CSM: Chapter 15.

15. The Season That Wasn’t.

I played some club football in 1986, first for Thomastown U17s, where I was a half-back flanker or back pocket. Typically, because I was so shy in group situations, I didn’t do myself justice – not that I was a world-beater, but I was better than what I showed. I was also young, being only fifteen, but that’s the group I qualified for. In one game, I mouthed off at an opponent when he bumped me late, and the entire opposition spent the whole match trying to square me up. After the game, our captain told me you don’t mouth off at away games. Thanks for the support.

My cousin Mickey was captain of Croxton U15s, and he invited Ange and me to go play for them. I was actually about three days too old to qualify for the U15s, so used a friend’s name – Steve – to register. Lots of times, I’d walk around at training and people would call, ‘Steve! Steve!’ and I’d just wander aimlessly, like I was ignoring them. They must’ve thought I was deaf or arrogant.

Thomastown had barely enough players to fill a team. There were games where they had only one on the interchange bench (during a time you were meant to have two). Croxton, on the other hand, had a squad of almost forty, although lots of them were so-so.

I told the coach I wanted to play forward, and that’s where he stuck me (and Ange). In my first game, I kicked two goals, although they were by no means brilliant. One was an uncontested mark at the top of the goal-square following a snap out of the pocket. Another was crumbing the loose ball straight in front with nobody around me. The next game, I just couldn’t get into it, so I told Mickey to tell the coach to throw me into defence.

It was a move the coach said he was going to make anyway. Mickey told me that at the start of the season, he’d been one of the tallest players on the team. But as the year went on, everybody but him had growth spurts, so he ended up playing as an undersized centre-half back. My interjection into defence allowed him to play as a rebounding half-back.

I was good in my first game as centre-half back, although the opposition was horrible. I also felt more at ease playing where I already knew people, so could try be more myself. It didn’t last, unfortunately. Catching lifts to Thomastown Station, to take the fifteen minute train ride to Croxton Station, then the walk to the ground became too cumbersome. So ended my fantastic footy career. Ange also bugged out for the same reasons. I wish I’d persisted.

My brothers used to play social soccer and footy matches with cousins and other friends. Mostly, it was soccer, which I was never interested in. Following the 1986 VFL season, it was football, playing in a park with a rubber ball.

I hassled and hassled them to let me play – Ange was already playing – and they relented. In that first game, I was awful. Taking up smoking had done horrors for my fitness and I huffed and puffed from the outset. It was embarrassing to feel how much I’d deteriorated since playing for Croxton.

That week, I gave up smoking and trained – doing some light weights, but hitting the exercise bike mostly. When I was younger, my natural fitness base was awesome. I used to go jogging with John and wouldn’t blow out a candle while he’d struggle to finish our runs. Another occasion, earlier in 1986, I met up with friends in Lalor to play arcade games. They were on bikes, and when we set off to go home one friend offered to dink me. I refused and told him I’d run to keep up. He scoffed and we made a bet, but I ran the 3.5 kilometres home with ease. My friend told me to quit smoking, as I was too healthy – probably something I should’ve listened to.

In our following game, I was unstoppable, running hard and constantly finding the ball. It might’ve been just a little social game, but it feels good to be getting the best out of yourself. If I’d played with this confidence at clubs and previously at school, I might’ve been recognised as better player and might’ve played a lot more footy.

During one play, though, somebody kicked the ball high to where an opponent stood uncontested in front of goal, waiting to mark it. I bolted and leaped to spoil the ball. I fisted it away and, I would learn later, my cousin Con roved it and kicked a goal for us. But I hit the opponent in the back, my thighs connecting with his shoulder and was flipped in mid-air. All my weight came down on my right arm as I crashed down. Both bones, just above the wrist, broke. It sounded like a plank of wood snapping.

When I got up to my knees, my arm sagged bulbously at the break. The lower half of my right hand continued to contract, searing pain curling the right fingers so I couldn’t breathe.

My brothers took me to St Vincent’s Hospital, where I went through the usual process – waiting. Obviously, the bones were broken. X-rays revealed they’d crossed over to form an X. It was explained to me that once you turn sixteen, bones grow differently, so usually you’d have pins or plates inserted, but as I’d turned sixteen only a couple of months earlier, they’d attempt simply to manipulate the bones back into place.

The bigger concern became the lack of feeling in the lower half of my right hand. Fearing the plaster might be too tight, they cut it down the middle then wrapped it in bandages. The risk with such a procedure was that it would dislodge one of the bones, which it did. The next step was to have plates inserted, but the doctors’ continuing concerns were with the lack of feeling in my hand. They suggested that one of the bones had probably bounced up and down on the nerve and damaged it during my trip to hospital, (which caused the contracting and pain in the lower half of the hand).

The bones healed as well as could be expected, but the doctors were stumped by the nerve damage. The lower half of my right hand was curled and had no feeling. I could burn them with cigarettes and not feel it. I also had no control of the digits of the lower two fingers.

