CHRIS de KRETSER joined a crowd of more than 600 to celebrate Kevin Sheedy’s 50 years of football and to hear the master coach’s magic formula for conquering the world:
As Essendon Football Club continues a never-ending task to shed its drug-tainted image, it has again turned to red and black messiah Kevin Sheedy to shed that pariah stain.
So it was only fitting that a 600-strong contingent of the Bomber faithful gathered recently for the Dick Reynolds Club’s $250-a-head tribute night to celebrate 50 Years of Sheeds. They came to toast and roast the man who propelled the Bombers from their doldrum decade of the 70s to the top of the league for premierships.
The master coach who piloted the club to seven grand finals and four premierships, missing the finals only seven times in his unprecedented 27-year reign. The player whose 251-game career at Richmond brought him three more premiership medals. The football legend who the AFL chose to lay the foundation for a successful expansion into the backwater of Western Sydney.
Against a backdrop in the MCG dining room of his seven winning premiership cups, friends and even some fierce foes of Sheedy joined together as all three clubs marked his golden jubilee in league football.
Now in his role as ambassador for Essendon, Sheeds has not lost any of his penchant for thinking outside the square.
While still determined to make his latest venture, the clash for country people between Essendon and Geelong, as successful as he has done for Anzac Day and the Dreamtime game, Sheedy is turning his attention abroad.
He has no doubt that Australian Rules football can win a strong following overseas, he said when asked of his vision for the future by MC Tim Watson.
“It’s the best football code in the world,” Sheedy told his admiring audience, revealing that he had begun the process to make it known universally.
While the AFL ventured into China this year for a game and talk of one next year in India is on the cards, Sheedy has an even grander plan.
He has proposed that the opening round of the AFL season is played overseas – not just in New Zealand, India and China, but the US, Britain, Europe, the Middle East, South America and Africa as well.
Why the opening round? It gives the clubs a chance to fly back home and then start the season afresh after a week’s break, he reasons.
He believes that the AFL could experiment with the concept first by playing the round as a prelude to the season instead of the present out-of-favour pre-season competition.
Far-fetched, you might say. Just another madcap Sheedy idea which obviously none of the members of the media present thought worth even reporting.
But he was serious and said he had already approached the AFL about it.
It was the most serious note on a night devoted to poking fun at his follies while still paying respect to his achievements.
There were no punches pulled by his former premiership stars Terry Daniher and Paul Salmon; insights of Sheedy the player came from former Richmond greats Francis Bourke and Kevin Bartlett; Greater Western Sydney trio David Matthews, Graham Allan and Callan Ward told how Sheedy put the club on the map; the roast of the night was made by his doctor of 40 years Bruce Reid; and Simon Madden even wrote and sang a song about him.
Watson did a magnificent job of emceeing the event, mixing praise for the man with a nice old ribbing.
He said there was no doubt that Sheedy was the force behind the re-emergence of Essendon as a competition leader and powerhouse of the league.
“But Windy Hill got a lot windier when Hurricane Kevin arrived,” he added.
Calling his new coach a drill sergeant, he said: “I was happy to break my ankle in the first weeks of his pre-season training. Forty blokes immediately put up their hands to take me to the hospital.”
Looking at his reputation as a hard man on the field, Watson said he studied the incidents for which Sheedy had been suspended for a total of 12 games in his career which ended in 1979.
“Under the present Match Review Panel, he would have been eligible to play this weekend,” he said.
Doc Reid’s speech was a ripper and brought the house down making even a crack about Viagra at Sheedy’s expense.
He said the best two words to describe Sheedy were rat cunning,
Reid, who has been the Essendon doctor since Sheedy first went to the club in 1980, related how Sheedy’s rat cunning had seen him not fall into the trap of other coaches who get fined for criticising umpires or league officialdom.
This one wasn’t by simply calling them Martians or marshmallows or other well-known Sheedy-speak.
Reid said the Bombers had lost a game at the MCG after leading by 10 points close to the final siren when a dubious free kick and a late 50m penalty had gifted the game to their opposition.
As Sheedy went off the ground he made a point of stopping to exchange words with his brother Pat who was a regular in the race at the end of an Essendon game.
At the post-match press conference, he was soon asked about the umpiring decisions which could have cost Essendon the game.
Sheedy replied that he never criticised umpires, but then added this rider: “When I was walking off the ground I saw my brother Pat and he thought they were bloody awful.”
That’s real rat cunning, according to the Doctor.
Reid also didn’t spare Sheedy over a much-publicised sore point – his feud with Derek Kickett who he dropped for the 1993 grand final after playing every game during the season.
He concluded his roast saying that Sheedy was liked, admired and loved by everyone even outside the football community – “everyone except Derek Kickett”.
