Hafey: The footy legend who talked about love

A fitness fanatic into his 80s, Tommy Hafey takes a swim at Mentone, flanked by Richmond supporters Jim Harrington (left) and Adam Smith, in 1970.He was the T-shirted Tiger titan, a tea-drinking teetotaller, the four-time premiership coach taken by cancer this week. Yet there was so much more to Tommy Hafey as a wry observer of the foibles of the game and its bosses, a compassionate helper to those who were struggling and a straight talker about what he saw as the lack of ethics among some football writers.
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Much of this was couched in Tommy’s original syntax and, while this did not approach the level of Jack  “arms on him like testicles” Dyer, when reproduced it could surprise.

In a time before the need was recognised, he was helping young people free themselves from depression, showing the way with the vigour with which he tackled his daily Bay swim. Behind the commando-style football training and call-it-as-it-is style was a figure who offered quiet leadership, a legend who understood the power of love, someone who put fresh meaning into the shop-worn term of being an inspiration. His fitness and astounding routine into old age was remarkable. Not long before his death at 82 he ordered fresh weights.

Hafey was blunt about being battered by the self-serving types he found in the game and reserved for them a special contempt. His shoulders were not available for those who wanted to leap to glory, or what they saw as the spotlight.

Rather he was a type of Australian who seemed increasingly rare, straightforward, seemingly lacking in guile, willing to give of himself, even if that meant playing as he once did in the country with one eye out of its socket.

Scarcely a networker himself, he saw the founding in his honour of Richmond’s business network, the Tommy Hafey Club. He also saw an astonishing 20 of his former players go on to become coaches, including three who won premierships.

On ABC radio he always made it clear that the game had become obsessively complex, whereas he saw results on the field arising from a drive for success and a peak of fitness. Football doubtless is the most community-based of activities, yet he found a larger sphere for his fitness crusade, the wider world beyond the sports clubs where he regularly spoke.

When a well-known person dies, a cliche often wheeled out talks of his or her passing as the end of an era. The hackneyed term was given fresh life, however, when Hafey finally agreed to be the subject of an autobiography, which emerged as less of the story of one man than a true tale of an era.

He grins widely from a picture with prime minister Bob Hawke that’s on his wall at home, among many others. Yet he was most proud of a street photographer’s shot of his mother on Princes Bridge, dressed in ’30s style and smiling widely. That, and one of Tommy and his brother with their dad, who died aged 59.

We talked a decade ago for a book called Footy’s Greatest Coaches and I was startled when he laid into the AFL for its ability to pat itself on the back. Mickey Mouse, he said, could run the game. Those who were in charge he described, wonderfully, as “so-called people. A lot of other people think these fellers are dead-set dills”.

No names escape his lips as he reclines in his apartment opposite the St Kilda Marina, sipping tea. For our chat he is in a grey Sports 927 T-shirt and reclines in a big pleasant room dominated by large romantic portraits of his three daughters. And a miniature of Rodin’s The Thinker.

As family and friends come and go and as another cuppa materialises he talks of his time as captain-coach in Shepparton, a place he thought he would return to after two or three league coaching seasons. A hat-trick of country premierships, however, propelled him into coaching Richmond to their first flag in 24 years.

Beyond his OBE,  inaugural Hall of Fame membership, coach of Richmond’s Team of the Century, Coaching Legend of the AFL Coaches Association, adulation of the crowd and the humiliation of being sacked in Sydney, he found almost a second vocation. He gave motivational talks at schools across the state, telling VCE students about commitment, what it means not to drink or smoke but to play sport instead.

He talked of ways to shake off depression when things were not going well. Returning to some schools annually, he went to more than just the large academies. At Cann River in East Gippsland he found just two Year 12 students. Over in Deer Park, 70 per cent of the secondary students were born abroad.