They tested the damage, running electricity through the nerve, and estimated it’d take about eleven or twelve months to repair, so the plan became to wait. If improvement wasn’t evident in six months, then they’d cut me open to have a look – not to fix, mind you, but just too look. As an interim treatment, they fit my right hand with a brace, which forced the digits of the two lower fingers to straighten whenever I used my hand. However, to get to this point, there were lots of tests and appointments and specialists.

Because of this, the 1986–1987 VFL off-season was peripheral to me, although it was one of the most tumultuous off-seasons in the history of the game.

The VFL had always been the elite competition in the country. Players came from other competitions – namely the SANFL and WAFL – to prove they could mix it with the best. The VFL, presumably, was also the richest competition (or at least a handful of clubs were), and always had money to throw at interstate players, whereas you never (at least not to my knowledge) saw a WAFL or SANFL club throw a ton of money to poach a VFL player.

Now, in the interests of taking their competition national, the VFL had granted licenses for new clubs to be based in West Australia and in Brisbane. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, this move was also motivated by the VFL’s need to sell multimillion dollar licenses to save a few Victorian clubs, who were struggling.)

It was exciting to think that for as long as I’d followed the VFL, I’d known only the twelve clubs, their jumpers, and their monikers, and now there’d be something new. Previously, the only real thrill in this respect was when Collingwood had a brief flirtation in the 1980s with making the numbers on the back of their jumpers appear 3D (which was done with an outline of the number). The result was an eyesore. Oh yeah, there was also South Melbourne moving to Sydney to become the Sydney Swans, but for shock, that didn’t compare to those three-dimensional numbers.

I heard during the news on radio one day that the new club from Western Australian would be called the West Coast Eagles. Hmmm. So much for excitement. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t that. Lots of people said it sounded too American.

Brisbane’s license was purchased by a consortium headed by Paul Cronin (who played Dave Sullivan in The Sullivans) and bankrolled by entrepreneur Christopher Skase. I’m unsure what pedigree either had to run a VFL club, but I don’t think it mattered to the VFL. The club they gave birth to was the Brisbane Bears, their moniker a koala, (which actually isn’t a bear, and about as ferocious as a ladybug).

The Eagles, coming from an indigenous Australian Rules state, drew on a lot of local players to found their club. They also had a number of expatriates who came home. The Bears weren’t so well-paced or well-organised or well-anything. The VFL had to arrange that every VFL club provide two players to help found the Bears but, unfortunately for the Bears, most clubs provided cast-offs.

One player who wasn’t a cast-off was Mark Williams. The Collingwood captain fell out with coach Leigh Matthews and the club over a contract dispute. Allegedly, Williams found out he was only the eighth highest paid player at the club, and thus began to field offers from other clubs. It was probably more a bargaining ploy than anything else. Insulted that his captain was entertaining offers from other clubs, Leigh Matthews sacked him.

Others Collingwood lost for one reason or another were Greg Phillips, Gary Shaw, Bruce Abernathy, Greg Smith, and Ricky Barham. This was on top of Raines and Richardson leaving during 1986. Darren Handley, who I thought was one of the most promising youngsters, was also chopped – allegedly because he wasn’t committed enough to football. He ended up at Fitzroy, where he had two injury-riddled years. Altogether, it was a huge chunk of experience out of the Collingwood list.

We did have a sudden influx of youth, though. The Collingwood Under 19s had won the flag in 1986, and yielded such players as Gavin Brown, Gavin Crosica, Mick McGuane and Damien Monkhorst. There was also some shrewd recruiting – well, shrewd in the sense that instead of stockpiling talent for the sake of stockpiling (not that we could afford that anymore), Collingwood addressed needs. We recruited Craig Starcevich (a centre-half forward) and Michael Christian (a centre-half back) from East Perth.

But if we expected 1987 to build from 1986, we were sadly mistaken. In Round 1, Sydney smashed us by 91 points, and Hawthorn by 77 in Round 3. We were just such a young, inexperienced side who also suffered injuries. It looked as if it would be a painful year.

Not that I saw most of it, as I took a three-month trip to Canada and Greece with my parents. Whenever I called home, I asked for updates, only to be informed we lost, and usually by big margins. There were wins in there, usually bullying teams who struggled, but for the most part it was nothing but losses.

One cousin in Canada had cable, and I watched the Round 15 Collingwood-Carlton game, explaining the rules to her as the game unfolded. Carlton overran us in the second quarter, kicking seven goals to three, to lead by 32 points at half-time. They cruised for the rest of the game.

Hawthorn did anything but cruise the following week, obliterating us not only by 125 points, but doing it at our home ground of Victoria Park, which until then had been our bastion. There were other big losses – to Melbourne by 55 points and to St Kilda by 49 points.

I returned home in time for the last round, to be played against Essendon and had planned to go, but because of jet lag slept until late in the afternoon. Collingwood won by 5 points, Peter Daicos kicking 4, and another 1986 Under 19s’ alumni, Mark Orval – who Daicos considered the most talented of that crop – kicking 4.2. Sadly, Orval’s short career was riddled with injury.

We finished the season 12th – in previous years a wooden spoon. Only in 1976 had we finished as low (to win our inaugural wooden spoon). Now, though, with the addition of the two new clubs, it was a fourteen-team competition, so we were third-last.

Surely the future had to be better than this.