Actually I have to go back a few years, before I got into the radio game.
I was around 14, going to Ashfield High School, when I first got involved with Aussie Rules.
I was a reserve for the School Rugby League team and just couldn't get the hang of the game, really. Don't know why. I was fast, especially in Footy boots but the two of us just didn't get along for some reason. Anyway the captain of the school team was my best mate John Harmer. One day we had a school visit from an Australian Rules delegation who were starting a school competition. For some reason John decided to opt out of league and give Rules a go. I was quite surprised to be honest but decided to follow my mate's lead. I loved the game and spent the next couple of years playing for Western Suburbs Juniors and then for the Reserves. I played pretty well although my kicking needed a lot of attention. Anyway, I don't know whether I've already told this story, I could have? One day a man came up to me after the U-17's game and said I was chosen for the NSW U-19 team to play Victoria and I had to be at Trumper Park by 10:30 the next morning. I played on the wing and it's not that I played badly it's just that the ball simply never got out near me. I hardly had the opportunity to have a kick.
I do remember dashing up to the half forward line in the second half and being whacked by a chest charge from a big Victorian ruck-rover. It hurt but I didn't think much about 'til after I'd had my annual TB x-ray. Suddenly, there in the mail was the dreaded brown envelope, advising me to see a specialist because they'd found something suspicious on the x-ray. When I saw him he looked at the x ray and said, "Why didn't you tell somebody you had a couple of broken ribs... You're just wasting our bloody time?" I looked at him amazed. I didn't know I'd had two broken ribs. No wonder I was a bit sore.
Anyway, our hero in Australian Rules at that time was the Sydney full forward star Terry Ingersoll who regularly kicked a 100 a year. He got an offer to join Hawthorn in the VFL and had a reasonable first year but I think came home after the second season wasn't very productive. From that moment I was a Hawthorn fanatic. You can imagine what it was like going to Melbourne in the 60's and going to every Hawthorn match. The funny thing is when I came to Sydney I started to follow the Swans who had just shifted north. One Friday night the Swans were hosting the Hawks at the SCG and the Swannies were mounting a huge final quarter charge, eventually winning the game. I remember Capper taking a screamer and booting a goal to put the Swans in front with 10 minutes to go. There I was standing up screaming and I suddenly stopped and thought, "Hang on, I'm a hawks fan!" I realized then that I'd switched allegiance after over 35 years. They don't do that at Man U. And it definitely doesn't happen at Collingwood.
The thing is I've seen a stack of great games, especially finals, and interviewed hundreds of players.
So it's only fitting that I should make a complete galah of myself and in the spirit of my BEST AUSTRALIAN CRICKET TEAM OF ALL TIME in a previous entry now journey into THE BEST AUSTRALIAN RULES TEAM OF ALL TIME, in this episode.
If you disputed my cricket side you will be bordering on apoplexy with this lot. There are several friends including Ian Woodward, Col Denovan and Ian Nicholls who will probably take me off their Xmas card list.
Aussie rules has that effect on people especially Essendon, Collingwood and Richmond supporters.
You want to wallow in controversy? Go for it because here's my best ever team...
(If you aren't into the AFL believe me you don't want to read any further)
BACKLINE: JOHN NICHOLLS; JACK REGAN; LEIGH MATHEWS
I know the full back position is going to be difficult but I opted for Collingwood's "Prince of Fullbacks". Regan could take a specky, was mobile once the ball hit the deck and had a super kick.
I really didn't want to put Big Nick and Lethal in the backline but when you look at the forward structure you'll see why my options were limited. I chose Lethal as a ruck-rover to Nich's ruckman. It's a pretty good backline. Obviously,critics will wonder what the hell Lethal is doing in the back pocket? My only defence is the observation that – if you were a rover in the forward pocket, you'd just picked the ball up and you were heading for goal and suddenly you looked up and there,just a metre in front of you and with a full head of steam up,was Leigh Mathews... How would you feel? Do you feel lucky, punk?
