Lesson #01 – “If it is to be, it is up to me”
Some dates will always stay in our minds.
Embedded deep in our consciousness.
As the calendar turns, it takes you somewhere, back to a time, and most likely a place, person or people.
It might be a world event. Whenever 8 December comes around, I think of John Lennon and my suburban bedroom, listening to radio station 92.3 EON-FM, with FM radio just becoming a thing. I learned that my musical, spiritual and philosophical hero had been shot dead in New York.
There are personal events. Your first date with the person you would spend the rest of your life with, or the day someone special leaves your world. The 11th of June is the day my grandfather we called Puppy, died, my Mum’s dad, and my first personal experience of death, loss and grieving. Puppy taught me how to draw. Thick tradie pencils on butcher paper. He died the same year as John Lennon.
11 January is one of those dates for me. It was the day I joined the workforce. I went straight from school to work, deferring an offer to go to University after Year 12, with no real plan and certainly little idea, but somehow knowing it was the start of the rest of my life.
I’d completed school a month or so earlier. With a newly minted driver’s licence I got on my 18th birthday and a 1970 Mazda 808 from a local car yard, from a mate of my Dad, I went away with a few mates and my girlfriend to Anglesea, knowing that the countdown was on, to a place of transition, stepping into adulthood, and each their own pathway.
Most of the group I was away with had a couple of months of sun and sand ahead of them as they were heading to various universities, which I didn’t know whether I was skipping or postponing. My preparation meant buying myself a parent funded navy-blue suit from Alexanders Menswear in Richmond, a few Pelaco shirts and a pair of serious shoes, swapping one uniform for another.
The uniform metaphor is made complete by the tie that I would wear on day one and for most of the first year in the workforce.
It is blue, with two thin red stripes that bracket three intertwined letters in the timeless type-face of a thousand ‘old-worldy’ sporting clubs.
The letters are the M, F and C of the Melbourne Football Club, the most ‘old-worldy’ of all football clubs, still playing the game it had invented 120 years earlier.
Dick Seddon, the Melbourne CEO, had given me the tie a few months earlier. He did so with ceremony, even though it was just the two of us in his office, a large room with an open fireplace in an old terrace house up the road from the MCG.
I was now officially the Assistant to the Football Manager of the Melbourne Football Club.
My Job Description in those early days was typical of any office junior, but it might as well have read:
“Do anything Ron Barassi asks you to do.”
It might just be the best job description I’ve ever had.
The date came around as they thankfully do. This year, 2022, marks forty years since I arrived way too early for my first day of work at 26 Jolimont Terrace, Jolimont, the offices of the Mighty Demons, in the shadows of MCG, sitting on the steps waiting for the first person to arrive.
There was no actual induction that I can recall. Still, I did have a desk in a small office which I shared with Ray Manley, the Football Manager, with whom I was the ‘Assistant to’, my soon to be printed business cards would declare, and Rosemary Long, Ron Barassi’s Assistant, a role she still plays forty years later. Both would have a wonderful impact as I tried to negotiate the complex organism that is a professional football club, picking me up and straightening me up, often daily, as I tripped over my own feet.
Date, place and people embedded in who I was and who I was becoming.
I do remember being presented with a very large ring of keys, one of which was for the office so I wouldn’t have to sit on the steps, but also, incredibly when I think about it, to the MCG itself. Having just turned 18, and with complete trust and without hesitation, I had in my daily possession the keys to one of the most famous sporting stadiums in the world.
In those days, Melbourne was still training at the MCG. The players, being part-time, arrived at training from around 4 pm, and one of my jobs was to open up the rooms, stand with a clipboard, mark off the names as they arrived, and hand out the memos scheduling the next weeks of the player’s football life.
I would also pass on personal mail that had arrived at the club. Much loved captain Robert Flower would receive a daily lack-a-band bundle, most addressed with a kid’s scrawl to Robbie Flower, Demons, MCG, no address, postcode but the posties still knowing how to facilitate its delivery.
I was also required to lock up after training, hence the keys.
