It’s time to reflect.
In professional sport, you go at a thousand kilometres an hour, and scarcely stop for an instant to think about the bigger picture. It is the nature of the business; slow down and you get run over. I played footy from the time I was a kid growing up in Airport West in the suburbs of Melbourne until I broke my arm when I was 32 years old, in my sixteenth season and worn out. Beyond that, I coached 18 straight years at Essendon, North Melbourne, Geelong, and then back at Essendon. That makes 34 years in the game. It did not end the way that I envisaged, because I was finished with coaching when I completed my 11 years at Geelong, only to be lured back to Essendon when James Hird was suspended and the club was in need.
But it is only part of the journey for me. I’m 52 and that’s a big chunk of my life taken up by the game that I love, the game that shaped me and made me who I am.
The game put me in the company of great players and great people. I was lucky to play with all-time greats of the VFL–AFL: Simon Madden, Tim Watson, the Danihers, Roger Merrett, Mark Harvey, James Hird and under the legendary Kevin Sheedy, a borderline genius and mad professor of a coach who I learned so much from, as well as Denis Pagan, the two chief influences upon my coaching.
I coached Gary Ablett Jr, Jimmy Bartel, Matthew Scarlett, Joel Corey, Corey Enright, Steve Johnson, Joel Selwood, Cameron Ling and Paul Chapman, men who lived their own wonderful stories, bringing the premiership cup back to Geelong after so long. I am proud that Geelong not only won premierships but played football in an entertaining way; a style of footy that people said actually changed the game after some dourness and low-scoring had set in.
I celebrated five premierships as a player and coach and endured just as many serious disappointments, and at the end, during the long and draining Essendon–ASADA crisis, there was some bitterness and real angst to get through. I will have my say on that, but Essendon from 2011–14 is not the whole story, not even close.
When I was first asked if I was interested in writing a book, it had never occurred to me. I had been too busy trying to create a story, but then upon contemplation, I realised that there was a lot to be said. I have finished with coaching in the AFL; I am dubious about the system, these days, and my observation is that some of the fun has disappeared from the game for the combatants, as you will read later.
I consider myself a purist, a man of the people. While the politics of the AFL don’t interest me, I still love the game. I love the purity of the head-to-head contest, the roar of the crowd, the idea of planning and executing a victory, risking failure, bringing young players into the game, the banter, the hits, the emotion, the skill. I wish that the game would belong to the people again, as it used to, that it was in the hands of the fans who barrack for their club for life, idolising their heroes, following the game like a religion.
I like to call it as I see it, rather than go with the pack. I hate group-think, it’s just not my style. I have never been part of any boys’ club in footy. I am an independent, which goes back to my youth, pumping petrol on the night shift at 15, running my own business at twenty-one.
So independent thought is a theme I’ve tried to maintain with this book. It’s candid, and if there is criticism of certain individuals and organisations along the way, rest assured that it is not meant to be personal, rather constructive and honest. The idea is to set the record straight, tell my version of events, and let people decide what they think.
I make no apologies for saying it like that. It is my story, after all.