Martin Flanagan and a reappraisal of 1992

It was barely a week ago when my wife delivered the news. The dust had not yet settled following the announcement that Rohan Connolly was leaving The Age. I’ve long been a fan of Connolly. Three years ago he wrote a cracking account of the 1994 preliminary final between Geelong and North Melbourne. It was one of those games that, like the 1967 decider, you could play as a stand-alone to anyone who had never witnessed the game as if to say, “Hey, this is what our game looks like at its very best. Pretty darn good, huh?” Never mind what’s at stake and in the case of Geelong fans in 1994, it was best not to think about it as even the staunchest supporters had to know they were in for a hiding the following week. Rohan Connolly did not touch on this point and may not have even agreed but nonetheless his writing captured the intensity of the match and I’d say it was one of his best ever columns.

 

As I was re-reading this masterpiece my wife told me that Martin Flanagan has also written his final column for The Age. It’s a tough blow when two revered figures leave in such close succession. Great writers come and go, that’s inevitable. Only you’re left thinking not only who will fill the void (if at all) but how long is that going to take? From a glass-half-full perspective we can at least be thankful that we were around at the same time when these columns were brand new.

 

As much as I love Rohan Connolly’s columns, it was Martin Flanagan that was head and shoulders above all else for me. One could gush or even waffle but I cannot say much more other than I simply loved his perspective on the game. It doesn’t take a genius to tell that Flanagan is as good a listener/observer as he is a writer/journalist.

 

A couple of years ago, during one of my annual trips to Melbourne, I came across The Last Quarter at Hill Of Content on Bourke Street. It’s three books in one: “1970”, “Southern Sky, Western Oval” and “The Game in Time Of War”. What makes any writer great is when they get to you. Each book got to me in a different way. It was reading 1970 that drew me to the writings of former Carlton, North Melbourne and Melbourne champion Brent Crosswell. Despite being well aware of his feats as a player, and his appearance on The Footy Show in 1997 had me even more intrigued, I had no idea he wrote columns for The Age. Fortunately a collection of his writings was compiled for The Best Australian Sports Writing 2003 with an introductory piece written by Flanagan himself. Brilliant prose is an understatement for Crosswell’s take on the game and like Martin Flanagan, his take is both unique and insightful, not to mention totally original. It was just a shame that his column he wrote on teammate John “Ragsy” Goold didn’t make the cut. So far I haven’t located this article and nor has Martin, so he told me. That said, Crosswell’s column on Vin Cattogio first published in 1986 is as good as it gets.

 

The Game in Time of War features a chapter on John Howard. For everybody’s sake I shall spare you my opinion of the former Prime Minister. Flanagan recounts a mid-flight discussion of Geoffrey Serle’s biography on John Monash. While Martin highlights such points as Monash’s German-Jewish background and his not being too in love with the British empire, among the various interesting aspects of Monash’s life, it simply boils down to the two agreeing that “it was a fine book about a major Australian” (p423). It is now my mission to read this book.

 

In Southern Sky, Western Oval, it took all of two sentences to strike a chord. From pages 236-245 in The Last Quarter publication, there is a chapter on Geelong. I was born and raised in Perth and started barracking for the Cats during the late 1980s. A brave thing to do at that time but, even at that age, I was suspicious of the hysteria and hype surrounding West Coast and figured the provincial team to be the antithesis of the Eagles in every way. Plus the Cats had Ablett and while I never got to see him play in the flesh, not venturing to Kardinia Park for the first time until 2005, in my opinion Gary Ablett Snr was easily the most exciting player to watch if you were watching the game on TV. You had no idea where he was until he flashed through at breakneck speed from the right of screen to slam the loose ball between the posts and best of luck to whoever was in the way. Case in point: his first goal in the round 6, 1989 encounter with Hawthorn at Princes Park. You can just picture him timing his run from the wing on the bottom of the screen as Bairstow unloads his high floater. You know he’s coming but in the meantime the anticipation for the viewer is electric.