HALF BACKS: ALBERT COLLIER; TED WHITTEN; REG HICKEY
Well, I could have played Mr Football up front or back,or anywhere really, but he'll be magnificent in this key defensive role, aided by Collier and Hickey. Reg Hickey was the embodiment of the VFL ethos. He played it hard, but fair and was a wonderful leader and team mate.
Collier was one of the first defenders to adopt an attacking style, taking a great mark and then suddenly roaring across the centre at full pace to drive the team into attack. And he was tough. Anybody thinking they might slip a couple of right crosses into Ted Whitten while he was going for a big mark would be inclined to get a second opinion if Albert was anywhere nearby. They didn't call him the "protector" for nothing.
CENTRES: HAYDN BUNTON; DICK REYNOLDS; FRANCIS BOURKE
BUNTON was a freak, brilliant with courage to spare. When he died from a car crash while only in his 40's the football world went into mourning. Fans of the era regarded him as "greatest player to grace the game". Modern fans probably don't realize how big he was back in those early days.
KING RICHARD picks himself in the middle, although he has to ward off a stack of wonderful players laying claim to the position. And he wasn't even a centreman. Reynolds was a great rover who could play wing or half forward or – in my team because I've got to fit him in – across the centerline. You want to argue about that... So sue me!
BOURKE wins his spot from a stack of wingers because he could mark, he could run,and – oh boy – he was courageous. You may well think you could come up with a better centerline but mine'll beat yours anytime.
HALF FORWARD: ROY CAZALY; WAYNE CAREY; DARREL BALDOCK
We are really going to get into a big debate here folks because the centre half forward post is one of the most treasured in our game. And we've had some beauties. But if you forget the off field drama of recent years and have a look at CAREY's track record you'll understand. I remember talking to an old footy follower, discussing the merits of three greats: Carey, ROYCE HART and LAURIE NASH; and asking him who he'd choose in his team. He gave me a sideways glance and a bit of a wink (because he was a Richmond follower) and replied, "Give me Carey. He's the best I've seen."
CAZALY, well how good do you have to be to have a song written about you?
Was the legend as good as the folklore? OOOOH YES! He was actually a ruckman in his heyday but I've got him on the flank and he will rip ‘em to shreds. As for the other half forward, excuse me, is this guy Baldock good or what? I just loved to watch him, "Mr Magic". He'd slide through the mud with the ball on a string, do a soft shoe shuffle to sneak past a defender and you'd be watching three defenders, all over 6'3" going up for a mark,when suddenly Darrel would rip through the pack and pull down a screamer. He was only 5'9 to 5'10 but he played centre half forward most of his life. I still dream about seeing a team with Cazaly and Baldock together on the half forward line. Don't you just love it?
FORWARDS: RON BARASSI; GARY ABLETT; BOB SKILTON
I absolutely dreaded making this decision but GOD has won preference over some of the most famous names in our code. Ablett gets the better of JOHN COLEMAN, PETER HUDSON, GORDON COVENTRY, TONY LOCKETT and BOB PRATT. Ablett was a magnificent mark and was made to kick goals. The thing that wins the spot for me is that he was so charismatic. How could a team not be lifted with Ablett running riot on the forward line?
BARRASSI is probably going to be our captain. Look,he wasn't that fast and you can't say that he was pretty to watch. But for desperation,100% courage and will to win this bloke was like an exploding volcano. He was just born to lead. BOB SKILTON? Well, are you really going to leave him out?
I remember one day against Hawthorn he was KO'd in the first half and promptly went on to kick half a dozen goals and lead South home to victory. I caught up with him after the match and said, "Skilts, if you had to kick 6 goals why did you have to do against the Hawks?" "Did I," he replied. It wasn't just that he'd forgotten the goals... He couldn't even remember the match! How many guys can win three Brownlow votes while unconscious?