“Most of the youngsters don’t know who I am, but when the teacher introduces me and talks to them about say, [me as a] former AFL/VFL coach, and they relate to the Kevin Sheedys, the Michael Malthouses, and the Mark Williamses, as the boys that I have coached.”

And what did Hafey tell the students? “I talk about showing a little bit of compassion and humility. I talk about loving your parents, so I’m a little different to what others may talk about.”

Pulling out a sheaf of handwritten notes, he told of the “terrific feedback” he received. They come from hamlets scarcely large enough to have a postcode, from individuals whose lives he may have touched or turned around, and from those in the front line of the fight against poverty and despair, such as the Salvation Army.

It’s not the four premierships he talks about, or the 522 games where he coached successively Richmond, Collingwood, Geelong and Sydney. Instead, it’s a letter from a 19-year-old who was trapped by depression and considering suicide. Life changed after Tommy came to his school. He moved into law enforcement, telling Hafey, “I owe a lot of that to you.”

There is a silence. Hafey breaks it. “That’s probably as good as you’ll ever get … so you can gather that there are a lot like that, although that is exceptional.”

A female student wrote to tell him how thrilled she had been to hear him. She went on to tell of her life since, what her fellow students were doing and how much they appreciated him.

Urged to talk about the game, he scorns coaches who “go through mock stuff, which is not much different to netball … There’s no grabbing, it’s nearly touch rugby.” Could there be a more scornful view?

More astonishingly, he says many coaches didn’t  believe in this, but went through the motions.

“That’s where the players get the shits up, too, because it can take a bit out of them…” After close wins, however, players came up to him because they had trained so hard they won those games.

Their names are Sheedy, Bourke, Hart, Green and Bartlett. “When time-on came and it was not much difference, particularly at Richmond, you knew that you had put in the work and you knew that you were going to win it.”

He scorns those “little dope” chest marks that help players’ stats. “I remember Kevin Bartlett saying that if he couldn’t pick up 50 possessions nowadays, he’d give his money back.”

This passion emerged in 1976 when Richmond slipped to seventh and Hafey had an amazing row with umpire Bill Deller. Only “a freak of nature,” Hafey told the tribunal, meant that the charge was not more serious.

“Conflicting to the reports I was sacked from Richmond,” Tommy told me, “I resigned.” He was disappointed with a couple of Tigers officials. He next saw  himself as coaching in Adelaide or Perth.

Then Collingwood talked to him. He saw the club had not moved with the times. He was the first “outsider” to be appointed. “They were fantastic, in as much as they accepted me, because I’m a Collingwood type of person; I’m not a Carlton type of person, or a Melbourne or Hawthorn type.”

This was not about history or tradition, he told the players. They had been playing indirectly “messing around with the ball, trying to pass the ball to players all the time, and I just hate that sort of stuff.”

He told the Pies committee he would be contradicting past techniques, and the committee backed him with more than words. “… they were fantastic, and the supporters were great, Collingwood supporters are really special because they love their own.”

To the players he said, “Now, we’ve been doing something right where I’ve come from, and it’s obvious that we’re going to change here.” Here it’s refreshing to note that none of today’s management jargon, such as talk of a leadership group and being “on a journey”, cluttered his approach.

Run with the ball, he told them. “One long hand-pass and run with the ball, through the lines in front of you, then kick the ball, bypass the lines directly in front. You’re kicking over their head there, which to me is just so much common sense that I can’t believe the crap that we’ve got now.”

As for incessant hand-passing, “stuffing around with the ball,” he called it. Teams such as Fitzroy, Footscray, Melbourne, South Melbourne and Geelong were always doing that. Often they would win. “But you wouldn’t win games in finals that way. They were sitting in the grandstand when we were running around with the cup.”

Collingwood was rent with dissension midway through his last season there, in 1982. The players thought they were being trained too hard, he said. The outcome could scarcely have been more dramatic with the entire committee thrown out in the first populist election in 20 years. “We just had a horror run with everything, and then they called me up and sacked me.”