 

I mentioned earlier that Martin Flanagan had a great perspective on the game and it was in this chapter on the Cats that I got it where I think quite a few of us Geelong supporters needed it most. As fans, we all take to grand final defeats in different ways. 1967 is one of the finest games of football ever played so you couldn’t be dirty on Richmond. Put simply, they took their chances in front of goal when it counted and Geelong didn’t. 1994 and 1995 are write-offs. In the case of 1989, I’ve always been fine with the loss as I have a thing about upstarts. I say that but without fail every time I listen to the ABC radio broadcast of the match (the pace that game was played at makes for good listening when out for a run) I get sucked in by Tim Lane’s call when Shane Hamilton cuts the margin to eleven points thinking, “Shit, we could actually get up and pinch it this time.”, only to be brought back down to earth by the cold facts delivered by Peter Booth on David Cameron. “He’s taking far too much time……..far too much time.”

 

In this chapter Flanagan gives a brief take on the 1992 grand final which, for a lot of Geelong fans, was the one of the Blight/Ayres era that was the best chance – the one we “should” have won. I felt that too for a long time even after 2007 when the drought was finally broken. Flanagan took two sentences to change the outlook. “His (Matera’s) long goal early in the third term put the Eagles ahead for the first time in the match but almost immediately one sensed the game was over…. Geelong had put on a bold front, but behind it was only a handful of highly talented individuals.” (Page 241) . Some folks figure about six in total (or seven if you include defender Ken Hinkley). I was thirteen when I watched the telecast alone in my sister’s house and as much as I hated to admit it (after all this was my team and they had to win), there was no denying it. If West Coast were to steal the lead at any stage Geelong had no chance of gaining the upper hand. Sure, there was time but time for what? The Blight teams may not have been short on style but counter-punching wasn’t theirs. I’d long forgotten that feeling until I read those words of Flanagan’s. Not exactly Proust’s “madeleine moment” I know but like I said, the man has one hell of a frame of reference!

 

Martin Flanagan later spoke about the price Bill Brownless had to pay after that loss. Sadly history finds a way to repeat itself and that’s how I look at Cameron Mooney after 2008. He presented time and again and finished with 2.3. Watching the game at the time it felt more like 2.7. I got the impression that he was not the same player after that loss.

 

I wrote to Martin last night about his take on 1992 and how it changed my outlook. Cathartic is too strong a word and I’m not one to believe in closure but perspective? He’s got it in spades.

 

Thanks once again Martin.

 

(* This is the first piece I have written since I submitted an honours thesis on Frank Zappa to the history department at the University of Western Australia some time in 2006. I hope this doesn’t read like an extended diary entry. Cheers everyone.)

 

About Adam Fox

I'm based in Perth where I coordinate a radio show called "Soulsides" on RTR-FM. I collect and play rare soul and rhythm and blues 45s and despite my Perthian upbringing I chose to follow Geelong when West Coast came on the scene. I love the history of the game, particulary the VFL era and the suburban grounds and as much as I love the game I am also very fond of those who write about it. My passions are footy, soul music, my cats, my wife and young son Matteo and the city of Melbourne.

Comments

  1. Adam – great work. Cats fans had plenty of kicks in the guts in the 90s but we probably just weren’t good enough. Could have/should have won in 1992. The 1994 Prelim was extraordinary. Right up there with the 2007 Prelim.

    Love to read your Frank Zappa thesis. Frank was an immensely talented but quirky individual. One of my brothers had collected about 30 or 40 of his recordings at one stage. I wonder what happened to them all? I still play Joe’s Garage from time to time.

  2. Stainless says

    Adam – thought-provoking piece befitting the subject.

    What you’ve captured here is Martin’s ability to put footy into a bigger perspective. I had long known that the 1970 GF was an extraordinary game but it wasn’t until I read his “1970” account that it dawned on me what a profound impact it had on the combatants and their subsequent lives. I found it an inspiring read because it made me realize that great writing is possible about a “mere game of football”.

    Yours and Martin’s comments about the Blight/Ayers era at Geelong are similarly well observed. An era of great footy but ultimate failure like that can throw up plenty of “coulda/woulda/shoulda” reflections but at the end of the day the participants in those games have the permanent legacy of the scoreboard to deal with, and a lifetime in which to do so.

    For what it’s worth, I have a similarly vivid recollection to Martin’s that the ’92 GF was lost the moment Matera’s goal sailed through.

  3. Adam and Dips- I’m a Zappa fan too. My introduction was Joe’s Garage, and I loved the humour, the extraordinary guitar work and the weird, but utterly compelling narrative. As a teenager at the time the various taboo-subjects featured appealed enormously. I then moved back and forwards through his discography and some like “Billy the Mountain” I loved and others, less so.

    XQJ-37 Nuclear Powered Pan-Sexual Roto-Plooker anyone?

  4. Amen. I have read a lot of Flanagan columns, but none of the books. Your piece has moved me to seek them out. Out of respect for the quality of your writing (and sensitive nature) I will not mention last night.

  5. PB – I wouldn’t mention last night either. Both teams were awful.

  6. It was a shocker. Here’s my dear old Dad’s tip: watch the ball.

  7. E.regnans says

    Welcome, Adam.
    And thanks for the reading tips.
    11 years is probably a long enough furlough.
    Play on.

  8. Adam Fox says

    Hey everyone,

    First of all many thanks for all your kind words. Very flattered to say the least. I had been procrastinating for sometime going, “Yeah, I’m gonna get this written tonight” only to nod off on the couch. Apologies for not replying to your comments sooner but I figure best get the day’s business out of the way.

    Dips – Writing that thesis was exhausting. I’d spent the better part of the previous five years listening to and talking about nothing other than Uncle Frank (I call him Uncle Frank). I have a single copy which I keep safely away. The station that I do my soul program at, RTR-FM, devised a new show last year called Revolver where each month a different presenter takes the hour long weekly show and does a subject of their own choosing. Last year I chose Zappa. With only four hours to cover I kept it down to his musical influences, censorship, the Roxy lineup and finally collaborations with other musicians. I was going to post links to all four shows here but unfortunately the audio has gone, although the playlists are still there. I still have my notes so maybe when I get around to it I can make my own little podcast of all four shows. That too was a rough task as the man was prolific. Chain smoked Winstons, drank black coffee by the gallon and lived on a diet of fried spaghetti and pepper steak but could punch out a tune or two. I think my collection is somewhere in the low 60s.

    Stainless – The loss of 1970 certainly stuck with some of the Collingwood players, particularly Jeff Clifton and Colin Tully, the latter never going back to the club. For Des Tuddenham, it was another monkey on the back after ’64 and ’66. I suspect no one felt the loss deeper than Bob Rose. Three losing grand finals by a combined margin of fifteen points. There’s footage of Rose addressing the Collingwood faithful after 1966 and standing either side of him is Neil Mann and Lou Richards sporting mirthless grins and daggers in their eyes. Rose was being as gracious in defeat as you’d expect him to be whereas Mann and Richards have a look that says, “If you cock this up again for us…….”
    You may have seen this post of an interview (audio and transcript) of Mick O’Regan interviewing Flanagan at the ABC before The Last Quarter was to be launched:
    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/sportsfactor/the-last-quarter-martin-flanagan-on-footy/3184932

    People can argue that Geelong may have been the dominant side of 1992 but if you look at the ladder there was but two premiership points separating Geelong (first) and West Coast (fourth). The Cats’ positioning above Footscray and Collingwood aided by a monster percentage that was primarily set up between rounds 3 to 9. If a book was every written solely on Blight’s time at the Cats I’d be very keen to read it. From what I know he didn’t talk to the players after the ’92 loss until after the best and fairest count, such was the disappointment. I also think Footscray saw an opportunity gone begging as while they couldn’t get past the Cats, they seemed better placed to beat West Coast.

