Stevie J: The Wangaratta Magician

Like Mary, there’s just something about Stevie J. He’s a pleasure to watch.

No offence to the man, but on the surface he’s not what you’d imagine for a magician. A pigeon-toed, slightly waddling bloke of average height from Wangaratta – a place that holds an annual textile festival. Watching him play is as close as you can get to pure delight in the increasingly sanitised world of the AFL. Where Stevie J is from they don’t play an Eminem song from the speakers as the players take their places for the start of the final quarter.

My wife’s Nanna lives in Wangaratta so I’ve become a semi-regular visitor to the town. Each time I arrive I think of Stevie J. It’s an odd connection I often have with country towns. Maryborough immediately makes me think of Stewart Crameri. I’ve never been to Drouin, but I know it as Ablett country. The kind of Ablett that spent a year playing bush footy at Myrtleford in between stints in the big smoke with the Hawks and the Cats. Misguided or not, I get a sense of purity from country footballers.

When I think of Stevie in Wangaratta I picture a young kid growing up with a footy always within reach. Practising freakish goals and handballs, inventing new ways to play the game. Kicking the footy under street light on cold winter nights when fog billows out of puffing mouths. I think of the practising Stevie J because of something Adam Goodes said a few years ago. He lamented the fact that Aboriginal players all get labelled as “silky” and “magical”. He lamented this because he said it made people assume that Indigenous players hadn’t worked hard to master those skills. He said that “according to those in the know at Hawthorn, Cyril [Rioli] is the hardest trainer at the Hawks, but he gets little recognition for that. It’s as if he just has to turn up, cast a spell and pick up 20 possessions.” I agree with him.

People looking at Stevie J would say he’s a “freakish talent” as if he was born with these skills and never spent the time trying to hone them. I don’t know Stevie J, but I reckon he would’ve clocked up hours of “play” in his youth, mucking around with mates, kicking torps, flying for hangers and dribbling snaps. I call it “play” because it’s away from the spotlight of junior squads where coaches want to teach kids how to “play the game properly”. All drills and structure with little place for creativity. Bradman maintained that he was self-coached, spending hours honing his technique with a golf ball, a cricket stump and a water tank. He was an unorthodox batsman, but few will question his ability to make runs.

Stevie J is an unorthodox footballer. He does things that other players don’t. Or even higher praise, he does things that other players now try to emulate. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. A raft of players now try for the over-the-head handball and the snap at goal from a set shot. They do this with mixed results. Stevie J is the master.

When the ball gets in his hands it’s immediately exciting. You can almost see his mind going into overdrive, evaluating his options and then choosing which action to take. The crowd holds their collective breath. He’s always looking to create and do something away from the norm.

It doesn’t always work, but as a neutral supporter it’s my privilege to just watch and admire. If he turns it over it’s no great loss to me, I still take joy from the fact that he tried to create something special. I know Geelong fans who find this frustrating. They get upset when he ignores the safe option and goes for the risky option, the path less tread. They throw their heads back in exasperation as one of his kicks scrubs along the ground and into the hands of an opponent.

They might even say he’s unaccountable at times. But again, that’s one of the things I love about him. The way he seems to just run around like a blow fly at a summer BBQ, buzzing in and out of contests, not appearing to be playing a specific position. He’s like a kid in the juniors, constantly on the move and always calling for the ball even when sometimes he shouldn’t be. He looks exuberant, inquisitive, mischievous. You get the feeling he just genuinely loves playing the game, loves getting the ball, loves the contest. In a modern game where it’s all about process and where a player fits within that process it’s refreshing to see Stevie J break that mould.

Stevie J took my Bombers apart last Friday night and while that was painful to watch, I held no grudge. It was a pleasure to see the Wangaratta magician at play.

About Ged McMahon

Ged McMahon has been a Bombers fan for as long as he can remember. With a Grandpa who grew up just a spiralling torpedo punt from Windy Hill he didn't have much choice. When his junior football career resulted in almost as many possessions as games he eventually had to bite the bullet and give up his dream of captaining the Bombers to a Premiership. So his weekly footy fix became confined to the stands. He yearns for the next Premiership.

