Footballer, coach and philosopher Robert Shaw’s Essendon career was cruelled by injury, but he says the most significant moment in his life was the day he walked into Windy Hill, and the Bombers remain the most significant influence on his life.
“Before I was 20, I’d met Dick Reynolds, Bill Hutchison and Jack Clarke,” he said. “Wonderful human beings. They all had one message: ‘we won’t be around forever. Look after this club.’” John Coleman died two days before Shaw played his first reserves game for the Bombers in 1973, and they never met. It remains Shaw’s biggest regret.
Dick Reynolds in his playing heyday.
Whenever Shaw needed a lift as a player or later assistant coach, he would steal into the Bombers’ Hall of Fame. “People say you live in the past,” he said.“Bloody oath I do!”
Future dynamo Tim Watson was a 15-year-old Richmond supporter from Dimboola when he landed at Windy Hill in 1977. “You meet Hutchison, you meet Reynolds, you hear about Barry Davis. Ken Fraser, Jack Clarke,” he said. “Don McKenzie came back and played some reserves footy (at 39!) and I got to know him.
“I remember Dick in the rooms after we won the ’84 grand final, with his big, beaming happy face, dancing around, singing the club song. You absorb it all.”
Watson was schooled in the legend of Coleman by dual premiership winger Alec Epis, and he and Epis remain close friends, a 25-year age gap notwithstanding. In Essendon’s physiology, they’re brothers.
The John Coleman statue at the MCG.Credit:Wayne Taylor
So does a football club’s lifeblood course from era to era and generation to generation. So is Essendon at 150 impossible to mistake for any other club. So it can expect, despite its 21st-century lacuna, to have many happy returns yet.
What first set Essendon apart was that it was set apart. Footy’s original clubs generally were inner-city and working-class, but Essendon was established way out in Ascot Vale, where the middle class were migrating. Uniquely, it was not spun out of a cricket club.
Its founder, brewer Robert McCracken, owned a mansion and the paddock where Essendon first played, and his son, John, captained the new club in their first game and kicked the goal that beat Carlton that day. Another son, Alex, later became the inaugural president of the VFL.
Here is another distinctive Essendon characteristic: lineage. No club is threaded by more of it. Family names recur in every capacity, on every page. “In every era, there’s been father-sons, grandsons, brothers,” said Dan Eddy, author of three books on Essendon and a devoted fan. “The Danihers took it to extremes.” This very season, two Hirds and a Wanganeen are running around in the reserves.
Essendon star Tim Watson and coach Kevin Sheedy in 1983.
Quirkily enough, the club only began to flourish when it moved to East Melbourne, where it remained until the ground was demolished to make way for the Jolimont railways yards in 1921 and the Dons decamped to Windy Hill. Taking account of moves to Docklands to play and Tullamarine to train this century, it means Essendon have spent only slightly more than half of their history in Essendon.
Notwithstanding, they were always the club of neighbourhood. Newly arrived from Tasmania in 1974, Shaw boarded in a house in McCracken St and later married a girl from Airport West. “We stayed close to home,” he said. Four of Essendon’s 1965 premiership team, including Fraser, came together from the same junior club, Essendon Baptists. In Shaw’s time, everyone knew the street where Fraser lived.
Fraser grew up in north Essendon, cried inconsolably when they lost the 1947 grand final, then in time graced the club like few others for 11 years, playing in one premiership and captaining another. Now 82, he says one of Essendon’s marques was quality. “They’ve always had some of the biggest names and most attractive footballers,” he said. The first was Albert Thurgood, three times the so-called “champion of the colony,” though there might have been a bit of myth-making around that title.
Robert Shaw in his coaching day.
Reynolds with his three Brownlow Medals bore Essendon – the club and the suburb – through the Great Depression (“their king,” said Kevin Sheedy at his funeral in 2015). Then came Coleman. Schoolboy Fraser was in awe, and still is. “He was the most exciting footballer I’ve watched in all my lengthy watching days,” he said.
Twentieth-century Essendon were marked out as Protestant and Mason, at a time when these things mattered crucially in Melbourne. Some even called the club The Lodge. “Some players felt they didn’t get games because they weren’t Masons,” said Eddy. “There was an element of that.”
