AT CHRISTMAS TIME FOR the past five years, I have produced a fairly lengthy study of the best sports books published in Australia during the previous 12 months. This year, I am going to simply offer my view as to the best five Australian sports books of the year. They are:
After the Count: The Death of Davey Browne, by Stephanie Convery (Viking/Penguin Random House)
Golden Daze: The Best Years of Australian Surfing, by Sean Doherty (Hachette)
The Unforgiven: Mercenaries or Missionaries?, by Ashley Gray (Pitch Publishing)
The Big O: The Life and Times of Olsen Filipaina, by Patrick Skene (Mower/Upstart Press)
1989: The Great Grand Final, by Tony Wilson (Hardie Grant Books)
The best of these, in my view, is The Unforgiven, an extraordinary study of the rebel West Indies cricket teams that toured South Africa in 1982–83 and 1983–84. The book was published in the UK by Pitch Publishing, but the author, Ashley Gray, to borrow a line from the back flap of the book, ‘grew up fending off bouncers and sledges in Newcastle, NSW’. That makes it an Australian sports book in my eyes. It’s unquestionably one of the most absorbing cricket books written in recent times, and edges out Stephanie Convery’s harrowing account of a boxing tragedy for my Australian sports book of the year.
The other three titles aren’t too far behind. Tony Wilson’s fond recall of the 1989 Hawthorn-Geelong VFL Grand Final was the most engaging of several excellent AFL books in 2020. Patrick Skene’s story of a true rugby league pioneer, a man who led the way for all the Maori and Pasifika footballers who have starred in the NRL in the last 25 years, is the best rugby league biography since Paul Kent’s study of Sonny Bill Williams from 2015. Sean Doherty’s entertaining tale, told though a succession of short well-illustrated bios of some of our greatest surfers, is the latest in a run of excellent surfing books produced by Australian publishers.
There were, of course, many more than five excellent sports books published in Australia this year. For women’s sport, a list that includes some good books — though, weirdly, not Anna Meares Now, which I’m sure is better than any of them — recently appeared at the excellent Siren: A Women in Sport Collective website (sirensport.com.au). A week earlier, the Footy Almanac published a list of recently released books by ‘friends of the Almanac’ that includes Mike Coward’s intriguing biography of the great all-rounder Frank Tarrant and titles by a few other cricket writers who have been mentioned in some of my previous annual reviews, such as Michael Sexton, Gideon Haigh and Bernard Whimpress.
These lists and my top five confirm there are some excellent sports books being published in Australia, even if sales figures suggest otherwise. The challenge remains to convince booksellers, readers, reviewers, administrators and the media that Australian sports publishing is a business worth saving.
LAST YEAR, IN AN essay I wrote about the ‘death of Australian sports books’, I suggested that one thing that might save the industry is for ‘the books themselves to be excellent, especially the ones that are guaranteed to sell in at least reasonable numbers because of the high profile of the subject matter’. In recent years, too many sports books — including some top-sellers — have been mediocre at best, creating a situation where someone buys a book, doesn’t enjoy it, and resolves never to buy another one. Or they receive a sports book as a present, don’t enjoy it, and then tell the gift giver it wasn’t much good. Another two customers gone.
Even before a book was sold this festive season, the most likely best-seller among sports books was the autobiography of Neale Daniher, the former Essendon player and Melbourne coach who was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in 2013. From a sports publishing perspective, Daniher was a perfect fit. He is from a famous football family, is strongly linked to two of the biggest clubs in the AFL, is much loved and highly respected, is bravely fighting his condition and has mounted a very public campaign to raise funds to find a cure for MND. He could have put his name to any ordinary book and sold a truckload.
Instead, he and his co-author Warwick Green (who previously worked on excellent memoirs with the late Jim Stynes and Kurt Fearnley) have combined with Pan Macmillan to produce When All Is Said and Done — a book that is in part just a good footy story, but also a moving and beautifully written mix of inspiration, anguish, wisdom and self-deprecating humour. Like all the great sports books, you don’t have to be a fan of the sport that is its subject to get plenty from it. ‘The best leaders,’ Daniher writes, ‘are not driven by servicing their own ego,’ and he adheres to this principle on every page. Anyone who finds When All Is Said and Done under their tree or who buys it of their own accord will be better for the experience. The authors and their publishing team deserve plenty of kudos for getting the book so right ...
AS I LOOKED AT all the sports books on the shelves this Christmas, I couldn’t help but wonder if publishers have responded to the declining overall sales of Australian sports books by releasing more than ever. I’m not sure this is a deliberate strategy; more likely, there are just more people who want to be authors. But there is a vast array of books out there and fortunately quite a few of them are excellent. My intention here is not to worry about the books — some of them by well-known authors — that are poorly written, flimsily researched and littered with factual or typographical errors. (There are a few of these, as I imagine there are across all genre.) Instead, I’ll focus on the good ones …
Neale Daniher’s story was one of a number of quality AFL books published in 2019. Inevitably, several come from the Slattery Media stable, with perhaps Electrifying 80s: Footy’s outrageous decade in the words of its best writers (edited by Russell Jackson) and Rhett Bartlett’s Richmond FC: The Tigers, A Proud History of a Great Club being the best of them. Elsewhere, Kevin Sheedy’s Icons of Footy is a good looking book with some decent content to match, while Konrad Marshall has written Stronger and Bolder: Inside the 2019 AFL Finals Series with Richmond, a sequel to his excellent Yellow & Black: A Season with Richmond, which I rated one of the best sports books of 2017. Carn: The Game and the Country that Plays It, by Andrew Mueller, who I had known previously as a writer of rock’n’roll, overdoses on footnotes while not having an index (why is it that so many Australian sports books don’t have an index?), but it’s informative and entertaining. Dare I say it: Carn’s a good yarn.
Rugby league, in contrast, delivered few books of any substance in 2019. Of course, David Middleton released his Official Rugby League Annual, his 33rd in a row, this one every bit as thorough, detailed and interesting as the previous 32. In 2017, Joe Gorman wrote the exceptional The Death and Life of Australian Soccer and he switched codes this year to produce Heartland: How Rugby League Explains Queensland, a nicely researched book and the best league title this year, but one that doesn’t reach the heights of his football odyssey. Gorman has all sorts of explanations for why Queensland dominated State of Origin from 2006 to 2017, some of them quite spiritual, but I think it was mostly because — as was the case in the 1920s and the 1980s — Queensland simply had most of the great players. I was excited to see that Dr David Headon, official historian of the Canberra Raiders, had written Absolutely Bleeding Green: The Raiders Story, not least because he opens the book with a chapter entitled ‘Frederick Campbell to 1921’. I have done a lot of research into the life and times of Fred Campbell, who has more claim to the title ‘father of Australian rugby’ than any other figure in the code’s history. Of course, I went to the credits at the back to see how Dr Headon had acknowledged my work, but there was not a mention. I didn’t read the rest of the book. It’s probably okay.
For best cricket book of the year, I’ll call it a tie between Daniel Brettig’s Bradman & Packer: The Deal that Changed Cricket, which recalls a previously forgotten meeting between two heavyweights that ended the World Series Cricket fracas, and Greg Growden’s Cricketers at War. The latter is a cousin of Wallabies at War, which I rated one of the sports books of 2018, and it is just as good, and as with the Wallabies it is the brave and brilliant characters we previously knew too little about — such as Bob Grieve, Betty Archdale, Bruce Dooland and Tony Dell — that sets the book apart. Growden, like Norm Tasker and Ian Heads in their Great Australian Sporting Stories (which covers a range of sports), includes some pages on Doug Walters, adding even more virtue to an already high-class read.
The most intriguing cricket book of the year is The Genius, Renato Carini’s affectionate study of the immortal Victor Trumper, who was, of course, the Doug Walters of his day. Carini uses a vast array of statistics and historical records to show that statistics and historical records don’t provide a true measure of Trumper’s pre-eminence, which sounds silly but actually works. Just because Trumper and Billy Murdoch, for example, averaged about the same in Australia v England Tests (32.80 to 32.00) doesn’t mean they should be placed on the same pedestal. As I noted in 2015: ‘Those who played with Trumper and those who saw him play, almost to the last man, asserted, often passionately, that Trumper was unequivocally the greatest batsman of his time, perhaps of any time.’ Carini supports this argument in a style that might be too in-depth for some casual observers, but his analysis will delight an aficionado.
Talk to any passionate cricket fan who was a teenager in the early 1970s and there’s a fair chance they would have found My World of Cricket by Ian Chappell in their Christmas stocking in 1973. The book was published by Jack Pollard, a master of producing cricket books that made the ideal gift for males of all ages, from Cricket: The Australian Way to Six and Out. When, 46 years later, I first saw Perspective, by Ellyse Perry, I wondered if it was a 21st-century version of My World of Cricket, aimed mostly at teenage girls. Sadly, to me anyway, it is not in the same class. It is very glamourous, with colour photographs throughout, which is why it is included in this review, but the text, which only runs to about 25,000 words, reveals little and lacks inspiration. Maybe I’m being harsh, because I’m not the target audience, but that’s a shame in itself. I’m sure my dad enjoyed My World of Cricket as much as I did.
For Cap and Country: Interviews with Australian Cricketers on the Enduring Spirit of the Baggy Green, by Jesse Hogan, Andrew Faulkner and Simon Auteri is an entertaining book, especially when the authors are talking to men such as Shaun Tait or Stuart Law who played little Test cricket but could easily have played more. Inevitably, especially with those men who had longer careers at the top, some of the responses sound cliched and shallow, but that’s 21st-century Test cricketers for you. For me, the conversations with pioneering women of Australian horse racing such as Clare Lindop and Gai Waterhouse that are a feature of Shane McNally’s Sport of Queens are more revealing, and the ones with some of our greatest basketballers from the last 30 years in Matt Logue’s Hoop Dreams Down Under are the most interesting of all. I loved Michele Timms when she was one of the best and most tenacious basketballers in the world in the 1990s and, after reading Logue’s interview with her, I love her still.
Quickly, some good books from other sports …
Swimming enthusiasts and Olympicaphiles will appreciate Beneath the Surface, Libby Trickett's sometimes heartbreaking but ultimately positive autobiography, which reveals in painful detail the sacrifices Trickett made to become the fastest swimmer in the world. Trickett candidly reminds us that as well as being an Olympic gold medallist, she was also a young woman, wife, mother and worker, and trying to be all these things led to times of conflict and deep stress. Encyclopedia of Matildas, by Andrew Howe and Greg Werner, is the companion volume to Howe’s Encyclopedia of Socceroos, which I rated one of the best sporting books of last year. Ron Reed’s unauthorised tribute to the No. 1 women’s tennis player in the world, Barty: Power and Glory, is a little book with a lot of padding, but Reed is a good writer and it does contain a superb essay by the acclaimed tennis correspondent Linda Pearce that is nearly worth the price of admission alone. The best Australian golf book of the year is My Story, by the late Jarrod Lyle, the autobiography of one of the country’s most popular and courageous sportsmen, expertly handled by co-authors Mark Hayes and Martin Blake. Two books focusing on a famous motor-racing circuit — John Smailes’ Mount Panorama: Bathurst, the stories behind the legend and Bev Brock’s warm and well-illustrated homage, Brock at Bathurst: Peter Brock’s Unrivalled Racing Career at Mount Panorama — are worth looking at. So, too, is The Rip Curl Story: 50 Years of Perfect Surf, International Business, Wild Characters and the Search for the Ultimate Ride by the acclaimed surfing writer Tim Baker.
As the co-author of a recently published Phar Lap biography, I was keen for there to be no other good racing books released in 2019. Instead, at least four outstanding rivals appeared. Two came from Melbourne Books: the previously mentioned Sport of Queens by Shane McNally and Manikato: ‘The Man’ by Adam Crettenden. I remember going to Rosehill to see Manikato clash with a rising star named Emancipation on Slipper Day in 1983. It was the George Ryder Stakes and it proved to be the champion sprinter’s final race start, so he was past his best, but I was still in awe at what I can only call his ‘presence’. Only the truly great ones have it and Crettenden does an admirable job capturing what set Manikato apart. Last year, Trevor Marshallsea wrote a fine biography of Winx, but I think his tribute to Makybe Diva is even better. I was especially taken with the way, in the first half of the book, Marshallsea weaves the story of the Melbourne Cup into the narrative, setting the stage for him to argue assuredly that ‘as astounding as the winning streaks of Black Caviar and Winx were, and as worthy an achievement as Winx’s 25 Group Ones will remain, Makybe Diva [through her three Melbourne Cup wins] carved a more revered place in Australian folklore’.
Most entertaining of all among racing books in 2019 is The Fine Cotton Fiasco: The behind-the-scenes account of Australia’s dodgiest horse race, by Peter Hoysted (aka Jack The Insider) and Pat Sheil, which recalls one of the industry’s most remarkable and ridiculous days. The tone of the book fits the absurdity of the attempted ring-in, but the authors have done their research, and as a result never have to revert to cliché or to myths that have been peddled in previous accounts by less accomplished scribes. There’s always a belief with racing scandals that the ‘gangsters’ involved are hard-nosed, cold and dastardly, but often — whenever a get-rich-quick scheme goes awry — they turn out to be bungling idiots with little or no clue. Here, there is nothing but scorn for the mugs who inspired the crime, and for those heavy hitters who got involved once they heard the sting was on, but some sympathy for Hayden Haitana, the trainer in way over his head, and much for the poor animals involved, to whom this terrific book is dedicated.
