Essay: 'Half-Time with Stout John'
- first published in J. Main (ed.), Coach!, Information Australia, 2000. The Statewide League blundered and stuttered on until season 2000, after which, amid much acrimony, it folded.
In the great days of Tasmanian football, days when the game set tribe against tribe and it seemed that country towns existed for their footy clubs and not vice versa, there were three senior competitions in Tassie, ‘The League’ (based in Hobart), ‘The Association’ (based in Launceston) and ‘The Union’ (on the North-West Coast). The three ‘comps’ (as they were designated in the universal vernacular) also competed for regional supremacy - from these representative games the state team was chosen - and, at season’s end, the three premiers played off for the State Premiership.
Those days are gone, the old tripartite arrangement swept away in the 1980s in a piece of capital city imperialism disguised in the humbug rhetoric of ‘improving the standard’. That rationale maintains its hegemony, and my own position is thus a lonely one, and mildly heretical. Something drastic had to be done, ran the orthodoxy - with a particularly humiliating interstate thrashing usually adduced as evidence. And still it runs, a veritable mantra in the sports pages of the Hobart Mercury. Ah, but is it only me who remembers a thrashing even more traumatic for the powerbrokers at ‘League Headquarters’, a thrashing dished out by The Union to The League the year before ‘statewide’ football was imposed upon us? Very interesting, I thought at the time, that The League, an 80-something points weaker comp than The Union on contemporary evidence, should have all six of its teams in the new statewide league, whereas the far-stronger eight-team comp up the Coast was invited - no, ordered - to supply just two teams!
Howsoever - I was made aware, in the mid-1980s, that the football I knew and loved was passing way, presumably forever. The new corporatised football would, in the narrowest of senses, be ‘better’ - but the game in its wider context wouldn’t be, and the fabric of suburban and country community wouldn’t be.
A single game seemed to emblemise the passing game - the 1967 State Final between my home town, Wynyard (The Union), and illustrious North Hobart (The League). This game was clan footy at its proudest - pulsating, passionate, committed, riveting - and it ended without a result. With Wynyard less than a goal in front the final siren sounded. North’s veteran full-forward, Dicky Collins - who had been soundly beaten by Wynyard’s debonair state full-back, Phil Dell - marked in close on a slight angle. It depends on who you speak to whether the mark was taken after the siren or while it was still a-blare. Either way, Collins never took his kick. Under the skilled urging of a brace of legendary coastal footballers - not Wynyard players - the home crowd seized the day. They also seized the goal post, uprooted it, and bore it from the field of play. The game - this greatest of games - was abandoned and never re-played.
The rival playing coaches in that game were two of the most rugged coves to ever pull on the boots in Tassie. John Devine, legendary Geelong hard man (and later coach) led North. Wynyard’s skipper was John Coughlan.
John Coughlan - ‘Black Jack’ as the media christened him; ‘Stout’ as he was more familiarly known to us around the bike track - came to Wynyard in the mid-60s. He had played briefly with Hawthorn before achieving VFL-star renown with Oakleigh in the VFA. According to contemporary reputation no nastier piece of work had ever graced the nation’s playing fields. Eventually, rumour had it, life became too hot for Coughlan in Melbourne. To escape the violence offered to his family in playground and street he came to Tasmania.
Coughlan revolutionised football on the North-West Coast, on and off the field. With ex-Fitzroy rover Wally Clark (coaching Latrobe) he introduced the play-on game. For the first time advertising banners appeared on the bike track fence. Crowds flocked to see him play and, the consummate showman, he knew how to play a crowd as well as a game of footy. The year after the aborted State Final Coughlan led The Union against The League at ‘League Headquarters’ in Hobart - North’s home ground. Half The Union team had played for Wynyard in the State Final. They hit the ground as a group and ran straight to the goalposts at the North Hobart clubrooms end. Flanked by his teammates, Coughlan walked up to the goalpost and shook it. The crowd’s roar was pure outrage.
As a player Coughlan was big, strong and not overly endowed with pace. He was hot and cold; he had bad days and good days, and on his good days he won matches. ‘He liked to have the forward line revolve around him’, one of his proteges told me; and then, but said with affection and no hint of cynicism: ‘He didn’t care who kicked the goals as long as he did’. But it was when the opposition was on a roll that the fun started. Then Coughlan would throw himself onto the ball - a sure sign that the biffo was about to start and the game was set to go up a notch. And when Coughlan trotted back to full-forward you knew that that the wrong had been rectified, the upstarts put in their place, that the Mighty Cats were back on track for their rightful win, and all was well with the world.
Yet Coughlan was almost lost to Tasmanian football before he even started – to that old ‘suitable employment’ bogey. At first he collected dry cleaning in an old Kombi, and then he won an agency with National Pies, which brand he set about establishing along the Coast. A former player remembers being one of half a dozen young footballers who Coughlan would take with him on the pie run. ‘He would send us kids into shops he knew didn’t stock his pies. We’d all ask for a National, and when they didn’t have any we’d all file out. Come Monday Jack would go in and he’d get an order. Never failed.’
This may seem a fairly extensive preamble to the rituals of ‘half-time’. But you have to know the man and the context. I have heard the perennial story of the coach who secretly unscrewed the hinges of a second door to the change rooms, and ttansformed his team into invincible supermen by turning at the end of his speech and crashing the door down as he raced onto the ground. In Tasmania that feat is attributed to one ‘Nunky’ Ayres, subequently a larger-than-life Lou Richards-ish identity of Hobart football commentary. And I’ve heard the tales of ‘Frog’ Newman’, iron-hard and colourful coach of bush team Yolla (an Aboriginal name for ‘mutton bird’!), who introduced the interesting prop of road-kill as a motivational aid to his half-time speeches. But there can never have been anything like a Coughlan speech. Though I suppose I should add a rider. I can’t guarantee that what follows is unimpeachably accurate. The romanticising mind may well, I freely admit, have embellished reality over the years. But, more than thirty years on, this is how it seems to have been to me. It is, at least, my truth.
