A FEW GRABS
When Big Nick came to Coburg
I so vividly remember that day at Coburg. It too was a grand final replay, against the old enemy Port Melbourne, who’d surged past us in a stunning final ten minutes, to grab the 1980 VFA flag at the Junction Oval. ‘Big Nick’ admits he wasn’t at his best as coach of Coburg in 1981. ‘I had some personal problems,’ he says. Although we knew as much at the time, against Port that day the troubles were buried deep beneath the aura. Born and bred in a football culture that worshipped suburban rivalry, Nicholls came alive that day. Such was the flow of his words and the venom in his eyes it could have been Carlton v Collingwood at Princes Park or Victoria Park.
Under a dark brooding sky in front of 8 000 people we never missed a beat. With Port’s goalkicking champion Fred Cook stifled at full forward and our attack on the ball fierce and relentless we won in a canter. The interview with Nicholls not only brought back the memories, it explained why few men could inspire people in the manner he did. As part of the celebration of 150 years of football the VFL telecast will carry highlights of some of the great interstate games of the past. They’re genuinely worth a look.
These packages beg a very important question, one I’ve raised before. Why aren’t we celebrating the VFA’s role in this history? After all, not only was the VFA the mother of football in Victoria, it played in the carnivals where John Nicholls was an institution. ‘Big Nick’ has fond memories of those days and playing against VFA stars such as Frank Johnson. I could say I was mystified by the VFL’s reluctance to celebrate its history, but I’m not.
Calling Casey for passion
Until last Friday I’d never been to a VFA/VFL Anzac Day match between Coburg and Box Hill, or called a game on community radio. As a tribute to a crowd - that was very small when the Last Post echoed in the old grandstand but grew to around 3 000 - the game was tight and passionate. So too was the performance of Cain Pollard and Chris Weaver behind the 97.7 fm (Casey Radio) microphones.
Despite the changes that have beset the once mighty VFA and the loss of supporters to the AFL, aficionados thrive on the unofficial website and on 97.7 fm. Pollard and Weaver are too young to be a product of the halcyon days of Fred Cook and Frosty Miller. But they are blokes with a passion for the game played at the suburban ground. Just as importantly, like my colleague Paul Amy, they understand the history and the fabric of the clubs that sustain Victoria’s oldest football competition.
Whilst AFL football is the game that besots journalists, VFL football offers fans and broadcasters something unique. The average AFL journalist doesn’t stand on a terrace or on the edge of the coach’s huddle. Football at AFL level is a magic game, but it’s no longer played at colourful suburban grounds where people barrack standing. On Thursday, as is the case during the ABC telecast, the coaches - Barry Mitchell and Jade Rawlings on Friday – offered their thoughts to a live audience. So too was Terry Wallace - and his wife – happy to share a laugh and a candid perspective from the terrace. This stuff is gold in a broadcast.
A rock named Ayres.
In last week’s column I asked whether Port might be the great stand-alone hope in 2008. On Saturday I had a bird’s eye view at ground level of the Boroughs and their coach. ‘He’s a great bloke and a terrific coach,’ experienced defender Luke Livingstone told me before the match. ‘He’s the best coach in the VFL,’ said a contented president, Peter Saulty, as I prepared to interview Ayres for the ABC at the final change. As much as it sounds like it, such praise should not be seen as a criticism of Saade Ghazi, the man Ayres replaced. Under Ghazi’s forthright control Port’s list took on the form that enabled it to reach the finals in 2007. He did well.
The great irony is that Ayres’ coaching ability is only part of the Port story. Critical to the unfolding of that story is the status he gives to the club’s defiant decision to stand-alone. If the VFL competition is to ward of the ‘reserves’ stigma it must have a cluster of stand-alone clubs. And it needs coaches with status – with five premierships Ayres fits that bill - reminding the faithful that non-aligned clubs are not only critical to the fabric of the VFA/VFL but can survive against AFL-aligned teams. To use a sporting cliché, VFL clubs need people like Ayres if they’re to ‘get the monkey off the back’.