– ‘What does Caroline Wilson know about football?’

December 8, 2017

It is almost two decades and six Carlton coaches ago that I made my first telephone call as the soon-to-be-installed chief football writer of The Age.

The call was to Ken Hunter, the champion Carlton half-back of the 1980s who, by late 1998, was working in a marketing role at Carlton and United Breweries. Mobile phones back then were still a back-up mechanism and it was with a sinking, sick feeling that I asked the CUB reception to put me through.

Plays of the week

Kangaroos win 11th World Cup, goalkeepers don’t win you games….until they do, Sri Lankan bowlers hide from Kohli and smog in Delhi and Shaun Marsh does a Steve Smith in second Ashes Test.

Depression was not at that time a word generally used in connection with the coverage of AFL. Nor was mental illness. My vague knowledge of Hunter’s personal story involved the term “nervous breakdown” and the emotional collapse he suffered at the end of his playing career after pivotal roles in three Carlton premierships in seven years.

It was a story he had never told and I wanted him to tell it. To me. After a frank if – hopefully – sensitive conversation, the quietly spoken Hunter told me he would think about it.

What followed was four months of difficult conversations, a couple of lengthy “off-the-record” coffee meetings, two animated exchanges with Hunter’s beloved but suspicious wife Mandy and another with his former coach and close friend David Parkin.

While Robert Walls had been Hunter’s coach when the latter was admitted to the Melbourne clinic – Hunter had been dropped for the first time in his career – it was Parkin who visited him. After making it clear he had advised Ken against going public with his story, Parkin contributed generously. Although the legendary coach’s tendency to exaggerate some of the worst moments the struggling footballer endured in hospital even brought a smile to Hunter’s face.

Mandy Hunter, too, finally relented but only after she demanded late in the day to proofread the entire story before it went to press. Only on one other occasion in 19 years did I agree to this and that was after a long, in-depth “at home” conversation with Port Adelaide’s recently crowned premiership coach Mark Williams.

On that occasion Williams didn’t like what he read even though the story was still published following some minor changes. After all, the aftermath of that 2004 flag had not been a happy one for him due to a worrying mass exodus of football staff – many of whom followed Alastair Clarkson to the then-struggling Hawthorn. But the turbulent Williams’  biggest beef was my observation that the living areas of his house contained no books.

How Caroline Wilson's story on Ken Hunter came up in print

How Caroline Wilson’s story on Ken Hunter came up in print Photo: THE AGE ARCHIVES

At any rate the Ken Hunter story ran almost in full with only some painful family detail omitted at his request. He called me on the day of publication to point out in his unassuming way that he felt a monkey had been lifted from his back.

Having after 10 years publicly revealed his personal history and battle with depression Hunter went on to repeatedly share his experience with groups of young men around the country.

It is difficult to imagine now given how far we have come in normalising and understanding depression and how brave Ken Hunter was to speak up.

There have honestly been times when I have called him [Eddie McGuire] regarding a story over the years unable to remember whether we were friends or enemies that month.

Some AFL bosses and several senior coaches continue to single out gambling as the biggest social problem faced by footballers over the past decade and certainly the governing body’s deep cultural ties with betting and gaming remains one of its worst black marks as it presents itself as a social leader.

But every survey of playing groups at every club over the past year has mental illness as the biggest challenge facing the game. In my view Ken Hunter (who incidentally could have been a Tiger but was deemed too skinny by the Richmond football power brokers to survive as a defender) was the game changer.

On a personal note it marked the start of a job in which I promised myself I would remain for two full football seasons, never thinking I would make a long-term go of it. The sports editor who appointed me, Garry Linnell, departed that role one week before I began and I remember his successor confessing he was uncomfortable attaching the label “chief football writer” to an early story because some of the male colleagues in sport were a bit put out by me having the title.

This is not to say I doubted myself as a journalist, just that the position for a mother of three small children seemed too demanding and high profile. I wondered if The Age’s then editor in chief had installed me in the job as a marketing move. He denied it. Sam Newman called after my appointment was announced. “I’ve got your first headline,” he said  (prophetically), “What the hell does Caroline Wilson know about football?”

My long-time colleague and friend Gerard Healy and the late David Hookes took calls for two nights on their evening 3AW program Sports Today on the perils of a woman doing the job – only a handful of callers were vaguely positive – although Eddie McGuire, who had just controversially become president of Collingwood, was enthusiastic and completely encouraging.

Perhaps it’s this industry’s forgiving nature or – as Ed pointed out the other day – that we are more aligned regarding the game than we realise, but there have honestly been times when I have called him regarding a story over the years unable to remember whether we were friends or enemies that month.

