Last night Kevin Sheedy was finally announced as a legend of the AFL. It’s hard to imagine anyone more worthy than him. He’s had a continuous involvement with the game since the mid-sixties, when he began playing for Richmond. He was a battler who became a star, first in the back pocket, then as a ruck-rover. By the end of his playing career he was rated so highly that he was ultimately named in Richmond’s team of the century.
That was only the start for Sheeds, and the much greater part of his football career lay ahead of him.
In 1981, not long out of the game, he was appointed as coach of Essendon Football Club. Essendon was one of the great clubs of the league, but had become conservative and mediocre. I remember because I sat in the stand most Saturdays and watched them take the field. There were some good wins in the seventies and promising moments, though nothing came of them. There were also some great players, and some who came in young who were destined to become greats.
Sheeds came at the right time. He was hungry and ambitious and full of ideas and energy. He was determined to shake up a club that had slumped into a stupor. It was a young team with a bunch of players who looked good on the outside, but had yet to grasp the essential physical elements of the game. They played pretty, but not hard.
I remember that season very well. It was one of the most exciting years of football I can remember. We played well early, but lost a bunch of close games until six games in we were 1 – 6. Sheedy threatened to pull on the boots and take the field, and no-one was certain that he wasn’t serious.
The next game we won, and the game after was against Collingwood at VFL park. I remember the game vividly. There was a big crowd and Collingwood went in as hot favourites, but we blew them away right from the first bounce. The footy was exhilarating, but no wonder given so many of the young players taking the field that day would become stars of the game – Tim Watson, Terry and Neale Daniher, Paul Van der Haar, Simon Madden, Merv Neagle, Glen Hawker, and so on.
That win was the second in a sequence of 15 wins in a row, and many of the wins memorable. We made a habit of coming from behind and snatching an unlikely win. A few times it looked like the run might be broken, but every time Sheeds would pull a rabbit out of the hat.
Perhaps the most memorable, and certainly the most famous of those victories were against Carlton at Princes Park. Carlton were the reigning premiers, and would go on to make it back to back. On that day they led by 4 goals with 20 minutes gone in the final quarter. Sheeds threw Neale Daniher forward and it was the matchwinning move. Playing against one of the greatest defenders ever, Bruce Doull, Daniher set-up goals and kicked them himself after strong marks. When the siren blew we’d won a famous victory (I wasn’t there that day, but remember listening to the last minutes sitting in a hot bath).
We were the hot team that year, but a slow-start and a final 5 left us behind the eight-ball. A loss, finally, in the last round left us vulnerable, and then we lost to Fitzroy in the elimination final.
That was the start of Sheedy’s reign, which was to go on for 27 years. In that time there was no-one more creative or innovative, he was the biggest personality, the most extravagant thinker, a visionary, and a coach touched by genius. At times it would backfire, but many more times his inspiration led to great victories – none more so than the 1984 grand final when a 24 point ¾ time deficit became a 24 point victory (a great victory, and one of my favourite ever games).
He made Essendon relevant again, and in time a powerhouse on and off the field. He made Essendon the club it is today, and along the way brought great success – the 1984 premiership, followed by 1985 (the best team I’ve ever seen), the unlikely and exhilarating premiership of 1993, and the inevitable victory of the 2000 invincibles (the second best team I’ve seen – they lost one game out of 25).
Sheedy is the father of the Anzac day game, and Dreamtime at the ‘G (once more this Saturday), as well as the Country game. He went to Sydney and became the first coach of GWS, evangelising the game. He remains ever present, and back at Essendon, where he belongs.
Curious to think there were some who resisted this recognition. There are few people in the history of the game who have had such a profound influence – the only rival to him I can think of is Ron Barassi. Yet there were some, like Tim Lane ( a noted pretentious tosser), who were up at arms at the thought of it. I can only think it’s because for all his geniality he was a tough footballer and occasionally an outspoken commentator.
But guess what – who gives a fuck what the inconsequential think? It may be overdue, but now, finally, Sheeds is recognised for his unequalled contribution to the great game. Well done Sheeds, no greater legend than you.