The AFL season is reaching its climax. Tomorrow night, an expected crowd of 90,000 will pack out the MCG, for a knockout quarter-final clash between Hawthorn and Melbourne.
The teams have had some memorable play-off games, most notably in the 1987 AFL preliminary (or semi) final. At the three-quarters break, Melbourne led by 22 points. Hawthorn mounted a late comeback. Four points down with a minute to play, Hawthorn’s key forward, Gary Buckenara, was tripped outside the 50-metre mark.
The siren went and Buckenara got himself set for the ‘do or die’ kick. In the ensuing chaos, a 21-year-old Melbourne rookie, playing only his (very unlucky) 13th game of senior footy, made an error that remained with him for the rest of his sporting life.
Dubliner Jim Stynes crossed the mark and conceded a 15-metre penalty. The easier kick was scored, and Melbourne defeated.
For Stynes, it was devastating and, reflecting on it later, he said: “As soon as I darted off the line I was on, I just knew, I just went, ‘Oh no’. It was horrible. My dad was there. My mum was there. It was the first game of footy they ever saw.”
It remains one of the AFLs ‘where were you’ moments and particularly because of the accompanying, and iconic, dressing room photo of coach, John Northey, yelling at a bereft Stynes.
Stynes escaped Australia and returned home and, for a while, it seemed doubtful whether Melbourne would take him back or whether he would want to return.
But Stynes had incredible resolve and Melbourne football club, the city itself, the state of Victoria, and Australia benefitted from his reaction to that 1987 setback.
Stynes set an AFL record of 244 consecutive games between 1987 and 1998, a remarkable achievement in a remarkably attritional sport.
In 1991, he won the Brownlow medal, awarded by the AFL to the ‘best and fairest’ player during the regular season.
That same year, he won the Leigh Matthews Trophy, given annually by the Players’ Association to the ‘Most Valuable Player’ in the AFL. In 2000, he was selected on Melbourne Football Club’s team of the century.
Two years later, he was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame.
In 2008, he was appointed the Melbourne FC president, with the club $5m in debt. By 2010, the debt was cleared.
Former Northern Ireland international, Iain Dowie, coined the phrase ‘bouncebackability’. Contemporary sports psychologists call it resilience. Stynes epitomised both.
And yet, Stynes’ on-field exploits were overshadowed by those off-field, as exemplified by an AFL community scholarship that still bears his name and which assists teenagers from a multicultural, socially isolated, or indigenous background in achieving their potential.
The scholarship is in part funded by the Reach Foundation, co-founded by Stynes, and which continues to provide programmes on mental health awareness for teenage Australians nationwide.
On that fateful day in 1987, Stynes was not the only former Gaelic footballer on the pitch.
Also playing for Melbourne was Kerry and Listowel Emmets man, Sean Wight.
Wight, despite being hindered by a persistent knee injury, played 150 games for Melbourne, between 1985 and 1995, and is in the club’s Hall of Fame. Whenever I mention his name to AFL fans of a certain age here in Melbourne, the response is always the same and succinct — “tough bloke”. It is the highest of compliments.
Wight, later joined briefly by Roscommon’s Paul Early, was the first of the so-called ‘Irish experiment’ instigated by Melbourne and AFL legend, Ron Barrassi. Quaintly, both players had answered an ad placed in the Irish newspapers by the Australian.
Wight, who never smoked, died of lung cancer in 2011, aged 47. His funeral was attended by his friend, Jim Stynes, already stricken with cancer, and dead within a year of his teammate.
Melbourne’s Irish experiment had been related to the fact that in the 1970s, the AFL had become uncompetitive and dominated by half a dozen clubs.
At the time, AFL clubs could pick players from certain metropolitan and country zones. Demography and population movement meant that several traditional, inner-city clubs fell into decline. The most notable was South Melbourne (founded in 1854), which, eventually in the 1980s, was uprooted to Sydney and became the Sydney Swans.
Legal cases by individual players seeking to transfer from one zone to another would eventually see the introduction by the AFL of a far more equitable player-draft system (lessons for the GAA, with Dublin’s dominance?). As these restraint-of-trade cases made their way through the courts, Melbourne sought an Irish route for survival, on the basis that, as one Melbourne recruiter put it: “Airfares for raw Irish talent were cheaper than transfer fees for experienced locals.”
The investment in Stynes and Wight paid off and, subsequently, Melbourne, with varying degrees of success, would recruit Stynes’ younger brother and also James Fahy (Dublin), Tom Grehan (Roscommon), Kildare’s Niall Buckley, and Derry’s Anthony Tohill.
A brief recession in 1990/1991 — Australia hasn’t had one since — led to a tightening of immigration laws and the flow of Irish imports stopped.
It returned a decade later, with another Listowel Emmets pioneer, Tadhg Kennelly, the only player to win an AFL Premiership (2005) and All-Ireland title (2009). He blazed a trail for, among others, Setanta Ó hAilpín (Cork); Colm Begley (Laois); Martin Clarke (Down), Pearce Hanley (Mayo); Mickey Quinn (Longford) and Tommy Walsh (Kerry).
The most successful recruit post-Kennelly has probably been Portlaoise’s Zach Tuohy, who now plays with Geelong, in the company of Dingle’s Mark O’Connor. Tuohy is approaching 140 consecutive games for his club and scored one of the goals of the AFL season so far, a post-siren 35m kick to win against Melbourne in July.
He also gave one of the interviews of the seasons, so far, to the Melbourne Age, when he admitted to having invested in a blow-dry parlour in Portlaoise.
Overall, this was a bumper year for Irish talent, with 12 Irishmen on AFL lists and, of course, the redoubtable Cora Staunton playing in the AFLW.
Three decades after Wight and Stynes featured in a Melbourne vs Hawthorn play-off game, Conor Glass (Derry) and Conor Nash (Meath) are on the extended Hawthorn panel for tomorrow’s game.
Outside of that, Conor McKenna has done very well at Essendon, even if his Tyrone accent has flummoxed post-game interviewers. Traditional hurling counties have been represented with Darragh Joyce (Kilkenny), at St Kilda’s, and Tipperary’s Colin O’Riordan, at the Swans. Sleeping giants, Carlton, have Louth’s Ciaran Byrne and rookie Cillian McDaid, from Galway, on the books, while the Hanley brothers, Cian and Pearce, made the 2018 lists with Brisbane and the Gold Coast, respectively.
The latest recruit is Dublin teenager, James Madden, who will soon join Brisbane’s rookie list.
In their official press release, Brisbane noted that Madden had stood out at an AFL Academy trip in Florida and that his 20m sprint (2.69sec) and agility times (7.76) were better than those at AFL academies in Australia.
Recruiting Irish players has come a long way from placing an ad in the paper. Brisbane also noted that Madden’s GAA club is Ballyboden St Enda’s, that of Jim Stynes.
Stynes’ GAA background served him on and off the field. The sense of club and community inculcated in him by the GAA can be seen in a story recounting his first Melbourne FC Christmas party as president.
Noting that no players were present, and with the club at a low ebb, Stynes intuitively picked up on the then disconnect between Melbourne supporters, players, staff and the board, concluding: “That’s not a club; that’s just people doing lots of different jobs.”