didn’t play the first game, but once he won his spot back in Round 5 he became a strong and valuable member of a strong Eagles backline and played in the Grand Final. On his wrist he wore a tattoo – the number 66 (Russell’s guernsey number when he played) above the date of his death 18/03/2018, and next to a Crown. “So this is just a little tribute to him, because he’s the King and I love him.” Tom explained. Simpson, Matt Allen and Eric Mackenzie joined Tom at the funeral. Tom vowed he would play every game for his dad. By Round 19 he was a Rising Star nominee.

On 5th September with the big semi-final clash against Collingwood looming two days later, AFL Tonight host Neroli Meadows had crossed to Perth for a serious interview with Eagles coach Adam Simpson. The interview was hijacked by Simpson’s daughter Elsa who explained that the Eagles were the best team “mostly, because most people barracked for the Eagles”, but that her teacher Miss Addison had said the Dockers were the worst team. While Adam was trying to explain how the Eagles would manage if Adam Treloar made his return from injury for the Pies, Elsa was making shadow finger shapes on the sponsor backdrop using the bright camera lights. Were the Eagles taking the finals seriously? Why was the coach daughter – sitting two days before the crucial final?

But then, Elsa Simpson had already been a part of the Eagles 2018 story earlier in the year when she had fallen seriously ill and been hospitalized the day before the Round 2 game against the Bulldogs in Melbourne. A few hours before the game, Simpson returned to Perth to be with Elsa, and his partner, leaving Jaymie Graham to coach the team to a 51 point victory. Graham said he had given Simpson a quick call when he was at the bedside and he was watching Minions. “One of his great attributes is that he’s family first and he’s made a really good decision to go home and make sure he can support his family.” Graham told The Age.

Andrew Gaff said that the event had galvanized the team that day. He let The Age in on the team philosophy; “First and foremost the priority is family and friends before footy, so whenever someone has a concern like that we make sure whoever it is, they look after that first.” There was actually a third element to that philosophy, but we wouldn’t learn about it until later in the year.

In mid-September I travelled over to Perth to spend a few days with my Dad, Ray. The week before, the Eagles had beaten Collingwood in their semi-final in Perth and I expected the Perth papers to be full of the usual parochial nonsense that local newspapers everywhere carried on with in September. I was surprised to find under a banner “Year of the Eagle” in the Sunday Times, a photo of Jeremy McGovern, Chris Masten, Jack Redden and Will Schofield kitted up in the rooms after the game, each holding a tiny baby – Hudson, Tex, Izzy and Nash respectively. There were pictures of Willie Rioli and baby Martin, Liam Ryan and baby River, Jack Darling with baby Max, Mark Le Cras with Mollie and Rex and Josh Kennedy with Sage and Lottie. Lewis Jetta, the paper reported, was also part of the “Dad’s army”. The gist of the article was that eleven of the 22 players likely to play in the preliminary final against Melbourne were fathers, five in the course of the 2018 season, and with Luke Shuey and partner Danielle expecting their first child any day. And, moreover, that the baby boom was contributing to the good form of their dads. Jack Darling, who was having the stand-out season of his career, told of how Max was seven weeks premature and he and partner Courtney had spent a stressful time but that being a father brought a new balance to his life. Jack Redden, who was also having his best season by far with the Eagles said despite the lack of sleep, that Izzy brought so much joy that it balanced out well. Chris Masten explained that Tex made him realise that footy was just a game and not his whole world. Willie Rioli told the Sunday Times that seeing Martin smile was better than kicking three or four goals on a big stage (which he had in fact done in the round 17 defeat of the Magpies at the MCG). Of son Hudson’s May birth, Jeremy McGovern had told 92.9 fm that partner Madison had gone painkiller free, but that he had had to sit down with a sore back.

What was going on with this club? Tough alpha male AFL footballers looking proud and cuddling babies? Finding that footy wasn’t the only thing in their lives? This was counter-intuitive stuff for footy followers brought up to believe that focus on the game and the ultimate prize was all that mattered. That getting enough sleep was essential for prime performance. Goodness, hadn’t the ultimate “he-man” Leigh Matthews told his Brisbane players not to have sex in January against the chance that they might be forced to decide between forceps and a final in September? And here was Luke Shuey days away from some of the biggest games of his life, expecting his first child any day.

