Having made my way into Jolimont by train, arriving at the station a good hour before the required time, I had killed time by walking laps around the outside of the MCG. I was desperately nervous. I could feel myself shake. I was hoping it was the cold Melbourne June day, and my walk would settle me.
It is the first job interview of my life. I am seventeen, midway through my final year of high school. A few weeks earlier, a job advertisement had appeared in the Melbourne Sun newspaper, and I’d applied. The job is titled ‘Assistant to the Football Manager’ of the Melbourne Football Club, with the only prerequisites being a demonstrable love of the game, a preparedness to work long hours, HSC (year 12), and a driver’s licence.
It was not until this advertisement appeared in the paper that I’d given any consideration to working in football even though the sport had been the constant in my life.
I was able to live the game vicariously through my father Alan, who after a highly successful career as a club leader, including four Premierships, was now a senior executive at the VFL, soon to be AFL.
Such was the pedestal that I’d put my father on, I thought the possibility I could play a role in the game was well beyond me.
When I spoke to dad about the role, he simply asked, “Are you prepared to work hard?”
Dad would have been confident I had enough of the basic tools. My school reports indicating I had some horsepower but wavering application. Given we’d spent a lifetime talking football and surrounded by football people, he also recognised the benefits of my unique upbringing.
“Yes”, I said. If pressed however, I knew I couldn’t back it up. I had no track record of dedicated and concerted effort, which I am sure is the reason he’d asked the question in the first place.
But I had a clear understanding of the expectation of hard work. My lived experience as a child who saw a lot less of his father growing up than any of his mates, dad’s absence from the home I attributed to the demands of the uncompromising world of elite sport. It was not without cost. My parents had separated the year before, adding to the complexity of the discussion we were now having.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he then asked.
“Yes”, I said.
There are no guarantees. No ultimate formula.
I look down.
In my hand is a tie.
It is blue, with two thin red stripes which 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 invented 120 years earlier.
The tie had been given to me a few minutes earlier by Dick Seddon, the Melbourne CEO. 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.
Only thirty minutes earlier, I’d been sitting in the club’s reception waiting to be called into Dick’s office. A large black-and-white photo of Norm Smith, the legendary Melbourne coach, dominated the reception space. The ‘Red Fox’, in action, earnest and imperious, coaching from ground level at the MCG.
Displayed in a glass cabinet is Norm’s old club blazer. Embroidered on its breast pocket above the MFC monogram are the numbers 55, 56, 57, 59, 60 and 64; the six Premierships teams he coached, the dynasty he led.
Norm’s image watches over, in judgement of those who enter his football club. It is their responsibility to carry his legacy, although I doubt he would see it this way. It is a heavy burden and getting weightier by the year for no Melbourne team has won a Premiership since Norm was famously sacked just months after coaching the 1964 Premiership.
The great Ron Barassi, Norm’s protege, had only recently returned as coach of the Demons. The expectations were very high. Having left Melbourne having played in Norm’s six Premierships, he’d gone on to coach four of his own at Carlton and North Melbourne. There was no bigger name in the game.
My Job Description in those early days was typical of any office junior, but it might as well of read:
“Do anything Ron Barassi asks you to do.”
It might just be the best job description I’ve ever had.
In his first year, the size of the challenge became apparent when the Barassi coached Demons won only one game by one point, with a Robbie Flower goal late in the game.
For the Melbourne supporters of this era, their consolation was “at least we’ve got Robbie Flower”, as they left the MCG after suffering yet another loss. He was more than enough to bring them back next week, and for the best part of 15 years, almost the only reason Melbourne supporters would go to the football.
Over the next few years, my role evolved into recruiting players, given this opportunity by Ron Barassi, who saw something in me I hadn’t seen in myself.
I was the Recruiter when we made the finals for the first time in 23 years and the first time since Norm Smith was coach. We won our way through to the Preliminary Final in what would be Robbie’s final season, and as it turned out, his last game. A Gary Buckenara after the siren kick costing Melbourne a place in the Grand Final.
I remember sitting in my car in the Waverley Park carpark after the game sobbing uncontrollably.
It would not be the last time the Melbourne Football Club brought me to tears.
I would spend fifteen years working for the Melbourne Football Club. Half my working life. It included two stints as CEO, sitting in the same office where Dick Seddon gave me the tie. I was also sacked twice from this role.
I was part of ‘near-death’ experiences for the club, many almost moments, and formed friendships that have lasted decades. There was also the loss of great Melbourne people who had so much living to do, including three players who played in that Preliminary Final. Robbie Flower himself and the products of the ‘Barassi Irish Experiment’, Sean Wight and Jim Stynes.
Twenty years later, Jim would ask me to come back to the club as CEO when he became President of the club.
The MFC has given me many of the most important lessons of life, and I have spent time looking for the right word.
I hope I have found it.
The Melbourne Football Club taught me perspective.
I learned that there are no guarantees, no ultimate formula for success. Hard work isn’t enough. In sport, we are on a perpetual quest to make hard work easier in order to make space for more hard work.
I think about the mistakes I made. The errors of judgement. There were many, and at times, I have allowed them to define me. I now think differently.
If not for my mistakes, failures, and setbacks, I have no message worth sharing with you.
They are a gift.
On Saturday, all could well change. Fifty-seven years on, and in its 163rd year. The 2021 Demons are a terrific team, playing the game as it should be played. They are great to watch. They have a wonderful team ethos, playing with flair and for each other. There is joy and love, having been on a journey together, worked through some tough stuff, asked themselves the hard questions, and found the answers.
“Out of the hottest fire is forged the strongest steel” somehow feels appropriate for these Demons.
May it be a day to remember.
“If it is going to be, it is up to me.”
‘When it is all said and done’ – Neale Daniher
Neale Daniher is the last Melbourne Coach to take the team to a Grand Final. It was 2000, beaten by a powerful Essendon team, coached by his old mentor Kevin Sheedy.
As CEO, I had appointed Neale three years earlier.
In 2013, Neale was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease – an incurable condition. He had a choice. He could spend his remaining time focusing on himself or seize the opportunity to make a better future for others.
Neale’s charity FightMND has raised millions of dollars, investing in medical research, and from recent reports, the signs have been positive, a sense of progress, a light at the end of an otherwise long, dark tunnel.
I have quoted Neale Daniher many times in my writing and speaking, and from his book “When all is said and done”
The book started as a letter to the grandchildren he’ll never get to know beyond their childhoods. And then he kept on writing.
I loved it, and ended up with pages of notes.
You will too.
…and a timeless song lyric:
The Melbourne Theme Song – The Grand Old Flag
The little known second verse.
Oh, the team played fine in the year Thirty-nine,
We’re the Demons that no one can lick,
And you’ll find us there at the final bell,
With the spirit of Twenty-six.
Every heart beats true, for the Red and the Blue,
And we sing this song to you,
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the Red and the Blue.
CEO & Founder
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