Being January, and cricket season, the Demons didn’t train on the MCG surface and wouldn’t do so until a week before round 1 of the football season in April. So players and support staff would make their way over the old railway footbridge to a large paddock known as Flinders Park opposite Olympic Park, a space now occupied by the Rod Laver Arena.
There were no ground markings, and the rough, dry ground had to be transformed into something that approximated a football ground with witches hats marking the boundary line and using the portable Little League goalposts banged into the hard turf.
Building the ground was also one of my jobs. In the early afternoon before training, I would drive into the MCG and load my car up, a bootful of witches hats and goalposts hanging out the window of my little car. With a measuring wheel that would click every metre as you pushed it, but required you to keep count, I’d use whatever mathematical prowess thirteen years of schooling had left me with and mark out an MCG size ground for training. This exercise would take at least a couple of hours and often in the heat of the Melbourne summer as my mates drank beers and caught waves on a peninsula somewhere.
Throughout this exercise, I considered myself the luckiest person in the world.
The test would be when Ron Barassi would arrive, jogging from the MCG in his football boots with his coaching staff. He’d stand in the middle of my newly created oval as the players did their warm-up, and size it up, often pacing it out or getting onto one knee, down to witches hat level to check out the arc of the ‘boundary line’ that I had formed. With more than a bit of trepidation, I’d watch, his body language telling all.
The Barassi disposition never deceived his mood. It was there for all to see, and it was rarely moderate. Generous and deeply interested mostly, and often playful, but when it came to the training track, it was about exacting standards of professionalism, the “little things”, as he would call them. He would take in the environment with an intensity, moustachioed lip curled, barrel chest out, searching for any sign that a standard had slipped. Players would be sent off the training track for having a hole in a sock, ears ringing.
The Barassi ‘spray’ was legendary. In an era when all coaches had this arsenal in their coaching kit bag, Barass was trigger happy.
The spray was very much a one-way conversation. Rare was any form of response, a dropped head only making matters worse. “Look at me when I am talking to you (name inserted)”, he’d yell, “Do you even know what I am talking about?”. “Yes, Barass”, would be the response. “Good, now go out and show me.”
Not just meant for the individual who made the error, the spray was a shot over the bow for anyone in earshot, mostly the player’s teammates. In elite team sport, feedback, assuming it is not personal, is mostly delivered in group settings, so everyone learns from the message. Team-based environments rely on this, both from a growth perspective and in support of each other. In strong cultures, team leaders will put their arm around the player who might be feeling a little wounded and isolated, but in a way that doesn’t compromise the message, seeking to reinforce the learnings while reassuring the individual that they’re a valued member of the team.
Wherever Barassi went, interest would follow.
In one of those early training sessions, a photographer snapped a photo of Barassi firing short passes at one of his coaches with all of his usual competitive verve, most likely the recently retired former Demon Captain Stan Alves, who enjoyed taking on the best that Barassi could dish up, and returning fire. In my new ‘ uniform ‘, a football in my hand, I am in the background standing with a languid teenage disposition. It would appear in The Sun newspaper a couple of days later, and I was more than a little chuffed.
The ground construction exercise would be my routine throughout the full pre-season, at least three days per week. But soon, the excitement and novelty began to wane. It just became hard and mundane work.
One sweltering afternoon, the same day as my photo had been in the paper, the famous Nylex Clock in Richmond showed the temperature well into the high 30s, with a fierce northerly blowing up dust as I laid down the cones and tried to bang the goalposts into the hard turf, my energy quickly waned. I discarded the measuring wheel and maths, convincing myself I did not need them as I’d completed the task a dozen times by then. Accordingly, I got the job done in half the time, and a glance at my watch confirmed I didn’t need to get back to the MCG to open up for another hour or so.
I jumped back in my car and headed up Swan Street, looking for somewhere to grab a cold can of sarsaparilla, my soft drink of choice. I found a park in front of a small cafe and bought my Sars. In the cafe, I noticed a pile of well-thumbed newspapers. On top, sports pages facing up was The Sun with my photo in it. I decided to sit down, pick up the paper, and feigning interest in something other than the sporting section, held it at an angle such that someone might recognise me as the young lad in the photo.
