John Todd - West Australian champion
John Todd’s eventful 41-year career as a player and coach kicked off in superb style when, aged 17 in his debut season in 1955, he became the youngest winner of the Sandover Medal. Although a persistent knee injury reduced Todd’s career to 132 games over 12 seasons, it fortified his coaching aspirations. At 20, he became the youngest coach in WAFL history and eventually retired as the oldest (64), most experienced (721 games) and most successful (six premierships at three clubs).
This is an extract from Champions: Conversations with Great Players & Coaches of Australian Football by Ben Collins, available through the Slattery Media Group.
I wanted to be the best player the game had seen. It was a vision I had. Perhaps it was out of reach, but I was shooting for the top and I was hell-bent on achieving it. I had tunnel vision – sheer, dogged, single-mindedness. I was always confident I’d play League football.
I knew that if I trained while others slept, I had to be in front. It’s not just a matter of training when the team trains; it’s about what you do on your own to improve yourself. I felt that if I put in the time, I’d be rewarded. I spent countless hours running around ovals and trying to hone my skills, be it on my own or with other boys. I’d hang tyres off trees to practise my handballing and I’d try to kick the ball through doorways and gates. Everything was a potential bullseye or goalmouth. I also taught myself to kick with both feet and turn both ways.
My first reserves game for South Fremantle went like a dream. They were hit by a bout of chickenpox and I was promoted from the under-18s to play in the 1954 reserves Grand Final. Mum didn’t want me to play because I was tiny – I played my first senior game the next year at only 10st. 2lb. (64.4kg) – but thankfully she relented because I played in a premiership side. I also kicked seven goals from a half-forward flank. The best thing about it was the celebrations at Fremantle Oval – the senior side won the premiership as well. I thought: ‘I want more of this’.
I was in awe of nobody. I knew I had the skill, ability and fitness to pick up the tempo of senior football. Things worked out well that year (1955). I won the Sandover Medal (WAFL best and fairest), played state football and South made the preliminary final and should have gone further.
I didn’t let success go to my head. I consciously blocked out all the hype and set my mind on being better the next year. If you don’t improve in some way each year, and keep stretching the boundaries of what you are capable of, you become a sitting duck.
I was a butcher by trade, which had its pros and cons when it came to football. From Thursday to Saturday, I’d be up at 4am. Before I got a car, I had to pedal my bike about 5km for a 5am start and, on weekdays, work until 5pm with only a half-hour break. Then I’d go to training. On Saturdays, I’d start at 5am and work until 12.30pm, then play football. But I wasn’t complaining, and I certainly wasn’t the only person who had to divide his time. I wanted to make the grade as a butcher and a footballer, so it meant looking after myself. Working on a game-day was actually helpful because it kept me occupied and I didn’t play the game in my mind. Before one game, they organised for another butcher to cover for me so I could sleep in. It was the worst thing I could have done because it broke my routine. I woke up at the same time as normal, 4am, and didn’t know what to do with myself. And I played poorly, which ended that little experiment.
I was selective with my friends. You have to be a very strong-willed person to say no to peer pressure. As a coach, I always said: “Choose your friends carefully because a lot of people don’t want you to make it. You might think they’re your friends, but they’re not going to make it themselves, so they’ll try to destroy you. Mix with the right people”. It’s even more important today as there are more distractions and footballers are treated like celebrities.
I became a reliable shot for goal, but that wasn’t always the case. I once kicked 13 points in a school game! I received great advice from Bernie Naylor (who kicked 1034 goals for South Fremantle in 209 games from 1941-54). He figured: “They’ve given me the ball; it’s my responsibility to kick a goal”. I watched Bernie kick 23.2 against Subiaco and 19.1 against East Fremantle. At training, he’d have countless shots at goal from 35-40 metres out and they’d go through post-high. I asked him: “Why don’t you practise from further out?” He said: “If I get my timing and rhythm from this distance, when I’m forced out to 60 yards (54.6 metres), I’ll kick that distance easily”. I preached “rhythm and timing”, but some blokes thought it was boring. Forget boring, it’s frustrating watching blokes miss half their shots at goal!