And finally, before I get to the quartet of books to go with Neale Daniher in my top five books of the year, I must mention Craig Foster’s Fighting for Hakeem, the story of Foster’s battle to rescue Hakeem al-Araibi, who fled Bahrain, was granted refugee status in Australia, but was arrested in late 2018 while on his honeymoon in Thailand. Put bluntly, I was disappointed by this book. I wanted it to be fantastic, because Hakeem’s plight engaged so many people, and as it evolved in the media through the early months of this year it was clearly a very significant and compelling saga. Unfortunately, I found Foster’s writing style exhausting and, at times, frustratingly annoying. There are other characters in the story whom I wanted to learn about, but in Fighting for Hakeem we hardly meet them, and Foster has an unfortunate habit of diminishing men and women in influential positions without, I think, even meaning to. My view is you shouldn’t call senior government ministers, even prime ministers, by their first name when you hardly know them. And if Foster calls the 25-year-old Hakeem a ‘kid’ one more time I will have to scream. But maybe I’m being too hard a marker because, as I said, I had such high hopes. I’m sure Foster’s heart and passion is for the greater good, and the travails and tragedy refugees encounter should never be ignored, so I hope the book is widely read and that others enjoy it more than I did.
NOW FOR THE BOOKS of the year. Maybe it’s because I am a child of the 1960s and one’s earliest heroes never lose their lustre, but I have long thought that Jack Brabham is one of the most underrated of our sporting legends. Sure, everyone knows he was great, but he should be ranked in the top three or five of all time. No one ever rates him that highly. But think about it … an Australian has only claimed the Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship four times in 70 years, and Jack Brabham has won three of them (1959, 1960 and 1966). The third was won in a car that Brabham constructed himself and carried his name. Brabham: The Untold Story of Formula One, by Tony Davis and Ákos Armont, is a worthy tribute to a rare champion. Using material from previous books about or co-written by Brabham, stories and interviews from the archives and interviews conducted especially for this project (including contributions from his engineering partner Ron Tauranac and Brabham’s sons, Geoff and David), Brabham paints a picture of a tough but brilliant man who was a master of his trade but a terrible salesman of himself. It was a triumph just to survive in elite motor racing in the ’60s — legends such as Jim Clark and Bruce McLaren did not — but Brabham did much more than that. However, in the authors’ words, he ‘talked without moving his lips, if he talked at all’. I can think of many competitors whose relative sporting greatness grew after they retired because they became prominent in the media or much loved in the community. Brabham was the reverse. This excellent book helps set that straight.
One book I did not get to read this year (as I mentioned, there are a lot of books out there) was Pulling Through: The Story of the King's Cup, by Bruce Coe, but it has been recommended to me by someone whose opinion I respect so it would be remiss of me not to mention it in this essay. I did, however, discover another book on the same subject, Scott Patterson’s The Oarsmen: The Remarkable Story of the Men Who Rowed from the Great War to Peace, and was blown away by the level of research undertaken to complete a comprehensive and sometimes heart-rending book, and by the characters who found themselves involved in the Australian challenge for the King’s Cup in 1919. These were men who’d seen the worst of the battlefields; many were scarred appallingly by what they had seen and survived. Chief among them was a true hero of Australian sport: Syd Middleton, an Olympic gold medal winner in rugby in 1908, a member of the Australian eight that rowed at the Stockholm Games in 1912 and a decorated solider who rose to the rank of major. Patterson paints a broad picture of a gallant bloke carrying plenty of mental baggage from his years in the trenches, but who was still able to build a fruitful life and to fall in love and live out his days with an English nurse who was as tough and wonderful as he was.
Another book that goes back to the years immediately after the Great War is Never Say Die: The Hundred-Year Overnight Success of Australian Women’s Football. Authors Fiona Crawford and Lee McGowan admit that the book is ‘a beginning … a conversation starter and a contextualised point-in-time look at the history of Australian women’s football, with a view to deepening and extending that look in the future’. In this regard, they have done a mighty job, even though the book falls away in its final two chapters, when some errors appear and a few arguments seem lopsided. Rather than complaining about Robbie Slater’s criticism of the Matildas for failing to reach the quarterfinals at the 2019 World Cup (because analysts like Slater don’t bag the men for never getting that far), in my view his comments should have been taken as a compliment. But overall the book is excellent and important, the most entertaining and informative history of a women’s sport in Australia I’ve read in quite a while.
Sporting battlers of a different kind take centre stage in Alex McClintock’s love letter to pugilism, On the Chin: A Boxing Education. I was originally taken by the striking cover of this book, but then I started reading and was hooked even tighter by the text — McClintock had me completely from the moment he ran into Ruben Olivares, conqueror of Lionel Rose, in a market in Mexico City. The book is part well-researched history, mostly personal journey, as a pudgy university student decides to take up boxing to get less unfit and gradually discovers the virtues of hitting and being hit. Discipline is part of it; a wise coach and mentor is crucial. Sure, the game is corrupt and sometimes frightening, even fatal, but there is much skill, courage and honour to be found.
McClintock’s climb into the ring taught him more about himself than he could ever have imagined. As an author, he takes us along for the ride quite beautifully, never assuming that we’ll fall for the sport as he has, but ever hopeful that we’ll hear him out. The years he spent trying to be a boxer were ‘some of the best of my life, a time of excitement and education, intense focus and hard work’. By the end of On The Chin, you might not want to get into the ring yourself, but you’ll have a real regard for the men and women who do.
I think that’s the common thread of my five books of the year. Neale Daniher, Jack Brabham, the footballers in Never Say Die, and the soldiers/rowers in The Oarsman and the fighters in On the Chin are men and women of valour and dignity. I can heartily vouch for the quality all five books. By a small margin, I rate Alex McClintock’s On The Chin over Neale Daniher’s When All is Said and Done as the best of them all.
Best Australian Sports Books of 2019
Alex McClintock: On The Chin; Text Publishing
Neale Daniher (with Warwick Green): When All is Said and Done; Pan Macmillan Australia
Fiona Crawford and Lee McGowan: Never Say Die; NewSouth Publishing
Tony Davis and Ákos Armont: Brabham: The Untold Story of Formula One; HarperCollinsPublishers
Scott Patterson: The Oarsmen; Hardie Grant Books
ONE OF THE MOST interesting and intriguing sports books published in Australia in 2018 is The Finest Gold: The Making of an Olympic Swimmer, the autobiography of Brad Cooper, winner of the gold medal in the men’s 400 metres freestyle at the 1972 Munich Games. Some of the stories — such as that of his often dysfunctional early life as a child of a broken marriage, his battles with coach Don Talbot, and the manner of his Olympic triumph (Cooper finished second by one-hundredth of a second to the USA’s Rick DeMont, but gained the gold when DeMont failed a drugs test) — are fresh, revealing and cleverly told.
Cooper’s story is bookended by two anecdotes. The first involves a bizarre scene, as the new Olympic champion returns to his dormitory in the athletes’ village to find journalist Ernie Christensen perched on the end of the 18-year-old’s bed, chasing his reaction to the judge’s decision. ‘Obviously you can’t accept the gold under those circumstances,’ says the veteran scribe, trying to cajole words out of the swimmer’s mouth that will headline the next day’s front page. The second story comes from the inaugural World Swimming Championships in Belgrade, held a year after Munich, when DeMont won a thrilling re-match in world record time ...
On the victory dais when American photographers were falling over themselves to capture their redemption clichés, one kept barking at me to raise DeMont’s arm. Instructions heeded, I fished for the victor’s wrist but he wrenched it away, muttering, ‘Don’t do it, Brad, they just want a Munich revenge shot.’
And suddenly it seemed an honour to have come second.
In between, there are some harrowing tales, and you are left wondering how Cooper could ever have become, in Talbot’s words, ‘the best male swimmer I ever coached’. The book is not perfect, as it loses its way a little in its final 80 (of 300) pages, but it is still important, one of the best I've read this year. My aim in this essay is to nominate my top five Australian sports books of 2018. That The Finest Gold does not make my top five is proof that several of the offerings this year have been outstanding.
Early in Cooper’s book, he tells of ‘watching’ Gail Neall’s swim in the 400 metres individual medley in Munich as he waited for the men’s 1500 metres freestyle final, by following the race on a monitor in a room away from the pool. There is no vision on the screen, just the lap times for each of the competitors. As the times are updated, Neall’s victory is assured, and ‘my involuntary half-leap from my chair when Gail’s time touches first could pass for rowdiness: it’s one of the most exhilarating sporting triumphs I’ve seen’.
The only trouble is, Neall’s gold medal win occurred five days earlier. On the day of the men’s 1500 metres final, she finished seventh in the 200 metres butterfly. When she claimed gold, Cooper most likely would have been in that same room, waiting for the 4 x 200 metres freestyle relay final, in which the Australian team of Cooper, Robert Nay, Michael Wenden and Graham Windeatt would finish fifth. Clearly, his memories of these two nights have merged; my question is, should his editor have corrected him? Later, he admits he has scant recollection of his gold medal swim, doesn’t try to concoct a memory he does not have, and the book retains its authenticity as a result. I can give examples (but won’t) from sports books published this year, including some of the best-selling titles, where the authors have rewritten history for malicious reasons or to embellish the story. Brad Cooper does not do this, which is one of the reasons his book is so enlightening.
Following an interview Cooper did recently with the ABC’s Tracey Holmes, one of Holmes’ Twitter followers sent her a message: ‘Loads of crap sports books advertised for Xmas: then you find out about a terrific book by Brad Cooper through listening to a podcast … great interview with Brad by the way.’
It was a great interview, but I can’t agree that there are loads of crap sports books out there this festive season. Yes, there are some ordinary ones, same as every other genre, but there are many worthy ones sitting alongside The Finest Gold on the sports shelves and they are the ones I am focusing on. I’m not trying to list every sports book published in Australia in 2018 (Greg Blood, at The Roar, had done that here), just the ones I liked the most ...
ONE THING THAT MIGHT give the impression that the quality of Australian sports books is in freefall is that, for the second year in a row in Australia, there is no great cricket book. The best read is Gideon Haigh’s Crossing the Line, which deftly explains the recent decline of Australian cricket. The best presented is the ‘complete illustrated biography’ of Rod Marsh, a worthy cousin to Affirm Press’ previous books on the careers of Dennis Lillee and Adam Gilchrist. Daniel Lane’s Big Bash Superstars is the sort of publication I would have wanted when I was a kid. However, the first cricket title on my Christmas list would be Joe Darling: Cricketer, Farmer, Politician and Family Man, by Bernard Whimpress and Graeme Ryan. Haigh’s book is only 184 pages, the first of Slattery Media’s ‘Sports Shorts collection’, so there wasn’t much room to contemplate what might have happened if the Australian teams of the decade before Tim Paine became captain had been led by a man as strong and dignified as Joe Darling, skipper from 1899 to 1905. It’s an interesting thought.
As always, there are a number of ghosted autobiographies across many sports. The best of them, I think, is tennis champion and Paralympian Dylan Alcott’s Able: Gold medals, grand slams and smashing glass ceilings, in part because Alcott’s co-author, Grantlee Kieza, has so nicely captured his subject’s relentless positivity. It’s one of those books that, every time you pick it up and read a few pages, you feel better for the experience.
There are some excellent sporting biographies, not least The Peter Norman Story by Andrew Webster and Matt Norman. Some of the things said and written about Peter Norman, the 1968 Olympic 200 metres silver medallist on the athletics track, during the last decade have been a bit weird. The evidence is far from clear that he was ever banished from Australian athletics as punishment for his role in the ‘Black Power’ protest by the Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 200 metres medal ceremony, but some people have suggested that is exactly what occurred. Fortunately, this book adroitly handles every side of the argument, not only setting the story straight but also reminding us that Norman was an exceptional athlete, perhaps our best ever male sprinter. I was proud to be able to publish Michael Sharp’s biography of 800 metres gold medallist Ralph Doubell on the 50th anniversary of the Mexico City Games; the twin stories of Doubell and Norman, who ran their finals on consecutive days, make a wonderful pair.
I was tempted to include The Peter Norman Story in my top five, but instead I’ve chosen another important biography of a remarkable sporting achiever. Sir Hubert Opperman’s life story is like no other — a cyclist who became a household name in Australia by his extraordinary feats of endurance, his role in building the Malvern Star brand and his years as a cabinet minister in the Menzies government. He was a revered figure in Europe, and especially in France, where his heroic performances in events such as the Tour de France and Paris-Brest-Paris earned him ongoing respect. Daniel Oakman’s Oppy: The Life of Sir Hubert Opperman is a fond and thoroughly researched tribute that paints a colourful portrait of cycling in Europe and Australia between the wars, and also sheds light on some intriguing political machinations in the ’50s and ’60s. Opperman might have felt more comfortable as Immigration Minister if he had filled the role in an earlier time, but his competitive instincts as he fights to retain his seat of Corio in the 1963 federal election against a tenacious young Labor opponent in Bob Hawke are on show as clearly as if he was trying to escape the peloton. The anecdote from August 1991 Oakman uses to close his book is magnificent …
Sometime after the proceedings, Hubert and [his wife] Mavys entered a small bank near the Eiffel Tower, not far from the apartment they had rented 60 years earlier. He passed over a traveller’s cheque with his passport. The young teller checked the documents, paused and looked again at the elderly, beret-wearing figure before him. ‘Êtes-vous Hubert Opperman du cyclisme?’ he asked while making the exaggerated pantomime movements for riding a bicycle. Opperman didn’t need to draw on his rusty French to know what he meant. The teller, unable to contain himself, turned to his colleagues and announced that the great Oppy had arrived at their humble establishment. With the transaction complete, Hubert and Mavys bade the staff au revoir and left to a standing ovation. They stepped out into the street, the applause ringing in their ears.
Some books this year stand out simply because of the authors’ undoubted love of their sport. An excellent example is Around the Grounds by former ABC commentator (and Sydney Cricket Ground scoreboard operator) Peter Newlinds. My favourite chapter concerns Newlinds’ years covering the Sydney Hobart yacht race. Golf fans will enjoy Preferred Lies by Mike Clayton and Charles Happell, a compilation of original stories and previously published yarns by the authors and their friends. If you only have time to read one chapter, make it the one by Kathie Shearer, wife of Bob and long-time manager of media centres at major tournaments; it’s an absolute gem! Motoring writer John Smailes’ Race across the World, recalling the epic London-to-Sydney marathon that finished in dramatic circumstances 50 years ago this month, is enjoyable throughout, and revealing too, not least when Smailes interviews Allan Chilcott, now 68, an innocent spectator in a Mini Cooper S who was involved in the sensational crash on the penultimate stage that cost Belgium’s Lucien Bianchi and France’s Jean-Claude Ogier victory.