Returning to my car, I realised something had changed.
Swan Street had now choked with early peak hour traffic. I maneuvered my car back into the traffic, unable to do the u-turn required to head in the direction of the MCG. Whilst only a few kilometres away, the stadium now seemed like a mirage through the simmering Melbourne traffic.
I tried ducking up one of the inner Richmond backstreets, but others had the same idea, and soon I was stationary again. I started to panic as I sat in my blazing car with vinyl seats and no air conditioning, not moving, knowing I was going to be late opening the rooms for the players and staff who would be arriving now, and I had no way of telling them, no mobile phones in those days.
It was now getting desperate. I even drove the wrong way up a one-way street only to be confronted by a van coming the other way and was forced to back up, copping a barrage of abuse from a sweaty, red-faced driver. I even thought of leaving my car in the backstreets of Richmond and running to the MCG, but everything required to do my job was in the car. Excuses started to form in my mind, none of which would stack up. At one time, pointing my car in the direction of my home seemed the only option, abandoning any thought of a career in the game for the solace of my childhood bedroom.
By the time I arrived at the MCG, my Pelaco shirt sweat-soaked to the skin, there was a large throng of players and staff waiting at the changeroom door. The players who arrived early were generally the more committed group who would do extra work even though they had at least three hours of intense and unforgiving work in front of them. Mostly they were the players who knew they had to do this extra work to survive at this level. Time stood still as I fumbled through my big ring of keys to find the one to open the changeroom door.
“Lucky for you Barass hasn’t arrived yet”, said one of the players as they filed past.
I went about my duties, my head swirling with the potential ramifications of my misjudgement. There was a sense of relief when it came time for the players and coaches to leave the rooms, jogging to Flinders Park, and I would soon follow.
As I walked down the railway bridge, I looked towards the witches-hat oval I’d constructed what seemed an eternity ago. From my elevated position, I could immediately see it didn’t look right. The players were doing their pre-training laps on a lopsided, malformed, almost egg-shaped ground, a fact that had not been lost on Ron Barassi and his team of assistants. His pre-training kick to kick with Stan Alves was abandoned as all coaches harried around Barass, who had an armful of my misplaced witches hats, and was attempting to step out the correct configuration of the ground.
Again, my first thought was to find something or someone to blame, make an excuse, but there was nothing. Then I thought about turning around, running in the opposite direction, hiding somewhere, disappearing. But soon, Barass had spotted me, put down his witches hats, and faced me, hands on hips, chest out, lip curled. He did not have to say anything. I was being summoned. As I got closer to him, it started. I was now receiving a famous Barassi spray.
It was then that I learned he was also aware that I had turned up late to training.
I remember thinking two things: head up and don’t cry.
I can’t recall exactly what he said; it was all about standards and expectations, professionalism, and the impact of my shoddy work. There were, however, five words that have stayed with me.
“Not bloody good enough Cameron”, he said.
Even my name was said with effect. Barass had a practice of calling people around him some derivation of their name with ‘…aulenko’ added to it. It was a play on the name of one of the game’s greats, Alex Jesaulenko, who he coached to Premierships at Carlton. When I started working at the club, he was soon calling me either ‘Cam-aulenko’ or ‘Schwab-aulenko’. It felt good. I was part of his circle, a sense of belonging in an otherwise intimidating environment.
As I turned away, thinking that I had just doused any flickering hope of a career in the game, and from about twenty metres away, still in earshot of all of the players and staff, I heard him yell:
“Cameron. Don’t do that again”.
As I made my way over to the drinks area where the players and staff congregated, the group was silent as I pretended I had something to do.
As the players fanned out for training, Sam Allica, a veteran Demon trainer, who twenty years earlier ran match-day messages for the legendary Melbourne coach Norm Smith when Barassi was the champion player and captain, came up to me. In the few weeks I’d been at the club, Sam had been very kind, always stopping for a chat, sharing stories. He put his strong arm around my waist, pulling me hip to hip and walking me away from the group. I looked down at him. He was only a little guy, barely coming up to my shoulder, wisps of silver hair covering his balding pate, deeply lined face always ready to break into a toothy smile.