Coughlan’s pre-match speeches commenced at three-quarter time in the twos - they were thus thirty-five to forty minute affairs. Half-time speeches were necessarily shorter, but they followed a similar pattern. Low-key and chatty at first. The marvellous redolence of Penetrene. Old town identities, the community’s physical and mental flotsam, hanging on every word. Wide-eyed, worshipful kids. Coughlan working around the team, finding cause for congratulation here, for mild rebuke there. Invariably a sob story extraneous to the game itself, but serving to tie what was happening in the change rooms to the expectations of a wider community beyond the sacred doors. Grown men crying openly there in the shed. And slowly the tempo building. Blood quickening. The rational mind becoming dull, the visceral senses taking over. The master orator building it up, building it up, turning the emotions up, still up, to emerge in a frenzied crescendo, a pure soaring impassioned energy fit to change the world.
John Coughlan’s half-time speeches in the shed below the Wynyard grandstand gave me a hint - just a hint - of the dynamics of a Nazi rally of the 1930s. Certainly I can never now doubt the capacity of crowd contagion to unseat the rational faculties of the most disciplined mind. Of course, this type of blood-and-thunder speech has now largely fallen from favour in sporting domains, and it is the general consensus that this is a good thing. Such speechifying is thought to be not effective. Even one of the Coughlan faithful confessed to me that he was inclined to ‘switch off and think about my own game’ when the coach was in full flow, but he was quick to add that ‘the build-up was fantastic - there’s never been anything like it - even if you weren’t taking a lot of note of what he was saying’.
But in these clinical, corporatised, team-switching days I miss that pure, unmediated, un-moneyed commitment. And is there not still more to the matter, an import beyond football? I would not dismiss the dangers posed by the old-fashioned half-time speech as a wider mode of political activity. Those old die-for-the jumper ranters did, if they were any good, draw forth the ravening beast in a man, and I suppose they also softened up, potentially anyway, those inclined to be undiscriminating for less innocent acts of demagoguery. But here's the other side. People are not moved to civic action by cold analysis - they are moved to resist injustice because they are inspired to do so - and inspiration comes from the visceral senses, not the reasoning brain. And the world needs people with the will to work on its behalf. The insistence that emotion-stripped analysis is the only legitimate grounding for action is the way of the global economy and its project of tranforming autonomous citizens into narrowly-rational consumers; no longer free-wheeling, gloriously unpredicatable and autononous, but mere calculating cyphers of the dispassionate market. Firing up the passions can unleash evil on the world, it's true - but it is also the only mechanism for releasing commensurate forces of selfless action in the name of the civic good.
It would make for a neat closure to be able to say that I witnessed the half-time speech at the 1967 State Final. But I didn’t, though I was at the game. I knew many of the combatants on both sides, having gone to school and played junior footy with the greater part of the Wynyard team, and uni with several of the North Hobart boys. In the mid-80s I began interviewing the combatants with a view to writing a book on this one game - though of course the game was to stand as metaphor for the football that was passing away. It was to have been something like Martin Flanagan’s tour-de-force of an essay on the 1970 Carlton-Collingwood Grand Final - though I do not pretend that it would have even approximated the achievement of Martin's masterpiece. In any case I lost my handle on it, and the project, like the game itself, was abandoned.
At the time it seemed inconceivable to me that there could have been better footballers anywhere in Australia than were wearing the blue and white strip of my home team - and so it seems to me still. Where was the wingman in the VFL who could match the cheeky exuberance of ‘Yaffler’ Gaby; or the back-pocket with the mercurial marking and kicking skills of our freakish state back pocket, Kayden Edwards; or the rover with the classical silkiness and pack-reading brilliance of ‘Doola’ King; or the half-forward with the extravagant class and the booming left foot of Tony West? In the '67 Final Tony West played on Jimmy Wright. North Hobart is a club with the most venerable of histories. In a club publication I once saw a ranking of the club’s great champions, and Jimmy was rated the greatest of them all. Rightly so. But on this day in 1967 Tony West turned Jimmy inside out and kicked 5 near-matching winning goals. Still a young man, Westy died before I could interview him. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why I lost the handle on the book. People started to die. One of those who died, still uninterviewed, was John Coughlan.
After leaving football Coughlan became an ALP member of the Tasmanian House of Assembly - where, ironically, he sat upon the government backbenches with his erstwhile nemesis, John Devine. One might have thought that his showmanship, inventiveness, and peerless oratorical prowess would have admirably suited him for this life - but the puzzling truth is that he was a somewhat undistinguished backbencher; nor, in a parliament in which the Hare-Clark system of multi-member representation means that it is not necessary to be particularly popular to be elected, was he a huge vote-winner. A son drowned in a surfing accident. And his own passing, whilst duly noted in the media, was not an occasion for a work-stopping outpouring of communal grief.
But I grieved. 'Stout' constructed much of my youth. His football was my football. Would he have moved with the times; embraced the new game? Possibly so - he was, after all, an innovator and a footballing revolutionary in his own day. But he would surely have lamented the ascendancy of clinical coldness over passion; of the abstract over raw embodiment. ‘To be a good footballer’, he told our under-17s trophy night, ‘you have to be big and you have to be ugly’. A pause whilst he surveyed the room; then: ‘well you blokes are certainly ugly enough.’ As for myself - I’d give heaps to hear another of Coughlan’s half-time calls to combat, to again smell the Penetrene, to shuffle with the transfixed faithful of the town against the sump-oiled crossbeams of the spartan underspace of an old grandstand.
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