Taking the Mick out of footy

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Reading Time: 7 minutes

GOING through old files in search of material for a forthcoming book, Chief Writer RON REED came across this 1987 interview with legendary TV commentator Mike Williamson, who died this week, aged 91:

MIKE Williamson, as his many friends, acquaintances and employers will testify, owns up to only one weakness in life. And it’s not unloveability, unpopularity, lack of expertise in and all matters sporting, or an inability to make himself seen and heard.

Really and truly, as he would say himself, he’s none of those things.

But he is scared of heights. Petrified of them.

So when he set out 29 years ago – yep, he’s that old – to become one of Melbourne’s first television football commentators, it wasn’t without some trepidation.

At most League grounds, the only suitable vantage spots were up towers or on roofs and were accessible only by ladders. Poor Mike, all atremble, usually had to be escorted by a cameraman climbing ahead of him and one climbing behind.

Certain precautions had to be taken beforehand. Once at the summit, such as the roof of the old grandstand at Collingwood, it was the point of no return.

“So if you suddenly wanted a twinkle, too bad,” he recalled today, with some feeling. “There was no way I was going down and back up again.”

Once he did try to climb down a tower at Hawthorn by himself, got halfway, and froze. He was too terrified to move up or down and a cameraman spotted his plight.

Highly amused, he trained the lens on the intrepid commentator – and veteran director Alf Potter made sure the shot went to air. That night, an embarrassed Williamson and a well-pleased Potter exchanged some of their rare cross words in 17 years of working together.

Today, they had only warm memories of each other and their long pioneering partnership in the art of bringing football into the loungerooms of Victoria and, ultimately, Australia.

It was all done, of course, on Channel Seven, which traditionally has been as much an integral part of the great game as high marks, hot pies and tall stories at the tribunal.

Not any more.

The “under new management” sign has gone up at Dorcas Street and the footy has been handballed to the ABC, virtually lock, stock and barrel. Whether that includes such institutions as World Of Sport and League Teams remains to be seen, but you’d back St Kilda to make the Five before you’d back them to survive.

It’s a sad day for many people and probably none more so than the face of football Lou Richards. What now for him? Nobody knows, but the fact is that there was football before Lou-Lou, and nobody had more to do with it than Potter and Williamson.

Williamson became the No 1 commentator in 1959, two years after Seven started doing football, and stayed until 1977, and his excited, loud style and eccentric partnership with expert comments man Alan “Butch” Gale, the former Fitzroy strongman, were as distinctive as Lou’s well-honed humour.

(The old midnight-to-dawn Footy Flashback shows wouldn’t be complete without Williamson, as Collingwood and St Kilda were locked together in time-on of the last quarter of the 1966 Grand Final, screaming hysterically: “It’s going to be a draw! I tipped this, Butch! I tipped this!” It wasn’t, and nobody could ever remember whether he did – but that’s another story!

Williamson has an endless fund of tall tales and true about his years behind the mike, a selection of which appear here, but what can and should be said in all seriousness is that the exercise down the years would have been a lot less colourful without him.

Like most success stories, that was anything but an accident.

It was a matter of deliberate policy by Potter, who was in charge of Seven’s football cover from day one until he retired a couple of years ago.

From his home in Queenscliff today he might have been echoing one of today’s best-known sports-oriented advertising lines: “They said you’d never make it.”

Potter directed the cover of the 1956 Olympic Games in the year that TV came to Australia, and all the overseas experts told him that the medium couldn’t handle Australian Rules.

That was partly because of the size of the ground, partly because there was no off-side rule to hold up play. They sound like pretty silly objections now. To Potter, they sounded like pretty silly objections then.

“I didn’t want to be inhibited by what we could not do, or hidebound by what they were doing overseas,” he said.

So, with two cameras (up to 14 are used at Grand Finals now) and a makeshift team (the versatile Bill Collins, now famous for his race calls, was pulled from his holidays to be the first commentator) Potter embarked on the first TV football, which was a live cover of the last quarter of the match of the day.

“There was a lot of resentment about TV from all sporting bodies, including the VFL,” he said. “They thought it would stop people going to games.

“As it happened, that first year was very wet and crowds did drop. They blamed us. After two years of that, we were forced to delay the telecasts for two hours, and the replay was born.”

The other early commentators included such big names as Tony Charlton and Geoff Raymond, as well as an all-star list of former and current players such as Gale, Reg Hickey, Bert Deacon, “Bluey” Adams, Ted Whitten, Allen Aylett and so on through to Peter McKenna, Don Scott and Bob Skilton.

Says Potter: “We came in for a lot of criticism early because we did not do the commentary in the style of English soccer, which was very flat. We tried it a few times and the result was deadly dull television.”

Enter Williamson, enter Gale.

“Mike’s style was his gimmick, and he worked on it,” says Potter. “And we made sure we always had a fall-guy beside him, usually Gale.

