7 June 2018, Members Dining Room, MCC, Jolimont, Melbourne, Australia
So many things we love about our game have very little to do with the game itself. Perhaps like many of you in the room tonight, when I think about my love of the game, my imagination doesn’t run straight to the high marking forwards or the bone crunching tackles. My thoughts go to the taste of jam donuts and the smell of jasmine in early Spring.
My ambition was flamed watching football as a little kid in the outer and the reward for sitting through the entire game was a hot jam donut as the family began the search for the car in a sea of Commodores stretched out to the horizon. The donuts, as delicious as they were, were more than just a sugary treat. When I think back on those days now, they symbolise an optimism. “Maybe I could play in the big leagues one day...”
The exact moment when Spring hits is not always easy to judge, but for footballers it’s easy. That first whiff of jasmine in the air will tell you everything about where your season is at. If it’s been a good year, the jasmine lets you know that it’s finals time, potential glory reveals itself to you. If it’s been a bad year, the floral perfume is like a swift kick to the bollocks. There will be no big dance for you and your clan.
I was at a country wedding not so long ago and an hour before the ceremony, around the side of the farmhouse I came across one of the groomsman cleaning his R.M.Williams boots with Dubbin and a tattered rag. It moved me, to the point of tears. It reminded me of my Dad. He used to clean my footy boots with Dubbin and cloth before game of junior football I ever played.
Dad had three pieces of advice when it came to my football.
1. Hold your chest marks.
2. Man up
3. Kick with both feet.
In life, I have only one rule and I will break it tonight. DO NOT make a speech on the same night Martin Flanagan makes a speech. This is a bit like a rap battle between two pacifist, lefty, football romantics with a weakness for Van Morrison records.
I’ve got a book coming out next month, for those of you who don’t know. It’s called Leather Soul.
The theory was put to me when I was writing it that the overarching theme of the book would only emerge once it was almost complete, and I now believe that to be true. Looking back over the pages I see many arcs. A bit like chopping down a gum tree to find the rings in the timber. Spheres of time. Innocence arching all the way around to experience. A few knots of imperfection for good measure.
I’m about to turn 36 and my life can be easily split in two. The innocent, sensitive kid and the professional footballer. A couple of things have emerged out of this literary pursuit, for me anyway. One of them is the result of two opposing forces smashing into one another. My childhood was almost bereft of strict rules and schedules. As a school kid, my only real practical use for time and a clock was the understanding that I had to leave the house when the microwave read 8:21am. If I walked out the door at precisely that time, I would meet my school bus as it rounded the bend. A minute later and I would have to walk all the way to school and risk being late.
I was, in some ways, quite bohemian for a teenage boy in a conservative country town with a bowl cut hair do. I was free. I went from that straight into the cut-throat system of a professional football club. Rules, uniforms, routine and then more rules. It was a shock to the system. Professional football clubs can feel like the army in more colourful uniforms. I took a while to find some breathing space in its confines.
If my childhood and upbringing were easy, my football career was anything but. Every team, every player in the league is always trying to prove a point, and I suppose I was trying to prove that I could endure. Was I tough enough? Playing on in 2017 was clearly about one last chance at a premiership, but more than that I wanted to show people I could come back from a knee at 34 years of age and still mix it with the best. Who was I proving a point to? I’m not so sure. Maybe myself. I feel content that I ran the tank dry.
One of the rings in the gum tree was the draftee who nestled under the wing of the elders of our club at the time. Guys like Luke Darcy, Ben Harrison and Simon Garlick guided me with a firm but steady hand, and they gave me shelter from the storm. I was caught off guard by the paternal instincts that awoke in me when I had become an elder myself, and it was under my wing that I could provide similar refuge for the next generation. Young blokes like Easton Wood and Jordan Roughead were given everything I had and everything that had been handed down to me. The lineage of the locker room and the battlefield.
I was lucky to play alongside good men for much of the way. Maybe as a reaction to my gypsy hearted ways, I gravitated to blokes who you could set your compass to. Daniel Giansiracusa and Matty Boyd were like my north stars for years. A focal point to keep my ship on course. I always felt a sense of comfort walking up the race and seeing those guys next to me. That’s almost the highest accolade a teammate can bestow on another I reckon.
I’ve always been a fan of the great players. I got to play with so many, but Chris Grant and Marcus Bontempelli stand out. Complete players. Stars. That’s something to tell the grandkids. For all the nonsense in the analysis of the game, most of us still acknowledge that the special ones move differently. Something in the nuances of their play sets them apart from the rest of us.
Granty’s ability to pick up the flight of the ball in the air and mark it in front of his eyes with perfect timing – with danger all around – always left me feeling lucky to have such a close vantage point. Watching the Bont create a path in the chaos of play with his big frame has already become a trademark. Playing alongside him, I could hear the appreciation in the outer from our own supporters. It was even more graceful from a few feet away. With the ball in his hands he’d lope away in slow motion, like he was wading through waist-deep water, the sea of stragglers falling away in his wake, one by one. A football Moses. Or Jesus. Definitely biblical.
