Kevin Sheedy was happy to do anything to promote the game.
Kevin Sheedy was happy to do anything to promote the game.

Ruthless drive behind footy’s crazy genius

WHAT to ask Kevin Sheedy which hasn't been asked before?

Umm, how do you fit 50 years of football into two tables of 10 at the AFL Hall of Fame dinner?

"It will be all family.'' he says.

Sisters Barbara, Kathleen and Anne-Marie and brothers Patrick, John and Bernard filled out one table.

"I haven't see them for 50 years,'' he laughed before becoming reflective.

"My family has given so much for not seeing me, they should be there. It's out of respect to your mum and dad, they were fantastic people, good hardworking people.''

On the other table were Sheedy's immediate family, wife Geraldine and grown children Renee, Sam, Jessica and Chelsea. "Geraldine has been a superstar. What do I say about having to put up with me?''

Good question: What do you say about a person who put her husband, his career and their family ahead of herself, when all around her people obsessed about her husband and her husband obsessed about football.

"She's been an incredible person,'' Sheedy said.

Not there was his mum and dad.

His dad died at 50 when Sheedy was 18. Sad, isn't it - his dad missed it all.

His boy wasn't even at Richmond when he passed away. You have to wonder if dad could see then that shimmer of ruthlessness which would create legend at Richmond as a player and which would make a legendary coach at Essendon. Did he see the rage, the rat-cunning and the lustre for adventure and exploration?

"I think about him all the time,'' Sheedy said. "His name was Thomas Edward Sheedy, without a doubt a true hardworking man of Australia.''

What would he think about this honour?

"He wouldn't believe it, probably,'' Sheedy said. "He was a more a horse racing person than footy … he would've loved Bel Esprit.''

What would you hope he'd think?

"He'd be happy. Mum saw a more decent period of my life. She died in her early 80s in 2004 - she was a very good lady. She probably went to the Warrnambool for more than 30 years. They were racing people, they weren't footy people.''

Kevin Sheedy at Richmond training in 1974.
Kevin Sheedy at Richmond training in 1974.
 

Reflection and introspection comes on nights like this, when your life is presented in terms of football and then family, when in fact it's always family then football. It's why Sheedy was emotional when asked about his dad. "I had a great upbringing,'' Sheedy said. "You know, they didn't tell me where he was when he died, they didn't tell me he died until the morning. He died in hospital overnight. My brothers and sisters told me in the morning.''

One day, maybe on his own death bed, Sheedy will write a letter to football.

He says it will read something like this: "Dear Game, thank you for giving me Australian rules, which I fell in love with, and giving me the country I have, Sheeds.''

Sheedy was officially recognised by the AFL when the back-pocket plumber - that's what Tommy Hafey called him in a speech at halftime of the 1975 preliminary final - and acclaimed Essendon coach was elevated to Legend in the Australian football Hall of Fame.

That Hafey narration undersold Sheedy as a footballer, but never mind, coach Sheedy now resides beside the likes of Reynolds, Barassi, Matthews, Jesaulenko, Bartlett and Blight.

They may have been better footballers than Sheedy, but their legend does not shine brighter.

He is many things, Kevin Sheedy - player, coach, pioneer, visionary, crazy, creative and ruthless and competitive - and legend beckons him with open arms.

Kevin Sheedy took on the job of coaching GWS.
Kevin Sheedy took on the job of coaching GWS.
 

He is marvelled at in the softer glow of 70 years of age, but for most of his football career, he had a philosophy which helped define the 1970s, '80s, and '90s: Kill or be killed.

"I had a ruthless approach as player and I was a very, very serious coach,'' he said. "I wasn't going to roll out there and be the nicest person in the world as a coach.''

He described himself as a challenging coach. "I tried to challenge myself to get players into the land of excitement.''

Still, it is the love for the game which defined Sheedy.