“I told Mike never to criticise umpires, or to sound as if he thought he knew more about it than they did. That was the job of the expert comments man. Mike’s task was to describe the play accurately.

“It is a formula that never changed down the years. Lou Richards and Bob Skilton were there to criticise the stars. Peter Landy was there to call the play.

“In Mike’s case, he was told never to disclose who he barracked for. So he would always nominate whoever was on top of the ladder and add they’d better keep winning or he’d drop them like a hot potato.”

Both Williamson and Potter believe, after a lifetime observing the game, that football is not as enjoyable as it once was. Potter, in fact, says it is dying a slow death. Both are predictably sad that the slice of history they helped create has come to an end.

So is Ron Casey, the recently-retired general manager of Seven, and the man credited with developing the station’s reputation as the voice of football.

Casey was one of the early commentators himself, briefly, and master-minded the introduction of the hugely successful World of Sport.

“It’s a sad day for Melbourne TV,” he said. “What’s happened with football is only the beginning.”

He said he believed the League should have held Seven to the contract – negotiated by Casey just before his retirement – to cover the football this year.

“It would have been a better deal for them to have had a commercial channel doing it. This won’t help them get a corporate sponsor because sponsors want to be able to back up their involvement with advertising.”

He said he had not spoken to his old friend and colleague, Lou. “I don’t know what will happen to him,” he said.

Asked his personal feelings about what happened, Casey said simply: “I’m very disappointed.”

But then, Mike Williamson would have tipped that. Who wouldn’t?

THE MIKE WILLIAMSON FILES

AT HAWTHORN once we were positioned above the coaches’ box – for about two weeks. John Kennedy was coach and with his foghorn voice bellowing from below, we couldn’t hear ourselves think. Eventually he leapt out of the box one day, looked up and roared: “For God’s sake, shut up, Williamson – I can’t hear myself think.” We found another possie the next week.

The scaffolding broadcast spots at Essendon and Carlton both faced south and you could see the rain coming. As it hit the outer wing, I’d say to Butch Gale, “Yours, Butch,” and move to the back while he sat there, talked on and got soaked. He could never understand why he ended the game drenched and I was dry. When Lou joined me, I got him with the same stunt first time. But afterwards, he said: “You cunning black rat, you’ll never get me again.” And I didn’t.

Before what was obviously going to be a one-sided game against Hawthorn, I asked Ted Whitten to make sure something happened in the last quarter to make the replay worthwhile, preferably a fight.  No worries, he said. And as the last quarter started he wandered over to Graham Arthur and suggested they indulge in a make-believe blue. “Mort” replied that he was already in trouble with the coach for not getting a kick and he wasn’t going to waste any time with stunts just to help me. “Right,” said Whitten, “I’ll just have to go it alone.” The outcome was a now-famous film sequence of Teddy flattening one Hawthorn player after another – for real. And then he walked away from it with a free kick!

 It was nothing for blokes to want to fight you when you were calling the game from unprotected spots in the crowd. But straight after one game at Essendon two dear little old ladies approached Lou and me. Looked like Whistler’s Mother, they did. One suddenly screamed: “You bastard, you hate us!” and whacked me across the face with her umbrella, taking out a piece of my eye. Lou just stood there, laughing hysterically. Ten minutes later I joined him in the gents’ – and there was this bloke about eight foot tall standing over him. “Mickey, help me,” Lou pleaded. And I said: “You wouldn’t help me take on two old ladies, you can fight this bloke yourself.”

Norm Smith, the famous Melbourne coach, used to call me Fearless  because he reckoned I was frightened of everything. One day in the Collingwood rooms, after they’d been beaten by Melbourne, Phonse Kyne, the Collingwood coach, grabbed me by the throat and started banging my head against the wall. A few minutes later, with the after-match getting under way, Smithy called out: “Hey, Fearless, come and have a drink with Phonse and me.” I said no way, told them why and asked Kyne why he’d tried to kill me. He just said: “Mick, you were the closest one to me at the time.” There was no arguing with that logic so I decided I might as well join them for a drink.

In the mud at Footscray Ted Whitten was wrestling with Bob Skilton and ran his hand up Skilton’s leg preparatory to applying the squirrel grip – and suddenly remembered the game was being televised. So he looked up at the camera in the stand, grinned and waved. That’s aplomb for you.

Whitten – yet again. Footscray were going bad and a gift arrived for him at Channel Seven. We decided we would open it during Football Inquest. It was 18 sheep’s hearts. What did he say? I’d tell you if it was printable, but suffice to say we had to throw to a very quick commercial break. Another night, Ron Barassi wondered what I was talking about when I started going on about all the great slips catches the MCG had seen over the years. Then we showed a tape of him abusing team-mate Percy Jones – when suddenly his teeth flew out of his mouth. Barass caught them before they hit the ground, put them back in and resumed berating poor Perc. For some reason, the great coach didn’t think it was funny.

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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.

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