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Round 12 – Sydney v Western Bulldogs: Barracking for Towers


Barry Breen, Toby Nankervis, some old hack and Dean Towers. Pic: Old Dog


Last Thursday, after driving an hour, then training, I went with a teammate to the small country pub across the road. The two of us had the simple pleasure of being the only ones in there, drinking more than we should in order to keep the place open, watching Sydney versus Footscray. Grunt versus flair. Watching the Swans No.22, Dean Towers.


Dean’s from the same place as me. We talk, on average, every few weeks, about any and everything, as mates do. I don’t hassle about his footy. He’d be getting enough pressure and advice from all corners and then some.


Fifteen touches. That’s all the stats sheets say he got. One of the least on the ground. Barely a fistful of Dreamteam points. Yet stats aren’t everything.


Dean’s father was a Champion of Otway, a B&F winner. Class to go with our grunt – the loggers and dairy farmers pushing through the Gellibrand fog. Dean’s first year of senior footy was my 28th, and last there. If playing for Otway taught me one thing, it was that differences don’t matter a damn. Not in age, football ability or vocation. Not at bonfire parties that go for three days, the pub, or around the footy club. You’re either a good person or not. You either have a dip or not. Damn, I love that club.


I was an over the hill hack, he was a kid, but we always stayed out after training and did extra work together. For no reason and every reason. Because we loved footy.  Several years later, 4am in my mountain cabin in NE Tassie, I was tinkering on some book before work on the plantation crews. The telly was on in the background, and there he was, running around for North Ballarat. We got back in touch. All grown and going to uni, Dean was still working for his dad, plumbing on holidays.


I was surprised and pleased he’d made it that far. There was nothing stand-out brilliant about the Dean Towers I knew as a young footballer. Talking, I really enjoyed his attitude to the game, and life. No bullshit, positive. Like his old man. Then I remembered how much he loved to learn. Rising, well into his footy career, as far as the VFL, is made sense. This time we stayed in contact.


Soon, he was drafted to the Swans at pick 22. A 24 year old, ready made player. I had always barracked for him, from day one, running around in the Otway mud, as I did all the kids. But the work ethic to get that far, long after most blokes would have given up, both didn’t surprise and gave me something to further barrack for. Dean was the personal touch. That bit of our footy in the Otways, our culture, our friendships, out there, amongst the plastic and glamour. Surrounded by football legends and metro haircuts and pretty boy tattoos that scream trendy cafes, and would not last a second around the spud farmers and plantation workers up on the Ridge at the Lavers Hill Tavern.


That personal touch, for some of us, it’s everything. Out insight. Our lungs with which we inhale the smell of footy ovals, not just watch them.


It took Dean over a year to clock up his first few games, most of which were in the dreaded orange vest. Recruited as a half back, fast enough to play midfield, he became a tall-ish forward in a forward line that had recruited Buddy, Tippett, Reid, and already had Goodes. I would see him follow team structures, team and individual rules and game plans. Get out of the way of the names. Create space for them. To me, he looked lost at times. The same thing that got him drafted as a mature recruit – his ability to listen, learn and put the team first, the fact he was so coachable – was working against him. He wasn’t seizing the ball. Wasn’t attacking it as if he belonged out there. He wasn’t running to the places he’d normally run. It seemed he was too conscious, not of the opposition, but his teammates. His instincts stifled.


Each ball-up he would stand on the defensive side. This made it impossible to get the ball, or the handball out back, and kick a goal. But that was the instruction. Where he belonged.


His role, simply, defied big tallies.


It must have been hard for him, learning, adapting, not getting the stats he otherwise might, which left him only one or two quiet games short of being dropped again.


Mates would look at his stats, and not see these small things, coaching things, that seemed so obvious.


I would wonder how much the coaching panel up there saw them? Dean would be the handball that led to the kick that led to the goal. That stuff is easily missed. It would drive me mad. When a few of the bigger names couldn’t play in one final, he was given a more key role and had a blinder.


Ten or so games into his career Dean made a few decisions in the dying seconds of games that panned out badly for the Swans. They weren’t good. He got branded. People saw the mature recruit, not the bloke still learning the top level. He put that behind him to play some bloody good footy, but, last season got injured at the wrong time of the year and missed the Grand Final.