    In the off-season things only got worse for poor old Simon Atkins – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1Z1xaPhCpY

    Mickey – Like probably quite a few others, I first came across Zappa on “The Gunston Tapes” featuring an interview before his 1976 tour of Australia. There’s an official bootleg from the Hordern Pavilion show in Sydney called “FZ: OZ” where Norman Gunston jams with Frank on “The Torture Never Stops”. This interview is a ripper though from his first Australian tour in 1973 for the show GTK. A lot of people I’ve spoken to are often surprised by this one as it’s not often noted just how heavy a rhythm & blues guy Frank was. He turned me on to the likes of Johnny Guitar Watson, Johnny Otis, Little Willie John, Gatemouth Brown etc. Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ex9k_fwwswM

    I love the Roxy line up the most.

    Peter – I’ve recently finished The Short Long Book which is fantastic and currently waiting for On Listening and also The Line to arrive in my PO box. The Line being an account of Martin’s father’s experiences on the Burma railway in WW2. His brother Richard is also fantastic. I’ve just finished re-reading The Sound of One Hand Clapping and The Narrow Road to the Deep North (a fictional account set around experiences on the Burma Railway) is on the to-read list.

    Never mind about last night. Nothing too unpredictable about West Coast winning a home and away match on their own soil. Don’t see it happening much on the eastern states. But hey, they tackled harder and won. That seems to be the difference with all teams this season.

    John – Salient advice from the old man. Also thanks again for the email, hope you got mine in return (hotmail can go to junk sometimes).

    E – No worries tiger. The thesis, although rewarding, damn near drained me by the time i handed it in. Good to be writing again.

    Once again folks, many thanks for your comments. Hope to put some more work out soon.

    Cheers
    Adam

  9. Adam Fox says

    Oh, forgot to add. E.regnans, loved your “Open Letter” article as well. Wasn’t sure about posting this so hot on the heels after yours but figured now was as good a time as any.

  10. John Butler says

    Welcome Adam.

    Fair opener, this. Flanagan and Frank Zappa? Sounds like you’re one to watch. :)

    I look forward to your further contributions.

    Cheers

  11. Adam Fox says

    Many thanks John! Reckon I can churn out a few more bits and bobs in the not too distant future.

  12. DBalassone says

    Great stuff Adam & welcome.

    Martin is one of the great Australian voices for mine, alongside Tm Winton, Les Murray and Don Walker.

    I love the chapter in Game in Time of War where Martin travels North by car – I think with Nathan Buckley for part of the journey. Engrossing.

    The Short Long Book is as good as it gets – not just for sports writing -but for any form of writing! Just brilliant.

    And good to see the Zappa connection. I love what he said to Dylan once, when his dog greeted Bob with some growls, “He doesn’t like Christians.” Bob gave back a cold stare.

  13. Adam Fox says

    Many thanks D. (You mean Les Murray the commentator, right? ? Love his voice too.)

    I’ve only read Winton’s most recent book, “The Boy Behind the Curtain.” Has a great chapter on the subject of class. The Short Long Book I thought was brilliant. If anything a testament to the patience of the author. Plenty of other folks would have walked away very early on. Might not have represented Flanagan’s original intention for the book but damn, it made for good reading. Plus it’s a great accompaniment to Black and Proud (on Winmar) and Brother Boys (on the Krakouers).

    Luckily for Frank he had a fair Dylan mimic in Adrian Belew (“Flakes” on the Sheik Yerbouti LP).

  14. DBalassone says

    Lol. I meant the poet Les Murray.

    Will check out that Zappa cut.

    Btw, in a perfectly symmetrical world, MF’s next book would be a thick book about Richmond’s Jayden Short, ‘The Long Short Book’.

Leave a Comment

*