“Regrets……I’ve had a few……” by KB Hill

 

I remember him all those years ago……..He was an emerging football prodigy……After a handful of scintillating performances talent-scouts hurriedly etched his name into their note-books……He was a long, lean, loping lad, destined for stardom…….

 

Thirty-five years later we re-connect. When I introduce myself he hesitates; wondering if I’m about to deliver bad tidings about something that’s happened in his old home town.

 

“No, just looking to re-trace your footy career.”…..“Not much to talk about there,” he jokes.

 

What follows, I think, proves somewhat cathartic, as my subject seems to appreciate exorcising a few old ‘demons’…………….

 

***

 

Paul Bryce moved seamlessly through junior ranks. A product of the Imperials, he shone under the coaching of Darryl Smith in a season and a half with the Rovers Thirds.

 

His six goals for Wangaratta High in a Herald-Shield Final against Wagga’s Mount Austin High was noted by the North Melbourne hierarchy who were at VFL Park that evening, preparing for the Roos’ Night Series clash with Footscray.

 

They duly included him on a list of 50 youngsters to whom they had access in their zone, but deleted him when he bypassed the early part of the 1985 season to play for Vic Country at the National Under 18 Basketball Carnival.

 

You can imagine their approach: ‘Well, if the young prick wants to put basketball in front of footy there are plenty of other kids who are looking for an opportunity…….”

 

***

 

But that soon changed when Paul burst onto the O & M scene. His arrival went something like this……..

 

The Rovers slot the 16-year-older in against Myrtleford in Round 8. Moments after coming onto the ground in the second quarter he soars above the pack in the goal-square to mark and convert.

 

 

 

 

His six ‘sausages’ on debut are heralded, but a month later he lines up against the O & M’s premier backman Denis Sandral. Slotting four first-quarter goals, he sees off four opponents in snaring 10 for the day.

 

Three other ‘bags’ of five have the kid’s name on everybody’s lips, but on the eve of the finals he approaches his coach Merv Holmes and asks: “Can you give me a crack at centre half-back ?”

 

The Hawks are facing North Albury in an Elimination Final and are rank outsiders, but Bryce excels, with 18 marks and 25 kicks in his first-ever game as a key defender.

 

 

 

 

“You would have to go a long way to see a more sensational marking exhibition,” raved the Border Morning Mail, as the youngster leads his side to a 27-point win.

 

The following week he completely outplays highly-touted ex-Collingwood big-man Mick Horsburgh. The Rovers hold off determined Benalla by five points.

 

 

 

 

Albury stitch up the Preliminary Final with a comprehensive 63-point win, but Bryce’s effort can’t be faulted. He’s thrown from defence, into attack and onto the ball in a bid to stem the tide, chalking up 20 kicks and 10 marks……….

 

***

 

Paul cherishes the memories of those 14 senior games with the Hawks, and loved the ‘apprenticeship’ he served:

“I had a fantastic coach…… Holmesy was awesome…..I’d admired him for a long time. His knees were shot, and he really shouldn’t have been playing. But gee he was tough……”

 

As well as Bryce, the Rovers blooded skilful on-baller Nick Goodear and a pair of promising blonde-haired kids from Junior Magpies – Robert Walker and Matthew Allen – during 1985. Versatile Peter Tossol was another acquisition….The nucleus of a side – about to embark on a Golden Era – was being formed.

 

But Paul Bryce wouldn’t be sharing it with them. He was headed for Arden Street.

 

North Melbourne had arranged for him to complete his HSC at Trinity Grammar whilst playing Under 19s. The ‘Joeys’, full of talent – a fair portion of it from their country zone – fell at the final hurdle, on Grand Final day.

 

Several of them found a spot on the Senior list in 1987, where they came under the influence, the imposing figure and booming voice of the legendary John Kennedy.

 

“He reminded me a bit of Merv Holmes, actually,” Paul recalls. “When he spoke you listened. He was hard, but fair……… I just wish I’d appreciated then how lucky I was to be in his company.”

 

Progress was steady for the youngster, but his senior opportunity came in Round 13, against Collingwood at Waverley.

 

“It was pissing down, and I’ve held onto a mark up forward early in the game. I thought, Hell , this is alright…..a goal with my first kick…….I missed, but we ended up belting the Pies………”

 

***

 

A positive senior debut…..a 54-point win against the old enemy……a dream fulfilled…….the sky’s the limit for an impetuous 18 year-old. Well, sometimes things aren’t as rosy as they look……..

 

North were light-on for big timber, and for the first couple of years Paul was shunted into different roles around the ground. But injuries – particularly twangy hammies – would regularly interrupt a run of games.

 

“I loved the on-field aspect of it, and was playing fair footy” he says, “….but I didn’t really feel an accepted part of the group.”

 

 

 

 

“ I tried on a few different personalities, but felt like I never really fitted in. Eventually I developed a pretty ordinary attitude and acted like a bit of an arrogant ‘dick’, to be honest.”

 

“It’s easier these days because Clubs have got people to help you deal with these matters…….I didn’t handle the whole League football thing very well……I had no real mates.”

 

He decided to throw himself headlong into summer training prior to the 1990 season.

 

 

 

 

“ I did a lot of work by myself and got super- fit…..the best I’d ever been. I even gave up the booze. The result was that I had a really good year.”

