Only three Coburg players, Dave Starbuck (219), myself (205) and Vin Taranto
(203) have played more than 200 games at Coburg. Despite not being the greatest kick I managed to wobble through 317 goals between 1975 and 1987.
Winning the 1979 and losing the 1980 grand final were truly memorable
days. So too was losing the 1986 grand final as captain coach.
On September 21st 1986, Umpire Ryan packed his bags and headed
for the Junction Oval where arch-enemy Williamstown, led by playing
coach, Terry Wheeler, and Coburg were about to meet in what would
become one of the VFA's most controversial Grand Finals. We'd
won 15 home-and-away games including 2 against the Seagulls and
were the Premiership favourite, but Williamstown was a VFA darling.
Eight minutes into the third quarter with 3 points in the
game I dipped the shoulder into 20-year-old Williamstown full
back Tony Pastore on the boundary line in front of the grandstand.
Pastore had been Williamstown's best player and I hoped to either
hurt him or failing that distract him. Unfortunately not all the
actors followed the script. After I'd engaged in a harmless round
of cheek-to-cheek with Williamstown's Rick Slevison, Umpire Ryan
decided upon a starring role. As he drew a notebook from his top
pocket and declared he was reporting me, paroxysms of ecstasy
and hatred collided on the terrace.
"What for?" I asked.
"Unduly rough play," he replied as I thrust my open
hand across the motorised mouth of Terry Wheeler.
"Order him off then, order him off," Wheeler insisted,
aware that I was gone for.
"Fuck off, squirrel gripper," I retorted.
Although only a short distance away, Ryan's more senior partner,
umpire Graham Marcy, looked on with bemusement.
"And Cleary's been reported. Sent off, has he? He's been
sent off. Phil Cleary!" spluttered an excited Channel 10
commentator, Eddie McGuire.
"What a sensational send-off. Personally I don't think
there was much there," remarked the almost disinterested,
special comments man, Gary Brice.
"What happened then, Phil?" enquired Channel 10`s omniscient,
roving commentator, Tony Banks.
"Nothing," I growled before regaining my composure alongside
the coach's box and adding, "nothing happened out there."
"He's not very well actually at the moment," a smiling,
mischievous Banks explained to half a million television viewers.
For the silver voiced, ring master and anchor-man Phil Gibbs this
was manna from heaven.
As Williamstown piled on the goals, 6 of them in 15 minutes,
I watched in disbelief as a season's work disappeared. Jeff Ryan,
man in white, had succumbed to the pressure and panicked with
telling consequences. As Williamstown surged to an unbeatable
lead of 45 points at three quarter time, Coburg President Alan
Tripp counted the losses. A well known SP bookmaker with a string
of tribunal appearances, Tripp, as I was to discover at the wake,
when he sullenly demanded to know what had happened, had bet heavily
on the game.
At the Tribunal, Ryan meekly announced that he'd reported
me for kneeing Rik Slevison to the groin. "You must be joking,"
I thought. Everything had now fallen into place. In the tranquillity
of the umpires room after the match Ryan must surely have realised
he'd made a monumental error. On the report sheet he was about
to pencil a charge which TV evidence would reduce to absurdity.
"Kneeing to the balls? Look it just didn't happen! There
was no contact of that kind," I told the Chairman as he peered
at the TV screen.
"Well, can't see anything there," he mused, smiling
and scratching his head. "Not guilty."
The VFA subsequently modified the order-off rule but it was
all too late. Although we trailed by 45 points we were to lose
by a mere 13 points. No matter what anyone else says, without
Umpire Jeff Ryan that Premiership would have been ours. At the
Grand Final night wake a boundary umpire shed some light on the
actions of Umpire Ryan. "Jim Chapman [Umpires' Adviser] told
Marcy and Ryan to treat any misdemeanours by Terry Wheeler or
yourself seriously in order that the game didn't get out of hand,"
he explained. Knowing Jim Chapman as I did, I was not surprised.
Coaching Coburg to consecutive premierhsips, in 1988 and 1989 our first consecutive premierships
since 1926/27/28 was a dream.
Among my coaches at Coburg were – John Dugdale (former Kangaroo
champion), Colin Kinnear (Carlton football manager), John Nicholls
and Harold Martin (VFA legend).