“Did you hear what Barass said?” he asked.
“How could I not” I replied, unable to stop the tears.
“I fucked up Sam. Fucked up big-time.”
“Sounds like you might have”, Sam responded.
“But, did you hear what Barass said?” he repeated.
I turned to face him but kept my head down, ashamed of my tears. “You could hear him from the fucking MCG Sam. Everyone heard it. I fucking deserved it”, I snivelled.
“Yes, but did you hear what Barassi said?” he asked again.
I put my head up, meeting Sam’s gaze. He smiled. “He said ‘again’, did you hear that?”
But I couldn’t find the words to answer him.
“What do you think that means?” pressed Sam.
My mind was racing. I couldn’t process. I felt an overwhelming need to lie down on the dusty ground.
“I think I need to sit down”, I say.
We see a park bench under the trees near the bumper-to-bumper Swan Street.
We sit and watch the players finish their pre-training routines with gentle circle work and kick-to-kick, lots of laughing and by-play, as the assistant coaches complete the realignment of my misshapen ground. Barassi blows his whistle, and the players immediately race towards him, last in doing ten push-ups without having to be told.
After a few minutes, Sam asks, “Are you ok son?” I look down and realise his hand and forearm are on top of mine. I look down at his arm, lean and sun-blotched with long grey hairs, and I think of Puppy, my grandfather who had died suddenly a year earlier.
“I think so”, I respond.
“Barass said again”, I say. “I get to do it again”.
Sam smiles, eyes glistening. “You get to do it again. Another chance”.
“Let’s go back, eh”, motioning towards the group of support staff preparing drinks to run out to players on this parching day.
“Thanks Sam”, I say. “I will be over in a minute”.
I watched him walk over, smiling at his bandy gait, jockey like, skinny legs and too-tight white footy shorts.
Sam had been ‘rescuing’ young men like me for the best part of twenty years, and would do so for another couple of decades. Beautiful man.
Sam Allica, in white, then team runner, next to two Melbourne Legends, Norm Smith jumping in the air, and Checker Hughes, as they rejoice the sound of the siren and the 1964 Premiership victory. Sam had been ‘rescuing’ young men like me for the best part of twenty years, and would do so for another couple of decades. Beautiful man.
That night I was back in my childhood bedroom, barely sleeping, catastrophising despite Sam’s reassurances.
I played out a thousand scenarios in my fitful mind. In the middle of the night, I decided that it would be best to resign and join my mates on a beach somewhere for the last few weeks of the summer break.
I got up and wrote a letter to Dick Seddon, the man who had given me this opportunity a few months earlier. It was a letter of resignation, apologising, explaining that I had let him, Ron, the players, and the club down, and felt it was best I quit.
I drove to work with the letter in my coat pocket. I went upstairs to Dick’s CEO’s office, but he wasn’t there, nor was his Assistant Susan, so I left the letter on the keyboard of Susan’s typewriter.
I then went back to my office, past the closed door of the Boardroom, where I could hear the voices of Ron, Dick and others in elevated conversation, and convinced that they were talking about me, I decided to take myself out for one last walk around the MCG.
When I returned, I went into my office. On my desk was a large black and white photo. It was the image that had appeared in The Sun the day before.
Next to the photo was my open spirax notebook, with a note scribbled.
“If it is to be, it is up to me…Ron Barassi”,
I sit at my desk, looking down at both, when the most recognisable head in football peers around the corner, with a big smile across his broad face.
“I got the blokes from The Sun to get me a copy”, he says, beaming.
He then picks up the photo, studies it, and smiles. “I’ve still got the taut instep”, admiring his kicking action.
He then holds out his hand, and I think he wants to shake mine. But he puts his open hand softly on my cheek and looks into my wet eyes.
“Are we ok son?”
I nod. “Yes Barass”.
“We do the common things uncommonly well”, he said.