Terry Daniher also played the man, recalling how they were surprised to see a burly Robbie Muir at an early training session under Sheeds.
He said the much-suspended Muir didn’t make it round the third lap of the oval which was just as well or the Essendon hierarchy would have soon asked Sheeds: “How long you want this job, mate”.
“Sheeds also stuffed up with a couple of others who were a bit old and slow,” Daniher said pointedly referring to his recruitment of Geoff Raines and Mike Richardson at the expense of premiership players Stephen Bradbury and Steve Carey.
The former premiership skipper was prompted by Watson to reveal that he had a couple of three-quarter time stoushes with Sheedy – “once when I stood up for my old mate Hawks (Glenn Hawker)” and another time when Sheedy had gone on too long with his speech.
“Just might be time to wind up, Kev,” Daniher said he told his coach.
In his laconic country style, Daniher told of Sheedy’s favourite patch of ground at Cross Keys Oval where the Bombers did much of their pre-season training. It was where the horses manure used to gather.
That’s where Sheeds got the blokes who didn’t put in to do extra push-ups. “Put your head over the ball,” he said as their faces touched the dirt where the manure had been.
Daniher also didn’t mind chiding Sheedy for getting involved in too many things outside football after his 2000 premiership success.
The horse racing, sipping wine and having fun – “You took your eyes off the ball, Kev”, Daniher said.
But he was quick to acknowledge Sheedy’s decision to play the four Daniher brothers together in the last round of the 1990 season.
He said that his mother Edna was forever thankful to him.
“Edna wanted me to say a special thanks for getting us all together,” Daniher said. “She was tickled pink.”
Paul Salmon, another Sheedy premiership player with whom he fell in and out of love, also didn’t hold back when talking about the man who traded him to Hawthorn and then brought him back many years later.
“I guess I’m up here on behalf of the sacked players – and all those who kicked on after Kev,” he said.
David Matthews, the chief executive at Greater Western Sydney, is full of praise for the role Sheedy played in establishing the club which is now the favourite for the premiership only seven years down the track.
But he also outlined some of the eccentric ways Sheeds went about it.
The club had to contend with being plonked in an area of Sydney which had no idea of the game. Matthews said Sheedy told then AFL chief Andrew Demetriou “it was like starting a second NRL club in Dandenong”.
The training ground was so bad Sheedy insisted on the players working on a baseball diamond when the AFL came calling, just to make a point.
Matthews said he was great with the young players and made an amazing speech to rev them up for their first game.
He started very softly making sure he had their attention before telling them in a booming voice, “Don’t let anyone dominate you.”
It was a wonderful message, Matthews said. The only hitch was that the prime minister and a delegation of other dignitaries were supposed to be listening in on it.
They were late so Sheedy had to repeat the speech for their benefit and it didn’t have anywhere near the effect on the players.
The GWS players are from another generation and weren’t even born during some of Sheedy’s great triumphs.
But he was always citing players who he had turned from nobodies into premiership players.
When GWS recruited rugby code jumper Israel Folau, Sheedy cornered him one day and said: “I could turn you into the next Kevin Walsh.”
A perplexed Folau, who was having trouble with even the basic rules of footy, turned to Adam Treloar who was a bit of a student of the game’s history and asked: “Who’s Kevin Walsh?”
“I’ve never heard of him,” replied Treloar.
Walsh was a key attendee at the function. The much-maligned defender who Sheedy stuck by, sometimes used to look like he’d fall over his own feet on the footy field. He is now a dapper looking dude in a three-piece suit with an impeccably crafted handlebar mo.
There was also a special table for those referred to as Sheedy’s bad boys – the players who got up to the most pranks but probably the ones he had the most time for.
There was Billy Duckworth, Paul Vander Haar, Glenn Hawker, Steve Carey and company who are either bald or well on the way.
There was plenty of banter flowing between all the players attending from those four Essendon premiership sides and their coach through the night.
But Watson ended the revelry on a pertinent note when he asked Sheedy his greatest achievement.
Sheeds said it was finding a skinny lad in the Tiwi Islands with his recruitment chief Noel Judkins. The boy was called Michael Long.
It started a process of bringing indigenous footballers to play in the big league _ there were only 38 who had played league footy at that stage.
Sheedy surprisingly gave much of the credit to his former teammate Mal Brown for pushing and advancing the cause of Aboriginal players.
CHRIS de KRETSER was founding editor of The Sunday Sun and the first sports editor of The Herald Sun. He was also night editor and sports editor of The Sun and publisher of Sports Weekly magazine. He was Deputy Olympics Editor of the Herald Sun during the Sydney Games, editor of MX, picture editor of The Herald Sun and Sports Confidential columnist.