You’re not meant to meet your heroes, at least that’s how the old saying goes, but that didn’t ring true for me. I only met Robbie Flower a few times, but each time I left shaking my head, astonished by his gentle, easy manner. His lack of ego, in stark contrast to so many of his 80s contemporaries. A sweet man. A hero to any skinny bloke who has ever pulled on a jumper.
In the Murphy family, we supported three things. Paul Keating, Peter Daicos and the Richmond Tigers. Matthew Richardson and Wayne Campbell, along with a few of my Tiger heroes, have always been generous to me. They indulge all of my teenage questions and fascinations. They’re just my mates now, I guess, and that blows my mind, but I reserve some of that little kid’s awe and wonder. I think they secretly get a kick out of it too.
From a half back flank I got to watch the game over the shoulder of some of the very best players the game has seen. I spent an unforgettable night chasing with Stevie J and trying to keep pace with his verbal entertainment too. In the dying minutes of a close game the ball shot out of the centre square and I lunged to spoil it, but like a true cat he was after it again. He took the ball with me closing in and hand balled over his shoulder whilst looking the other way. His handball hit the mark and it resulted in a goal. Game over. Stevie waddled up next to me and I knew it was coming, “I usually save that shit for finals”. He was the best flanker I played on.
I had a few scraps along the way. Football is a bit like the jungle, every so often something or someone surprises you and takes you down. As I lay on the back of the motorised cart having just done my knee for the first time a young Collingwood supporter, no more than 10 years old, leant over the fence and screamed in my face, “Hey Murphy, you fucked my dream team!” Despite his youth, it did feel a bit harsh.
Family circles spin around this exposed tree stump like a vinyl record. Mum’s adventurous spirit runs through me like a mountain stream. I remember at various points of Bulldog crises she would give me a pearl of wisdom. My favourite was, “Don’t wait for the wind, grab the oars!”
My first football memory is being placed in front of my older brother Ben as my sister Bridget kicked the ball high above my head. Ben would scream “CAPPER!!!” and wrap his legs around my head as he attempted mark of the year, over and over again. I was four years old. That was my role in the team at the time.
Reflecting on the book when the last words had been written, I couldn’t ignore the fact that much of my story is about a father and a son. Dad and I watched the stars of the game from the outer at Waverley Park and I took him with me onto the field as I got a closer look over 18 years with the Bulldogs. It might be a long bow, but I felt like he was with me as we watched all the great players from this era within arm’s length, and for brief moments, teased at being a great player myself. I hope Dad feels like that too. Whatever I was on the field, I offer it up to my Dad as a gift for cleaning my boots every Friday night.
Family has broadened as I’ve gotten older too, of course. If you play for long enough – and I was blessed to play for a bloody long time – the relationship with your club changes. For a time your footy club is who you play for, and then at some point that club is a part of you and you are a part of it, linked forever. Like family. I love the Bulldogs. It might read as a throw-away line, but it’s a love that I would never mask behind any sort of ambiguity. Footscray and the Whitten Oval will always feel like home.
I have much to be grateful for, not least the chance to actually play, but one thing that jumps to mind is the notion of loyalty. It’s seemingly a fading currency in professional sport, or so I’m told. Loyalty in sport isn’t dead, just a little misrepresented. It’s not blind loyalty. Too much is at stake. The loyalty I’ve known in footy is a relationship – there must be an exchange of effort and goodwill. The Bulldogs and I were a good couple. I gave them everything I had. I hope they feel like they got a good deal, too. I’m a proud servant of the Bulldogs. Forever.
My book was never going to be titled MURPHY. I wasn’t that sort of player, and I didn’t have that kind of career. For a long time the title I had in mind was A Footballer’s Lot. Much of the book is a collection of stories of a footballer, that footballer just happened to be me. There were many other titles ...
I suppose it would be good manners to tell you that I never saw myself writing a book and that this “just kind of happened”, but that’s not true. After being encouraged many years ago by one of my heroes and my co-speaker tonight, Martin Flanagan, to write a different kind of footy book, I set my co-ordinates to doing just that. My hope was that this book would fill a gap. As a footballer, I was neither a champion nor a notable disgrace. The risk was that I wouldn’t have a story to tell. That in itself I found interesting, the notion of writing a footy book that shone a light on the middle ground. The highs and lows of a life in footy, the feel of the bumps along the path from inside the middle of the pack.
Then I became captain of the Bulldogs. A young football team caught fire, a club emerged from obscurity, and then something else happened. I’m still not entirely sure what that “something” was, but I know it involved a lot of hugging. I don’t know if we changed the game, but for a brief moment the Bulldogs were hip. There was a story.