I’d heard him say this many times in the short time I’d been at the club, somehow thinking it applied only to the players.
“You’re a good lad Cam-aulenko,” he says. “A good lad”.
He left the room. I stared down at my desk, the photo, the already familiar Barassi scrawl in my notebook underneath my handwritten to-do list from the day before, which ominously included “Set up the training ground”, preempting the biggest lesson of my young life.
In the short time I’d been at the club, I had found the experience of being around Barassi to be unrelenting, exhausting, at times mystifying, but also energising. Yes, he was uncompromising. The demands he made of those he needed to match his expectations, to find something, the willpower required to do the common things uncommonly well. But for every withdrawal he made from your energy bank, he also made deposits of love, care and a deep interest in who you are and what you could be. A relationship with Ron was one of constant deposits and withdrawals, hour by hour, day by day, year by year, and this is not for everyone, but at that moment, I realised it was for me. “Time to buckle up young fella”, I thought to myself.
Then I remember my letter. I run into Susan’s office and ask her about it, noticing it isn’t on her keyboard.
“Oh, it was from you, was it? I left it on Dick’s desk. He hasn’t seen it yet”.
“Can I get it?” I ask.
“Of course”, she says.
I go into Dick’s office, and in the middle of his leather-topped partner’s desk is my unopened letter.
I grab it, and put it back in my pocket.
“Thanks Susan”, I say as I go past her room.
Ron Barassi is the most honest person I have met. It was disarming, and I cannot say I have met another person whose honesty affected me in this way.
We spent less than five years working together, the first of my working life. It was just five years because the much-heralded ‘Barassi Five-Year Plan’ failed to return his beloved Melbourne Football Club to the top. In fact, we did not make the finals. So bad were the Demons he took charge of, the club won just one game by one point in his first season courtesy of the brilliant Robbie Flower, who kicked a goal in the dying seconds of the game.
It was the first time Ron Barassi ‘failed’, at least in a public sense. Sport is judged in a very binary way, wins and losses, success and failure, heroes and villains, but those close to the club understood his impact. The team made the finals for the first time in 23 years two seasons later under the coaching of John Northey.
I witnessed Ron Barassi’s sporting mortality. Yes, he had many admirers, but the force of his personality and the cynical and more timid souls rejoiced in his failure. I saw his struggles up close, his efforts to will the team to become something better. But I also watched him ‘lose the room’, which is always the beginning of the end for any leader, even when you are the Super Coach. The deposits couldn’t keep pace with the withdrawals.
He impacted profoundly on the people in his sphere of influence during these five years and changed lives. It will not be the last time I write about Ron in this “Forty Lessons” exercise. He saw things in me that I had never seen in myself and I am forever grateful.
When I was appointed CEO of the Melbourne Football Club a quarter of a century later, Ron gifted me an old woolly Melbourne jumper. It has his famous #31 on the back, the same number was worn by his father Ron Snr, also a Melbourne Premiership player, killed in action in Tobruk in 1941 when Ron was just four years of age.
On the jumper, he had signed into the number “Cameron, Welcome back, to a great challenge, and a great opportunity, Go Demons, Ron Barassi”. As is his custom, he added the numbers 17 4 10, designating 17 Grand Finals for 10 Premierships, which add to 31. Somehow it seems appropriate that the number did not go higher.
My time as CEO of Melbourne did not end well, and I was sacked five years later. I gave it everything I had. I don’t believe I could’ve done more, but I know I could have done different. At the press conference announcing my sacking, I took the jumper into the room, and it remains one of my most treasured possessions.
I once heard Carlton great Robert Walls, who played his first games as a sixteen-year-old under Ron, describe Ron as the “without doubt, he is the best and most honest person I’ve met in football”. Wallsy, I am with you, and I am sure many others are as well.
Over the past thirty years, whenever I see Ron, he smiles that broad grin under his now grey moustache, puts out his hand and says, “It’s Camaulenko”, as though he is commentating a game. It still feels good.
“If it is to be, it is up to me”.
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To profit from the bruises without having to endure the bruising.read more
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