'Tiger' Crosswell — A man of his time
“I throw my arms around, I’m exuberant, I yell out on the field, I’m a bit outspoken.”
— Brent Crosswell, May 1975
Boring, dull, or tedious are adjectives you’d never associate with Brent Tasman Crosswell. Possessing an insatiable appetite for the centre stage, and by extension the heat of the spotlight, Crosswell once opined, “Give me a grey day at the Western Oval and I wasn’t worth a cracker, give me 100,000 people at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and I was Hercules”.
Hyperbole? Far from it. For instant Super Hero just add a six-figure crowd.
Making an immediate impression on the mainland in his debut season of 1968, Crosswell helped Carlton end a two-decade title drought. Two Septembers later his best-on-ground performance inspired the Blues to overcome a seven-goal half-time deficit and pip auld enemy Collingwood for the 1970 pennant. At the ripe old age of 20, he had the game beat.
Sadly, the footballing gods had other plans.
When Crosswell contracted the potentially fatal disease osteomyelitis in 1971, it was feared his magnum opus would double as a farewell to footy. His return for the final two games that year provided Carlton a sliver of joy in an otherwise miserable premiership defence. An ankle injury sustained in the later part of the following home and away program robbed him of a place in the Blues upset Grand Final victory in 1972.
Crosswell made it back to the season finale 12 months later but was unable to deny a revenge-intent Richmond physically, mentally and psychologically belting the reigning champs into submission. An injury and suspension-riddled ’74, where he was limited to just four senior appearances, reflected his team’s fortunes. Winning a paltry 10 games the Bluebaggers tumbled out of the competition's elite and missed the finals.
After seven winters plying his trade on Royal Parade, Brent Crosswell’s once blossoming football career had stalled.
Hoping for an immediate return to the upper echelon of the competition, the Blues got their 1975 campaign off to a promising start with a 32-point belting of Geelong. Crosswell had a quiet afternoon and accumulated a mere eight disposals. What the 22,573 spectators who attended the season opener at Kardinia Park didn’t know was that Brent Crosswell’s 98th game in Navy Blue would be his last. After completing a mandatory training session the following Tuesday evening (8 April) he walked out of Princes Park as a member of the Carlton Football Club for the final time.
How ironic. Whilst the nation was transitioning from black-and white to colour television, Australian football's most fascinating character was in self-imposed exile.
Conjecture as to where Crosswell would land kept Melbourne’s football scribes busy over the following few weeks. Carlton scheduled a committee meeting for the evening of Tuesday 15 April with Crosswell’s football future being among the agenda items.The following morning veteran Melbourne Age sports scribe Percy Beames informed his readers that Crosswell was unlikely to return home any time soon:
Tell us, plead Blues – Percy Beames - The Age Wed 16/4/75
Carlton were waiting on the 24-year-old Crosswell to inform club officials of his grievances. Crosswell had walked out on the club Tuesday 8 April.
Crosswell said that the Blues had, “done the wrong thing by him and he was finished with the club”.
Beames cited the possibility of Crosswell being offered to South Melbourne in a straight swap for their disgruntled star John Pitura. Another suggestion floated was that Carlton Premiership hero David McKay could be part of a two-for-one package deal to ensure the Blues snared Pitura. One rumour circulating involved Crosswell and North Melbourne’s Sam Kekovich trading places.
Carlton president Ivan Roht indicated his side would adopt a “wait and see” approach saying:
“We have done nothing officially about Crosswell, all that happened is we have talked about him off the cuff."
Speculation of an imminent swap of Pitura for Crosswell gathered momentum with another doyen of the Melbourne sporting press talking up the potential exchange:
Carlton look to Pitura – Alf Brown Melbourne Herald Monday 21 April 1975
South Melbourne and Carlton have had talks about exchanging John Pitura for two Carlton players, one of the players is disgruntled Brent Crosswell, another Carlton player mentioned is back pocket Vin Waite.
The Brown article shed light on another potential destination for the (voluntarily) exiled Blue:
Crosswell has been in discussion with VFA club Geelong West who it was reported are willing to offer him $500 a game.