No one loves his sport more than the best rugby league statistician in the business. Last December, I wrote, ‘The best rugby league book of the year is, as usual, David Middleton’s Official Rugby League Annual.’ Ditto 2018. This is the 32nd edition of Middleton’s annual, a prodigious achievement that should be formally recognised by the NRL. The top-selling Australian sports book of this year is a league book, the Johnathan Thurston autobiography, but while it is very readable I felt a little disappointed at full-time — perhaps for no other reason than that JT, in my opinion the best rugby league player of all time, seemed to me to spend too many pages nursing either a schooner or a hangover. The book also contained the most annoying ‘little thing’ I saw in a sports book all year — captions where the match scores are often listed with the beaten team’s total first: ‘After we took the game, 13–16, I handed my premiership ring to Steve Price’ … ‘The Kangaroos thrashed England 16–46 and I was Man of the Match’ … ‘We thumped the Kiwis 2–24 – and I was Man of the Match’. Maybe this bugged only me, but captions are an advertisement for the entire product, and in a tome of this magnitude it’s the sort of thing that should have been right.
Not that this was the most aggravating thing I saw in an Australian sports book. That ‘prize’ goes to a paragraph in Winx: The Authorised Biography, where author Andrew Rule writes, ‘It is safe to say Winx would toy with the fields Phar Lap, Tulloch and Bernborough beat.’ Unless I’m mistaken, the insinuation is that the legends of days gone past didn’t beat much during their fantastic careers. But among the horses that finished far behind Phar Lap were champions such as Mollison, Nightmarch, Amounis and Chatham. During the recent spring carnival, after UK commentator Matt Chapman suggested Winx had defeated ‘fairly moderate horses’ during the mare’s extraordinary winning streak, trainer Chris Waller responded, ‘I think he's a bit of a dickhead for saying it.’ When I read Rule’s denigration of Phar Lap’s greatest rivals, I wondered if he was guilty of a similar crime.
The Authorised Biography benefits from the access Rule had to Winx’s connections (Waller’s regular emails to the owners are a feature), but in my view Trevor Marshallsea, the author of Winx: Biography of a Champion, which was released three months earlier, is the better storyteller, so there is little between the two books. To be honest, if I was getting a racing book for Christmas I’d be just as happy to receive either The Gauch, by Kristen Manning, in part because the book’s subject, Darren Gauci, was for many years my favourite jockey, or Greg Miles: My Lucky Life, by John Craven, the story of a master racecaller.
Rugby union as a major sport in Australia continued its decline in 2018, but the code was blessed with two of the best books of the year. Greg Growden’s The Wallabies at War features more characters than Shakespeare’s Complete Works, and many similarly compelling storylines too. It’s one of those books where if you got a team around a table to name their favourite personality from the pages, you’d get 15 different nominations. Mine are Twit Tasker, Silly Bob McGowan and Rat Flanagan. The research is fantastic; the stories are sad, funny, grim and inspiring. And yet, as engrossing as Growden’s book is, I think Mike Colman’s biography of Eddie Jones, the former coach of the Brumbies, Australia and Japan who is now in charge of England, is even better. Colman’s book was originally published by Allen & Unwin in London, but he has been writing for the Courier Mail and Sunday Mail forever and much of the book’s action takes place in Australia, so it qualifies as an Australian sports book.
In 2007–08, when I was working with George Gregan on his autobiography, George suggested I interview Eddie Jones. It was one of the best hours of my life, as Jones explained 21st-century rugby to me in a way that George, for all his best efforts, couldn’t quite do. The coach’s rare passion for the game, his love for and understanding of its intricacies and his desire to help me out, to teach, won me over. Colman manages to capture all that, and more, including Jones’ prickly and provocative sides, even though his subject — who is apparently working on a book of his own — did not grant him an interview. Often, this can work to a biographer’s advantage, as he or she is freer to measure positives against negatives. That is what happens here.
It was also a positive year for books on football in Australia, largely due to the efforts of Fair Play Publishing. In May, Fair Play released Encyclopedia of Socceroos, by the game’s No. 1 statistician, Andrew Howe, who is described on the book’s front flap by Fox Sports’ Andy Harper as ‘a once-in-a-generation football anorak … he is to the playing and demographic history and statistics of Australian football what Pelé or Maradona or Cruyff or Ronaldo is to the game itself’. After reading Howe’s mighty work, I wonder if Harper is selling him short. The playing career of every Socceroo, from the nation’s international debut in 1922 to the end of 2017, is covered, with my only quibble being that the profiles of the leading pioneers from before World War II are sometimes scant compared to the space given to modern stars. I appreciate Australia played precious few A Internationals until the 1960s, but I would have liked a full page on Reg Date, for example, rather than Wally Savor. But this is a minor criticism, balanced by the warm tributes by respected journalist Ray Gatt to our four World Cup captains — Peter Wilson, Mark Viduka, Lucas Neill and Mile Jedinak — that lead the comprehensive stats section at the back of the book.
Late in the year, Fair Play released Playing for Australia: The First Socceroos, Asia and World Football, by Trevor Thompson, which is an important complement to Howe’s grand Encyclopedia. Thompson takes us right back to the earliest games of Association football played in the days before Federation, and explains why, unlike the two rugby codes, the national ‘soccer’ team struggled for international recognition. Football in Australia should be very grateful for the work of Howe and Thompson in documenting the game’s rich history, and to Fair Play Publishing for having the enterprise and courage to produce both books.
Australian football was another sport well served by its best books in 2018. First to appear was Martin Flanagan’s A Wink From the Universe: the inside story of the AFL’s greatest fairytale, the Bulldogs 2016 premiership. Unfortunately, coming 18 months after the Bulldogs beat the Swans, and six months after Richmond’s fairytale in 2017, the book seemed a little dated from day one, but Flanagan is a fine wordsmith who writes with much affection about his favourite team. The Norm Smith Medallists, by Dan Eddy, is a worthy piece of history, as is Sam Lane’s Roar: The stories behind AFLW — a movement bigger than sport. In contrast, while George Megalogenis remains my favourite political commentator, I found his The Football Solution disappointing — he lost me from the moment he libelled Charles Bannerman, the most dashing Australian batsman of the 19th century, on page 18 and never won me back. Megalogenis’ previous books, on politics and economics, contain an index, so why not this one? I did enjoy but sometimes got infuriated with Footballistics, by James Coventry, which seeks to explain how data analytics are changing the game. Coventry and his team do a good job in never getting too bogged down in numbers, but I continue to have a real frustration with how modern-day sports statisticians sometimes use their stats to suit themselves. One example: chapter 12 strongly argues the case for Tom Leahy, the best ruckman in South Australia in the early years of the 20th century, to be included in the Hall of Fame, as if it is a felony to downplay the achievements of the early champions; chapter 13 bends the numbers a different way to conclude that the top 10 teams of all time have all come from the last 50 years, six of the ten from the last two decades.
THE BEST AFL BOOK of the year, in my view, is unquestionably Leather Soul: a half-back flanker’s rhythm and blues, by Bob Murphy. Indeed, I think it is the sports book of the year. I’m a rugby league aficionado, so it takes a bit for me to really fall for an ‘Aussie rules’ book, and I imagine Murphy might not be to every AFL fan’s taste, but he had me from the prologue, as he prepared to not play in the 2016 grand final (Murphy, the Western Bulldogs captain, missed most of the season with a knee injury). This is a proud yet humble man who loves his sport, but not too much to miss its foibles, and he has a Steve Waugh-like ability to stop and ‘smell the roses’ occasionally, rather than stay totally absorbed by this week’s game, next week’s game and the one after that. Like Waugh and Brad Cooper, Murphy writes his own copy, and his editor Peter Hanlon and publisher Black Inc./Nero have done a superb job in keeping their author’s voice on every page.
It’s a book of many highlights. One favourite for me, which I would never have thought I would relish, is when Murphy writes about pre-season training in 2016 …
I read in Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, that he trained hard as a way of keeping his clinical depression at bay. His outlet was lifting heavy weights. In his own words, this left him ‘too tired to be depressed’. I found that really interesting. I don’t suffer from debilitating mental illness, but I can appreciate how the fatigue of exercise can simplify your life.
I’m sitting here right now with my aching legs stretched out on the couch. Having just eaten two meals, I’m too tired to sleep, too exhausted to move. It’s a beautiful feeling. Pre-season, in particular, simplifies your life. You train, eat and recover. Train, eat and recover. Logic tells you that the repetition would become boring, but I’ve found it to be the complete opposite. It’s like physical poetry. There are some days and moments that don’t inspire me, of course, but for the most part, it relaxes me. I’m 34 years old, coming off my best year as a player, and I feel stronger than I ever have. In my private moments, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll be able to play forever. I feel faster now than I did when I was 21. I don’t know if that’s normal.
What follows in Murphy’s career adds a rare poignancy to these observations. It’s not what you find in a run-of-the-mill sporting memoir. Andrew Howe’s colossal work could easily have been the sports book of 2018, but Leather Soul is special, as good a sporting identity’s life story as I have read in several years. Maybe, as the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in the UK did last month, I should have declared a tie. But as Brad Cooper might say, it can be an honour to come second.
When I wrote recently about the 'death' of Australian sports books, I was highlighting the fact that people are not buying good sports books as they did in days gone by, fewer people still are reading them, and it can be desperately hard to effectively promote them. There is a certain irony that, at a time when sales of all but the biggest ‘celebrity’ sports books are slumping, the Australian sports publishing industry can still produce books of the calibre of Leather Soul and Encyclopedia of Socceroos, and also Eddie Jones, The Wallabies at War, Oppy, The Peter Norman Story, The Finest Gold and more. What all the stakeholders — authors, booksellers, publishers, fans, reviewers, administrators and members of the media — need to do now is create an environment that ensures this can continue. Australian sport will be much the poorer if we do not.
Best Australian Sports Books of 2018
Bob Murphy: Leather Soul; Nero
Andrew Howe: Encyclopedia of Socceroos; Fair Play Publishing
Mike Colman: Eddie Jones: Rugby Maverick; Allen & Unwin
Greg Growden: The Wallabies at War; ABC Books
Daniel Oakman: Oppy: The Life of Sir Hubert Opperman; Melbourne Books
I was lucky to get my hands on several superb sports books from overseas in 2018. The best from the UK, in my view, were State of Play, by Michael Calvin, a remarkable expose of modern football, Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August, by Oliver Hilmes, a riveting account of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and How Football Began: A Global History of how the World’s Football Codes Were Born, by the remarkable rugby league historian Tony Collins. My favourite two books from the US were Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times, by Mark Leibovich, and Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Fall of the USFL, by Jeff Pearlman.
In Affectionate Remembrance
of Australian Sports Books,
Which died after a long illness
Deeply lamented by an ever-diminishing circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances
NB: The pages will be cremated, and the ashes recycled
in an occasional best-selling celebrity autobiography.
I STARTED WORKING IN sports book publishing nearly 30 years ago, at two small operations, first at Lester-Townsend Publishing and then at Ironbark Press. I was lucky — I got to learn from the great publisher Gary Lester and I worked on a succession of terrific books that usually had a first print run of 10,000 or more, and often eventually sold many more than that.
Those were the days. This year, for the second year in a row, no sports book sold more than 15,000 copies for Father’s Day in Australia, even though there were notable books published involving rugby league, the AFL, rugby union, the Olympics and horse racing.
Sports books were once a staple gift for Father’s Day — it was not unusual for a well-publicised new-release about a high-profile figure to sell 30,000 copies or more during August and the first few days of September. Christmas was even better. But a scan at the sales figures for the past few months show that just about every new sports book is struggling. As he did throughout his football career, Johnathan Thurston is proving exceptional. Overall sales will pick up in the fortnight before Santa comes to town, but not by enough. No wonder publishers these days are ordering print runs closer to one thousand than ten.
It’s not as if this year’s crop of sports books is no good. A vast range of titles have been published, by accomplished authors such as Greg Growden, Mike Colman, Gideon Haigh, David Middleton, Mike Clayton and Charles Happell, James Coventry, Peter FitzSimons, Martin Flanagan and George Megalogenis, and about subjects as interesting and diverse as Ralph Doubell, Cecil Healy, Peter Norman, Joe Darling, Bill Lawry, Rod Marsh, Shane Warne, Dylan Alcott, Sir Hubert Opperman, Lauren Jackson, Bob Murphy, Sam Mitchell, Greg Miles, Darren Gauci, Winx, Johnathan Thurston, Sam Thaiday, AFL Women’s, the Norm Smith Medal, the original Socceroos and the London to Sydney Marathon. There are plenty of good books on sale, and some are special, but too few people are reading them, or even know about them.
So what’s gone wrong? I have my theories, many of which are supported by a 2017 survey of Australia’s reading habits that was undertaken by David Throsby, Jan Zwar and Callum Morgan from the Department of Economics at Macquarie University for the Australia Council for the Arts. Among the survey’s findings was that men are now far more likely to be non-readers than women, which hurts sports books because it’s long been accepted that males are much more likely to read a sports book than females. (Gary Lester always stressed, after reminding me again that sports books are very often purchased as gifts, that they are usually bought by women for their men: from grandfathers to grandsons and everyone in between.) The survey also showed that almost 40 per cent of frequent readers are over the age of 60, compared to just over 15 per cent who are under 30, which is not good news at a time when the sports industry is focusing much of its energy on youth. A third finding was that Australians on average spend about seven hours reading each week — including books, the internet and other media — of which about 70 per cent is reading for pleasure. Which at first glance doesn’t sound too bad. ‘Books themselves are facing new forms of competition for readers’ time and attention,’ Throsby, Zwar and Morgan continued a little ominously. And then they added:
‘In particular, anecdotal evidence suggests that the proliferation of social media has drastically changed reading patterns and behaviour. Our data indicate that almost two-thirds of Australians read social media, blogs or content on the internet every day, compared to under 30 per cent who read some form of book every day. Accordingly, we asked respondents about their reading habits compared to five years ago and, if they answered that they are spending less time reading nowadays, how are they spending this time instead. Respondents were asked about both their time spent reading a variety of media for pleasure and about books specifically …
‘The results show that people appear to be spending slightly less time reading books compared to five years ago, but more time reading overall.’