Comments

  1. Ged, that’s such an awesome piece. It’s even more awesome that you are not a Cats supporter and wrote with such enthusiasm for what is simply a football freak of nature. However as I am a Geelong supporter, I was very excited to read your post. I too marvel at our Cats, and especially marvel at Stevie J. Last night everything you mentioned about “see(ing) his mind going into overdrive” and all that was on display as no doubt you also witnessed. Watching from the flank, we saw first hand how he can carve a team up. He too sometimes does not know where it’s going to go until that very last micro-second… so how are the opposition to know how to handle him! We’ve been blessed over the years with talents to grace our team. It’s almost disrespectful to each of them to mention one in fear of omitting another. At least now we have been blessed with some success as well as the talent (which has not gone to waste!) … thank God I have witnessed this era in my lifetime.. you know up until 2006 i was resigned to the fact I never would! Thanks again for your piece. Go Cats!

  2. Ged – I think you’ve nailed Stevie J. I groan when he gets it partly because I want the safe option and partly like Meg Ryan in “When Harry Net Sally”.

    But what a lot of people don’t see (which you do) is his work rate. One day he’ll make a ripper coach.

  3. Dave Treloar says:

    Great article – thanks Ged. I think I could talk about Stevie J for days – love his workrate, his footy smarts, silky skills, freakish vision, but most of all I love the fact he’s a great character of our game. Long may they live.

  4. Peter_B says:

    Great article Ged. I have really enjoyed my doses of CatPorn on a Friday night. They are just so exquisitely skilful and adventurous in their play. A few weeks ago it was Motlop, but this week his feet were running faster than his brain.
    Smedts was the youngster that caught the eye against the Dons. A couple of times when he arched the back and ran through tackles I thought I saw the young Chris Judd.
    But as you rightly say the Penthouse Pussy of the Year is Stevie J. I swear that several times I saw him run and glance sideways thinking “that is the percentage option, so that is where everyone will run to, where does that leave a creative option?” Without looking again, he pulls the kick diagonally left over the head of 2 Bombers and into the arms of a Cat suddenly 10 metres clear over the back.
    Exquisite vision and skill to realise the opportunity that noone else saw. He is like a chess master who always sees 3 moves ahead. Where the play will be. Not where it is. I was drooling. Great to watch.

  5. Benny vigona says:

    And what a great call by the coaches to pit stevie v Watson. Was an intriguing contest while it lasted.

  6. Great little article Ged. I wish it was longer! His one two with Corey Enright was a beautiful thing on Friday. Bill Simmons wrote recently of Golden States Steve Curry;

    “Turn on the game, Steph Curry is heating up” is the single most exciting sports-related text you can send or receive right now. If I’m at dinner and you send me that text, I’m splitting toward the bar like a doctor who just had his “EMERGENCY!” beeper go off.

    Stevie J’s form on Friday warrants a similar alerting text. And to think basketball only has 10 players on a small court while footy’s stage is so big and so highly populated. And yet Stevie J still dominated the game.

  7. Paul Daffey says:

    Hi Ged,

    Wonderful piece.

    In Wangaratta they still talk of the game that Stevie J played for the Wangaratta Magpies as a 15-year-old at Myrtleford. It was a muddy old day but he had the ball on a string. He kicked three goals and set up many others. The opposition acknowledged him with a few shakes of the head and silent claps as they walked from the ground.

    The next week he was back at the Murray Bushrangers.

  8. Spot on Ged, he plays like he’s in the Little League. He just loves it.

    What about the funny way he bounces the ball when he goes for a run? So awkward and Auskick-ish and unbecoming for a footballing genius but that’s Stevie J.

    He’s either a magician or a slapstick comedian, but whether he’s goofed up or performed a piece of magic, he still holds centre stage with people shaking their heads and laughing at what they just saw.

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