It’s funny, but I’d never felt a part of my generation before that time. Even when I was a teenager at the underage disco, all the kids were screaming the words to grunge anthems like Smells Like Teen Spirit and Killing In The Name Of. Plenty of the kids were from broken homes; they meant it, they felt the songs in a way that I didn’t. I was secretly hoping the DJ would play the Beach Boys ‘Good Vibrations’. I enjoyed an angst-free world. A charmed childhood.
Regrettably, I spent much of my footy career either writing or daydreaming about footy, music and clothes from another time. Living in a cartoon world of nostalgia. And then my football club was thrown into crisis at the end of 2014, and I woke up. My three years as captain, I felt alive. I felt present. All the chips were on the table. There was a sense of desperation and defiance in the air. It was a “damn the torpedoes” kind of vibe. Every moment felt important. It was an exhilarating ride.
During the low ebb of October 2014, one inescapable thought kept throbbing in my head: “My football career has meant nothing.” It was a depressing thought. Fifteen years of getting to the line and the club was ultimately in a worse place than ever. And then something magical happened. I look at those last three years as a trilogy. The rise of `15, the glory of `16, and the struggle of `17.
The 2016 Premiership and “that” medal moment with Luke Beveridge are like a mountain in my life. But just like Uluru, the colour of the mountain changes in the light. On most days I see a beautiful landscape. A football fairytale rising out of the ground pointing towards the heavens. But there are other days too. There are times when just the memory of that day and that moment break my heart in two. Even now, I still brace myself when a stranger starts up a conversation with me about the premiership or the medal. I’m scared of what they might say. It all depends on the shade of the mountain on that day.
Writing a memoir demands a level of candour. It’s only recently I’ve come to accept that my greatest day in football was Grand Final day in 2016. But I must also acknowledge that my worst day in football was the very same day. As a leader of the club at that time I was so proud, the euphoria was so real. But I’m a footballer and I was not where I was meant to be. I felt that in my marrow. I will never get over it.
For a time, “Almost” was another title option, but it’s black humour might have been too obscure. On those dark days, it helps to remind myself that despite the twinges of heartache, they are nothing compared to that sense of being unfulfilled in 2014. I sit back now knowing that, at least, it meant something.
When you join a club you inherit its history, its mythology. There’s been a heavy load to carry in that regard if you chose to be a Bulldog. Survival and fightbacks aside, our one shining light was the premiership of 1954. It was so long ago that the only footage of the day is fuzzy and incomplete. A bit like a football Zapruder film. “Back and to the left”, another good title option now that I think of it. That premiership and its own mythology grew over time, the walk to the Footscray Town Hall became something of a metaphorical pilgrimage. These stories were glorious, but weathered, aged.
I felt at the time that the 2016 premiership healed a lot of the pain of our football club. Since 1954 there were so many losing seasons. Too many. The history books give us the ladder and the checks and balances of the wins and losses, but those columns don’t accurately record the emotional damage all of that losing causes. Too many people have left our footy club unhappy or bitter. There was something special about the 2016 team that brought a lot of people back and seemed to rekindle the love and attachment people once had for the club. All of us who have spent time at the club since 1954 had daydreamed about what it might look like if we won the flag again. What would a sea of Footscray supporters at the Whitten Oval look like the day after the battle was won? The reality was better than our dreams; how often can you say that in life?
After the historic presentation of the cup to the Bulldog people at our home ground, the inner sanctum of the club and their families came together at the Railway Hotel in Yarraville. That was special, too. So many beautiful people. So many characters with big hearts. That team, that finals series, felt like a shooting star. Magical. I was privileged to be amongst them. On the Monday, just the players reconvened at the same pub and things were, as you’d expect, pretty loose. It was still early in the day when I thought, as the oldest player, that a speech should be made.
I stood on a stool, pint in hand, and talked about the significance of history. I opined that some of the players with a medal around their neck might have some comprehension of what they’d just done, and maybe some of the older ones would have an even broader appreciation. But I told them to leave a bit of space for the possibility that it was even bigger than they thought. This premiership, for some long-suffering Bulldogs people, means they can actually die happy. I got down off my stool, content that I’d nailed it, and Matthew Boyd sidled up next to me. “Bit fucking morbid bringing dead people into it, don’t ya reckon?” I’ll miss that about footy clubs. Brutal truth.
Someone asked me recently what life was like having just retired from the AFL, and I told them it was a bit like leaving the Big Brother house after 18 years. The hyper-focus the game demands is now gone. It’s eight months since I last ran out as a player for the Dogs, and it’s starting to show. When I look at my legs both of my knees are lined by scars. The physical toll of the game has left harsh slashes across the flesh. Dermott Brereton once said that if you played more than 200 games of league football you had a daily reminder through some kind of physical ailment. He’s right, of course, and I limped to 312.