I’ve deliberately italicised the previous paragraph. I can’t help thinking that this change of routine has hurt sports books more than other genres. The survey goes on:
‘Participants who spend less time reading books than five years ago because they spend more time on other leisure activities (almost two-fifths of our respondents) were asked what were the other activities that were absorbing more of their leisure time. The results affirm casual observation regarding the proliferation of social media: the data show that 52 per cent of respondents spend more time on social media these days, with as many as 76 per cent among under 20s and 20 to 29-year-olds.’
Why read a sports book when you can spend an hour reading or even posting on an online forum, or discussing the latest issue or rumour on Facebook or WhatsApp? It can be hard for a book that went to the printer two months ago to compete with ever-updating sports websites. Why buy a sports history book when the entire Sports Illustrated vault is online? Do you want to read a Melbourne Cup book, or watch every running of the great race on YouTube? Why read a Steve Mascord book when you can follow him on Twitter?
(I genuinely enjoyed publishing Steve’s book Touchstones: Rugby League, Rock’n’roll, the Road and Me in 2017. His work was compared to writers as varied as Herodotus and Nick Hornby, and the book received plenty of publicity. But hardly anyone, it seems, had time to read it. Or maybe, with Steve almost omnipresent on social media, they already felt they had.)
Finally, the survey cited word of mouth as the most common driver of book sales. This, remember, is across all genres. But if people aren’t reading sports books, they’re not going to talk about them. On Christmas morning, books get unwrapped and then go quickly onto a bookshelf, after being briefly glanced at or maybe not at all. Some will end up in a Salvos store or a Lifeline sale. Few recipients will go back to the giver and say what a fantastic book it was; neither of them will ever know. I put together five Ricky Ponting cricket diaries between 2006 and 2010, all of which sold into five figures, but I always wondered how many of them were ever read. My guess was one in ten, which might have been optimistic.
One deterrent Throsby, Zwar and Morgan didn’t focus on, but for me it’s an important one, is the simple cost of buying books, which relates in a way to the fact so many stories on the internet are free, but also to the way the book industry distributes its product. Gideon Haigh, the best writer of cricket books of his generation, has just released Crossing the Line, an engaging 184-page small-format paperback which his publisher, Slattery Media, describes on the back cover as the first of a ‘Sports Shorts collection [that fits] into your back pocket on the way to the game’. I admire Haigh and Slattery Media for their enterprise, but with a retail price in independent bookshops of $24.95 their little book costs a dollar more than the much heftier autobiographies of Thurston and Warne at Big W. With sports books, because they are so often purchased as gifts, if the price is the same, size matters. Steve Waugh’s 800-page autobiography — which had a recommended retail price of $49.95 but was discounted to half that from the day of its first release, and then looked very impressive as it took up half the space under Christmas trees all over Australia —proved that for me.
Is the situation beyond repair? It might not be, but only if the sports industry gets behind sports publishing — not by injecting funds but by helping to create a conversation about sports books. By ‘sports industry’ I mean the top sporting organisations, the media, the fans, the sponsors, the authors, the stars of whom the books are about. A well-researched and well-written book is a terrific advertisement for a sport, but it’s rare for busy sports administrators to see it that way. It’s also uncommon these days to read a genuine review of a good Australian sports book, as opposed to a free plug. In London overnight, the 30th winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year was announced. Australian publishing is awash with book awards; sporting titles used to be among the best-selling books in Australia; there is no prize like the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in Australia. Which is a shame, because as sales of sports books in Australia diminish by the year, the need for an incentive such as that provided by a highly respected award becomes ever more apparent.
And that’s not just an ‘incentive’ for authors; such awards are also a very effective spur for booksellers, reviewers and buyers. A book on the William Hill shortlist is more prominently displayed in shops and is more likely to appear in the literary sections of the major newspapers.
As the leading UK sports literary agent David Luxton told The Guardian’s Sean Ingle: ‘Over 30 years it [the William Hill award] has shone some serious light on a genre of writing that was not appreciated as it should have been … Every time you enter a bookshop, and see the range and quality of titles on display, you understand the massive difference it has made.’
Crucially, the sports books themselves have to be excellent, especially the ones that are guaranteed to sell in at least reasonable numbers because of the high profile of the subject matter. This is why I was so disappointed by the three best-selling sports books of 2018 — the autobiographies of Johnathan Thurston and Shane Warne and the authorised biography of Winx. None of the three books are terrible. In fact, they are all fine, but none, in my view, are brilliant, the sort of work that gets sports journalists and commentators raving about all sports books, encourages bookshop owners to expand their sports sections, and convinces buyers and readers alike to return to those bookshops more regularly than they have done in the past.
All authors, but especially those responsible for guaranteed best sellers, must aim for the stars. But maybe, as sales decline, the opposite is happening. Even with the flaws in the top-sellers, I think the overall standard of Australian sports books remains very good, but in the last few years I’ve seen glimpses of a depressing future. I wish the catalogues of the big bookshops promoted the best books available, not the ones the publishers paid to put in. Never again, as happened to me not too long ago, do I want to hear a player manager say, ‘Mate, it doesn’t matter what you write. We’ve already got the advance.’ Similarly, I don’t want to work again with the author who presented to me a manuscript for a biography with significant chunks of the hero’s story missing and a serious number of factual errors. That’s facts, not typos, inappropriate adjectives or missing commas. The ‘author’ can write, so I asked why the manuscript was so poor. ‘For the money I’m being paid, that’s what you get,’ was the reply.
In many ways, this blog is a cry for help. ‘There was a time when high street bookshops were a wasteland for sports writing,’ Sean Ingle recalled of British sports book publishing, as he wrote of the impact of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award. ‘The entire subject was usually relegated to a single shelf in a dusty corner.’
Australian sports book publishing hasn’t reached that stage yet, but there have been times — as I walk the streets looking for a book that I know has been published, I expect will be good, but I can’t find on the shelves — when I fear that one day soon it will. Maybe what’s happening is just natural attrition, and out of the ashes a smaller yet somehow stronger business model will emerge. But I still remember certain sports books I read when I was a kid, and important books that spurred my love of sport as a teenager and helped shape and provoke my thinking as an adult. Simply put, sports books are important. We can ill afford to lose them.
At the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Cecil Healy produced a sporting gesture which was described at the time as ‘an unsurpassable example of sportsmanship’. The great American swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, the race favourite for the men’s 100 metres freestyle, was disqualified, and by the rules in place this decision was correct. Whether it was just is another matter. Cecil, the second favourite, did not question the validity of the rules, or the ethics of the judges who enforced them, but he did not think the punishment fitted the crime and appealed to the authorities’ sense of fair play.
He wanted to win, but in the pool not out of it.
In a sense, a similar conundrum is being played out in the lead-up to the 2018 National Rugby League Grand Final. The Melbourne Storm’s great fullback Billy Slater has been charged with using an illegal shoulder charge in the preliminary final, which could see him suspended the grand final against the Sydney Roosters. Slater’s absence would inevitably improve the Roosters’ chances of claiming the premiership. But do they want to win that way?
In the following extract from their biography of Cecil Healy, John Devitt and Larry tell the story of what Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates recently described as the most outstanding example of great sportsmanship ever displayed by an Australian at the Olympics. The implication is that Cecil, who was born and lived much of his life in Roosters territory, would have wanted Slater to play …
CECIL HAD LITTLE TIME to change from his team uniform into his swimming costume before he was called to compete in the heats of the Stockholm Olympics’ first swimming event: the men’s 100-metre freestyle heats, the first of which began at 7pm in the still-warm glow of a summer twilight. Duke Kahanamoku was hot favourite to win the gold medal, but there was plenty of depth in the field, with competitors such as Harold Hardwick, Billy Longworth, the six-time English 100-yards champion Rob Derbyshire, Germany’s highly rated Kurt Bretting, who had been schooled in the crawl by Cecil in Hamburg back in 1906, Sweden’s Harald Julin, the bronze medallist from 1908, and three crack Americans all in the field. The top two from each of the eight heats and the fastest third place-getter would proceed to the second round, which put much attention on heat four, where Cecil was drawn to meet the USA’s Perry McGillivray and Ken Huszagh. The Duke was in heat five.
The first surprise was the elimination of Derbyshire, who finished third in tepid time behind Les Boardman in heat three. Then Cecil started slowly, but he was able to work his way past Huszagh to ensure his qualification in 1:05.2. McGillivray’s winning time was exactly one second faster, while Huszagh’s 1:06.2 was enough to get him through. Hardwick looked good as he dominated heat six, just as Bretting had impressed in his swim, but by then all the chatter was about Kahanamoku, who had scorched down the straight course in 1:02.6. Longworth was well beaten in second place, even though he recorded the same time as Cecil had done in the previous heat. The Duke’s time was quickly announced as a world record, though in fact it was one-fifth of a second slower than a time recorded by Bretting in a 25-metre pool in Brussels, Belgium, during the previous April. The German’s performance would be ratified by FINA immediately after these Games.
Still, the Duke was clearly all he was cracked up to be. Maybe more. Experts were calling him the ‘human fish’. Longworth would say, ‘He’s not a swimmer, he’s a motorboat.’ The official Olympic report noted:
The performance of the phenomenal Kanaka quite came up to expectations. He employs a special kind of crawl, with the motor-power derived from the ankles alone, and not from the hip- or knee-joints. The soles of his feet work up and down; both the upper and under sides of his feet pressing backwards against the surface of the water.
The second round — three races, with the first two in each race and the quickest third through to the semi-finals — was programmed to begin the next day at 1.30pm. For 90 metres in the first of these races, Bretting and Longworth, who was now suffering from a severe headache as well as excruciating pain in his ear, were neck and neck, before the German edged clear. Hardwick was third. Kahanamoku romped home from the German Walter Ramme in the second race, after producing a remarkable spurt in the last 30 metres, and Huszagh and McGillivray beat Cecil by a whisker in fast time, with Boardman a close fourth. The official report reads:
There was a very hard struggle between the first three men, all of whom did the distance under 1 minute, 5 seconds. As best third in the second round, C. Healy became entitled to take part in the semi-finals.
The draw was kind to Cecil: he and Longworth were joined by Ramme in the first semi-final; the three Americans and Bretting were in the second. The first two home in each semi and the fastest third-placed competitor would make the final. The races were scheduled for 8pm, a time that might not have suited some of the swimmers. On his return to Sydney, Longworth would tell the Daily Telegraph that no member of the US team was allowed on shore after 7 o’clock without a special permit. ‘No such restriction,’ the Aussie added, ‘was imposed upon the athletes of other nations.’
There are different accounts of exactly what led to the kerfuffle that happened next.
AT THE ASSIGNED TIME, the two Australians and Germany’s Ramme marched from the dressing sheds to the starting zone. At the starter’s signal, the trio hit the water simultaneously and were level for 80 metres, at which point Cecil surged to win narrowly in 1:05.6. Longworth, though suffering terribly from what doctors would soon discover was a large abscess in his head, between his ear and his brain, swam a gallant third, less than a second from his teammate.
The spectators at the pool now started shifting in their seats and murmuring to each other, as they were anxious to see the mighty Kahanamoku in action. But something was wrong.
Bretting appeared on his own. There was no sign of the Duke, nor his teammates, just a panicked flurry of activity among the organisers, who left the pool deck to contact the US camp. When they returned, they ordered Bretting to swim the semi-final alone.
The official report says: ‘Owing to some misapprehension, the three representatives of the USA did not put in an appearance, from their belief that all the seven men who qualified in the second round would swim in the final on the Monday.’ Elsewhere, it was claimed that the American coaches and officials had ignored the program of events that had been widely circulated and simply assumed that the semi-finals would be swum the next day. Bretting swam solo, recording an impressive 1:04.6. As he was doing so, the Duke was on the Finland, fast asleep.
Back at the pool, the judges chose to adhere strictly to the rules and disqualify the no-show Americans. Suddenly, the German Bretting and his old mentor, Cecil, seemed to have the gold medal between them. Ramme could not be dismissed based on his semi-final effort, but few rated him in the same class as his compatriot. Longworth was through to the final but his health was deteriorating by the minute, to the point, he would admit later, where his very life was in danger. The next morning, he would be admitted to hospital for an operation. His Olympic campaign was over.
US swim coach Otto Wahle and AAU secretary James E. Sullivan, the manager of the American team, tried to bluster their way out of the disaster, insisting that their three swimmers had not turned up to the semi-final because of that ‘misapprehension’. When this plea didn’t wash with the Olympic officials, the Americans changed tack and claimed that they couldn’t understand the program because they knew no Swedish. It was pointed out to them that the program was printed in English and French as well as the language of the host country.
While the officials argued, Cecil made the selfless decision for which — perhaps more than anything else in his remarkable life — he is revered. Any victory, he told himself, in a final in which the fastest swimmer in the world cannot compete would be hollow. He could not live with that. A gold medal won in those circumstances would be tarnished metal. His moral obligation was to refuse to swim in the final unless he could race Duke Kahanamoku, even though he knew that this meant he had much less chance of winning. Self-respect and good sportsmanship were worth more than golden glory.
The San Francisco Call’s matter-of-fact report of the affair confirmed that Cecil’s actions received international recognition:
The semi-final heats of the 100-metres swimming proved a fiasco as the Americans, McGillivray, Huszagh and Kahanamoku remained on the steamer Finland in the belief that the event was to be contested Monday. Some of the competitors protested against the semi-finals being held, saying they would be valueless without the three fastest competitors. The round, however, was completed …
Cecil went straight to ES Marks — who as well as travelling with the Australasian team had also been nominated to sit on a jury of officials from competing nations to adjudicate on contentious issues — and made his feelings clear: that in the spirit of the Olympics the Americans should be given a second chance. Marks then convinced his fellow jury members to offer Kahanamoku, Huszagh and McGillivray a reprieve. As the official report documented:
At a meeting of the International Swimming Jury, it was declared that no mistake had been committed by the leaders of the competition, but that the three representatives of the USA should be allowed to swim in a special heat to qualify for the final, the first man in this extra heat having to swim the distance in better time than the third man in Heat 1 of the semi-final, while, in the event of this being done, the second man in the extra heat would also be allowed to swim in the final, which was put off until Wednesday, July 10.
