As published by The Footy Almanac, 14 June 2012
Last night many of the biggest names in football gathered to honour the latest AFL Hall of Fame inductees and the elevation of Barry Cable to legend status. It’s one of the heartwarming aspects of football that through this event and the Brownlow Medal, past greats of the 1960’s-’70’s-’80’s vintage still regularly keep in touch.
Looking at the clips of the many familiar faces (some sadly unfamiliar due to the ravages of time), it got me to thinking about the last occasion these men might have assembled for something more physical than raising their glasses.
Back in 1996 I was in the final year of my Sports Management degree and I was fortunate enough to land a work experience unit at the AFL. It was great timing, putting me right in the thick of the League’s centenary festivities. Before the landmark season was consumed by the Lions’ messy demise, the showcase event earlier in the year was fairly described a raging success.
The big shindig on 8 May had Essendon take on Geelong in deference to the League’s first ever round in 1897. My gig was the pre-match legends game featuring the biggest names from the previous 30 years. Via their replica garb, the likes of KB, Bulldog Murray, Healy, Moore, Bourke, Schimma, Raines and Greig would also channel the first recognised game of Aussie Rules between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar. It was a tremendous idea – we knew most would jump at the opportunity to participate, but the hard part would be overcoming the tyranny of distance and arthritis.
One of my first tasks entailed a daunting list of names accompanied by their phone numbers. Simply explaining the concept was a tad complex so I started at the least imposing first, if that was possible. I don’t recall much of the conversations – strangely one that sticks out was Tucky’s wife who was up for a loooong chat, and Dick Reynolds who was similarly blessed for time. David Cloke was so thrilled to be asked he materialised at my office door within the half hour. As is the case now, he would have loved a five year contract.
The exercise presented considerable logistical challenges given the requisite travel and accommodation arrangements, transfers to the ground, specialised uniforms and so on. And the stakes were pretty high to get it right (the only stuff-up was poor old Dick getting lost in the madding crowd trying to find the function room).
On the night I was assigned the role of Ron Barassi’s team manager. True to the period theme I sported a cheap old gabardine coat and Alfie cap. I could have done with feeling less of a goose in this exalted company.
Every now and then life throws up a surreal moment where time stands still. When the old warriors filed into the rooms and greeted each other the scene and the camaraderie reminded me of a Jamie Cooper painting. Their banter was as sharp as a needle in your eye – I doubt Darren Bewick’s match winning 8 goals were as entertaining as the pre-match to the pre-match. Ronald Dale approached me with a list of legends and asked if I could help him arrange them into some kind of working order. So here I am with Barass, suggesting (with respect) that Skilts’ mature status would best find him a forward pocket.
Then out of nowhere Dipper greets Ron with a rib rattling bump, sending him square into the wall. No respect there! I assumed they went back a long way given RDB’s surprising mirth. One of my uni mates looking after Leigh Matthews’ team found himself on his knees precariously safety pinning the front of Sam Newman’s knickerbocker style shorts. Trust Sam to have trouble keeping his pants on.
Out on the ground 50-odd big kids warmed up as one. It’s unlikely circle work was met with such unbridled joy in their playing days. In fact I was one of several assistants that ended up chasing kicks to secure the balls just so the match could start!
The game itself was perhaps one level above circle work, as is the exhibition way. The bespoke vintage footies were a hit, though the plastic place kick devices proved a little more challenging.
At one point I recall Barassi grabbing my arm and asking Geoff Moss be given a rest. So off I gallop – and gallop… the 1976 Brownlow Medalist was having so much fun I found myself again running around the ‘G in a bid to curb a legend’s enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, Rex Hunt, resplendant in his stockman’s jacket and hat, roamed about the field of play as if to round up cattle. He settled for rounding up the action in his inimitable style.
A well worn story has it a church board in the vicinity of Glenferrie Oval once posed the question “What would you do if Jesus Christ came to Hawthorn today?”. Underneath it a wag scrawled “Move Peter Hudson to centre half-forward”. This night Huddo’s forward line also boasted McKenna, Dermie, Quinlan and Roach – thus prompting another selection poser. No wonder Lethal took the easy option, announcing at half time ‘anyone who wants to come on can come on’.
Despite several eras and old foes colliding, the legends put on a decent show complete with drop kicks, flick passes and even a faux melee. Barassi’s forward line was pretty handy too, and appropriately for the blue team it was Ashman, Walls and Jezza who put a break on ‘Scotch College’. Superboot’s place kick (worth 2 goals) to steal the game nearly beheaded three players before smacking the post, leaving ‘Melbourne Grammar’ victors 6.3.39 to 4.5.29.
I still remember going to bed that night wondering if I’d copped a Dipper shirtfront and in the midst of my concussion dreamt up some kind of schmaltzy Hollywood sports fantasy. That night the household names of a bygone era played just for kicks, to relive past glories and to be part of something bigger. To be a glorified fly on the wall is something I’ll never forget.