Of course there was always some solace. “One of the great parts of the times that I have been at clubs is that every time they have got rid of me they’ve finished on the bottom of the ladder in the next year or so. I love that!”

Next came Geelong, where his insight and critique of the seasons 1983 to 1985 still sting. “I have never been at a club where there was so much interference from past players and coaches, and also lack of support from the administration, and interference. Those people have held that club back. Maybe it’s because it’s such a small place, and everybody wants to be seen and heard, but I can remember there were too many people around the place who were there for their own selfish reasons.”

It is difficult to imagine the uproar today if 11 Cats players wanted to accompany the coach to the Sydney Swans, but Hafey said that is what happened.

Big names were among them, and they phoned him a dozen times in Sydney. “People would be surprised at who they were.”

Those were the days of the Swans being owned by Dr Geoffrey Edelsten, for whom the word flamboyant seems to have been invented. Hafey had nothing but praise for the struck-medico, while adding “… I wish I’d never heard of Sydney. I was bitterly disappointed at some of the things that went on from people who you probably trusted. I would not say you would find one Sydney Swanner who would have a bad thing to say about Dr Edelsten.

“Australia, being what it is, knocking the tall poppy [always happens] and [yet] the doctor not being a football person, he allowed you to do the job.” This stood out from many clubs where most people “are experts at everybody else’s job, particularly the coaching.”

But Sydney turned out badly. “Getting the sack from Willesee and Wheatley, and those well-known football personalities, or names, probably cost me badly in other things over the years. The unfortunate part about it is that in football, particularly at that time, and probably now, a lot of non-football people have control over the outcome, or your life, if it comes to that. Yeah. And I think, ‘what would they know’?”

Confidential boardroom talks would be in the paper next day. Why? “Simply because one of our group wants to big-note to one of the journalists that they know something. That often happens.”

But Hafey went deeper into journalistic ethics. “You might run into a journalist and tell them the story, without telling a lie, because they have rung you up and asked you something. You say, ‘I don’t want you to print that,’ and he doesn’t print it, but what he does is give it to somebody else, and then he’s got it!” If challenged, the reporter who wrote the story can refuse to divulge the source, who may be the journalist Hafey trusted.

Off the field, too, he saw clubs propelled by publicity, notoriety and ego. “Now it’s got to the ridiculous stage because the money that is being paid to people. The unfortunate part about it is that the people out there [he gestures beyond his sunlit windows] are the ones who’ve got to find the money, because we’ve got to find $20 million for each club and we’ve got 10 of them in Victoria.”

Well before Buddy Franklin’s notorious $10 million, Hafey questioned why clubs would pay players $5 million-$6 million and coaching staff up to $2 million when relying on sponsorship and other areas away from gate takings. He worried about clubs going broke.

At that stage, he could see the Bulldogs and North Melbourne folding. “I think the AFL has a lot to answer for. When they first stated the national competition they said they would not compete with country or metropolitan football, and now stacks of little clubs have closed down.

“One of the great things about VFL football was that the bottom team could beat the top team, because there was not a great difference in the talent. There’s a bit [in AFL] but really, if one’s got a player with a lot of passion and a lot of feeling and somebody’s expected to win … now in the country that doesn’t happen, for instance, because the bottom teams are percentage players. To everybody. A lot of them are fellers as old as me [then 70], or they might be 14, 15-year-old kids. Sometimes they’re even playing a bit short because there are not enough players around.”

One result is that Hafey felt for proud country clubs that had gone down, recalling a Myrtleford under-18 grand final side where 18 of the 20 players had to go to Melbourne for work or further education. He understood the farm could not hold them, for either machinery did the work or these blokes had to work too hard for too little.

Shining through our long ago conversation were two words Tommy Hafey used to those students who drew strength from him. Compassion and integrity may seem a little in short supply these days, but they sum him up.

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