On ES Marks’ death in 1947, The Sydney Morning Herald would argue that he ‘probably did more for amateur sport in Australia than any other man’. Here, like Cecil, he covered himself in glory. And the ailing Longworth, too. In an interview in the early 1930s, Marks recalled that Cecil, with his teammate by his side, didn’t just ask for the Americans to get a second chance, he told him bluntly that he and his comrade would not participate in the final if Kahanamoku, McGillivray and Huzsagh were disqualified. Marks backed his men unconditionally. As far as he was concerned, their strong view ‘settled the opposition’. Marks also confirmed that German team management, no doubt anticipating medals for Bretting and Ramme, were unhappy that the Americans were being let off the hook. British officials, for what it was worth, agreed with the Germans. Their combined view was that the decision contravened Olympic rules, which clearly stated that anyone not arriving for their event on time could not compete. To no avail. The US contingent heaved a collective sigh of relief that may have been heard back in Manhattan, perhaps even in Honolulu.
The third semi-final was held on the Tuesday, July 9, and involved not just the three Americans but also Italy’s Mario Massa, who claimed he, too, had been confused by the programming (Massa had missed his second-round swim). The Duke made the most of his reprieve, winning the special swim-off in a blistering 1:02.4, equalling Bretting’s world’s best time. Behind him, there was only a ‘hand’s breadth’ between Huszagh and McGillivray, who were both credited with the same time: 1:06.2. The decision, and a place in the final, went to Huszagh. Massa failed to finish.
Before the final, the official Olympic newspaper Dagens Nyheter placed the Swedish and International Olympic bodies’ appreciation of Cecil’s uncommon sportsmanship on the record in an article which addressed Cecil directly:
Not only Stockholm, but the whole world of sport, rings with applause for your sporting action in permitting the semi-final of the 100 metres to be re-run. You, as well as anybody, realised the prowess of the swimmers you voluntarily admitted to the final test …
What Cecil had done, in the words of Dagens Nyheter, was provide ‘an unsurpassable example of sportsmanship for other Olympians to emulate’.
THE FINAL WAS SCHEDULED for 7pm. When the hour arrived, the evening sun was still shining on the 2400 spectators who’d come to see the medal race. Among them, in their royal eyrie, sat King Gustav and his queen, Victoria, their eldest son, Crown Prince Gustav Adolf, and his wife, Crown Princess Margaret, a cousin of the King of England. If they’d been following the form, the royals would have agreed with swimming aficionados everywhere that Kahanamoku was the overwhelming favourite.
Then the unthinkable. When the finalists lined up in their starting positions, the Duke was not among them. Incredibly, the laid-back Hawaiian was once more dozing but not, thankfully, on the Finland this time. His teammate, breaststroker Mike McDermott, found him under a bleacher at the side of the pool and hustled him to join his rival swimmers. The story entered family folklore. Kahanamoku’s younger brother Sargent would tell Sports Illustrated:
Brother Duke slept 99 per cent of his time. He could sleep while he was sitting there talking to you. And I always thought that was what made him a great swimmer. He was clear in the head. So at the Olympic finals, they found him asleep, snoring. He got up, said sorry, [and] got in the water to loosen up …
The pre-race drama seemed never-ending. Just as the competitors were settling for the start, Kurt Bretting held up his hand, left his mark and approached Kahanamoku, who was beside Cecil at the opposite side of the starting platform. The German ostentatiously shook both their hands and thanked Cecil for introducing him to the crawl. Cecil interpreted Bretting’s action as gamesmanship. The Duke did, too. Bretting, they suspected, was thanking Cecil for contributing to his own downfall in the impending race. When their rival resumed his place, Kahanamoku quipped to the Australian next to him, ‘Say, Healy, he must think he’s going to deliver the goods.
To which Cecil offered one of his favourite aphorisms: ‘Then blessed is he who expecteth nothing!’
If the German unsettled anyone, it was himself. No doubt to the delight of Cecil and the Duke, Bretting broke the start. As he lifted himself out of the water, he seemed extremely nervous.
Finally, the race was underway. At the 50-metre mark, nothing separated the swimmers. It seemed anybody’s race. The crowd bellowed as one; could there be an upset? The Duke made his move and snatched the lead, with Huszagh, Bretting and Ramme battling for second place. The Australian was last. Suddenly, Cecil clapped on the pace and flew past Huszagh and the Germans as if they were swimming on the spot. The spectators rose again, and cheered the underdog. It was grand theatre, but it wasn’t enough. Kahanamoku was far enough ahead to hold Cecil at bay. He won in 1:03.4; Cecil claimed the silver medal in 1:04.6; Huszagh was third, in 1:05.6; Bretting fourth in 1:05.8.
William Henry, who was poolside, claimed that Cecil ‘gave that great Honolulu swimmer a fright, as he was catching him fast in the last few yards’. Harold Hardwick concurred: ‘The Duke seemed to be tiring as he finished, and Cecil was coming on at a tremendous pace.’ Cecil himself said at the finish that the Duke’s feet were level with his head. The official report lamented the absence of Longworth but regarded it as ‘a grand race between the swiftest swimmers in the world’.
The fans went wild for Kahanamoku; he had shown them greatness. And then something happened that puzzled those who knew nothing of Cecil’s insistence that the Duke compete, and surely brought a glow to those who did. The Hawaiian extricated himself from the mob of backslappers and went to Cecil. He thanked him for his sportsmanship and held his arm in the air in the time-honoured athlete’s show of respect for an opponent. The Duke would wear the gold medal around his neck and Cecil the silver, but there were two winners this day.
Indeed, a Swedish reporter wrote, ‘Under the circumstances, Cecil Healy’s second place was worth a lifetime of firsts.’ A group of local fans lifted him onto their shoulders. Les Boardman would claim that ‘Healy’s swim in the final of the 100 metres at Stockholm was undoubtedly the most popular event of the swimming section of the Games’.
Many decades later, when recounting Australia’s most illustrious sporting moments, the Australian Olympic Committee’s official historian Harry Gordon wrote: ‘Healy gave a demonstration of the immaculate sportsmanship which characterised his career. He in fact sacrificed the prospect of an individual gold medal to ensure that his own version of justice was served.’ Gordon could not imagine such a sacrificial act occurring in the cut-throat modern Olympics. ‘Healy’s was a classic sporting gesture, but it belongs to another age.’
Cecil Healy was one of the heroes of the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, not just because he won a gold medal in the 4 x 200m freestyle relay but especially for his gallant sporting gesture — when he refused to swim in the 100m final unless Duke Kahanamoku, the famous Hawaiian, was allowed to swim. Kahanamoku, the race favourite, had been disqualified after US officials got the start time wrong. Cecil knew it wasn’t the Duke’s fault and refused to swim without him.
‘Under the circumstances, Cecil Healy’s second place was worth a lifetime of firsts,’ wrote a Swedish reporter.
‘In terms of great sportsmanship by an Australian at an Olympics,’ says John Coates, President of the Australian Olympic Committee, ‘Cecil Healy’s is certainly the most outstanding.’
Six years after Stockholm, Cecil found himself in a far more perilous place. He had enlisted in 1915 and spent the first two-and-a-half years of his military service in a relatively ‘cushy’ job, as a quartermaster sergeant. But that same sense of honour that had been on show at the Olympics compelled him to do more, and against the advice of friends and his commanding officer he sought and obtained a transfer to the front, as a second lieutenant with the 19th battalion. In a recent speech, the NSW Governor General David Hurley pointed out that Healy must have known that he was taking on a role with one of the highest mortality rates among Australian soldiers in the Great War.
On the early morning of 29 August 1918, as the Anzacs prepared for what would be an epic assault on Mont St Quentin, Cecil was leading his platoon across open ground when they were surprised by German machine-gun fire from a nearby wood. A colleague would later say that ‘his fearlessness supplied the enemy with too good a target to miss’. Healy was 36. He remains the only Australian Olympic gold medallist to die on the battlefield.
Cecil’s remarkable life and death is celebrated in a major biography, co-authored by two-time Olympic gold medallist John Devitt and award-winning author Larry Writer. The following extract describes the final few days of a great Australian’s life …
UNIT COMMANDING OFFICERS WERE summoned to 5th Brigade headquarters in Rivery Town Hall at five o’clock on the afternoon of August 25 to receive orders passed down from corps commander Sir John Monash. When the senior officers returned, units were assembled and informed that they would be part of a massive Allied push that would ultimately force the German Army back to the Hindenburg Line. Success would almost certainly spell defeat for the enemy, which by now had neither the numbers, the weaponry nor, increasingly, the will to mount another counterattack.
The 2nd Division’s first objective was to cross the Somme and snatch the town of Péronne from its German occupiers. Péronne was about 50 kilometres to the east of Rivery. But before it could be liberated, the Germans had to be driven from Mont St Quentin, 1.5 kilometres to the north, which though only about 100 metres high, held huge strategic value as it overlooked not just the town, but the river and the territory for kilometres around. The Hindenburg Line was another 25 kilometres further east.
Péronne, an ancient town protected by a star-shaped fort built in the 17th century by King Louis XIV’s military engineer Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban, served as a vital transport and communications hub for whoever was in control. The 2nd Division, with the 19th Battalion prominent, would seek to advance to Péronne along the south bank of the Somme. It would be accompanied by artillery companies, field engineers and ambulances, all the while keeping in close touch with the 3rd and 5th Divisions on either flank.
The weather was rainy and humid, which turned the tracks and fields of the region into thick, sticky, boot-gripping mud. The units had more than 20 kilometres to cover before reaching the Somme, where they would be forced to conduct an opposed river crossing.
The 19th spent the night of August 26 near the village of Morcourt, ten kilometres east of Villers-Bretonneux. On August 27, they occupied old German dugouts north-east of Chuignolles, still 40 kilometres from Péronne. The entry in the battalion’s war diary for that night reads in part: ‘Men help themselves liberally to large German stack of straw and make comfortable sleeping positions. Night dark and cloudy, but quiet. Scattered enemy shelling by long-range and other guns.’
What sleep was had was broken just before dawn by welcome news. The Germans were being forced back towards the Somme at Péronne by the 6th Brigade, and the 19th was ordered to make haste to support them, continuing along the Somme’s south bank to Salmon Wood (an area of trees and other vegetation known today as Bois Nanteuil). Battalion headquarters were established in nearby huts at Eclusier Quarry, just east of the village of Cappy. The plan was to spend the night there before linking with the 6th Brigade at Péronne during the following day, August 29. The town centre was now 25 kilometres away.
The battalion was pressing forward across farmland through late summer showers to Salmon Wood where it was detected by the Germans and shelled. This action might have slowed the men of the 19th’s progress, but it did not stop them. There was a certain excitement in being engaged in the rapid movement of mobile warfare, pursuing the enemy, which was a far cry from the foetid trench warfare of, say, the Ypres Sector in 1917. However, after four years of war, every AIF unit was understrength. The 19th’s ‘bayonet strength’ was less than 300 men. In C Company, the strength was about 40 men, including four officers; Cecil’s platoon was about 20 strong, although every platoon was carrying extra Lewis guns to beef up their firepower.
Cecil must have been grateful for his fitness. Each man was dressed in ‘Battle Order’, which for a rifleman included rifle, bayonet, entrenching tool, webbing ammunition pouches with at least 120 rounds, water bottle, small pack, some tinned rations, soap, razor and toothbrush, a multi-purpose rubberised groundsheet, a steel helmet and a gas mask in a bag worn across the chest for easy access. This gear, including the uniform and boots, weighed more than 20kg. Lewis gunners carried the gun and their No.2 men had extra 47-round magazines. Officers dressed almost exactly as the men, but were armed with a service revolver (some also chose to carry a rifle) plus a compass, binoculars, whistle and map case. For this rapid mobile style of warfare, everything you needed was on your back.
Cecil spent the night of August 28 in the company of his comrades, eating cold bully beef (for no camp fires were allowed), perhaps playing cards by dim candlelight, yarning about better, safer times to keep his nerves at bay. Tomorrow, he would be commanding his C Company platoon in his first ‘stunt’: an attack on a flagging but desperate and still lethal enemy. The camp was targeted by sporadic shelling throughout the night, and by a chemical irritant known colloquially as ‘sneezing gas’, but no damage was done. Sleep was fitful.
Well before dawn, the men of the 19th rose, packed up their groundsheets, wolfed down what food was handy, donned their equipment and at zero hour, 5am, moved out of Salmon Wood. Their orders were to ‘mop up’ the German-held village of Halle, just west of Péronne, and support the 17th Battalion by guarding its right flank.
The first part of the move was a road march by a column of companies, from Salmon Wood towards the village of Frise, in the dark before sunrise. They were led by men from the battalion’s Intelligence Section, who had reconnoitred the intended assembly area on the south-eastern side of Frise. This was a quick move and on arrival there companies shook out into their open formation for the advance towards the River Somme.
Within the battalion, A Company was left forward, Cecil’s C Company right forward, B Company was in depth behind them and D Company was the battalion reserve. On the 19th’s left flank was its sister battalion, the 18th; on their right flank, the 23rd Battalion of 6th Brigade. In front of them were several kilometres of generally open, gently rolling hills that led down to the Somme Canal, west of Péronne. This was the arena into which Cecil would lead his men.
The immediate obstacle of Mereaucourt Wood was easily cleared and the advance moved steadily forward in the early-morning gloom, but at 6.58am, as the sun rose, 19th Battalion patrols were fired on by riflemen and machine-guns in and around Bazincourt Wood and Ticker Copse, dense thickets on high ground just west of the Somme Canal. These positions were occupied by veteran soldiers of the 25th Bavarian Infantry Regiment, who had been ordered to halt or at least slow the ‘British’ advance.
THE BAVARIAN COMMANDER HAD chosen his position well. The ground in front of Ticker Copse sloped gently upwards and provided an almost unrestricted 180-degree view to front and flanks, allowing — from the German perspective — ideal fields of fire. The whole area was covered with trench systems left over from the 1915 skirmishes between French and German forces. Arnaud Alley, Callis Trench, Olmutz Trench and others provided excellent defensive positions — it was much easier to temporarily refurbish old trenches than dig new ones. And the tree-lined heights provided excellent withdrawal routes to the Somme Canal and the foot-bridges that were covered by small arms and artillery fire from positions in and around the village of Halle. They would provide protection for withdrawing troops after they had delayed the oncoming advance.
The key to the Bavarian commander’s delaying tactics was the positioning of his machine-guns. His principal weapon was the 7.92mm Maschinengewehr 08 (MG08), a heavy machinegun mounted on a folding four-point sled and manned by a six-man crew. Its rate of fire was about 450 rounds a minute, with an effective range of more than two kilometres. At this point in the war, he also had available a number of MG08/15, a lighter bipod-mounted machine-gun with a crew of two.
We will never know exactly how many of these weapons were on the battlefield this day: possibly ten or more. It is well recorded that one MG08 was firing from Bazincourt Wood to the north of Ticker Copse. What else is known is that these weapons were always sited in pairs and positioned to work together, by firing across each other’s front. The experienced German commander and his men had the ground in front of Ticker Copse well covered with both machine-gun and rifle fire.
AUGUST 29 WAS, ACCORDING to the 19th’s war diary, a ‘fine, bright day’. In the minutes immediately after 7am, with Péronne and squat Mont St Quentin, which stood sentinel above it, visible on the horizon a few kilometres away, the Australians walked into a killing zone. Some movement was noticed at the top end of a long, thin stand of trees known then, and today, as Sword Wood, and Cecil’s platoon opened fire. There were probably no more than a few grey-clad German riflemen concealed there, for this was low ground, and they were sent scurrying down the tree line to the canal to make good their escape. The Australians pressed on.
Only now the Germans by Ticker Copse, a kilometre to the north, had the advancing men well within range and in their sights. They waited expectantly in their trenches, invisible to the Australians who, coming from the west, had the rays of the dawn’s sun shining in their faces, accentuating their presence. As Cecil and his men moved down the gentle slope towards Sword Wood a machine-gun fired upon them. A member of his platoon would later say that ‘his fearlessness supplied the enemy with too good a target to miss’.
Cecil might have heard the dreaded percussive clatter of the machine-gun. He was hit in the back of the neck by a single bullet. The impact sent him sprawling and he lay bleeding from the wound, as a comrade, possibly 19-year-old Private Carl Bentin of Hobart, scrambled to his fallen leader’s side and tried to drag him to cover. The frantic movement drew another burst of machine-gun fire from near Ticker Copse. The second soldier fell dead, and Cecil was hit again, the bullet tearing into the right side of his chest. Prone on his back, Cecil lay breathing raggedly, unable to speak. His eyes, which were open, were losing their light. His heart beat on, and on. It took him an hour to die.
It may be that as he lay dying he was beyond thinking, or perhaps in his last moments he thought of home … of his close friend Muriel … of his family and mates … of good times on the beaches of Manly, some of Sydney’s finest … of the grand days when, in Sydney’s baths and ocean pools, he was Australia’s finest swimmer … and of the Stockholm Olympics in 1912 when he raced the great Duke Kahanamoku, and thousands cheered …
He died about 8am. At this hour, in peace-time in another land, Cecil Healy would likely have been careening down the face of a Manly wave.
ONE OF THE VERY best sports books published in Australia in 2017 is Yellow & Black: A Season with Richmond, by Konrad Marshall. A senior writer with Fairfax Media and a devoted Richmond fan, Marshall attached himself to his favourite club for two seasons to produce a remarkable record of the Tigers’ path to grand final glory. The book is a publishing triumph for the Slattery Media Group — not because of the sales figures (which are strong), but because they took on the project long before Richmond emerged as a genuine premiership contender, and then had an exceptional book in shops not long after the flag was won.
It’s actually not difficult to get a book out quickly after a major event, but it is hard to do it well. Yellow & Black has been likened to The Coach, John Powers’ famous study of Ron Barassi and North Melbourne in 1977, and that is an apt comparison. It looks a bit like a mini Yellow Pages, and maybe it is a little too long, but it’s a fantastic story told with great passion and perception.
Sadly, in Sydney at least, it’s also very hard to find. Up here, there are plenty of copies of the autobiographies of recently retired players to be found, even though these books are pedestrian at best, while it took me ages to locate even one copy of Marshall’s outstanding work. Why? My guess is that back in the middle of the year, when upcoming Christmas books were being presented to the bookshops, the quality and excitement of Yellow & Black was a hard sell. Who’d have thought Richmond would win the comp?
Better to play safe with household names. The publishing industry decided a diary of a mid-table Victorian club’s season was too esoteric even for Swans and Giants fans. Similarly, the biographies of former VFL champions Phil Carmen and Roy Cazaly, both published mid-season in Melbourne, were deemed suitable only for aficionados in the southern states.
I’m really not sure why in the 21st century publishers have to ‘sell in’ books so early. The flavour of the month in May or June is often stale by November. It’s a crazy, antiquated system that in 2017 will lead to many AFL fans in NSW and Queensland receiving a book from Santa that they will never or hardly read, while a much better product remains, for them, unknown. Many people in professional sport and in publishing take the attitude that, with sports books at least, any book will do. I once had a high-profile player agent say to me, ‘Mate, it doesn’t matter what you write, we’ve already got the advance.’ The titles in the Christmas catalogues are not the best sports books of the year, but the ones for which the publishers have paid the biggest advances. Book buyers with little knowledge of sport need and want guidance, but they are not getting any — instead, as a reflex, they buy books for their husbands, fathers, sons and daughters with the name of a sporting celebrity on the cover, as if it’s a souvenir. They should be buying books by Konrad Marshall or, to use a rugby league example, by Ian Heads, because they are outstanding books that will actually be read; instead, they end up with a book that’s not much good, and the reputation of Australian sports publishing in the wider community drops another notch with every purchase.
I know from experience that it is very difficult to ghost a great book if the subject is not fully engaged. A few years ago, I was asked to write 70,000 words for a cricketer who gave me six hours of his time, including coffee breaks; I consider the end-result to be one of the better books I’ve worked on, because I made something out of nothing. Those who got it for Christmas probably thought it was rubbish. The best sporting autobiographies published in the UK in 2017 are streets ahead of what is being produced by Australia’s biggest stars — one sledge Jonny Bairstow might like to try with Steve Smith is, ‘My book’s a lot better than yours!’
The one exception to this trend in 2017 is Unbroken, Jelena Dokic’s story of her life so far, which from its simple yet striking front cover by photographer Simon Upton and designer Luke Causby to the final page is often brutal and harrowing, and always compelling. Dokic is not particularly likeable — her ghost Jessica Halloran has done an excellent job in presenting a complicated character in three dimensions — but that, in a way, is the point. Only a very stubborn and persistent individual could have survived let alone won on the tennis court as often as she did.
Not that Unbroken is the best Australian sporting autobiography of the year. That accolade, in my view, goes to Phil Jarratt’s Life of Brine: A Surfer’s Journey. The back cover describes Jarratt as ‘one of surfing’s foremost authorities [who has] worked in surf publishing and the surf industry for more than 40 years’ but as this rollicking and riveting book reveals, he is actually much more than that. Celebrity names jump off the page, but the yarn never gets too self-indulgent; the best paragraphs are the deeply personal ones. Like Steve Mascord, the author of Touchstones, Jarratt is originally from the Illawarra. Again like Mascord, Jarratt is obsessed, in his case with the perfect wave — finding it and writing about its magic and the men and women who are similarly entranced. As a seasoned journo who has reported on a wide variety of sports and cultures, I think Jarratt might get Mascord’s love of league and rock’n’roll. I’m sure they’d get each other.
Australian horse racing gave us two terrific books this year: Max Presnell’s Good Losers Die Broke and Tulloch: The Extraordinary Life and Times of a True Champion, by Ken Linnett. Presnell, a product of a bygone era in racing journalism, has written a genuine page-turner, though his book is more a collection of good racing yarns than a group-one memoir. Tulloch was one of Australia’s best thoroughbreds and perhaps our greatest ever three-year-old (yes, even better than Phar Lap), and at times his back-story is as fascinating as his wins were massive. Linnett handles all this in superb fashion; this is much more than just a collection of race commentaries. Just one gripe: whoever it was who decided to constantly put the metric equivalent in brackets after the imperial measurement — nine stone (57kg) … 3–1 ($4) … six furlongs (1200m) — please don’t do it again.
The Australian cricket books of 2017 are a mixed bunch. Austin Robertson’s Cricket Outlaws, which provides an insider’s account of World Series Cricket, looks and sometimes reads like a cousin of our very own Richie: The Man Behind the Legend, which means it’s pretty good. Christian Ryan’s Feeling is the Thing that Happens in 1000th of a Second is one of the weirdest books I’ve seen and read in a long time. A book that focuses on and features the work of the greatest of all cricket photographers, Patrick Eagar, it is small-format hardback printed on cheap stock, so the photos don’t jump out at you. That old line about a photograph being worth a thousand words is especially true with a genius such as Eagar, yet too often Ryan overwrites to the point that I had to re-read a sentence three or four times before I think I got the point. Yet for all the panache of the paragraphs, the author occasionally reduces champions such as Doug Walters to a cliché. Still, I read the book in one sitting and now that I’ve got through the pile of books all around me, I want to read it again.
The cricket book I enjoyed most this year was Chappell’s Last Stand, by Michael Sexton. Of course, I’m fifty-something now and I was fifteen then, but the cricket heroes of the ’70s seem so more rounded and interesting than the shrunken stars of today, and Sexton has done a mighty job searching out names such as Yagmich, Curtin and Prior to proudly stand next to Chappell, Mallett and Hookes. The book is flawed, with a cover photo of Ian Chappell wearing a baggy green and not a South Australian cap, no stats section, no photos and no index, which is why there is no cricket book in my top five for 2017.
Outside of Stoke Hill Press’s The Great Grand Final Heist by Ian Heads, the best rugby league book of the year is, as usual, David Middleton’s Official Rugby League Annual. The lack of a worthy rugby union book is another indication of the decline of a once fine sport. For golfers, I can recommend Matt Cleary’s A Short History of Golf, which often goes from very good to excellent even if it looks, to me, like it’s come straight out of a 1970s remainder bin. Fans of Olympic sports could try The Medal Maker by Roger Vaughan, a biography of the legendary sailing coach Victor Kovalenko.
Alternatively, they could turn to one of the more intriguing sports books of the year: Cold War Games, by Harry Blutstein, which recalls the ‘spies, subterfuge and secret operations of the 1956 Olympic Games’. The level of research in parts is quite remarkable, as Blutstein has trawled through sources from many countries, not all of them English-speaking, so he can give fresh perspective and fascinating insights on aspects of the Melbourne Games that we only thought we knew about. Like Chappell’s Last Stand, I really wanted to include this book in my top five books of the year, but unfortunately the descriptions of sport on the field are often laboured and simplistic, and some of the errors I recognised (all, of course, relating to Olympic records and athletic performances) eventually had me questioning the accuracy of everything.
Just one example: on page 206–207, Blutstein recalls the women’s 4x100m track relay, and how the German team, which competed as a ‘unified’ country, rather than as East and West, included West German Maria Sander-Domagala as a late replacement for her compatriot Erika Fisch. Blutstein describes Sander-Domagala as a ‘steeplechaser’, the implication being that she was a distance runner included as an act of sabotage by officials who did want the team to be made up of four East Germans. In fact, Sander-Domagala was a sprinter who won a silver medal in the relay, a bronze in the 80m hurdles and was fifth in the 100m final at the 1952 Olympics. When I saw ‘steeplechaser’, I wondered whether Blumstein’s lack of sporting understanding was letting him down, or was he gilding the lily?
I am always reticent to criticise books for factual errors, because I know — as hard as I try — that my books are not perfect. There is an element of pot-kettle-black about authors and publishers highlighting errors in other people’s work. One of Australian sport’s finest writers reviewed a book for The Weekend Australian in 2017, and in that review he complained about the book not having an index, a criticism that might have carried more weight if his acclaimed book from 2016 had included one. I remember how a cricket journal of some repute once featured a scathing book review, in which countless mistakes in a recently published book were highlighted. It might have been karma, fate or something similar that made for the first word in the first line after the review to be badly misspelt.
And then there was a Twitter exchange I saw during 2017 concerning Joe Gorman’s The Death and Life of Australian Soccer, when an online pundit tweeted indignantly: ‘Gorman's description of the Australia vs Uruguay match in Sydney in 1973 had them playing at the wrong stadium … if you know your football history, you know it was played at the SCG.’
Of course, if you know your football history, you’d know the game was played in 1974. It is true that the game was played at the Sydney Cricket Ground and not the Sydney Sports Ground as Gorman states, but I can certainly live with that error because over the course of 372 pages Gorman’s work is important and magnificent. This is not just a book about soccer, though there is plenty of that, but also about our country’s uneasy relationship with multiculturalism. Early on, Gorman leans heavily on the contribution of Andrew Dettre, a Hungarian refugee who settled in Australia after the second Great War and rarely stopped writing and dreaming about what soccer in his adopted country could be. The game’s good times and bad in the ’80s and ’90s, many of which I sort of knew about, are recalled with verve and clarity, as is the evolution of the national competition as it morphed into the A-League. How Gorman retains his optimism is, frankly, beyond me, but it’s a huge credit to him that he does so. This is not Australian soccer’s obituary but an incisive spotlight showing where it needs to go.