Some people said I was too courageous for my own good. But I didn’t go along with that. It was just the way I played. I went for the ball no matter what position I was in – and to hell with the consequences. It was almost blind courage. Normally, you get through unscathed, but occasionally someone catches up with you. It only takes one time.
The great Jack Sheedy taught me a lesson in a (Fremantle) derby in my first year. I came out of a pack and Jack, a great exponent of the hip-and-shoulder, could have nailed me, but he just wrapped me in a tackle and said: “You’re valuable on the field, son, not off it”. I had to be smarter and less gung-ho.
Knee problems shattered my world. In my second season, not long after my 18th birthday, a pack of players collapsed on my left leg and tore my anterior cruciate ligament. People said that if I’d been more street-smart, it wouldn’t have happened. But I always thought: ‘Why pass up an opportunity to get the ball?’ It was just an accident.
I was seriously depressed. Several specialists said: “Your career is over”. It was the worst period of my life. Mum said it felt like there was a death in the family because I didn’t talk to anyone. She tired of it, so she sat me down and said: “You’ve got no guts”. They were harsh words from a mother to a son, but she wanted me to snap out of my self-pity and get on with life. I thought: ‘I’ll prove you wrong, Mum’.
I had to change my game if I wanted to play again. A specialist said: “You could play if you can change your game. Run in straight lines, avoid turning and don’t fly for the ball”. I thought: ‘How the hell will I do that?’ But where there’s a will there’s a way, and I wasn’t prepared to give up.
I never expected any special treatment. I came back through the thirds (under-19s) just to see if I could change the way I played. Not many Sandover Medallists went back to the thirds, but it was what I had to do.
Playing with discomfort is a test of character. I wore this uncomfortable one-and-a-half pounds (0.68kg) knee-brace that chafed the back of my knee until the skin became raw. And some days when I ran out onto the ground, I was so proppy I thought: ‘I don’t know how I’m going to get through the game’. It was a bit easier on a softer surface, but WA grounds are usually hard and dry. I completed only about half of the 132 (WAFL) games I’ve been credited with.
A setback isn’t the end; it’s a challenge to overcome. My injury woes hardened me for coaching and taught me a lot of aspects of coaching. I could relate to players who were confronted with similar issues.
I was a senior coach at 20. It was ridiculous to thrust such a young person into a coaching role. Clive Lewington had coached the club to six Grand Finals and four flags in nine years and they wanted to replace him. But instead of talking honestly to him, they used me, and I was too immature to realise it. That’s the one area of football that hasn’t been improved. Everyone except the coach knows that he’s being sacked. They should sit him down and say: “We feel like we’re not getting anywhere and we need a change for these reasons”. The coach wouldn’t necessarily agree, but he could at least understand why.
I had no idea about coaching when I started. I was a lunatic because I expected everyone else to make the same sacrifices and train as hard as I did, and I let them know in no uncertain terms if they didn’t. I’ve learned there’s more to coaching than that.
I’m proud of the record of my teams in Grand Finals. I coached in seven Grand Finals and we won six of them. Ironically, the one we lost was with the best side I’d coached – the 1980 Swan Districts side, which was beaten by my old club, South Fremantle. The players just expected it to happen. I was devastated after that loss. From then on, I became even tougher on the players. I sacked a lot of players because I wasn’t happy with their attitude. I decided: ‘If we’re going to get to a Grand Final, we’re going to win’, so I put them to the sword to ensure they were mentally tough enough to cope with the game that counted most. That’s what happened – we won our next five Grand Finals.