I wondered how much of that was the coaches worrying about Dean’s decision-making? I mean, players with broken necks, if required, get enough juice pumped into them to play that one day, and burn all tomorrows. I’m sure Dean would have.


In some ways Dean reminds me of Gary ‘Crazy Horse’ Cowton, the 70s North premiership winger. You’re heart was on your sleeve each time he got the ball. But that was what made it so good following him! The highs and lows, the tension, all in one game.


Dean, to me, is not that natural a footballer, he does make the odd blue, overthinks it, but damn he tries. He runs! He runs and runs and runs – to where he’s asked to. A forward pocket who marks in the back pocket then kicks and sets off. A bloke who smothers and chases and tackles. Who breaks lines on the way back through the middle. Who takes them on, busting through, or drawing players, then feeding off to teammates free of traffic. Who is crisp overhead and always, always, puts team first and tries, regardless of scores, to the very end.


Like last year before he got injured, a few games in a row make the world of difference. Stats lie, all the time. Yes, against the Bulldogs Dean only got 15 touches, but 5 of his possessions lead to Swans goals. In a tally of 12, I thought that was huge. He covered ground, made contests, within the role the club has assigned him. He looked, to me, like a solidly senior player. I thought his game was terrific.


I left the pub, into the cold Tassie air of its empty carpark glad about everything.


It’s funny, watching the one player you notice so much more, how everybody else sets up. Where Kennedy is, Hannebery, Papley, Zak Jones? Who runs where and how much? If the ruckman is winning it. Where and how they hit it if they do. Who they look for, who the coaches get to do the blocking. How the backmen set up stoppages, the forwards. You have a barometer. You see far more clearly where the pieces fit.


When, over the past few weeks, Papley burnt him twice, I raised an eyebrow. When Papley burnt Buddy I lowered it again. Papley is simply a true forward pocket – fair enough. It’s what they do. Kick the winning goal, but also sometimes too often go for glory.


Dean always greets a Swans goal with a mighty smile and congratulations to the goal kicker as if they were in each other’s bridal party after growing up together then serving in the same platoon. When one senior player never responded, my eyebrow raised.


Then I noticed the senior player was simply no frills. He works too hard to care about fist pumping, bum slapping. ‘So what if I kicked a goal. There’s another contest to win.’ Gloriously old school.


When Dean played deep forward two years ago, I noticed, in close games, how many players ignored his leads and bombed points from outside 50. I get Dean is no Tex Walker, Josh Kennedy, or Buddy – but it was a great insight into where the Swans, a team supposedly built on selflessness, were at.


We didn’t talk about it, but as a mate I found it bloody frustrating.


Try it some time. Follow the one player. It helps you see the game unfold.


Against the Dogs, Sydney’s pressure game worked. With a few quality Footscray backmen out, Sydney’s forwards worked. Sydney won big in the ruck. They won the hard ball in the middle, the clearances, and made less mistakes.


The Doggies’ dizzying play-on game, so toe-to-toe electric against similar teams like St Kilda and Geelong, brought them undone. Dean entered packs at great speed and, for a forward pocket, got his possessions in an even spread around the ground.


The week before, against a more structured Hawthorn, and their relentless chip-across-half-back, maintain-possession game, Sydney, leaving Buddy one-out, were picked apart. Despite Sydney winning most of the hard ball, Hawthorn attacked time and again, without any real pressure, from the half back line. Dean’s opponents didn’t follow him on forays into the Hawthorn forward line. They waited back for the ball. He got caught between the two in several occasions and didn’t have that great a game. The same went for almost all the Sydney forwards. He wasn’t bad, just not electric.


Comparing the two games made me love the Doggies. Win or lose, you’ll be entertained. It also made me bored with Hawthorn, despite their champions, their discipline and flags. The heart knows what the eye likes to see. Abandon.


It’s funny how earnest and stressed people were about the game being ‘strangled to death’ under the Paul Roos and Ross Lyons of the world. Sydney made a name for themselves, over a decade, with grit, with pressure. Watching them now, though, that’s a one trick pony in a new and varied carnival. As with every few years or decade, or half a season, the game fluxes, the pendulum swings, it gloriously evolves. So fast, I wonder, sometimes, how players like Montagna, Gibbs, Harry Taylor, anyone over 25 keeps up? They seem so yesterday.


Yet they adapt. It’s a thing to behold.


