Go with grace

Father and son

A rumour went around yesterday morning that Jobe Watson, captain of Essendon Football Club, was about to announce his retirement from the game. It was on the cards. He’s 32, it’s been a tough few years, and his form is not what it used to be. I felt a slight quavering though when I hear the news: I didn’t want him to go. A couple of hours later he confirmed the rumour with all his usual grace, class and Watson wit.

No matter what sport you follow you have your favourites. I’ve been following Essendon all my life. I’ve seen a lot of great players come and go. I feel a great affection for many of them, champions and characters of the game, the guys you’d turn up to watch and cheer on as they strutted their stuff. Most of them were very good players at least, and a lot of them big personalities as well. Terry Daniher say, or Simon Madden; Vander and Bomba; Lucas and Lloyd, not to mention Wanganeen, Longy, and Harvs, and all those others I’ve celebrated over the years.

You love them all, but there’s some you just love a little more than the rest.

I remember when I was a kid I idolised Graham Moss. I remember writing a letter to the big ruckman after winning his Brownlow asking him to stay. He didn’t, but I’ve never forgotten Mossy.

Later on I would watch Merv Neagle, taken not just by his dashing play, but by his good looks and insouciant aggression. When James Hird came along I was one of the many thousands who thought he was a golden haired wonder, incapable of vice or misstep, and an absolute legend on the field.

One of my favourites in his playing days was Tim Watson. He captured the imagination of a lot of us. Not only was he a child prodigy, he was an intoxicating mix of skill, power and pace, like Dangerfield, only better. He was a great player for many years and starred in a lot of big wins.

Later on he went into the media where his good looks, intelligence and sense of humour found him many more fans. I listen to him still today and can’t think of a better role model than him – a decent, funny, charismatic man of great personal integrity.

Of course he is the father of Jobe, who shares many of his attributes.

Jobe followed his father into the game about 10 years after Tim left it. He struggled at first, but eventually became the captain of the club, as his father had been, and a champion too, just as his dad – and won the Brownlow medal that always eluded Tim.

I was pre-disposed to love Jobe. He was the son of a much loved legend and I so wanted him to be a chip off the old block. As it happened he became quite a different player from his father. Where Tim was dynamic Jobe was relentless. Tim could turn a game in a quarter of brilliant football, whereas Jobe would construct a match winning effort over the course of the game. Tim was dash and verve; Jobe was insight and deft touches. Both are greats of the club.

I have great admiration for Jobe Watson the player. He was a very good player for a lot of years, and a great player for about four of them. When he won his Brownlow it was by a clear margin in a year when he polled votes in 12 of the first 13 games. Unfortunately his Brownlow became the Brownlow of the players who trailed him by 4 votes in that year – but that’s another story I don’t intend to dwell in.

Most of all I love Jobe Watson for the man he is. It’s common these days for supporters of many clubs to have admiration, even affection, for Jobe, and that’s because of his class and character. Unfortunately for him, and for us who followed him, that class has been on display too often because of the dreadful circumstances the club found itself mired in. It’s too well documented, and I’m not going to add to it now, except to say that Jobe gained a lot of admirers for his grace and dignity and fortitude in the most trying of circumstances. Among other things he proved himself a great leader through that time, as the testament of his teammates so well affirms.

It’s unfortunate that his career came to that. Some of the best years of his footballing life were directly shadowed by the events of the saga, ultimately leading to a year out of the game. I’m glad he returned to the game, but it’s not a story he can escape.

He spoke eloquently yesterday. Footballers get marked hard sometimes. Jobe has always been an articulate, sensitive and insightful character. He brought that yesterday, together with the wit he inherited from his father. I can’t imagine him gone, and don’t want him gone, but I understand.

For me Jobe is not just a great footballer, he is a man of integrity and character, worthy of admiration as a human being. He’s been made well, the product of good education, affection and love. The Watson’s, for mine, are an almost ideal notion of what a family should be. They are all good people.

So in a few more games, and hopefully more than a few, Jobe will grace the field before he leaves it together. The fairy-tale finish would be a premiership, and I’m barracking hard for that, but regardless he leaves the game on his own terms and to a new life – to New York, and beyond. There’s few people I could more sincerely wish great luck to. I hope he finds all he hopes for, and all he deserves.

The best footy player you hardly ever heard of

Turned on the TV last night and caught an interview with one of my favourite footballers from back in the day.

Leon Baker was not only a great player, but also an enigmatic character, which greatly added to his appeal. He arrived at the club in 1984 as a mature age recruit – 27 – and made an immediate impact as a skilful, precise and elusive centreman. He made All-Australian that year, but is better remembered for kicking the first goal of the last quarter in the grand final against Hawthorn, and the goal that put us ahead. He danced a little jig at that point knowing that we were on the way to victory. We kicked 9.6 in that quarter (a record till the following year, when we kicked 11.3) to come from 4 goals down to win by the same amount. It was one of the great premiership quarters.