I challenged my players like you wouldn’t believe. I dropped them, trained them until they dropped, and put them under enormous pressure – just to see how they reacted. Would they fight back? Would they leave the club? I also gave young players an opportunity, which didn’t always go down well with more experienced players who made way for them. They either had to be a part of it or move on because we weren’t going to waste our time getting to a Grand Final only to lose.
I’d have mutiny on my hands if I coached my way today. Fire-and-brimstone doesn’t work these days. It’s debatable whether my coaching style was right or wrong, but it got results. You could mollycoddle players, but would you be successful? If you win, you’ll be remembered for how you went about it; if you lose, they won’t talk to you.
I had to change my ways over the decades. Years ago, you could say: “We’re going to do it this way, end of story”, but players progressively wanted to understand why, and I had to explain things more. I handled individuals differently. But there can be no compromise on discipline. Without it, you won’t achieve much.
I was volatile and probably a little mad, but there was method in the madness. I prided myself on being up-front and honest – even if it meant being brutally honest. I’d rather tell people things to their faces and risk the consequences than go behind their backs to avoid the heat. Most players, in hindsight, respect the way I went about it, even if they didn’t understand it at the time.
I deliberately criticised some players publicly. A lot of people didn’t agree with it, but it was a conscious ploy. I wanted to make the player measure up to his responsibilities by exposing him to our supporters and embarrassing him, so he had to either change his ways or we wouldn’t succeed anyhow. I could’ve done that behind closed doors, but when supporters watch the team play every week they’re entitled to know when a player isn’t pulling his weight.
I came to blows with a couple of players. I felt they were letting the team down and I wanted to shake them up a bit to let them know the team couldn’t function without them. Frustration got the better of me, but throwing punches wasn’t the right way to go. You wouldn’t dream of hitting a player now.
There’s a fine line between genius and dunce. And sometimes a coach has to strike a raw nerve. The biggest gamble I ever took was dropping our (Swan Districts) respected captain Stan Nowotny before the 1983 preliminary final. I had to get some passion back into the team, so I used Stan for that reason. I let the players know of Stan’s omission in a team meeting and there were grown men crying. I was trying to hold back tears myself. All I could say was: “Go out there and win for him”. They played their hearts out and we won by about 15 goals. We brought Stan back for the Grand Final and, when he ran onto the ground halfway through the first quarter, the crowd erupted. Our boys were playing on pure adrenalin and we were certainties. I told Stan afterwards: “I don’t think we could have won without it”, but he didn’t talk to me for six months.
Be prepared to do almost anything to get your side out of a slump. We (Swan Districts) won the 1982 premiership, but started slowly in 1983. Instead of training them harder than ever, I asked a hairdresser to stick as much hair to a football as she could and then I made the players train with it. I told them it was covered with pubic hair! It broke the tension and we went on to win another premiership.
Even in the worst loss, there is always a positive. When you know you aren’t going to win, it’s time to experiment and find out whether blokes can play in other positions. When Murray Rance (who later played for Footscray and West Coast) played under me at Swan Districts, (former Carlton star) Peter Bosustow kicked 11 goals on him and I sent out the message to Murray: “I’m not shifting you; either fight through it or be humiliated”. I wanted to see how they coped under trying conditions.
I did most of my thinking during long drives at night. I found it hard to unwind after games, so I’d go for a drive, replay the game in my mind, work out how we could improve and what we would do at training. I wanted to get away from people after games because I was very vulnerable then. At times, when I was disappointed, I’d strike out on the spot and make comments I later regretted – and it wasn’t pleasant. I learned very early to let the dust settle in my mind.
Most coaches will enjoy some level of success if they have support at board level. People appointed to coaching positions usually have the ability and nous; it’s just a matter of how long they have support. Many people in charge of football clubs want instant success because it’s an ego trip for them, but when you take on struggling clubs, as I always did, it takes time. (Swan Districts president) John Cooper was what every coach would have loved – a strong man who gave me great support. Some of John’s best friends, former teammates, told him: “Get rid of Todd”, but he said: “No, he’s staying”, and a few years later the club was rewarded with three flags in a row. Without John’s support, it wouldn’t have happened.