Both of my knees ache a bit when I go for a run these days, but I manage well enough once I get going. My toenails are yellowed and gnarled like bamboo from years of punishment, and the hint of a gut is starting to show, but it’s my neck that gives me the most grief. A “popped” disc in 2010 did the damage and it’s never fully recovered. Uncomfortable as these ailments are, they’re badges of honour too. I gave the game a pound of my flesh. There will be no comeback
If I look back again inside the circles of the fallen tree, I see two kicks. The first, a wobbling, floating, mongrel that came off my boot in my very first game against the Blues at Princes Park, and somehow went dead straight to put us in front deep in the last quarter. That glorious line turns all the way around the wood until it comes to meet itself some 18 years later. My last game of footy. With the game tightening, Lachy Hunter feeds me the ball and I see space in front of me. My heart lifts as I sense the moment. I could turn this game on its head, bring us back into the contest with a running shot from just inside the 50-metre line. I swing my leg through and it makes the sound of a bum piano chord. It could very well be the worst kick of my career. Off the side of the boot and into the stands, I get the Bronx cheers from the Hawthorn supporters. It’s my last ever touch in a game of footy.
My last kick was the kick of a man whose best days were long gone. I was done. If I were a racehorse at that point, they would have pulled the white sheet across and destroyed me at the track. If I’d kicked it sweetly, post high through the middle, I might be wondering if I should have played on. But I’m not. I don’t want to play anymore, I don’t have it in me anymore to get to the line. That’s a relief. I’m sure there will probably be little moments where I’d love for certain things, pine for the contest or the chase, the sweet kicking musical moments, but that’s life. I had my time.
And it was a wonderful time. I was the kid who played the game in the street until dark, dreaming, yearning what it might be like to actually play in the big league. And I did it. It was harder than I thought it would be, much harder. But to quote Tom Hanks in A League Of Their Own, “Of course it’s hard – it’s the hard that makes it great!”
I wasted a school education wondering what it might be like to play on the MCG in the fading light of an autumn Saturday afternoon with the game in the balance, and I did that. It was beautiful. Better than I could have imagined. The game hardened me, thickened my skin. For all of my idealistic babble about being a kid free of stress and full of adventure, I was a young adult that was almost bankrupt when it came to accountability. That can wear people down, and I wore a few out. The game beat some reality into me. Taught me about discipline and responsibility.
It also gave me moments to savour forever. Minutes before every game I played, I’d make my way into the trainers’ room and stick some Vicks up my nose. It was about putting on the armour. In those final few moments before you take the field you morph into a different character. What some people might call “white line fever” takes hold, but it looks and feels different for everyone.
The fever doesn’t turn everyone into Robbie Muir or even Glen Archer, but it puts you on edge. The fight or flight response fills your stomach and stretches out to tingle your fingers and toes. Your mind walks the high wire between loneliness and a deep sense of brotherhood. You’re a gang. The feeling is precious and pure.
The changerooms are quiet, but I can hear the frenzied noise of the masses in the distance, just beyond the concrete walls. Time moves like glue as the anticipation builds. To pass the time I pace the room, slap my hands together, put an arm around teammates to offer some words of comfort. I press resin into my hands and spread it around my palms so the ball will stick in my grip.
Despite the tension and storm clouds on the horizon, I try to keep a calm facade. I try for an easy smile to ease some of the tension in the room, but inside I'm like a pinball of thoughts, hopes, fears.
Someone gives the signal and we come together briefly with our coach. He gives us a final message. It doesn’t really matter what he says, it’s the symbolism of the picture. We are his boys. He’s with us. We break the tight circle and turn for the door. The noise grows louder.
As captain I get to walk out first, and the sense of pride and privilege never gets old as I look back on the team we have. My boys. Our support crew and a few ex-players line the walls respectfully as we leave the rooms and begin our ascent to the field. It’s the greatest feeling in the world. I walk slowly up the race, savouring the moment. Gradually picking it up to a jog as the field of play comes into view, we explode onto the ground as a team and our clan rise as one with us. Our theme song comes from the old sea shanty, “Sons of the Sea”, but we are the Sons of the West, and our tribal hymn blasts out across the stadium. We are snarlin’. You can’t touch us now. This is our childhood dream, and we’re all living it.
Now that I can’t play anymore, I know in my heart it’s these precious seconds that I miss the most.
I was a young, naïve kid with a brand new football in his heart. Over time, the leather aged from the bumps along the trail. The elements of Footscray winters and some glorious liniment-scented afternoons. All of the laughs, the scraps, the yarns, the characters, the smells and the donuts. The game. They all left a mark on me, on my leather soul. I wouldn’t change any of it.
Bob Murphy’s autobiography ‘Leather Soul’ is available through BlackInc books.