In my view, The Death and Life of Australian Soccer is the Australian sports book of 2017, ahead of Yellow & Black, Life of Brine, Tulloch and Unbreakable.
I read several outstanding books from overseas in 2017. The pick of them was How to Build a Car by Adrian Newey, one of the pre-eminent car designers in the history of Formula One. Like many, I’m sure, I went straight to the pages relating to the death of Ayrton Senna, which are written so adroitly and honestly that I quickly decided to start at the beginning. From that point, like Newey’s cars, I never stopped.
In most other years, I would have made Anquetil, Alone, by Paul Fournel — which was originally published in France in 2012 but was translated into English this year — my No. 1 overseas book. It’s a book like no other, eccentric, revealing and very clever, a book about hero worship almost as much as its hero, Jacques Anquetil, the five-time Tour de France winner. I also really enjoyed two high-quality football biographies: Andrew Downie’s Doctor Sócrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend and Ian Herbert’s Quite Genius: Bob Paisley, British Football’s Greatest Manager. The ‘surprise packet’ was Swell: A Waterbiography, by Jenny Landreth, which explains how women in early 20th-century England had to fight for the right to swim in public places. I confess: I bought it for my wife and daughter. Then I began reading, just to see what it was about, and was entranced.
The best book from America was Jonathan Eig’s colossal study of Muhammad Ali, which adds much to the Ali story even though there have been countless biographies and profiles produced since the legendary fighter first emerged in the late ’50s. The book has a sensational cover, my favourite of 2017, but Eig’s biggest triumph is that he paints Ali as an imperfect character, yet still heroic. The goal is not to cut the legend down, but to humanise him.
I also relished and often argued with Jay Jaffe’s The Cooperstown Casebook, an analysis of who is and isn’t in the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is surprisingly readable and deliberately provocative. I just wish that baseball’s stats gurus weren’t so smug.
There are many ways to measure greatness, not just numbers, but the ‘sabermetricians’, as baseball geeks like to call themselves, seem to think their numbers and acronyms matter so much more than traditional measuring sticks. In truth, sporting stats are like publishing sales figures — they help determine successes and failures, but they don’t always prove who or what is the best in the field.
Best Australian Sports Books of 2017
Joe Gorman: The Death and Life of Australian Soccer; University of Queensland Press
Konrad Marshall: Yellow & Black: A Season with Richmond; Slattery Media Group
Phil Jarratt: Life of Brine: A Surfer’s Journey; Hardie Grant Books
Ken Linnett: Tulloch: The Extraordinary Life and Times of a True Champion; Slattery Media Group
Jelena Dokic (with Jessica Halloran): Unbreakable; Ebury Press (Penguin Random House)
IN EARLY 1953, RICHIE BENAUD was a 22-year-old all-rounder who had just been selected for his first Ashes tour. My grandfather, Francis Edwin Armstrong, who earned a Military Cross at Bellicourt during World War I, was the president of the Parramatta RSL in western Sydney. These two great men came together at a function that preceded the tour; I have used that meeting to introduce a profile of Richie, which is published here to coincide with the 59th anniversary of Richie’s first Test as Australian captain.
On December 5–10, 1958, five-and-a-half years after Richie and my grandfather met at Parramatta RSL, Australia and England met at the Gabba in the first Test of a series that would produce one of the most stunning results in Ashes history. England had won the previous three series and went into the opening Test of 1958–59 as strong favourites, but this Australian team — featuring names such as Harvey, Davidson, Grout, McDonald, Meckiff, Burke and O’Neill — was a much more dynamic combination than those of the recent past.
None captured this new vibrancy more than Richie Benaud, who began his reign as Australian skipper by dismissing seven English batsmen as the home team won by eight wickets. It was the first of four Aussie Test wins for the summer. One of cricket history’s greatest captaincy careers had begun in devastating style …
ON THE EVE OF the Australian cricket team’s tour of England in 1953, a function was held at the Parramatta RSL to honour Richie Benaud, who at age 22 had been chosen for his first Ashes tour.
Richie was the first cricketer from Parramatta to play for Australia. The Cumberland (now Parramatta) grade club had previously provided three Test players — Gerry Hazlitt, Frank Iredale and Bill Howell — but they had learned their cricket elsewhere before joining the club as established cricketers. It is impossible to underestimate the pride the district felt in 1953 for their new hero.
‘Richie,’ said Ted Armstrong, the president of the Parramatta RSL, during one of a series of speeches and presentations, ‘you are the first local boy to gain the honour of an English tour. I hope you never lose the common touch.’
As a youth, Richie was regarded as a prodigy. One day at Parramatta High School in the early 1940s, the sports master told an assembly that Richie would not only play Test cricket for Australia, he’d probably be captain. Richie was promoted to first-grade at Cumberland in 1946, not long after his 16th birthday, and played with his father Lou, a highly respected leg-spinner and local school teacher who was his son’s inspiration. Many stories are told of Lou and Richie getting to practice early to work together, and of the pair spending hours on the makeshift pitch in the backyard of their North Parramatta home. By the time of his Test debut, at age 21, Richie had been compared to all of Arthur Morris, Archie Jackson, Keith Miller and Warwick Armstrong. In 1947, a Sydney Morning Herald sports columnist had described him as ‘the most promising youngster since Bradman’.
Yet the reality was, as Richie knew, he had much to do if he was to fulfil his undoubted promise. A pivotal moment came on that first Ashes tour, when the great Bill ‘Tiger’ O’Reilly agreed to have dinner with him. ‘What,’ Richie asked, ‘do I have to do to become a Test-class bowler?’
In essence, Tiger replied, you need a stock delivery on which you can rely. To this point, Richie had been a disciple of his father’s belief that a leg-spinner’s key weapon was variety. Keep the batsmen guessing. No two balls in an over should be the same. This new advice went against that strategy, but Richie had a good sense to listen to the master and Lou Benaud had a good sense to let his son go. Tiger warned Richie that it would take four years of hard work and dedication if he wanted his dreams to come true; Richie took this advice to heart.
Many of his famous team-mates have spoken almost in awe of his prodigious work ethic. Wally Grout wrote: ‘Richie earned this success with his sweat. He was the most enthusiastic and diligent member of the team, the first to practice and the last to leave.’ Bob Simpson remembers Richie bowling in the practice nets on the tour of South Africa in 1957–58, working with a schoolboy who would watch while Richie tried to land a dozen balls on a handkerchief positioned on a good length. Then the schoolboy would retrieve the balls and Richie would bowl them again. This went on for hours, day after day.
Landing a leg-break on a length became a habit he couldn’t break. In 1977, the great Fred Trueman recalled a charity game from 1975 when Richie was enlisted at short notice. ‘He hadn’t bowled a leg-spinner in anger since goodness-knows-when,’ Trueman said. ‘But in his first over he “dropped” all six right on the mark, and spun ’em too.’
By the end of his Test career, Richie’s economy rate as a bowler was 2.10 runs per over (calculated on all overs being of six balls). Of all wrist-spinners with 75 or more Test wickets, only one man has a superior economy rate: Bill O’Reilly (1.95 runs per over).
A little like Steve Waugh 30 years later, Richie stayed in the Australian Test team between 1952 and 1956 largely on potential. When he left England in 1956 after what for Australia had been a disappointing tour, his Test record read: 23 Tests; 755 runs at 20.97; 49 wickets at 34.44. To a degree, he had been a victim of circumstances, forced as a bowler to wait his turn behind the veterans from Bradman’s famous 1948 side: Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, Bill Johnston, Doug Ring and Ian Johnson. A watershed came in India on the way home from England in 1956, when Richie found himself bowling first change during the opening morning of the first Test at Madras. He took 7-72, and then 6-52 and 5-53 in the third Test at Calcutta, giving him 23 wickets at 16.87 for the three-match series.
The real turnaround — for Richie and his great mate Alan Davidson — came on that ’57–58 tour of South Africa. The Australians were now a young team, led by 22-year-old Ian Craig. With the Invincibles all departed, Richie was suddenly a senior player and he responded with one of the finest all-round performances ever achieved in a Test series. He took five wickets in an innings in four straight Tests. In the fourth Test at Johannesburg, with Australia leading 1–0 in the series, he hit 100 batting four and took 4–70 (coming on second change) and 5–84 (first change) to inspire a 10-wicket victory. For the series, he took 30 wickets at 21.93 and scored 329 runs at 54.83 with two centuries.
After Ian Craig was struck down by hepatitis, Richie became Australian captain and first up he stunned England in 1958–59 by leading his men to a 4–0 triumph, taking 31 wickets in the process. In eight trying Tests in Pakistan and India in 1959–60, he took 47 more as Australia won both series. Then came his massive contribution to the clash with Frank Worrell’s West Indians in 1960-61, when the two skippers resolved to show that entertaining and hard-nosed cricket could be mutually conducive. Richie took 23 wickets in the five Tests, but most important for cricket history was his decision to go for the win when Australia needed 123 with four wickets in hand at tea on the last day at the Gabba. He and Davo had the batting skill to almost get Australia home, and then came the last-over drama that ended in Test cricket’s first tie.
Richie’s second famous performance in nine months came on the last day of the fourth Test at Manchester, the Test that decided the 1961 Ashes series, when he went around the wicket to aim at the rough outside the right-handers’ pads, and took 5-12 in 25 balls to win a game most thought lost. It was after this triumph that some people said he was a ‘lucky’ captain. The truth was that he had the courage to back his players, and himself, which sometimes turned around games, even series. He himself said that successful captaincy was 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill, ‘but don’t try it without that 10 per cent’. He never lost a Test series as captain.
Richie retired in 1964 with 248 Test wickets, 2201 Test runs and 65 catches from 63 appearances. He would remain the only man to complete the 200 wickets/2000 runs/50 catches treble in Tests until Garry Sobers joined him in 1971. Most remarkably, his days as a highly influential figure in world cricket had only just begun.
Richie’s first job outside of cricket had been as a 16-year-old clerk in a chartered accountant’s office. In 1950, he took a job in the accounts department at The Sun newspaper, where he stayed six years until he approached Lindsay Clinch, the paper’s editor, about a transfer to editorial. He was offered the chance to write a sports column, but declined, saying he wanted to work on news and police rounds. This led to him working under Noel Bailey, The Sun’s legendary crime reporter. ‘The finest training of all was to trail on the coat-tails of Noel Bailey,’ Richie would say years later. ‘It was wonderful to see and hear him in action.’
Richie would go on to write for a number of newspapers across the world, most notably the News of the World in Britain and The Sun in Australia. His words would be syndicated across the cricket world. He was also a columnist for numerous magazines, wrote 10 books, and contributed to or edited many more.
His career as a broadcaster had its origins in a decision he made before the Australians left for the subcontinent in 1956. Instead of touring around the UK or Europe, Richie opted to participate in a BBC television training course in London. During that Ashes summer he had been intrigued by the work of now-celebrated TV commentators such as Henry Longhurst (golf), Dan Maskell (tennis) and Peter O’Sullevan (horse racing), and while that course didn’t immediately lead to a career in this new media, it did provide a launching pad for all that followed. ‘Many are called and surprisingly many are given the opportunity behind the microphone,’ the famous sportswriter Ian Wooldridge observed in 2005. ‘Very few have served the slogging apprenticeship that makes a master cricket commentator.’
Richie dabbled in radio commentary in 1960, when he spent the Australian winter in England, working predominantly as a journalist and sub-editor, and playing a little cricket, including a series of televised one-day matches. His first TV commentary experience came in England in 1963. He would work with the BBC (1963–1997) and Channel 4 (1999–2005) in the UK, while in Australia he did some stints with Seven and then Ten when those commercial channels briefly covered Test cricket, before joining the Nine Network for World Series Cricket in 1977.
He became a cricket constant during Australian and English summers, a hugely respected and admired figure. He never lived in the past and always preferred to praise rather than criticise. His involvement as a consultant and commentator in WSC, controversial at the time, added to his reputation. A players’ rights man from first to last, Richie backed Kerry Packer’s cricket revolution because he truly believed in it. The credibility his support gave the new venture was priceless.
In return, Nine gave Richie a literal lifetime contract. ‘We never had a cross word,’ remembered James Packer on Richie’s death in April 2015. ‘His word was his bond.’
‘He never quibbled about money or asked for pay rises,’ recalled Nine’s current CEO David Gyngell. ‘He had no manager and arranged his own business. Agreements were reached on a simple handshake.’
Richie was an exceptional cricketer, a great captain and the greatest commentator. He mixed with the sporting and media elite, and with royalty and prime ministers. For 40 years, he and Daphne lived in summer all year long, at Coogee, in London and from 1992 in the south of France. He was positively and profitably mimicked by satirists and supporters, and like Dawn, Betty and The Don, his first name brought instant recognition. Yet, for all this, he still managed — as Ted Armstrong asked of him at Parramatta RSL in 1953, to retain the ‘common touch’.
The result is that the adjective that best captures Richie Benaud and the impact he had on people over more than 60 years goes beyond his cricket and his commentary, as brilliant as they undoubtedly were. For everyone — family, friends and fans — he was ‘much-loved’. We will never see his like again.
‘WE CAN’T BE SURE what causes these things,’ Bob Honan says. ‘But the evidence is mounting.’
Honan, a rugby league star for South Sydney and Australia in the late 1960s and early ’70s, is talking about the likelihood of a link between collision sports, concussions and subsequent, serious health problems, including dementia. It is an issue that has become almost perennial in most football codes, highlighted this week by the cases of Corey Oates, the Brisbane winger who was brutally knocked out in a game but was then cleared to play the following week, and Aaron Hernandez, the former NFL star who was convicted of murder in 2013. Hernandez suicided in jail; it is now being claimed that he was fighting a severe case of the brain disease CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
The matter is analysed in some detail in The Great Grand Final Heist, Ian Heads’ story of the 1969 rugby league grand final. In the book, Carol Provan remembers her late husband Peter, Balmain’s winning captain in ’69. Peter Provan died in 2010 …
‘The game was tense until Syd Williams scored. Peter threw the second-last pass before Terry Parker put Syd over, and after he had passed it, John Sattler caught Peter with a stiff-arm tackle, high and late. Peter was left unconscious, but recovered; back in those days players just carried on.