The first 10 minutes of a match are crucial from a psychological point of view. It’s not about dominating, but psyching out the opposition. Try to stop your opponent from getting the first kick of the match, and place him under enormous pressure to put doubt in his mind. A lot of blokes like to get a touch early to get into the game, but I went a little bit the other way: “Let your opponent know he’s got a real fight on his hands”.
First thought, best thought. Your first instinct is almost always best, and that goes for players and coaches. I often abandoned a game plan before or early in a game because I knew it wouldn’t work that day. Don’t stick to a plan just because you’ve put a lot of time into it. Sometimes you have to swallow your pride and take a different tack.
I tried to make it ‘us against the rest’ – like war. I often got into trouble for being outspoken. I was uncomfortable when things seemed too comfortable. If you just go with the flow, you can lose momentum, and it can take a long time to get it back, so I tried to create some friction and capitalise on it. It worked at times and backfired at others.
Football is mostly played above the shoulders. Ability is only 30 per cent of it; the other 70 per cent relates to mental toughness. It never ceases to amaze me how some players seem to disappear in a game, especially if they don’t get a touch early.
There’s a fine line between success and failure. I coached Australia in Ireland in 1984 after winning the State of Origin series. We beat SA by a point after a dispute about whether our winning point was kicked before or after the siren. We then beat the Vics by three points. Virtually the same thing happened in the lead-up to the next series two years later and I coached Australia again. If we’d lost by those small margins, my CV wouldn’t look as impressive.
Coaching West Coast confirmed I could compete at the highest level. I already had great belief in my ability, but it proved that the big names were no better than I was. We had no facilities, but my first year (1988) went to plan – we made the finals for the first time and were unlucky not to win the elimination final against Melbourne.
My second season with the Eagles was my toughest in footy. The Eagles were broke and we had to build our list from 35 players to 52. My suggestion, which the club adopted, was to top up with AFL-registered players based in WA, who wouldn’t cost us anything. They’d be ‘sleepers’ and only play in an emergency. But we had a lot of injuries and played sleepers who weren’t ready. We had a terrible year. The backlash was something I’d never experienced. I was like a leper. I didn’t have any support.
The success you have as a coach is minimal compared to the time you put in. The criticisms also far outweigh the accolades. Not many people tell a coach: “Well done”. Coaching is a lot harder than playing. But if God asked me: “I’ll give you the choice between 300 games as a coach or 300 games as a player”, I’d say: “300 games as a player”, without any hesitation, because you have more control of your destiny.
Longevity comes with persistence. I’m regarded as a success, but it took 20 years to win my first flag, and I won six in 40-odd attempts. History says it’s not a bad success rate, but there has been a lot of failure.
Born: May 21, 1938
South Fremantle 1955-66: 132 games.
Honours: Sandover Medal 1955; South Fremantle best and fairest 1955, 1958, 1961; All-Australian 1961; South Fremantle captain 1959, 1961-62.
South Fremantle 1959, 1966-68, 1995-98: 172 games, 83 wins, 88 losses, 1 draw, 48% winning percentage, premiership 1997.
East Fremantle 1973-76: 87 games, 45 wins, 41 losses, 1 draw, 52% winning percentage, premiership 1974.
Swan Districts 1977-87, 1990-94, 2000-02: 417 games, 217 wins, 200 losses, 54% winning percentage, premierships 1982, 1983, 1984, 1990.
West Coast 1988-89: 45 games, 20 wins, 25 losses, 44% winning percentage.
Australia 1984 (series win), 1986 (tied series).
Total: 721 games, 365 wins, 354 losses, 2 draws, 51% winning percentage; member, Australian Football Hall of Fame.
© Slattery Media Group. Not to be used without permission in writing. Copies of Champions, Conversations with Great Players & Coaches of Australian Football can be purchased at Slattery Media.In this article: