Tommy Hafey – No Over Finessin’

Tommy Hafey was some man.  His face seemed etched from granite.  His body seemed carved from a boulder.  He wore t-shirts no matter the weather.  He was all for his men.  They endured cold and wet, Hafey would too.


A wise man recently stated that the coach you grew up with was your coach for life.  Tommy Hafey, who died on Monday from cancer, is coach to thousands.


I missed all his premierships at Richmond, either not born or too young to remember.  One of those premierships came against North Melbourne in 1974.  I’ve never been able to watch the game.


I’m going to forget my allegiance and watch the 1974 grand final, whenever it is next replayed.  That will be my tribute to Hafey.


Besides, he deserves it.  He gave me a tribute once, 34 years ago.


On April 5, 1980 I was with my family outside the gates at Arden Street, waiting for the grandparents.  When Peter Landy and Lou Richards walked into the ground, I knew things were serious.  Channel Seven had appointed its A-list commentators for the game.


Minutes later, my mother Patsy pointed out Tommy Hafey as he strolled to the ground.  He’d obviously parked somewhere in the nearby streets.  Collingwood players and officials probably weren’t allowed to park inside Arden Street.


‘Go and ask him to sign your Footy Record,’ Patsy said.  I hesitated before she thrust a pen at me and told me to go.


I looked at three old men on the footpath, walking towards us.  I asked Patsy which one was Hafey.


‘He’s wearing jeans and t-shirt,’ Patsy said.


I ran to the men and asked the right one a silly question.  ‘Are you Tom Hafey?’


Hafey laughed.  ‘I might be.’


‘Can you sign my Record please?’


Hafey looked at me, surprised, confused perhaps by the North Melbourne jumper and scarf.  Maybe he thought I’d offer some basic nine-year-old cheek and tell him Collingwood were hopeless and would lose.


He grinned and asked my name as he signed the Footy Record on the back, over an advertisement for Winfield cigarettes featuring Paul Hogan in a tuxedo.


‘Good luck’ Hafey said and walked on with his men, leaving me standing on the footpath, staring at his signature.


It was simple and elegant, the letters curled with extravagant loops on the f and y.  It was the autograph of a happy man, written over an ad for a product he abhorred.


In perfect conditions, North played like losers all day, trailing by 22 points at half time and losing by five points.  Collingwood kicked 7:19:61 to our 7:14:56.


One of Xavier Tanner’s eyes swelled shut midway through the game.  The swelling would’ve stopped a boxing match but Tanner bravely played on.  In the last term he had a chance to snap a goal from the pocket, an easy kick, and managed a point.  It was a crucial miss.


Somewhere during the game Gary Dempsey and Peter Moore flew for a mark.  Moore was in front and took the mark.  Dempsey belted him on the back of the head in attempting to spoil.  Moore’s blonde hair jittered with the force of the errant punch.  The crowd laughed as Moore completely ignored it, spun around and took his kick.  The blow wasn’t deliberate, out of character for Dempsey.  Moore knew that.


After the game, as we left our seats an old North supporter stopped Pa, asking him who won.


‘Collingwood,’ Pa said.


The supporter, too pissed to remember the game or read the scoreboard, hung his head sadly and tried to wander off.  It’s hard to forget losses.  That old fan probably didn’t remember being at Arden Street that day, something to be envious of.


I still have that Footy Record.  I respect Hafey for signing it.  I was an opposition supporter, a breed of fan who would’ve abused Hafey during his coaching career.  He was on the way to coach too, thinking busy thoughts.  Signing another autograph for a kid would’ve been a slight imposition, especially one for a North fan.


Yet he did it without fuss.  Hafey was all class.


When Collingwood lost the grand final to Richmond in 1980 and to Carlton in 1981, I felt immense sympathy for Hafey.  It didn’t seem fair that he kept losing premierships.  My juvenile brain figured a man like Hafey deserved a fifth premiership.


When he was sacked in 1982, there were rumours that he’d lost the players.  That must’ve been a devastating blow to his psyche, given how much he loved his players.


History remembers the winners.  Premiership coaches are rightly feted.  Yet Hafey presided over a great era for Collingwood.  He took them from a wooden spoon to a grand final in his first year.  Under Hafey, the Magpies played in five grand finals, including the draw, in five years.


Such a shame Hafey didn’t get lucky at Collingwood, but there is no doubt they were underdogs leading into all those grand finals.