‘It was serious, though. He dulled the pain with some after-match celebrating, and they told me to keep an eye on him. So I stayed up through the night watching over him, just to make sure he was all right.
‘After the long night, I had to take Peter to the doctor next day to get the fluid drained from his ear. He ended up with a “cauliflower” from that tackle. But he had won a premiership, and placed alongside Norm’s record I think it is the only time two brothers have been captain of premiership winning sides, and for different clubs.
‘Peter spent the last four years of his life in a nursing home, suffering from dementia, and died in 2010. The Balmain boys remained close through that time. Every reunion day, they would travel to the nursing home, just to be with him. Peter was a much-respected captain.
‘The football was very tough back then. Getting knocked out was not exactly rare, and concussion was not treated with the caution it is today. I don’t know how that all affected Peter … but you wonder.’
IN THIS EXTRACT FROM The Great Grand Final Heist, Heads focuses on the cases of two of the stars of ’69: Souths' Gary Stevens (pictured at the top of this story, being tackled by Balmain's Arthur Beetson during the 1969 major semi-final) and Balmain’s Keith Outten …
FOR THE SAKE OF this story, it would be a fairytale ending to report that all the remaining Boys of Winter 1969 are ‘goin’ strong’, as Jack Gibson might have put it. But that would not be the truth of it. At a time when the media, and the game itself, are intensely and rightly focused on head knocks and the damage done, the fact is a number of players from both sides are wearing the badge of having been involved at a high level in what has been fairly called ‘the toughest of all ball games’ … and having played it at a time when fists and elbows and stiff-arm tackles flew with weekly certainty. Some have paid a very high price.
A duty-of-care now sits squarely on the shoulders of the clubs that employ footballers; and it is a responsibility shared by those who run the game. Fortunately, the NRL and club medicos around rugby league are addressing this ongoing challenge with the utmost seriousness. At the elite level, all the major football codes in Australia have made significant changes to their protocols in line with the consensus reached at a major international conference on head injuries, held in Zurich in 2012. At the same time, the players of past eras wake almost daily to news of famous players from their time who are ‘doing it tough’ because of health problems that might be linked to their days in football.
Bob Honan, the quick-stepping, elusive Souths and Australian centre of the late ’60s and early ’70s, holds painful memories of 1969:
‘I believe the events of the semi-final against Balmain played a bigger part in our defeat [in the grand final] than a lot of people thought. I, for one, was still suffering the effects of a concussion from a head-hit that Artie Beetson gave me. For the rest of that game, I didn’t even know where I was and a week later I still wasn’t 100 per cent.
‘I shouldn’t have played that grand final. Artie flattened me with a high tackle just before halftime, and when I got to the dressing-room I was out of it. I remember asking Mike Cleary where I was. He said, “Mate, we were in Central Park having a jog, and you ran into a tree.”
‘I genuinely didn’t know what was happening. With two weeks to the grand final, I was pretty thoroughly checked out, scans and all. Almost unanimously, I was told I shouldn’t play. But it was my decision, and in those days you were considered a bit soft if you let something like concussion stop you. So I played, and while I felt I did all right, I probably wasn’t at my best.’
The Men of League Foundation was founded in 2002 to support members of the rugby league community who have fallen on hard times. Today, it boasts more than 26,000 members and provides tangible support to players, coaches, referees, officials and administrators from all levels of the game and from the broader rugby league community. As Bob Honan acknowledges, the work of Men of League has played a part in highlighting the problems of many former players:
‘The issue of playing in such circumstances is more relevant among my peers today than it was back then. Working these days with Men of League, we are running into many old players who have dementia. It is the same in the United States, where traumatic concussion syndrome has been blamed for a lot of problems and some deaths among former American footballers. There is a lot of litigation going on there as a result.’
Honan laments the days when less was known about head injuries and concussion, and consequently players were not protected as they should have been. He urges more action from League headquarters on the issue, telling of a prominent footballer who played more than 150 first-grade games and is now suffering traumatic concussion syndrome. He is 46. ‘We can’t be sure what causes these things,’ Honan says. ‘But the evidence is mounting.’ Sometimes he despairs, and wonders if litigation is the only way to get some attention.
Some of the tales told publicly of players from the past who are now struggling to varying degrees involve famous and popular footballers — names such as Graeme Langlands, Ian Roberts and Mario Fenech. There are plenty of others. In a television interview in 2017, former Test prop Roberts revealed he was suffering from brain damage and estimated that on average during his playing career he copped a heavy knock every two weeks. Roberts declared he had been knocked out six times during his career and talked of the ‘wet sponge treatment’ and a ‘dab on the face’ for head injuries suffered during the games of his era.
Apart from the prominent players who have spoken out about their post-football problems, those close to the game know today of a shadowy accompanying list that includes a significant number of men, and some of them near famous, too, who are suffering health issues that are most likely, though not always certainly, linked to rugby league careers dating back years. In some cases, no doubt, other age-related factors are at play. But too often, when discussing the frailties of old footballers, past concussions are mentioned. The lessons of the American football experience are relevant here, too, illuminated as they have been in some superbly researched stories, documentaries and the 2015 film Concussion.
‘We were like boxers in those days,’ says Syd Williams, the man who scored the only try of the ’69 grand final. ‘You would cop a very heavy head knock and you’d just go straight back on. There were none of the precautions of today about things like concussion, and there were plenty of high tackles. I am sure a lot of people are suffering today because of all that.’
THERE IS NO INTENTION in this chapter marking fulltime in the story of The Great Grand Final Heist to provide a clinical profile of those players from the Balmain and Souths ‘Class of ’69’ who are waging health battles. Suffice to say that some are struggling, and that at times in the making of this book, Norm Tasker and I were politely advised that it was ‘probably not worthwhile’ troubling this player or that because of their poor health or memory problems. We found the terms ‘early dementia’ and ‘memory loss’ cropping up too often, and heard sad stories of once outstanding athletes leading diminished lives, living in small rooms at the backs of houses, their lives and physical health a shadow of what once had been.
The examples of two admirable players from 1969 — Souths’ Gary Stevens and Balmain’s Keith Outten — capture the problems of a few more. Gary sat on the Souths bench on grand final day, while Chicka kept an extremely close eye on Denis Pittard.
Their specialty was bruising defence.
The Stevens story, while sad, inspires because of his stoicism, his attitude that ‘this thing’ will not beat him. On a dedicated and rigorous daily fitness program of long walks allied with workouts in his home gym, Gary, with strong family support, makes his life as good as it can be. At age 73, he looks good, weighing in today at 74kg, the same mark as when he was playing. ‘I’m all right,’ he says with a smile. ‘I’m still getting up every morning! And I’m not in any pain. It’s just my short-term memory. Ask me what I did five minutes ago and I couldn’t tell you.’
Gary has football memories that have stayed the course, and in his genial way he shares them. His sense of humour remains and he chuckles as he recounts of ’69, ‘We beat Balmain twice that year and I was in the team both times. The big one I missed was the grand final — and we got beaten!’
Stevens was a man who played a hard game very hard, notably through his high-impact power-tackling delivered via a brilliantly effective technique. He was a devastating fronton tackler for Souths, Canterbury, New South Wales and Australia, but today he is paying a price that is too high. At the epicentre of his story is a terrible blow he took from the giant Welsh forward Jim Mills during the second Ashes Test of 1974 at the SCG, a blow which poleaxed him. His older brother Wayne paints a graphic image: ‘It was a bad one. When they picked him up that day, he had swallowed his tongue, and it was black.’ Gary Stevens, of course, continued playing in the match. It was the way with football then.
Hooker and champion goalkicker John Gray, playing for Britain that afternoon, remembers the moment: ‘Jim Mills gave Stevens a helluva clout. He was gaga … absolutely shot.’ Referee Keith Page allowed the tackle to go without caution. In the Sun-Herald the next day, former Test referee Col Pearce wrote, ‘Australian second-rower Gary Stevens was knocked cold early in the match and never quite seemed to be his normal self.’
The Mills tackle lit the fuse for a monumental blow-up between the packs. Gray remembers, ‘The scrum formed, we were five metres apart and then we came together in a tremendous collision.’ It was, Gray reflects, ‘a massively tough game’. Stevens would play for Souths the following day and in the deciding Test a fortnight after his clash with Mills. Years later, he was diagnosed with a shadow on his frontal lobe.
Wayne Stevens’ view is that the source of his brother’s health problems is not one hit, but the cumulative effect of the way Gary played rugby league and the fact that he was playing a game that is, by its nature, explosive. He adds the thought, ‘It seems to be the forwards who have the problems now, the blokes who were around the “hard stuff”.’ On his brother, and his fight to stay on top of things, Wayne says, ‘I think he’d still play for them [Souths] today!’
Balmain’s livewire fullback of 1969, Bob Smithies, retains some hard memories of the way football was ‘back then’:
‘I remember Mick Alchin trying to knock my head off in the first trial that season, and Bill Noonan doing the same to Artie Beetson. I spent a week in hospital around that time after getting knocked out. They thought I had fractured my skull. I can’t remember the game or the tackle. The thing I do remember is Kevin Humphreys bringing me a lobster mornay lunch in hospital.
‘One of the worst I recall was a match at the Sports Ground against North Sydney, when Davey Bolton was badly knocked out. His nose was broken, and he needed about 15 stitches in his mouth as well. It happened too much to Davey and he is struggling today. It was par for the course then. It happened all the time.’
It happened to Chicka Outten. In a newspaper interview in 2012, Chicka reflected on the fierceness of his battles with Souths’ Denis Pittard, saying, ‘Pittard and I would go at each other. He’d try to rip my head off, then I’d try to do the same to him.’ Chicka won that battle on grand final day, and became a Tigers hero. Sadly for a man who was once adept at sharing stories, he is now struggling with encroaching dementia and memory loss, but the care he receives from good men such as his one-time clubmate Peter Duffy smooths the path for him. Duffy, a Balmain halfback from 1973 to 1980, is such a Tigers loyalist and tireless worker for the club that the great Balmain second-rower Paul Sironen says of him, ‘Duff loves the Tigers so much he bleeds black and gold when he nicks himself shaving.’ Duffy unveils a tale his good mate once told him about an onfield exchange that occurred just before kickoff in the ’69 grand final, when Chicka threw out a challenge to Souths’ feared iron men, John Sattler and John O’Neill.
‘Don’t run away from me,’ Chicka said. ‘Run at me. You won’t get through!’
It’s a story that says a lot about the spirit and toughness of Keith Outten, and it magnifies the sadness around the state of his health today. For his birthday in 2016, Duffy organised for a group of old football mates to take him out. ‘In five hours, Chicka didn’t speak more than a couple of words,’ he says. ‘But he seemed happy.’
At a gathering in 2009 during the NRL’s Heritage Week, 40 years on from the Balmain premiership win, Chicka was in good enough form to handle a few media questions, and recall his army experience in the 1960s, saying, ‘I never got to fire a gun the whole time I was in nashos, nor did I see any action in Vietnam.’ Instead, he was a driver stationed at the School of Artillery at Sydney’s North Head, and kept fit by playing rugby union. He ended up playing eight years of first grade in the Sydney premiership — five for Balmain (1968–1971, 1975) and three for Norths (1972–1974) — before heading to the bush, coaching at Dubbo CYMS and Yanco-Wamoon in the Riverina. He finally hung up his boots after captaining Yanco-Wamoon to the Group 20 premiership in 1979. Another member of that side, a young front-row tearaway named Kerry Hemsley, moved to Balmain in 1980 on Chicka’s recommendation and stayed at Leichhardt for nearly a decade, appearing in the 1988 grand final.
KEITH PAGE WAS THE referee in charge of the 1969 grand final, the first of three grand finals he would control between 1969 and 1973. A controversial figure, Page’s career is profiled in depth by author Ian Heads in The Great Grand Final Heist.
‘In my experience as a league journalist, I found Page a difficult man to pin down,’ Heads writes. ‘I can recall only occasional brief exchanges with him at the door of the match officials’ dressing-room.’
During his research for the book, Heads found one rare insight into Page’s makeup: a story by Frank Goss that appeared in the November 1970 issue of Rugby League World. ‘Page weighs his words carefully before he says anything,’ Goss told his readers. ‘[He is] a fairly quiet, even introspective man
At one point, Goss reminded Page that critics had branded him as ‘everything from short-tempered to arrogant’. ‘I’m determined,’ the referee replied. ‘If I had to sum it up in a word, that’s what I would say.’
Rugby league in Australia was a different game in 1969, not least in the way it was adjudicated by the men in white. Keith Page went on to comment on several subjects relating to refereeing, including the following:
The rules: ‘[They] are in the book and I try to play them as they are stated in the book. In a lot of cases, the interpretation of these rules is a matter of the referee’s personality. But I play them as I see them. Once you start letting breaches go, the game can get out of hand. For instance, you might let a little punch-up go; it might not mean very much at the time. But it could develop into a bigger punch-up.’
Crowds: ‘[I] never give them a thought. If your mind starts wondering about things other than the game then you can’t do your job properly. My thoughts are not concerned with what the crowd wants, but with adjudicating the game. The rules are in the book and I try to play them as they are stated. I can only hope that the public gets its entertainment from the standard of play, not from the standard of refereeing.’
Repeat offenders: ‘It’s so wrong for a player to do this because it is so unfair to his teammates. You must accept that a player is going to try to put it over you. But if he’s caught trying to do this, you at least expect to find him trying to vary his tactics next time.’
Criticism: ‘You read this criticism and you try to think to yourself where you have gone wrong. But, honestly, I can’t see what I’m doing wrong. All I am doing is playing by the rules.’
Praise: ‘If you go into refereeing expecting to get pats on the back then you are going to be very badly disappointed. You are told when you go into refereeing that you won’t get as much out of it as you put in.’
Improving the game: ‘I never give it a thought. That’s not my job. That’s up to the men who run the game. My job is to adjudicate.’