They were also prudent and frugal. The standing joke is that they still have their war bonds. “There was a public perception of a stable club,” said Fraser. “McCracken started it. They’ve always been a wealthy club.” It made the cavalier latter-day scandals (a salary cup overrun in 1996, the supplements saga in 2012) all the more shocking.
The leavening is success. The Bombers have had more than enough of it to tide them over the lulls, even this latest and longest. If former Geelong president and AFL commissioner Colin Carter ever succeeds in his campaign to have the 19th-century VFA era incorporated into the AFL records, Essendon would push up to 20 premierships and sit atop the table. “Nothing succeeds like success,” said Fraser.
Which leads inexorably to one man. “What made Essendon unique when I was there was Sheedy,” said Watson, simply. “Sheedy made it competitive. It was competitive even before we stepped out and played anyone else.
Essendon coach Mark Thompson, captain Jobe Watson and former premiership captain Ken Fraser in 2014.Credit:Ken Irwin
“When I got there in ’77, it was a poor club. I didn’t feel anything unique about it then. But by the time I left, we’d been built into a big, powerful club.”
Fraser was on the board that appointed Sheedy and watched with pride as he not only shaped a mighty football team, but expanded the club’s outlook to the horizon, courting Indigenous players, driving Anzac Day, making the Bombers a self-styled club for all Australia. “He took us out of the VFL and brought us into the AFL,” Fraser said. “He was a very forward thinker.”
Shaw bristles when he hears that it took a Richmond man to resurrect Essendon. “No it didn’t,” he said. “Sheedy was the most passionate Essendon man. He idolised Shelton, Fraser, Reynolds. He loved the history.”
One freezing night, Shaw waited in bemusement for their no-show coach on the training track. “It turns out Dick Reynolds came to training,” said Shaw, “and ‘Sheeds’ had grabbed him and taken him into the social club and forgot about training.”
Captain James Hird and coach Kevin Sheedy lift the 2000 AFL premiership cup. There have been none since.Credit:John French
It was training of another kind. “We were always extremely aware of who came before us and our responsibility to them,” said Shaw. Back at the club as an assistant coach from 1998, he took this charge as sacred, instilling Essendon-ness in draftees Dean Solomon, Mark McVeigh, Adam Ramanauskas et al. “It was my turn,” he said.
Then the music stopped. Never before have Essendon gone so long without a finals win, never so long without a premiership. The supplements affair put a hole in the continuum, but it can’t be the whole explanation.
James Hird’s grandfather and then Essendon club president Allan Hird snr turns the first sod for a proposed football stand at Windy Hill in 1972.Credit:The Age Archives
Leaving Windy Hill? The club had left home previously, and it was their making. But that was before they had a history to meddle with. “You speak to anyone Essendon-related, and Windy Hill is still home,” said historian Eddy. “Maybe if we win a premiership one day at the Hangar, it will change. But now it’s still the spiritual home.”
Shaw knows his bluntness on this matter sits poorly with some at the club, but is unapologetic. “We’ve gone from a great club to a great facility,” he said. “It was a beautiful football club. Beautiful community, strong people, good footy team. The past players want to know where have we gone.
“It’s nothing to do with being 2-9 on the ladder. It’s not about individuals. It’s not about ‘the saga’. I think the baton got dropped going around the back of the 400.”
Incumbent coach Ben Rutten is trying to halt the drift from two angles. On-field success would be a self-sustaining remedy, but that project keeps faltering.
Meanwhile, Rutten has moved to reclaim the past, holding training sessions back at Windy Hill, and on Thursday staging a captain’s run there ahead of Friday night’s 150th anniversary match. Last year, he instituted the McCracken Medal, voted on by the players, honouring who best embodies Essendon. It was won by Jayden Laverde.
Who can say whether tapping into such a rich history will strike a chord with modern footballers, but it can’t hurt. Like Richmond through their Rip van Winkle slumber and at the re-awakening, that history is the Bombers’ bulwark now.
Watson senses the way the fans, despite all, are layered on. “Essendon have come off the pace in terms of success, but not so much in terms of interest,” he said. “They’re still a really big club. There’s hundreds of thousands who barrack for them. Waiting. Just waiting for success again.”
Keep up to date with the best AFL coverage in the country. Sign up for the Real Footy newsletter.
Most Viewed in Sport
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article