Essendon's indigenous revival
Author: Jake Niall
Date: 8th April 2007
Source: The Age

ESSENDON now has a remarkable eight indigenous players on its list, but the club's road to that enlightened destination was a Long one.

Before teenage Northern Territorian Michael Long joined the club for the 1989 season in what Kevin Sheedy called an "experiment", no Aborigine had worn the red and black since Norm McDonald, the fleet-of-foot flanker who played with John Coleman in the club's 1949 and 1950 premierships.

In the coming book, An Illustrated History of Essendon Football Club, Lionel Frost writes that not only was Long the first indigenous footballer at Windy Hill in 36 years - McDonald having retired in 1953 after 128 games - but that Essendon was the sole VFL club not to have at least one Aborigine in its ranks during that period, Even Hawthorn, the club seen as the most lilywhite, boasted one player.

"Things are there to be changed at times and we just, we changed," said Sheedy, who knew little about the first Australians until his then recruiter, Noel Judkins, brought Long down from the Top End, but probably has done more to promote and popularise indigenous football than any other contemporary figure.

Having twice finished in the bottom four with a plodding team, last November Sheedy again went to the indigenous well, drafting three fleet Aborigines to quicken the team pulse. "There's a fair chance you're going to get some (speed) with the Aboriginal boys," he said.

Two of those recruits, Leroy Jetta and Alwyn Davey, made their debuts last Sunday, while Essendon's first pick from 2005, 19-year-old, 197-centimetre Patrick Ryder - whom Sheedy reckoned was the tallest Aborigine to play AFL - was deployed at centre half-back, a position he had never experienced until the pre-season.

This infusion of fresh indigenous blood, fused with Matthew Lloyd's return and Mal Michael's arrival, has already delivered an on-the-road conquest of the Crows, bringing renewed hope and hype. Entering his 27th season at Essendon without a contract beyond this year and with genuine doubts about whether he'll be retained, it could even be said that Sheedy has turned to his old friend, Aboriginal Australia, to bail him out.

Sheedy grinned when it was suggested that he clambered aboard an indigenous life boat. "I hadn't thought of it that way." He said, in a mock American accent: "I'm in trouble . . . I'm saying to you guys, you better get me out me out of the hole I'm in."

The coach's relationship with black Australia has been mutually beneficial; if Sheedy has been the principal promoter of Aborigines in the AFL, they have delivered for him.

Long and Gavin Wanganeen were among the cornerstones of the 1993 premiership, the flag that cemented the notion of Essendon as "the brother team", although one of its brethren, Derek Kickett, has not forgiven Sheedy for dumping him for the '93 grand final. It was about then that the red, black and yellow Aboriginal flag was first sighted swirling in the club's cheer squad. Indigenous flair became entwined with the Essendon and Sheedy brands, enhancing his reputation as innovator and instinctive marketing expert.

"I had no idea how successful it would be, to be honest," he said of the initial Long experiment. "A person, you know, living in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, not meeting many Aboriginal people. Didn't really understand what the problems were, because I didn't even really know much about our own country because it's that big anyway."

While the AFL's national expansion opened the Aboriginal frontier, the advent of the draft played its part, too. In the early to mid-'80s, Victorian clubs were loath to spend those precious "form fours" (allowing them to sign two interstate players each year) on what were perceived as higher maintenance, homesick Aborigines; under a draft system, in which most selections fail, the talent justified the punt. Essendon stole a march by snaring Long and Wanganeen, but it missed on Nicky Winmar, whom Mal Brown, Sheedy's 1974 Richmond teammate, had been urging him to grab from South Fremantle.

"Winmar was one of the first ones we missed out on, because Mal Brown kept saying 'You've got to get this kid, he's a very talented young player. You haven't had any Aboriginals over there for a long time. You should.' "

In 1981, Sheedy was rebuffed in an attempt to recruit Robert "Mad dog" Muir from St Kilda, as club president Greg Sewell persuaded the coach that the explosive Muir was too hot-headed. As Sheedy recalled, Essendon already had the scary scallywag "Rotten" Ronnie Andrews.

"Greg Sewell said 'Kev I want to go out and have lunch with you'. It's kind of funny, he said 'Oh mate, look he's just such a rough and wants to fight' and all the sorts of things we were worried about, you know, with Robbie, because Robbie, you know, he could snap a bit, couldn't he?

"But, it wouldn't worry me taking Robbie Muir . . . he would have sort of opened up the door to Aboriginality maybe six years earlier."

Sheedy views Aboriginal players as a special group, and he is forthright that they must be treated differently - separate but equal. "Don't hide the fact that they play different, because they do. They are indigenous Australians . . . they were here first and we came. They do change it with their speed and agility." This recognition of otherness extends beyond the field, to a culture that Sheedy learnt to accept.

"They taught me how to treat them, and that's very important, for me. I didn't know how." He said he was told "This is how you treat Aboriginal people, because we live life differently', because they do. I felt the same way when I met Italian people and Greek people and people from Europe."

Sheedy's respect for indigenous customs saw him cut Andrew Lovett some slack last year, when the forward was labouring under weighty personal issues. "I think indigenous people really suffer when they lose people close to them . . . I can understand why Michael Long would want to take his family back to Darwin to be near his father."

Sheedy once let Dean Rioli head home mid-season and recently granted Lovett and his cousin, Nathan Lovett-Murray, permission to go bush for the handover of tribal land, a ceremony that clashed with a training session. Ultimately, the cousins chose to stay and train.

Sheedy reckons football has been "the best bridge-building exercise" between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia. "Do they need a stage to build their confidence? I'd probably say yes, and their self-belief systems, yes," he said.

And they have been good to Sheedy, whose desire to be first - ie, a pioneer - is outweighed only by his drive to finish first on the ladder. His embrace of indigenous footballers satisfies both.

Sheedy on Essendon's eight indigenous players


"Most people do (struggle) when they lose (one of) their parents. I think indigenous people really suffer when they lose people close to them."


"Hasn't worked out whether he really loves footy yet and wants to do it. He's just gradually sort of getting there at this club, he's really worked hard to get his weight down. He's looking the best we've had him. But I'm stretching him right now. I'm going to make sure that if he wants it, he's going to have to earn it, and I think we'll win through in the end."


"Hasn't been a great player out of Cairns yet. This boy needs a lot of footy, but has got exceptional talents that could get there in the end. Probably will be another player that, hopefully, 12 months away, we'll be saying 'gee, I'm glad we got him'."


"He's 22, he's got three children and it was so funny coming back on the plane from Adelaide - he's held his baby next to me in the plane coming home. An excellent, smart footballer."


"He's somewhere between (Darren) Bewick and Glenn Hawker. I don't know what that is. But he's only a kid and he could grow a bit more. He's got good skill and beautiful sort of reading of the game. He should have kicked four goals on the weekend . . . the good thing about Leroy is that he copped a whack and got up and kicked two goals afterwards."


"Been an excellent leader at the club. He works his butt off. He's a player who really has to work at his game and he has. He's very dedicated . . . an excellent player, not a great player yet."


"He is going to be a wonderful player. By the time he's 23, the Bomber fans will be very happy that we actually drafted Patrick Ryder."

DEAN DICK (rookie list)

"Doesn't make many errors for a kid who just turned 18 . . . he's been out of northern Australia for a year. That's a huge step to come to train at Essendon, when you're running around with all these blokes called Lloyd and Hird, Johnson and Lucas . . . he's got a lot of work to do, but he's got some real good talent."