HE WAS one of Carlton’s all-time great footballers but now Anthony Koutoufides is wondering why the club he loves isn’t showing much love in return, writes RON REED:
CARLTON WOULD love nothing more than to have Anthony Koutoufides back in the No 43 navy blue guernsey as their season from hell goes from bad to worse. But sadly, they don’t have him any formal capacity. Kouta is estranged from the club to which he devoted his entire career, and which he regards as a second family home, and he doesn’t know why. Nor does he see much hope of the glory days returning any time soon.
He says there has been virtually no communication with the club since his superb career ended in 2007 and he is now questioning the concept of loyalty. This is unfortunate because Koutoufides, 45, is as much a deeply-dyed Carlton person as any player has ever been. He started there as a young teenager who also had the potential to become an Olympic track and field athlete, worked his way through the under 19s and Reserves before making his senior debut in 1992 on the way to an eventual 278 games, including the 1995 premiership, a three-year stint as captain, two best and fairests, twice an All-Australian and induction into the AFL Hall of Fame. He never considered playing anywhere else even though Port Adelaide at one stage put “the biggest contract I had ever seen” in front of him.
Speaking at the fortnightly Friday lunch hosted by another old Blues star Percy Jones at the North Fitzroy Arms pub, Koutoufides said: “That club gave me everything in life, the best years of my life were growing up there. So I’m indebted to them. But I’ve never been asked to go back.”
Two years after he retired Koutoufides offered to contribute as an unpaid assistant coach alongside his old team-mate Brett Ratten but was rejected. “I must have done something wrong, I’m not sure. I did everything I could for that club, promotions, etc, but it wasn’t to be. I was never going to leave (when the Port Adelaide approach came) but in hindsight I question the loyalty part now. I don’t know if it exists any more.” He speaks more in sorrow and disappointment than anger or hostility, but it is obviously an emotional topic.
Koutifides is a survivor of the last remnants of the Carlton glory days. As well as the 1995 premiership win over Geelong – “the greatest day of my life, then and still,” he said – he also played in the 1999 decider which the Blues lost to North Melbourne. But for the last five years of his career, it was all downhill. Under dual North Melbourne premiership coach Denis Pagan, Carlton finished 15th, 11th, 16th, 16th and, with Ratten replacing Pagan mid-season, 15th. There was some improvement under Ratten but the Blues have been pretty much a basket case ever since.
Koutoufides’ career was mostly played under long-serving president John Elliott and he remains a firm fan of the controversial businessman, who was moved on in 2002 after the club was heavily penalised for salary cap rorting. “Big Jack was the greatest president of all time,” he said. “I’d run through a brick wall for him. I understood the culture set by Jack and the board. It was all about premierships but it was also a family. It was like a second family home to me. My last five years (when the presidents were Ian Collins and Graham Smorgon) were hell for someone who had walked in at age 14 to now see where the club was. I didn’t want to accept the position we were in but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Hopefully things have changed but I’m not sure.”
He said communication was a major problem back then. “People on the board would send messages rather than talk to me. I’m a human being. I’ve got a heart. I’m easy-going. Tell me your view and I’ll tell you mine,” he said.
The father of two sons and a daughter, Koutoufides said that to his dismay even his own kids wanted to barrack for someone else. Other parents say the same. “This has been happening for 10 years,” he said. “When you hear people say kids don’t support Carlton or that there’s no-one to barrack for any more, that’s really disheartening. I don’t want to hear it. You go to country towns and there are no Carlton jumpers in the store. I talk to supporters and get the feedback and I think it’s worse now than the last five years I played. I don’t think they should be going backwards and I am a little bit concerned. I’m not sure where they sit. I’m just an outsider now. I love the club and I just want to see them do well, I really do. But it’s hard to see a positive at the moment. I’m not sure where they’re going. I’m hoping I’m wrong but I don’t see a lot there.”
Koutoufides revealed he also had difficulties with his two highest-profile coaches, David Parkin and Pagan. “Parko and I didn’t see eye to eye. He didn’t know where to play me. He was a bit old school. But after my father died we became closer. It wasn’t easy for my first few years. There were times when I wanted to give up.”
His relationship with Pagan was productive to start with, which was in the under 19s at Carlton. “And in the Teal Cup, he got the best out of me – I can’t take that away from him and I respect his achievements,” he said. But when they were re-united, Koutoufides found Pagan’s game plan, based on kicking long and not sharing the ball around, to be out of date in an evolving game. “He was old-fashioned – old, old, old school,” he said. “Just very basic. It was like going back to primary school with him teaching us how to kick a flat punt on a wet day. I was in tears laughing at the back of the pack. Everyone else was kicking the ball to each other but we just weren’t doing that. His strength became his weakness.”
Author: Ron Reed
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.