The brilliance of backmen, their sure hands around packs, their ball handling around their ankles, their spread, their ability to spoil, the way they fan – everything is new again. The game is no longer about possession alone. A number of teams barge forward, devil may care, taking risks and committing turnovers, relying on the back six, plus on-ballers pushing back, to set them up again and again.


Just ask Adelaide: Score more that the other mob, win. Be too quick of heart for flooding or rolling zones.


At half time I watched Dean as he, Buddy and Reid were being talked to by the forwards coach. He looked a man at home amongst giants. And he is. He’s been there long enough it appears he finally knows he’s not getting in the way, that he belongs.


Sometimes I wonder how he copes with the constantly spinning nature of today’s game. The varying coaching styles of each club. The way most teams buy into their leader’s vision, the way it ripples through their lines. Does he feel like he’s playing against his opponent, or opposition team? The opposition coach? The tracks he’s instructed to run along, how much is Dean an extension of his coaching staff? How much is he is own man?


The Swans won last week. Their pressure game beat the Doggies’ pace and flair.


I barracked for my great mate, playing up in Sydney, from a small pub on a dead Thursday while the barwoman put chairs upside down on the tables around me. Savouring each moment, as I do every week he gets a game. If only because I know it can’t last. One day Dean Towers’ career will be over, (and so will Toby Nankervis’, a former Tassie teammate, and mate) and I’ll have no-one left to bring the AFL back into my world. To anchor it and make it real. To give it scale. To give me reason to barrack from the ribs. Every single game Dean plays at that level I’m glad for him, but also grateful.


When Dean and Toby leave the AFL, footy will still be on the telly. I’ll still watch the strangers playing it, but my like and dislike of them will be more superficial.


When that happens I’ll still have bush footy, a thing I live for. And a mate, a great mate, no matter what level he plays at, or where he goes, who I can call, or can call me, and talk about the anything but football.





  1. Rulebook says

    Old dog I totally get this I did exactly this yest re James Aish for the 1st half he did a really quick give in a pack I immediately reacted played,Aishy a guy turned and looked bewildering at me then they replayed it and he turned again and said geez that was to quick for me,I replied no prob he is my interest in the game.Luke and I messaged each other as did,Michael his uncle.The personal involvement to me is vital I went to the Norwood rooms after we had lost to the bloody Crows by 2 pts as I wanted to congratulate,Anthony Wilson who had been racially vilified the previous week I am bloody proud of him the way he responded he was sensational against the Crows also as you get imp to be around re losses as well as wins and yep in a shattered environment it was real give me that over afl every time

  2. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Ooof, so many good paragraphs in this Matt.
    Love the stuff on adaption.
    Love the stuff on backmen – my favourite.
    Love the solitary focus on single players – I used to watch Goodes alone for whole games, or Malceski/Mattner, or a half forward like R O’Keefe used to be.
    Love the fluxes and the fanning and toe to toe electric. You seem to capture movement effortlessly, which I think is one of the pinnacle challenges of writing about sport.

    It is a manifold relationship we have with Dean as Swans supporters. Interesting to know the man you paint, because in fact it’s all there in his play. Despite some poor decisions and pressured skill errors, that talent and diligence can be seen. How I wish each player could flourish always. How I wish there was a clear cut spot for Dean’s puzzle piece. He is impossible to dislike and at times shows things that are pure buds. His little grab, shimmy and side step on the wing up back in last week’s win – one of those touches that ended in goal – may just have been the mental pivot point of that win.

    Thanks for super words.

  3. This is the kind of story I really enjoy reading, Matt. A personal connection to a player from childhood to see him develop into an AFL player is a powerful moment.

    And let’s not get started on the type of player Dean Towers is. Those are often my favourite type of players, the ones who may not be the flashiest or most skilled, but always give their best. Scott McMahon was that sort of player for my Kangas in the 2000s.

  4. Matt Pearce says

    Yet another great read Matty, I’m a bit like you in keeping an eye on anyone from around the old clubs I played at and it’s great to watch him progress. Allegedly Neville could play a bit too which would’ve been even tougher in the mud and slop back in the old Gelli days. Keep up the great work mate.

  5. Great story Matt.
    You described a team man playing his role perfectly.

  6. Yvette Wroby says

    Thanks Matt, always love coming along for the ride on your pieces. Now I’m going to watch Paddy McCartin for the whole game and see what a difference it makes. I think he does way more than he gets credit or recognition for.