Dad and I spent a nice few days reminiscing, reading some old favourite poems and watching a bit of sport on the TV. We watched Darkest Hour together with Oldman’s Churchill on the Tube reciting those stirring lines from Horatius at the Bridge by Macaulay;  Then out spake brave Horatius, the Captain of the gate: ‘To every man upon this earth, Death cometh soon or late. And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, And the temples of his gods’. But work demanded my presence back in Melbourne, so our time together was over too soon.

The Eagles thumped Melbourne in a preliminary final that a lot of critics said they would likely lose.

And soon enough it was September 29th, Grand Final day, and the Eagles were there. Luke and Danielle Shuey had seen the arrival of Oliver in preliminary final week. Luke had a 21 disposal prelim, a bit short of his usual output, so maybe the theory wouldn’t hold. Maybe it was one too many for the new “family-first club”. Maybe he was not getting enough sleep. Dani and Oliver had to stay in Perth for the Grand Final.

On the big day, I went along to the MCG with Samuel. Tallulah who had come with me in 2006 when the Eagles last won a premiership was still away, following the game on her phone in Italy. We had a kick in Yarra Park, chatted with some old friends from Perth and walked up to the gate together and took our seats near the city end goals. It was near where we had sat when Samuel ran on to the MCG as Eagles mascot in Jack Darling’s 50th game, some years ago.

The Grand Final was a classic. One of the great grand finals, decided in the last couple of minutes. The Magpies kicked the first five goals and looked unstoppable. Jack Darling and Josh Kennedy helped to turn the game for the Eagles in the second half.

At three quarter time the scores were level. Samuel and I were talking about the likely outcome. Did I think the Eagles would win? I thought for a minute. I thought about the spirit this team had shown when faced with adversity in the last twelve months. Of the Eric Mackenzie save in the Port Adelaide final in 2017 and the subsequent Shuey match-winning goal. Of the McGovern kick after the siren in Round 21. Of the fact that we had conceded the first five goals of the Grand Final and we were now level and pushing hard. Of the way we had finished off games this year and the fact that we had an extra week off in the finals. There was something indefinable yet substantial about this team and the way they played. There was something admirable about the group that inspired confidence. They had a will to win. I told Samuel that I thought we would win.

Collingwood kicked the first two goals of the final quarter to go 12 points ahead. Jeremy McGovern and Will Schofield spoilt and tackled the ball to a stoppage with 6 minutes to go. Lewis Jetta smothered a Taylor Adams kick in the goal square with 3 minutes on the clock. McGovern and Liam Ryan were instrumental in setting up Dom Sheed for the amazing winning goal. Luke Shuey won the Norm Smith medal.

Samuel and I watched and cheered as the players came up for their premiership medals. Their joy was unconfined. Tom Cole, who had taken a match saving mark with ten minutes to go, looked to the sky. Second last up as Number 31 was Will Schofield. Before the game he had told ABC online that the arrival of baby Nash in June had put things into perspective for him. But now he looked downcast and exhausted. The veteran – “Will the Wall” they were calling him, had played a fantastic game in defence manning up the dangerous Jordan de Goey. He too looked to the sky and pointed two fingers. And then I remembered that he had lost his dad John suddenly in 2012 and his best mate Andrew Macarthur in a bike accident earlier this year. He had dedicated his game to them, two of the biggest influences on his life. Perspective indeed.

We watched Denis Pagan and Adam Simpson embrace as the former North Melbourne premiership coach presented his former captain with the Jock McHale medal as the winning coach. Jimmy Bartel said Pagan was a father figure for Simpson. Wayne Carey said the notoriously implacable Pagan had shed a tear. On radio on the Monday after the grand final Pagan revealed that Simpson had rung him on the morning of the game for what Pagan described as a “parental, fatherly talk”.

As the players did their lap with the trophy I saw Jeremy McGovern carrying baby Hudson in his little number 20 Eagles jersey. It was revealed after the game that McGovern had been hospitalised the week before with internal bleeding after copping a brutal hit on the hip from Daniel Petracca in the preliminary final. He had been unlikely to play until the night before the grand final. The Eagles’ medicos had told Adam Simpson that if it wasn’t the grand final he would not have been permitted to play. This guy, who had played such a pivotal role in the dying minutes of the game, and who had needed to sit down during Hudson’s birth, had played in, and through, intense pain.

Just before we left the ‘G, I saw Adam Simpson, premiership coach, on the field with the Jock McHale medal around his neck and daughter Elsa on his shoulders, his other children around him. He looked relaxed and happy. But then he had looked relaxed and happy all year. When the team had been written off before the year. Throughout the loss of Nic Nat and Gaff, and Brad Sheppard in the semi-final. Through serious leg injuries to Darling and Kennedy. Through a game against Port Adelaide when the team didn’t lead until McGovern’s kick after the final siren, earning a home final when they did. When a critic said that having the Eagles in the Grand Final would be a waste of a spot which a genuine (Victorian) challenger ought to have. Through having to play a “home grand final” on Collingwood’s home ground. When the club’s culture had been questioned. Throughout he had been calm and measured and balanced and happy. His coaching had been, at times, inspired and brilliant. But it was something else that he had brought and built that had made his greatest contribution to this team and this club. The players all talked about it and paid tribute to it. Willie Rioli told The Age on September 14 that Simpson had come up to the Tiwi Islands during the off-season to learn about his home and meet his family. Rioli said Simpson was a father figure and had taught him a lot about fatherhood. That he inspired a brotherhood in the team.
Tallulah rang from Italy to share the moment with Samuel and I. I rang my Dad in Perth who had watched the game on TV and was thrilled with the game and the result. Three generations connected around the world because of what had happened that wonderful, magical day.

On the Monday after the Grand Final, vision from inside the Eagles’ coach’s room after the game was made public. There were three boxes on the white board, the first two with ticks in them. One read “family”. The second read “friends”. The third read “flags”. This was the un-ticked third limb in the philosophy which had driven the team through the year. To the raucous cheers of the victorious playing group, Adam Simpson handed the marker to captain Shannon Hurn who ticked the empty box.

Samuel and I walked up the path through the darkening Yarra Park outside the MCG to catch the tram on Wellington Parade back to the city, just as thousands of parents had done with their children after big games at the famous ground for over 100 years. We carried our Children’s Hospital premiership posters. We felt relaxed and happy. We had embraced after the game and we now chatted about those great moments in the last quarter and the heroic deeds and sacrificial acts of the likes of Shuey and McGovern, Jetta, Cole, Sheed and Schofield. After the noise of the celebrations inside, it was strangely quiet and peaceful in the park. It was a wonderful moment to share between a father and a son. It would be a lifelong memory for each of us. It felt a bit like the Fathers’ Day we had missed because we had all been too busy. And yet, despite the magnificent contest and our consequent exhilaration, it also felt like there was more to life than just a game of football.

Comments

  1. Matt Quartermaine says:

    Well, if that isn’t just the best. Thanks John for htis wonderful piece.

  2. Thanks John. I do like these stories which show us the people- fathers, sons, husbands, brothers etc when all we often see are the footballers. You’ve provided space for me to feel empathy and sympathy for the participants, and this is great.

    Enjoy the next year (at least) as premiers!

  3. Rick Kane says:

    This is gold. Oh that our footy stories delved deeper than the stat analysis or gotcha moments. This is what you uncover by going just a little deeper. A story of families and joy and the definition of the male being something more than just what job you do and whether you’re the best at it. Thanks John, this made my day. Cheers

  4. A most enjoyable read, thanks John.

  5. Thanks John. Lovely piece full of generous sentiment. The transformation of the West Coast Eagles from bad boy/drug culture in 2006 to the family club in 2018 is remarkable. A lot of cultural hard work behind the scenes led by the board and naming unfashionable captains in Glass and Hurn because of their personal qualities.
    Adam Simpson the finishing touch with his quiet determination and generous spirit. Father to boys become men. At last we don’t need to apologise for our champions.

  6. I really enjoyed this John. The fact that, living in Melbourne, I had little awareness that this transformation was taking place, or that Adam Simpson was the character he was (and the leader), says a lot about the Vic-centric and politics-centric footy coverage we are fed. As other commenters have mentioned getting to know the people as people is at the heart of our love of the game and those involved in it.

    I thought the GF was so much about the actual football too. I love that the premiers are so versatile. They play a traditional structure while employing a contemporary approaches when they need to. It might be me romancin’ again, but I felt the Grand Final was more like a game of footy from the past.

    But, for me, the most touching element of the piece is the way footy provides somethign special for families. The description of the three generations here is beautifully done.

  7. The heart is a muscle,not a marshmallow.
    You’ve described deep relationships in a context that doesn’t often see them extolled
    Brilliant

  8. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    This is a wonderful piece John and I enjoyed every thread of it.
    It is a wonderful family story, a great profile of a coach and team and a gentle and important reflection on a very lived experiences of contemporary manhood, as opposed to the kind of rush of undigested words that puts all of us in boxes. Thank you.

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