With the opening month of the season completed and his VFL career in limbo, the odds of Brent Crosswell moving to the Bellarine Peninsula’s VFA representative shortened.
Roosters set to get Crosswell. Mike Sheahan, The Age Wednesday 7 1975
VFA club Geelong West looks certain today to beat four League (VFL) clubs for the services of controversial Carlton utility player Brent Crosswell.
According to Sheahan the Roosters, sitting atop the VFA table, were about to give their 1975 Premiership hopes a massive shot in the arm:
Crosswell met with Geelong West officials including President Tom Coulter and match committee chairman Robert Gannon and they will report to the Geelong West committee at a 7.00am (7/5) breakfast summit.
Sheahan shed light on who would pick up the bill for the marque signing:
Supporters are believed to be offering Crosswell $500 a game for the Carlton star to cross to the VFA without a clearance.
Twenty-four hours later another suitor claimed pole position in the very public pursuit for the talented Mr Crosswell.
North set to sign Crosswell – Ron Carter, The Age Thursday 8 May 1975
Brent Crosswell’s future in football will be decided this morning – by tonight it's odds-on he will be a North Melbourne player. Carlton is willing to sell Crosswell to another club and North is prepared to pay the price. $30,000 was the suggested amount North bid for Crosswell’s services.
When asked the previous evening of the status of the Crosswell saga, Ivan Roht was quoted thus:
"I’m hoping the Crosswell business will be settled tomorrow. He’s adamant he will not play with Carlton again and we have to be practical.”
Roht was adamant that cash would be the determining factor where Crosswell would eventually surface:
"If he wants to play with another League club and we get a reasonable fee, we’ll clear him."
And so it proved. By the time the afternoon newspapers hit the streets Crosswell was on his way to Arden Street. All that stood between him and a reunion with former boss Ron Barassi was the obligatory paperwork.
Brent cleared to Roos – John Craven Melbourne Herald Thursday 8 May 1975
Crosswell was cleared late yesterday (7 May) with club executives meeting today to work out a transfer fee. Clearance forms were lodged with the VFL early this afternoon.
Whilst neither club discussed the financial impost incurred by the Roos the transfer fee was, as previously reported, believed to be about $30,000.
Selected on a half-forward flank in the North Melbourne reserves team that took on the visiting Bulldogs, Crosswell spent most of the match at centre half-back. Adding weight to the old adage 'absence makes the heart go fonder' he displayed his trademark fire and got into a tangle with Footscray’s Richard Murrie during the third term. A solid contributor to the Roos twos' comprehensive 85-point victory, Crosswell gathered 15 kicks, plucked three marks and distributed seven handballs. He added a goal for good measure.
With his 'off Broadway' run limited to just the one appearance, it was time for Brent Crosswell to reacquaint himself with the competition heavyweights. His debut in royal blue and white vertical stripes promised to be a baptism of fire
Hard debut for Brent – Ron Carter, The Age Friday 16 May 1975
Brent Crosswell, the latest of North Melbourne’s big buys, will start earning his money tomorrow against Collingwood at VFL Park. Crosswell has been named at centre half-back for his first game with the Kangaroos and faces one of his toughest assignments. His opponent is Collingwood’s boom recruit Phil Carman who has been holding the Magpie attack together.
If the Tiger v Fabulous match up didn’t have the football public salivating, the contents of a tell-all interview Crosswell granted Inside Football’s Geoff Poulter surely would have whet their appetites for the showdown. Looking resplendent in a Geelong West jumper (Crosswell had trained at Geelong West on Thursday 1 May, but hadn’t signed with the Roosters), the incendiary front page headline reminded the football world what they’d missed over the past month.
Crosswell tells – “I’m not Psycho” -— Inside Football May 17 1975
Always good for a colourful quote, or ten, the North Melbourne newbie didn’t disappoint giving his take on the following subjects:—
To critics who doubted his commitment:
“People think I’ve just been kidding around with Carlton and then Geelong West. I’ve heard all these remarks. