Jim Stynes and the triumph of idealism


by Jonathan Rivett

The problem with writing about someone you have never met is that your presumptions could so easily be wrong.

Maybe what I’m about to say about Jim Stynes, who died on the morning of Tuesday the 20th of March, is incorrect. Maybe he was not much different from those who came before him. Maybe he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Maybe what I’m about to say is a fantasy version of a good, but not great, man.

I doubt it, though.

Jim Stynes, I think, embodied a rare triumph of idealism in a word grotesquely obsessed with pragmatism.

When he replaced Paul Gardner as the Melbourne Football Club President in 2008, there were quiet sniggers accompanying the pronouncements of optimism and hope. If a global advertising executive, after a Senior Partner at Pricewaterhouse Coopers, after a generous mining magnate couldn’t fix the Melbourne Football, what hope did a mere youth worker have?

Would his status as a club legend make the difference? History said no. There are scarcely two bigger names at the club than Stuart Spencer and Ian Ridley. Spencer was President from 1986 til 1991. Ridley was President from 1991 til 1996. They couldn’t return the club to the uppermost echelon it had once imperiously perched upon and, by 1996, both had decided it was in irretrievable decline.

They had given up hope; they had succumbed to the worst of pragmatism. Football was a business and problems should be confronted with flinty business remedies.


I was 14 when it was proposed, but I knew 50 year olds who felt the same way I did: better the club died with dignity than survived as a hybrid.

Others – many others – disagreed. They scoffed at notions of emotion, passion and even tradition. They too yearned for dignity, but believed that it could be achieved through an amalgamation – once the deal was done, they assured us, Melbourne would quickly, inevitably win its thirteenth Premiership and it would be just as glorious as the previous twelve.

What has this got to do with Jim Stynes?

I think, well over a decade after the merger was scuttled by Hawthorn members, the Melbourne Football Club was still haunted by what had happened in 1996. The merger, I think, (at least in part) was a gross overreaction. It was a disproportionate response to a sense that the club was foundering because, in an age of professionalism and sport science, it was still far too attached to woolly notions that no longer served top-level sporting clubs well. It was preoccupied with its history and gave too little attention to its future. It was more interested in symbolism than it was in practical things (so ‘the Demons’ became dispensable, while ‘Melbourne’ became seen as an ‘asset’). It was stuck in a fantasy world where sentiment counted for too much and financial prudence too little.

Melbourne members, if you believe the figures, voted for the merger. For that reason, there was no moment of vanquishment – no cleansing wave of catharsis. The merger didn’t go ahead, but the shadowy pragmatism remained, not quite so strident as it had been, but most definitely still there. And, strangely, it seemed to be adopted by those who hadn’t voted for the merger, as well as those who had.

Jim Stynes came to the club with this shadow still lingering over it. He proposed to drag the club out into the light – and people sniggered. Bright, bold idealism could never trump earnest, sober, unsentimental economy.

Jim Stynes proved this wrong in the most spectacular fashion, although not instantly. He was a saviour, not a sorcerer.

His first decision was to sack the recently-appointed CEO, Paul McNamee, and for the briefest of moments I was weighed down by the feeling that even Stynes couldn’t wade his way out of the club’s muddy conservatism. McNamee struck me as having exactly what the club needed: creativity, verve, a truly fresh perspective.

It turned out Stynes himself brought all this and a great deal more.

In appointing Cameron Schwab, a decision that got the sniggerers guffawing, he brought back to the club a man who inherently understood that the “football is a business” maxim is true only to an extent. Football, Stynes and Schwab knew, is an industry fuelled by many of the things that the merger proponents had decided were anachronistic – the fluffy emotions, the soft sciences and the ideals of revolutions long past: history, tradition, sentimentality, symbolism, fraternity.

No other person could have erased the club’s debt like Jim Stynes did – that was the feat of a man with an uncommon – perhaps uncanny – gift for inspiring others. But renegotiating an alliance with the MCC, demanding more games at the MCG, pulling the divergent sections of the organisation closer together, building close relationships with the community, turning the emblem from an idea in a theme song into a concrete symbol of everything the club stands for… these were things that didn’t require staggering genius, great insight or scintillating skill to make happen. All they required was a bit of idealism – a stride outside the white lines of the status quo – and that’s what Jim Stynes did.

In doing so, I have no doubt, he saved my club. Not from the swift death that threatened in 1996, but the slow, abject slide into an asphyxiating greyness, a greyness into which unbalanced pragmatism will lead anyone and anything.

Thank goodness for idealism. Thank goodness for Jim Stynes.

I could not possibly be more grateful to him.

Farewell, Jimmy.


  1. Stephanie Holt says

    A beautiful tribute, to both the man and is legacy. Thank you.

  2. Stephanie Holt says

    * HIS legacy. (bit teary, not typing properly)

  3. Richard Naco says

    You nailed it, Jono. Well spoke.

  4. Pardon the pun, Jonathan, but that is an ideal tribute.

  5. great work Jonathan.Jimmy Stynes has given our club a story that we can passionately believe in and unfortunately that hasnt always been the case.And when we perhaps win that grand ol flag we will send up a sensational toast to the Big Jim

  6. Mark Freeman says

    Yes Jonathan, wasn’t it such a relief when the great man took the helm. I agree completely that we were accelerating into the abyss with Steve Harris’s China push and the club’s refusal to acknowledge and engage its supporters.

    The one thing I strongly disagree with from your excellent piece is McNamee – to me he was the worst of all – a classic top-end-of-town business appointment, lovely to have around for a hit of tennis with the chaps in their Toorak backyards. McNamee was an Essendon man, and was far more interested in jetting off to Wimbledon and his (very good) horse El Segundo than the Dees.

    When Jimmy took over he finally brought us all back into the fold, gave us something to believe in, gave us some backbone and passion.

    We all loved Jimmy, from his galloping about the ‘G to the way he engaged with the kids, to saving our Dees and then the Big Fight.

    Personally I’m going to try to use his legacy. When I’m stuck, I’m gonna ask myself: “What would Jimmy do?” and I reckon it’s always going to lead me to the best way forward.

    I was lucky enough to have encountered his big mitt twice. What a presence. What a fantastic human.

    Vale Big Fella.

  7. “Jim Stynes, I think, embodied a rare triumph of idealism in a word grotesquely obsessed with pragmatism.”

    Spot on.

    It’s a shame you didn’t get to meet the big fella – I think he would’ve liked you.

    Cheers for a great piece (and there have been a few recently!)

  8. gamesdownunder says

    Thanks Jonathan for a lovely tribute.

    Jim Stynes incredible determination, courage and self belief is the stuff of football legend. His achievements will be remembered forever as one of the greatest football stories in the history of the game.

    But his real legacy transcends sport. He was a wonderful human being without ego. His positivity touched people from all walks of life. His example inspired people. He made a difference to the lives of so many … What a man, what a legacy.

    Vale Jimmy

    Thanks Jimmy

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