  7. Bravo, Old Dog.

    I can relate to you watching one player and one player only for personal reasons.
    My son has been mates with the Dogs’ Lachie Hunter since primary school, so I always keep a keen eye on him in Dogs’ games.

    By the way, I am reading your piece in Apollo Bay – not all that far from Gellibrand.

  8. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Bewdy Matt.

    I follow the fortunes of a couple of brothers who grew up a couple of streets away. Four clubs, three states, 1 Brownlow vote, 104 games, 8 goals between them so far.

  9. Gavin Clissold says

    Nice one turbo. Once again a great read about someone local. Keep em coming. Kai asked about you the other day wondering when he can maybe get an autograph from pie land. Ha ha gotta love the kids enthusiasm. Hi smokie i too am in apollo bay and played footy with the old dog here in the bay many moons ago. Cheers

  10. Malby Dangles says

    Terrific insight into the game and the player. Your pieces are worth the wait. Good stuff!

  11. Matt Zurbo says

    Thanks to all.

    Rulebook, your passion for S.A footy is a thing to behold! I hope they know how lucky they are.

    Matty, Gav! Always stoked to see your names!

    Matilda, thanks, always.

  12. Matt Zurbo says

    Swish, which brothers?!?!

  13. Keiran Croker says

    Another great read Matt. Its always important to be reminded that the players that we both cheer and deride have friends and family supporting their every move.
    As a Swans supporter Dean is a conundrum to me. He is athletic, fast, a good mark and a good kick. The Swans clearly rated him to use our first pick on him after we just won a premiership in 2012. Yet as a mature age recruit they took a season and a half to give him a game. I agree with you that often he does not look like a natural footballer, yet he plays his best when he is instinctive. I’ve seen him in the 2nds and he is clearly a class above that competition. I agree that he may well be restricted by the roles he is asked to play in the Firsts. He seems to second guess himself and can make some poor choices at times. When he was dropped early this year, I thought he may not ever get back in, given they were picking rookies and first gamers ahead of him. I think his form since he has been back this time has possibly been the best of his career. His 15 touches last week were important and made impact at critical stages. I fear he may still not be considered in the best 22 and will be eased out when a few others are ready to return. For his and your sake if hope that is not the case.
    The interview with Dean that appeared in your book is insightful. I got the impression that he thought some of the stuff that occurs at the elite level is bullshit and he resolved to just be himself, for better or worse. Good on him!
    I look forward to further contributions from you Matt.

  14. Les Currie says

    Great read Matt. The personal touch and good writing keeps us reading. I’ve probably seen most of Dean’s games, been impressed at times but never focussed on him. I will keep a keener lookout.

  15. chris bracher says

    Good stuff Matt. A a former player for the Winchelsea Blues in the Colac and District FL I well remember the Otway Districts Games at Gellibrand River. The home of cold showers.
    And a rusted-on Blood I have shared the frustration of those well-publicised DT mistakes but recognise that the absence of a sense of belonging at the highest level has probably fed a low self-belief. The bloke can play and his resilience…no doubt born of foggy “Gelli River/Forrest” training nights and cold showers….will serve him well. He’s in my best 22.

  16. Matt Zurbo says
  17. Russell Paatsch says

    G,Day Matt . I might be a bit late to the party , I was working with Neville during the week and you cropped up in conversation and he sent me the link to your story RE dean .And I am so pleased he did as I too have been following the ups and downs of Deans career since he and Chris went from Otway into Colac together . A really nice piece of writing and captures what a lot of us think dean is just to bloody selfless and we would all love to see him kicking those spectacular goals , but I guess when the bloke leading at you is on 10mill you should probably kick it to him ! thanks again for your work and all power to Deano I really hope he holds his spot and they can win the GF . Because it couldn’t happen to a nicer or more deserving bloke .
    Russell .

  18. Russell Paatsch says

    Hey Matt . If you haven’t been told the Otway boys had a great win on the weekend , a rolling point after the siren had gone to win by said point an absoloute cracker of a game . cheers Russell .

  19. Matt Zurbo says

    Russ, sorry I missed these comments! Hope you get this. Stoked for your words mate. Love watching footy with ya, and playing with your boys! Yeah, Dean Mahoney usually fills me in. What a great win for the boys!!!

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