In 16 seasons from 1966 to 1981, Hafey coached ten grand finals, including the draw.  That is an extraordinary record.


Hafey should be better remembered at Collingwood for his work.  Instead he is remembered as a Richmond man, and that is no slight, but clubs should do more to recognise those men who led them to a grand final.


As he aged, he found his voice on ABC radio.  An elder statesman, the link to the past, his observations weren’t dated.  Hafey had watched footy for decades.  He evolved with the game.


Occasionally his frustration crept into his commentary whenever there was a turnover, they’re over-finessin’, he’d growl.  It was a pleasure to listen to.


When I found out he died, I unlocked the cupboard and lifted the Footy Record out.  I looked at the autograph for a while.  I remembered the grin on Hafey’s face as he took the footy record and pen, how he wished me luck.


I put the record back and found Kristine in the kitchen.


‘Tommy Hafey is dead,’ I said.


Kristine made a sad face.  ‘That’s a shame,’ she said.


‘I am seriously sad, and I never say that.’


Hafey lived clean, like he’d live forever.  His legend will live forever.

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. Great stuff Matt. Said with simple honesty and clarity, just like the man himself.
    You can reprise Tommy with Lawrence Mooney and Sam Pang on the Match Committee video from a couple of year’s back – Round 16 (Episode 21).
    For Roosters fans the full set of videos are still at (courtesy of Andrew Casamento on the Player Profile page)
    Anyone new to the Almanac in the last few years should check out these pearls.

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Matt fantastic a great tribute to a legend of the game and life , there seems to be so many stories of t shirt , Tommy being accommodating to every 1 a rare and magnificent gift . Spot on re his time at the pies his achievements there were remarkable . We’ll done yourself in being able to find the record he signed !
    Thanks Matt a great read

  3. Cheryl Critchley says

    Lovely tribute Matt. I don’t think anyone has ever had a bad word to say about Tom Hafey – that is shining through in the amazing number of tributes on the radio and online. They are still talking about him on the radio as we speak. Footy has lost a true champion on and off the field. Tom Hafey interacted with everyone and my facebook and twitter pages page alone have been peppered this week with people’s photos with him over the years. Tommy will be sadly missed and deepest sympathies to his family.

  4. Andrew Starkie says

    Well done, Matt. A fine tribute. it seems as though we all have a TH moment. Just a moment but we’ll always remember it.

  5. Ged McMahon says

    Great piece Matt, really enjoyed it. Thanks.

  6. Lovely article Matt.

  7. Nice story Matt. I can assure you Tommy is revered, loved and missed at Collingwood.

    There was enormous respect (and sympathy) for Hafey when he was sacked.

    For as long as he returned to Vic Park as coach of the Cats and Swans I can remember a standing ovation (many had no choice but to stand) for Hafey when he ran up the race to the coaches box in the Rush Stand.

  8. ramondobb says

    Loved your story Matt, brilliantly said. It just shows that you can make every moment in life count, even what appears to be such a simple one.

    As a Pies fanatic, I loved Tommy. I recall my 13 year old excitement at Tommy joining the Pies and his immediate ability to become “one of us” – you’ve just motivated me to scurry around the boxes in the garage to find my 1976/77 scrap book!

    I was there in the Rush Stand forward pocket and proudly applauded his return as a Cat – he may have been gone, but he’d always be one of us, his blood, sweat and tears were soaked into the turf of Vic Park. During the torturous times before the glorious year of 1990 broke the drought, I always had Tommy along with Bobby Rose, Peter McKenna, Tuddy and Billy Picken as those that unjustly never tasted the ultimate glory in black and white. I had the great fortune of meeting Tommy at a work team building session in the mid 90s. Like Matt and all others have universally said, he was genuine and generous in his time and a bloody inspiration. I recall thanking him for his great efforts at the Pies and that he was always part of the Magpie family. I’m glad I did.

    RIP Tommy, a great man, a great footy man and a great member of the Collingwood family.

  9. Jamie Mason says

    Beautiful tribute.. really liked the part where you said ” I am seriously sad” … summed it up for many of us.

  10. Good pick-up Jamie, it was a poignant line.

    In terms of being seriously sad about the deaths of well known people I couldn’t claim to know there’s Tommy, Bob Rose, David Hookes and Pants Millane.

  11. Matt,
    It all makes you wonder just how many people Tommy Hafey
    would have met – and had an effect on – during his lifetime.
    I was fortunate enough to meet him by the lake at Yarrawonga.

    I really miss Arden Street.

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