I do remember the sick feeling calling him one night to convey that we were running a column the following day questioning whether his time might almost be up at Collingwood – that was shortly before the Malthouse-Buckley deal was done – and the spray that followed. That same sinking feeling has punctuated all 19 football seasons. 

And Ed’s disappointed and then outraged reaction was only to be outdone by Malcolm Blight’s response when calling him to suggest he was about to be sacked as coach of St Kilda. Actually throw in Grant Thomas, Mark Thompson and Andrew Demetriou times 10.

Caroline Wilson, with the Harry Gordon Australian sports journalist of the year award in 2016 with Age colleagues Michael Gleeson, Chloe Saltau and Emma Quayle. Supplied.?

Caroline Wilson, with the Harry Gordon Australian sports journalist of the year award in 2016 with Age colleagues Michael Gleeson, Chloe Saltau and Emma Quayle.  Photo: Supplied

Denis Pagan’s North Melbourne won the flag in my first year in the job and although he often called me Flossie and once said my only connection to football was that my father carried Francis Bourke’s bags (!) I loved his unique ruminations on the game. And I will always appreciate that he allowed me into the Pagan inner-sanctum at a time he was wrestling with the dilemma over the senior listing of his son Ryan – a dilemma that went on to split the Kangaroos and end friendships.

Ditto Clarkson, the initially unlikely but undisputed supercoach of the past decade, who chose to drop a bombshell via The Age on the eve of 2014 by becoming the first senior coach to scrutinise the Essendon drug scandal and call for more accountability for senior coaches and in turn boards for appointing favourite sons ill-equipped for the job. And boy can Clarko deliver an angry text message.

Luke Darcy once asked on The Footy Show during one of that program’s more brutal gang tackles whether it was because I was a woman I felt the need to be tougher as a football journalist. At the risk of being self-indulgent – and clearly this entire exercise is just that – my firm view is that while you should never betray a source or a genuine confidence your first loyalty is to your readers so why deliver half-hearted opinions on such a passionate and competitive subject.

The journalistic bloodshed and fanatical supporter backlash that accompanied the Bombers’ three-year public nightmare remains unrivalled in terms of the game’s coverage over the past two decades – although the Wayne Carey scandal and the unravelling of Ben Cousins and West Coast created some particularly nasty feedback – but the unwavering support of this newspaper and the reporting by our team unashamedly remains a personal badge of honour.

So many horrifying revelations and sinister telephone calls took place over 2013, not least the night James Hird’s private spin doctor Ian Hanke called to explain that when all this was over I would be discredited and out of a job.

So many stories seemed to break at night. The night I called a club director and was accidentally left on hold during a board meeting in which the CEO was threatened with the sack and the coach told he was on a last chance. The night another club’s board member wrongly sent me a text revealing a major story intended for his chairman. The night then Carlton president Ian Collins accused me of listening in as he talked in his sleep.

Caroline Wilson with sister Amelia, brother Will, Bill Barrot and the Richmond 1969 premiership cup.

Caroline Wilson with sister Amelia, brother Will, Bill Barrot and the Richmond 1969 premiership cup. Photo: Supplied

I still remember my disbelief the day I heard the Carey rumour and that night tracking down North Melbourne stalwart and then player manager Ron Joseph as he consoled over a bottle of red his client and close friend Anthony Stevens.

And trying to feign a straight face when the relatively new AFL chairman Mike Fitzpatrick – snapping after one too many illicit drug questions – threatened to end the interview unless we changed the subject. So I asked him what he hoped would be his legacy. The AFL had “no choice” he responded but to expand to an 18-team competition and he planned to install a new team first on the Gold Coast but then in Sydney the following year.

Next season Jake Niall – who broke the news (correctly!) of James Hird’s departure from Essendon and the season-long bans inflicted upon Hird’s former charges courtesy of the Court of Arbitration for Sport – returns to The Age to take over this job and continue this team’s unique and independent coverage of the game. Another clear and not so distant memory was the late afternoon Jake and I both learned independently but virtually simultaneously that Michael Voss had been sacked by Brisbane.

Clearly good stories are often not happy ones. There was the Carlton salary cap cheating that went on to haunt the club for more than a decade, the shameful truth behind the Melbourne tanking affair – preceded by the day Dean Bailey was sacked after a player revolt against management went pear-shaped, Ahmed Saad’s positive drug test, the David Schwarz and Daniel Ward gambling debts, the Adam Ramanauskas cancer battle, the Andrew Lovett St Kilda sacking and – for Terry Wallace anyway – Sydney’s backflip on that secret deal in favour of Paul Roos.