 

With tall, blossoming stars like Wayne Carey and John Longmire settling in up forward, and Ian Fairley down back, the Roos had the luxury of playing the 195cm Bryce as a ruck-rover, partnering ball-magnet Matthew Larkin.

 

“I’d found my niche, but the trouble was, after having a good year, I started to cruise a bit…….And I didn’t fancy ‘Schimma’ (Wayne Schimmelbusch) who’d succeeded ‘Kanga’ Kennedy as coach. At the end of the day, he was a Club legend; I was just a young upstart…..So I decided to leave. We just didn’t get on.”

 

 

 

 

Paul went to North and advised them he ‘wanted out’.

 

“I approached a few clubs personally and liked the look of Melbourne, who seemed to be on the way up. They worked out a deal with North and I became a Demon. John Northey was coach…..a great motivator, whom I related to.But I’d been a bit lazy over the summer. I was overweight and it cost me…..Another stupid decision on my part…….”

 

Thus, it was mid-way through the season before he’d established himself in the side. But once settled he played his part in the Demons’ surge towards the finals, which eventually saw them overpowered in the Semi, by West Coast at Waverley.

 

The last of Paul’s 26 games with Melbourne came when he dislocated a shoulder the following season. He now knew he was skating on thin ice.

 

“I carried a shitty attitude into 1993 Pre-Season, and ended up getting the sack…….. Next thing is I find myself drafted to Sydney.”

 

The Swans were in turmoil. A few games into the season coach Gary Buckenara was sacked and Ron Barassi installed as his replacement . Even the great Barassi was unable to turn their fortunes around.

 

“I liked ‘Barass’,” Paul says. “I think I frustrated him, but we got along pretty well. It’s just that I hated Sydney.”

 

Their only win for the season came against Melbourne. And with 18 kicks, 7 marks and 7 handballs Paul played his best game against his old side.

 

He says he can remember packing up the van carrying all of his possessions, going to the Swans’ Best & Fairest count, leaving about 10.30pm, and driving straight back to Melbourne.

 

“I sent a letter telling ‘em I was finished. I had a pretty good year, but wasn’t particularly popular, and had an ordinary attitude……. At 25 I was ‘done’……I’d had enough of League football………..”

 

***

 

In fact his AFL career, which comprised 91 games (48 with North Melbourne, 26 with Melbourne, and 17 with Sydney) was shut to the back of his mind.

 

It was only when an old North Melbourne team-mate, Kenny Rainsford, began pestering him that he began to have second thoughts about playing again.

 

Rainsford had taken on the coaching job at Moe.

 

“ ‘Come down. Play one game and see whether you like it ’, he said. “I’d completely lost my love for footy, but I had a run and really enjoyed it. I had two fun years. We played finals and I was lucky enough to play in the Latrobe Valley League’s Country Championship win at Swan Hill.”

 

“Kenny then went down to Tassie. I didn’t have a great job in Melbourne, so I followed him down, and played with Launceston in the Statewide League, for two years.”

 

When the Statewide League was disbanded, Launceston reverted to the NTFL and appointed Paul as playing-coach.

 

“I enjoyed it, and learned a lot of lessons. But I found it difficult dealing with different personalities when I was still a kid myself,” he says.

 

After relinquishing the coaching job he played another season, then, at the tender age of 30, Paul Bryce called time on his football career.

 

With work now occupying more of his time, he took up fly-fishing. It became his hobby, developing into an obsession, sometimes taking him out 3-4 times a week.

 

Fishing the streams of Tasmania, with the birds chirping and the sun shining, was, I suppose, eons away from the manic pressure and screaming crowds of AFL footy.

 

Paul accepted a work transfer back to Melbourne in 2001, but that failed to rekindle his love of the game.

 

He’s involved in the golf industry, and handles all the Victorian on-line sales of the Golf Clearance Outlet which, he says, has developed into a thriving business.

 

Paul and his wife Rebecca (who is a lecturer in Exercise Physiology ) and kids Lucy (11) and Mitch (9) are firmly entrenched in Melbourne, but he sometimes harks back to the days when his football journey began.

 

“I often think I’d like to stand in front of kids,” he says,”…and tell ‘em what it’s like to have ability and not fulfil that……..and then live with some regret……It’s hard…it’s bloody hard…..Bloody hell, what a waste…….”

 

 

 

 

This story first appeared on KB Hill’s website On Reflection and appears here with permission.

All photos from KB Hill’s collection.

To read more of KB Hill’s great stories, click HERE.

 

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Comments

  1. Well told, KB. And well done to Paul for his honesty – what a final statement!

  2. Remember Paul Bryce playing that terrific game in the win over melbourne that broke a 20-odd game losing streak. We were mystified. Bryce was right, he was not popular with the fans. Natural ability but lacked footy smarts.
    Another beautiful day in Sydney….

  3. Great piece KB. Tales of players leaving the game disaffected always makes for sad reading. Pleased to hear that Paul found some joy and passion going aroun in the bush in the later stages but also that he found revisiting that journey a cathartic experience.

  4. I have clear recollections of Paul Bryce…and of my frustrations at him, wondering why he could not frank his obvious talent while playing for North.

    Full credit to him for being clear-eyed enough to admit his mistakes. There certainly was not the player welfare assistance available back in those days.

    I would also like to apologise to Paul for heckling him at Princes Park, when he was playing at full-back for Sydney in their infamous walloping by North Melbourne.

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