Baker was instrumental in that win, and was in our success the following year, when we dominated the competition. He was such a clean, clever footballer, and devastating on his day. To Essendon supporters of the day he’s a favourite because he was so good, and rated higher by us I think than by followers by other clubs. There’s always players like that, players that you know the value of watching every week that opposition supporters don’t appreciate. Baker is one of the best players I’ve seen at Essendon, which is a big statement because there have been some great one’s in my time.

I reckon Baker would be in the top 10. The top 3 would be Hird, Madden and Tim Watson. The rest get mixed up after that, but there are some great names – Terry and Neale Daniher, Matthew Lloyd, Michael Long, Paul Van der Haar, Mercuri, Bomba Thompson, Jobe, Lucas, Salmon, Wanganeed, Misiti, and so on. Baker sits easily in their company.

What makes him different is that he was not the run of the mill VFL/AFL character. He was a bit of a drifter, a shy, quiet type who went from one place to another seeking out experience before and since his footy career. He would fly out with his partner in the off-season to see the world with a back-pack on his back. As a footballer you’d describe him as a journeyman, but right off the top shelf. As an individual there was something bohemian about him. By all accounts he’s led a full life, and in my mind at least it adds to his lustre.

He might be the best player you don’t know about – unless you were a Bomber supporter through the eighties. He only played 86 games, but they were all quality.


Royal blood

Many years ago it seems now, I used to go to the footy and watch a stellar collection of players represent the team I barrack for, Essendon. In the the eighties they were a great team that enjoyed much success. I was there every step of the way, from the outer at Windy Hill to the grandeur of the MCG. I roared and cheered and cursed and lived by the fortunes of the team. I had a lot of favourite players, but my favourite probably was Tim Watson.

In a team chock-full of legendary players Tim – or Timmy – Watson was probably the most popular of all. He made his debut in 1977 when he was just 15, the second youngest on record. He was a dynamic player even then, big and strong for his age, a mop of floppy air, with the dash and exuberance of a kid who doesn’t know any different. He captured the imagination of supporters of all clubs. Over time he developed into one of the best players in the competition. His was a rare, but prized combination of gifts. He was big, but he was also quick. Anyone quick enough to catch him – and there were few – weren’t strong enough to hold him; those strong enough to stop him had no chance of catching him. He was skilled and fearless and charismatic. He was exciting to watch, capable of breaking a game open within a few minutes of dynamic play, and features in many iconic moments of the club. He grew into a good looking man, articulate, and a natural leader who eventually became captain.

In a team of truly great players – some all-time greats – he was close to the best, if not the best: Simon Madden was pretty good too. Like a lot of great careers his had a narrative swoop – a knee injury took him off the ground for over a year, only to return even better. He retired after the disappointment of 1990, then made a comeback as in the fairy-tales, to play in the 1993 premiership. He won 4 B&F’s, an AFL players award for the best player in the comp (1989), a few media awards along the way, and played in three premierships. He even won a father of the year award back in 1993 – how apt that seems now. Now he is a media figure, affable, articulate, and the father of Jobe Watson.

It’s that last label which may now stick longest, for last night Jobe did was his father was never able to do: he won the Brownlow medal for the best player in the league.

Jobe is a very different player to his dad. He shares his size – about 190cm – but has none of his father’s raw power or speed. His gifts are much less obvious, and have been honed by hard work rather than being gifted to him. His success is the product of character, as much as it is of soft hands and a quick mind. He has been a very good player for a number of years now, and captain of the club for the last few. He is an outstanding man as well as player, a leader voted best in the comp by his peers, and steadfast in the face of the greatest challenges. This medal is just reward for that.

It was no surprise that he won last night. Watching the season unfold it looked like he had a grip on it from very early on. I think he has a lot more ahead of him, though I’m still not convinced that he is better than his dad. I might change my mind in a year or two.

It’s always strange to watch the offspring of great sportsmen take the field. Many fail, but a surprising amount become champions in their own right. As a supporter you feel a sense of kinship different from the other players in the team, as if you are watching club royalty. Jobe was born to it, the son of a club legend who spent many of his childhood years playing around the club. You watch a player like him come on the scene and you think, well I remember his dad. There is that automatic attachment.

While Jobe might play different from his dad, it’s clear that he is his father’s son. Jobe is very different from the stereotypical boofhead AFL footballer (eg last years winner, Dane Swan). He is articulate, thoughtful, intelligent, humble without being false, a thoroughly decent person. It’s a credit to his family, to whom he is openly grateful and affectionate. It’s almost inspiring to see that, simple as it might seem. I watched last night as Jobe responded in his calm and sincere way to the questions put to him, and the open and unaffected way that he answered, the big, kind eyes. In the audience Tim looked on, looking very proud, and his wife – Jobe’s mum – Suzie beside him, one of the great partnerships it seems.

What a loving and supportive family, I thought. What a great example. How lucky we are to have someone like this win the medal, and what a great role-model he is.