"Football to me is the greatest football game in the world,'' he said

"We don't how to sell it to the world yet - that's no one's fault - but we're an inexperienced nation. But it's the greatest game on the planet. We give everybody a chance. Little Eddie Betts is going to get 600 goals and Buddy is 6'6" and he's going to get 1100. When you see Lockett, or see Bartlett, everyone gets a chance. I love it. It's non-stop for most of the time except for the scrimmages which have come in, but generally non-stop. It's physical, but probably a little bit less physical now because of head injuries. Other than that it's an unbelievable game.''

Fifty years of Kevin Sheedy is not only a journey through football, but also journey through Australia and its people.

"I love football, I love people,'' he said. "I love Australian people. I've probably visited more people in Australia than any person in the AFL.

"We have an amazing spirit wherever we are. It's the earthiness of most Australians, not all Australians, but most Australians that you get to like, get to love, football draws you into their lives.''

Kevin Sheedy had a ruthless streak.
Kevin Sheedy had a ruthless streak.

In this hour, Sheedy spoke of Gavin Wanganeen, Billy Brownless, Michael Long, Terry Daniher, Gary Ablett Sr, Billy Barrot, Mal Brown, Sam Newman, Kevin Murray, Anthony Koutoufides, Jason Dunstall, Tony Lockett, Matthew Richardson, Leigh Matthews, Scott Lucas, Dustin Fletcher, Matthew Lloyd, Nobby Clarke, Merv Neagle, Bomber Thompson, Neale Daniher, Dean Bailey, Roger Merrett, Ron Barassi, Kevin Bartlett, Tom Hafey, Alan Schwab, Ian Stewart, Robert Walls, James Hird, John Nicholls, Simon Madden, Ron Casey, Lou Richards, Jack Dyer, Bobby Davis, David Shaw, Robert Shaw, Ron Evans and Graeme McMahon.

"Australian rules football has been unbelievable theatre,'' he said.

Sheedy was the first full-time football coach and the first coach to take his team to the people of Australia. You name it, he's been there. Kalgoorlie, Collie, Cairns, Mackay, Darwin, Tiwi Islands, Mildura, Bendigo, Moe, Port Lincoln and Broken Hill and hundreds more. He was the kind of guy who would lose himself in the history of towns, often being found in libraries and coffee shops and historical places talking to the locals.

Sheeds was born from country folk.

Mum was from Sunbury, which was country in the 1930s and dad was Bruthen, out of Bairnsdale. One set of grandparents lobbed in Yarrawonga, the other, the Cusacks from Euroa. Nearly every time the Sheedy family was on the Hume Highway when the kids were young, Sheedy would pull off the highway and narrate his childhood. His kids eventually bemoaned these stops.

"Every time, they'd say, 'Dad why do we have to stop?'. It's that earthiness you never get in the city.''

He had thirst for knowledge and people, Sheeds

"There's some amazing people you collect in your life,'' he said. "Some of them are mentors from a distance, you can read about or watch, some of them are Australian who you can get close to and watch. If you really wanted to develop yourself as a person from anywhere in the world, Google is at your finger points.''

You might not believe it, but Sheedy says he once was shy and evasive.

"It's something I had to work on. I didn't speak for a long time.''

Tim Watson hugs Kevin Sheedy after the 1984 Grand Final.
Tim Watson hugs Kevin Sheedy after the 1984 Grand Final.

It was after his dad died, after leaving Prahran and sitting a year out to gain a clearance to Richmond. In his first season, 1967, Sheedy injured his knee in Round 6.

"Doing my knee in the first year set me back enormously,'' he said. "I had to have serious resolve.''

The great Len Smith told him he had to have an operation or he wouldn't make it as a league footballer.

"It was the best piece of advice I got. A very, quiet demure type of person, Len Smith.''

If Smith was a mentor, Richmond's legendary general manager Graeme Richmond was his moulder. Sheedy always had knowledge of football, Richmond cajoled the rage.

"I've never met a person like him since or before,'' he said.

Hafey was another influential figure, of course, and Alan Schwab.

