Growing up ‘Essendon’
Robert Shaw March 30, 2016 4:00 PM
When I walk to the ground to watch the Bombers, I do it with pride and take the time to reflect on how fortunate I have been in my football journey.
In the early 70’s I didn’t realise what I was walking into. As a kid growing up in Tasmania through the 60’s we were only exposed to a quarter of a VFL replay every Monday. Ron Barassi, the biggest name in football had gone to Carlton and St .Kilda had Baldock and Stewart - as an eight year old that’s all I knew. Their teams dominated the replay. Sometimes they crossed to this little ground they called ‘Windy Hill’.
My life changed when as a 17 year old in January 1973 I got on a plane from Hobart and landed at the old Essendon Airport. They parked me at the Mount Alexander Motor Inn before I moved in with a lovely family off McCracken St. I got myself to training by boarding a Deveson bus in Woolley St, got off at the station and walked up the hill. Apart from family of course, the most significant moment in my life was walking into Windy Hill. It still remains the most significant influence on my life. Not so much in wins and losses or getting a game, because for me, it was always about the people and the role they played in directing and mentoring. The likes of McKenzie, Epis, Fletcher, Egan, Davis, Fraser and Capuano provided significant and at times very direct guidance.
This was not only my first journey into the VFL but fortunately, at such an early age, I realised I was walking in to a museum - a library, a walking talking breathing record of a famous club and its heroes. Our jumpers were black with a red sash. No logos, no nothing - just an original Essendon jumper, which thankfully I still have. I started to read about Essendon. I continue to read to this day. The history of this great club continues to intrigue and inspire. I visited the Hall of Fame every week particularly if I had lost motivation as an assistant coach. I was then embarrassed if I wasn’t working hard or taking my role for granted.
Before I was 20 I had met Dick Reynolds, Bill Hutchison and Jack Clarke. Wonderful human beings. They all had one message: ‘we won’t be around forever…look after this club’. Essendon, with its deeply entrenched ‘Same olds’ culture, its centrality and inclusiveness through its isolation in the north west corner of metropolitan Melbourne, is surrounded and protected by its people. Family pubs, schools and the street ‘where Ken Fraser lives’. As a youngster we had everything in Essendon. We stayed close to home.
In the early hours of 5 April 1973, (my first year) John Coleman died suddenly of coronary atheroma. He was 44. The Essendon family was stunned and saddened. On Saturday 7 April 1973, a John Coleman memorial match was held at Windy Hill in front of a record 34,293 fans/mourners. Essendon beat Richmond by 47 points that day. I stood for a minute silence as those around me cried. I have only one disappointment from my 35 year involvement with Essendon - my biggest regret in football was that I never got to meet John Coleman. But I’ve never forgotten John Coleman.
My first pre season was at the Showground’s under ‘Tuddy’. I swallowed more sand than Lawrence of Arabia as we carried sandbag after sandbag around the trotting track. Recovery was a milkshake and a cigarette at Mrs. Clancy’s milk bar across the road from the Club. My seconds coach was Bob ‘Swampy’ Syme, the enforcer who rode shotgun for Coleman. I witnessed the brilliance of Neville Fields and the passionate Essendon competitive spirit of John Cassin and Kenny Roberts. I wore number 26. It was a great thrill to see Bomber Thompson wear it. He grew up in Airport West around the corner from where my wife grew up. Bomber and Mark Harvey lifted Essendon even as 18 year olds. Later Chris Heffernan and Cale Hooker wore it. They played a lot better than me. I played in an Under 19 Grand Final on the MCG in my very first year. I was taught from a very early age what it meant to be Essendon and the responsibilities that go with that. I cherish those lessons.
I don’t want our history back but we need to continue to embrace what Essendon stands for. I believe there has been a mist hanging over the identity of the club for the past decade. Numerous Chairmen, CEO’s, coaches and football managers have come and gone. The responsibility to reaffirm the Club’s identity rests on the shoulders of the current Board, Executive, staff, players and coaches. They are working very hard. So when the next 17 year old ‘walks up Napier Street’ I am convinced there will be the ‘Same Old’ Essendon there to greet them. That would be so good.
When the rains fall in the desert, life is born.