I have in my collection of football memorabilia a VHS tape with the highlights of Tim Watson’s career. There’s an interview with Tim that must be from the early nineties, with a very young Jobe by his side. Tim was affable and easygoing, Jobe cute and clearly adored his dad. Strange to think that 20 years on it’s now Jobe who has the spotlight, and a great win it is, not just for Essendon, or football, but for decent values.

Son of Tim

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 21: Jobe Wats...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

It’s the footy off-season, committed footy-heads scour the newspapers for news of their club. They contribute to online forums, debate draft picks and the direction the club is taking, and some pop along to pre-season training. Being Melbourne there is always some footy news, but being summer it is also cricket season and so the other great Australian sport has the upper hand for the moment.

I love my cricket, but like it or not I am also a footy head. Following a football team of any code anywhere in the world is all about hope. You dream you fantasise, you rant and rave and one day you may actually see your dreams come true. In a local AFL competition of 16 teams winning the top prize is a tough gig, but that never stops anyone from hankering after it. Whether in season or out of it to follow a footy team is all about the perpetual striving to improve even by the most minute of degrees, and everyone has an opinion. Like day following night, this is something that will never end.

I’m more fortunate than most. Being a partisan supporter I like to claim my team – Essendon – is the greatest in the competition. In all reality and based on results alone there is some justification for that, with few to rival us and none with a better record. In that 16 team competition it’s nice to be winning ahead of the curve to keep you happy and give some spine to your hope – we average a flag about every 7 years. Pity the supporters of those clubs who have won no more than one or two over the journey, and who persist. The epitome of the footy fan I guess, though perhaps the triumph of indomitable hope over wretched experience.

In my world greatness is not just about success. Sure, the raison d’être to compete in any sporting competition is to win, but it’s a bit sad when that is all there is. I dare say those supporters of the less successful clubs are sustained by a belief in the club and what it stands for as much as any hope of success. There’s a difference between winning well and winning badly after all, and inequities in opportunity that in many competitions tilt the table unfairly to the benefit of a few against the many, but to maintain the faith and to continue to strive regardless of odds brings out the best in us.

I’m proud of my club in ways that go beyond the barnstorming success I have witnessed. I’m very privileged to have seen that, but I’m proud in another way. We’re a club feared by most opponents and hated by many fans, largely on the back of our success. That’s water off a ducks back. I’ve followed them all my life and been a close supporter for the last 30 years. I’ve been thrilled by the way we’ve played, and watched some superstars take the field in the red and black of Essendon’s colours.

One of the greats was Tim Watson. He was a champion footballer who played over 300 games, played in three premierships and captained the club. He was foremost in a team of champion players, and a champion person on top of that. One of his claims to fame was that he was just about the youngest player to ever make a debut for an AFL club – just 15 when he took the field. Timmy Watson as he was known grew into a truly formidable footballer, 6’2” of dynamic muscle, too quick for anyone big enough to stop him, too strong for anyone quick enough to catch him. Back in the day he was my favourite footballer, and not just because he was so great. He became a good looking, charming man, intelligent and with a sharp, clever wit and the personal charisma you hope for from a club leader. He became a legend of the club and in some way another personification of it.

I’m a great believer that while an organisation is made of the people who constitute it, the great organisations put their stamp on the people who represent it. Club culture is a term bandied around pretty widely, but it’s hard to dispute that it is real. Just this morning there are news reports of a couple of Carlton players getting in a brawl at Crown Casino, the latest in a long litany of misconduct by Carlton players. That’s a great club gone off the rails, a club culture that has gone sour because too much was let go by weak leadership. They have lost their way.

That’s a risk any organisation faces, but I tend to think it is less likely at a club like Essendon. We’ve had flamboyant coaches and players, but the club as a whole has been progressively conservative. By that I mean we’ve been at the forefront of many advances – a pioneer with indigenous footballers, the first club to have a woman on the board, and generally going its own way, but quietly. You’d like to think as a footy team that there is a certain level of arrogance, and certainly our supporters are often described thus. Not the club though. Throughout my history of support the club has been prudently and confidently led, and let the results on the field speak for themselves.

And so players come into this environment and become Essendon. Our leaders have epitomised those qualities – brilliant, confident, intelligent and always humble: Watson, Thompson, O’Donnell, Hird, Lloyd – and now the son of Tim, Jobe Watson, as of yesterday.

In many ways Jobe is very much like his father. He’s not nearly a dynamic a footballer as his dad, but he has the same down to earth decency about him. Since coming into the team in his father’s shadow he has quietly carved his own niche, and found his own game – that of the ball winner and distributor in the middle, the heartbeat of the team. Not for him the barnstorming runs and spectacular goals of his dad, rather he is the steady accumulator and shrewd disposer of the ball. He’ll win games for us, but unobtrusively almost.

Like his dad Jobe speaks well with a natural humility and self-deprecating humour. You sense about him a real gentleness which is very manly. He is the type who commands respect in his person without demanding, or even expecting it. He is who he is. Clearly he is good people, come from a good family. It’s an appointment I applaud not just because he is a good player becoming great, but because he has the personal qualities I see representative of the club, and by his example I think he can inspire those coming into the club and take them top again – where we belong.

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