RUCKS: POLLY FARMER; JACK DYER; BARRY CABLE
Oh God, I love this forward line. FARMER was just so dominant and when he got his hands on the ball he could handpass 30 metres straight to the chest of his rover. I had to leave out so many wonderful ruckmen but Polly, you were so good mate. Had to have you there.
As his ruck rover, the most feared man ever to play the game, ladies and gentlemen, I give you "the living legend" Jack Dyer.
Farmer gets the ball out of the ruck and looks up expecting to see half a dozen opposition players bearing down on him. Funny though, all he sees is a great big gap where the opposition should have been. "Where'd they go?" asks Polly. We know where they are Pol... On the ground nursing their sore heads and other associated parts of the body, that's where. You think they called him CAPTAIN BLOOD because he was gentle? One day Jack ran straight through an opposition winger. He hit the deck and didn't move. One trainer came out, then another. Finally all the trainers came out and carried the poor devil off on a stretcher. And as they passed Dyer, one of the trainers carefully pulled the blanket over the victim's head,and put his hand on his heart. Dyer was beside himself. He ran up to one of the mates and said, "Jeez… I think I've killed him." His game fell to pieces. He was actually getting out of the way or rovers for the rest of the game and apologized to the full forward at one stage because he thought he might have accidentally touched his shoulder. Richmond trooped off with Dyer's head down around his ankles. Then as he walked into the sheds,there—large as life—was the "dead man", sitting on the opposition's benches and sucking on an orange. Dyer looked amazed and said, "I thought you were dead!"
"Yeah," replied the cheeky devil. "We were hopin' you would."
Why isn't KING RICHARD the number-one rover? Harry Collier? And several others.
Because of Barry Cable,that's why. I was lucky to see the '66 Carnival in Hobart when Cable arrived from the West as the biggest thing in footy. "Best player to come out of WA," they said, "not just by a narrow margin, but by a length-and-a-half." That put him ahead of a pretty good group of players.
And he was. My first sighting of Cable was in WA's opening game. Not sure who they were playing but it was I think on North Hobart Oval. Cable got the ball in the back pocket and I happened to glance up and saw the WA full forward (might have been Big Bob Johnson, not sure) starting to lead. "What's this joker up to?" I said to my mate. Then I found out. Barry took one bounce and then hit a drop kick you'd kill for. It carved its way up over centre and just kept going. We followed the path of the ball all the way to see Johnson arrive at Centre half-forward just in time to take the mark on his chest. I haven't seen a lot of full forwards start leading when a player has the ball at back pocket.
Cable came to North Melbourne late in his career, terrible pity, and he played with a leg injury for the first 4 to 6 weeks. First of all, HE PLAYED. He didn't sit on the bench and winge about his bad luck. He couldn't kick so he just got the ball and did a Polly, hand passing it for 25 to 30 metres smack on target.
"He can't kick," said the scribes of the day. I just smiled knowingly. I'd seen the condition of his legs. I knew why he wasn't kicking and I knew from '66 that when he started to pump those drop kicks down the field, they'd find out whether he could kick or not.
He was in his late 20's when he gave VFL a try and anyone who saw him play knows they were watching one of the classiest rovers ever. And how about that combination? Cable roving to Polly with Big jack standing guard!
I'm naming just the two reserves, standing by the long tradition of our game.
IVOR WARNE-SMITH. He was a wonderful centre but I could bring him on to plug gaps anywhere. In the 20's and 20's WARNE-SMITH was the King of Melbourne.
My final choice? Well, not a lot of full backs win Brownlow Medals, but FRED GOLDSMITH did and he'd be a fantastic reserve able to be called into the backline if we were in trouble. "Fireman Fred" could mark up there with the best, spoil superbly and then hit the ground and kick across the centre.
I can't look at the big names I've had to leave out... I'll lose sleep over it... But take the time to wade through the Frank Avis 20 and come up with a better combination. I dare ya!