"Alan Schwab was the best visionary in AFL footy at that time of the game. Totally underrated by everyone outside of Richmond. He was the prince.''

At conservative and underperforming Essendon, where Sheedy arrived for the '81 season at age 32, he was to be Essendon's Richmond.

"I had to guide and receive guidance because I was a full-throttle steam engine which could out of control.''

With a nasty streak? "I'm not a nasty person, but I could take a nasty streak if I liked,'' he said.

"Competitiveness. That's a nice way of putting it.''

 

Kevin Sheedy and Essendon players lift the premiership cup in 2000.
Kevin Sheedy and Essendon players lift the premiership cup in 2000.

In life, he was the opposite. "I grew up a good Catholic kid and I care about people who struggle,'' he said.

To this point, the Anzac Day game, the Dreamtime at the G game and the Country game breathed because Sheedy wanted to make a difference.

"The defence forces need to be thanked deeply and I totally believe in an Anzac Lotto, and the money goes to our defence forces coming back,'' he said.

"Dreamtime is classic case of people needing to care and love, same as for our country farmers. Why do we have the worst suicide rate in the world in this country? We have to get it better and that's what the three games are about. It's nothing to do with footy, the games represent the stage to remind Australians we should care. It costs you nothing to pass on care and a smile.''

That Sheedy smile. It's half-mad and half-contagious. People say its hides a craziness, or in fact displays it.

"I might be the one that's OK and everyone else is crazy,'' he said. "I'm nowhere near crazy. I've heard it said about me, but it's not crazy - it's excitement. I can look at the mirror and say keep doing what you're doing, because you feel good about yourself trying to make people better. You know, I can sit down in my garden and talk to flowers and bloody enjoy myself.''

 

Kevin Sheedy loved his players.
Kevin Sheedy loved his players.

 

Kevin Sheedy and James Hird say goodbye in their last game for the Bombers.
Kevin Sheedy and James Hird say goodbye in their last game for the Bombers.

Sheedy is a listener, a storyteller and likes laughing at his own punchlines.

In three weeks, he and Geraldine will visit the Immigration Museum in New York. Sheedy's first international trip was in 1974, also to New York, that time with great mate Mal Brown.

"It blew me out of the water and so did he,'' Sheedy said. "I couldn't have picked a better person to go on my first trip overseas with than Mal Brown. He did things I would never have done.''

In what regard? "Every regard.''

Unquestionably, Sheedy is the most positive person in football. Where people see boulders, Sheedy sees stepping stones. It's why he accepted an offer from "Vladimir'' Demetriou to coach Greater Western Sydney at 60.

"And what I want to do is keep developing at 70,'' he said.

"Most people want to go and play golf and die. I don't. Because you get once crack at life and you might as well as give it your best shot and try to make sure you don't waste it.''

 

 

Hall of Fame Legend: Kevin Sheedy

251 games for Richmond, 1967-79, kicking 91 goals.

Eight games for Victoria, kicking one goal.

Richmond premierships 1969, 1973-74.

AFLPA MVP 1974.

Richmond Best and Fairest 1976.

Richmond Captain 1978.

Richmond Team of the Century, Back Pocket.

Essendon coach 1981-2007, 635 games.

GWS Giants coach 2012-13, 44 games.

Victoria coach 1985-86, four games.

Australian coach 2005-06, four games.

Essendon premierships /Jock McHale Medallist 1984-85, 1993, 2000.

Essendon pre-season premierships 1981, 1984, 1990, 1993-94, 2000.

Essendon Team of the Century, Coach.

 

Kevin Sheedy at the MCG.
Kevin Sheedy at the MCG.
Kevin Sheedy.
Kevin Sheedy.
Kevin Sheedy played 251 games for Richmond from 1967-79.
Kevin Sheedy played 251 games for Richmond from 1967-79.
Kevin Sheedy with the 1984 premiership cup.
Kevin Sheedy with the 1984 premiership cup.


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