The late Bailey, fresh from his sacking press conference, was putting boxes into the boot of his car as I walked past and wished him well. “Don’t stop digging,” he said. The eulogy delivered in Bailey’s honour by his friend and colleague Phil Walsh was an emotional showstopper and it is still difficult to process that Walsh himself would die at the hand of his son some 16 months later, 12 games into a senior coaching career. Trying to make sense of that tragedy and do it justice remained one of this job’s greatest challenges.

Sydney’s pioneering chairman Richard Colless revealed his battle with depression as did, most poignantly, Scott West along with his semi-regular night-time journeys to the top of the Shrine where he attempted to make sense of his existence. And the AFL footballer’s battles with anxiety and self doubt were outlined with instructive if poignant honesty by Mitch Morton, Mark McVeigh and reigning Brownlow medallist Shane Crawford, who stated he’d happily hand over his Brownlow to have his old life back.

Ken Hunter returned to Carlton as part of the Ian Collins-led coup over John Elliott. The latter had overseen years of systematic salary cap cheating but Collins couldn’t save the club from a record AFL punishment and divisions and the blame game that continued for years to haunt the club. Mandy Hunter, too, was recruited by Collins in late 2002 to work with disgruntled members and stakeholders and she remained with the Blues until 2014.

I called her this week to thank her for showing faith two decades ago. She and Ken are retired now, grandparents, who spend three months of each year in Italy. We reflected on their football club and its unique politics and ongoing battle to attract the support commensurate with its past might.

Caroline Wilson with her family. (L-R) husband Brendan Donohoe, daughter Clementine, daughter Rose and son Ned.?

Caroline Wilson with her family. (L-R) husband Brendan Donohoe, daughter Clementine, daughter Rose and son Ned. Photo: Supplied

And upon the significance of Ken Hunter’s story, which incidentally for me launched an entertaining, generally productive if occasionally turbulent relationship with the ambitious, dynamic then AFL Players Association boss Demetriou, who would go on to run the AFL for 11 years.

Demetriou pretty much took over the organisation from the time he became the game’s football boss under Wayne Jackson. In a pivotal power play Bill Kelty and Ron Evans had championed Demetriou over the other big contender Brian Cook, who had political backing of his own and who became in any event one of the most important figures in the modern game’s history.

I have no doubt having covered sport in other countries and lived for several years in the UK that Australian rules is the world’s greatest football code. The game itself, its champions and the intriguing and varying cultures of its clubs are its greatest strengths. And its enduring lifecycles, led by such notable families as the Kennedys, the Danihers, Watsons and the Abletts to name just four.

And the changing tide of champions. Demetriou, strong-armed by his chairman, launched a short-lived investigation into the state of the Victorian clubs not long after West Coast’s 2006 premiership marked the eighth non-Victorian premiership in 10 years. Three of those were achieved by the Brisbane/Leigh Matthews dynasty with the Lions threatening to become so powerful the Victorian clubs blocked their benefits.

Now football in Queensland is an endangered species and Gillon McLachlan faces a backlash from the non-Victorian clubs regarding the unfairness of having to travel to the MCG to play on a rival’s home turf. Since that West Coast flag in 2006, only one interstate club – Sydney in 2012 – has held up the cup although this is largely due to Hawthorn’s and Geelong’s dominance since 2007. 

And the cultural scrutiny of the AFL, which crystallised when executives Simon Lethlean and Richard Simkiss were forced out this year, continues to haunt McLachlan. Although this must gall him given Demetriou’s leadership style, the truth is the game has a long way to go.

But it has come so far. Even five years ago I did not see the AFL Women’s competition coming, never believing the league would champion such a seemingly risky venture. Nor a woman club president and certainly not at Richmond.

And what a story the Tigers delivered in 2017. McLachlan joked at the start of the finals that he would take a one-year holiday in 2018 if Richmond won the flag. But there was a touch of the America’s Cup and Bob Hawke around Swan Street on the last Saturday night of the football season. 

After the fact, the AFL chief described it as the most unlikely premiership in his memory. He was not being derogatory. Personally and I hope without bias I have not seen a club in those 19 years in this role light up a September the way Richmond did. Nor a player dominate a season like Dustin Martin. 

Another AFL commissioner commented some years ago to me that he hoped I realised I had one of Australia’s best jobs. At the time it seemed condescending but on reflection there was some truth in the observation. 

And a privilege to write on a full-time basis for The Age the newspaper I first joined as a recently married sportswriter back in 1989. Now as the mother of three grown-up children in their 20s it’s time for something different. But a lifetime’s barracking – for the story – will continue.

*Caroline Wilson will continue as a weekly columnist and podcaster with The Age during the 2018 AFL season. – #1 – All News First!

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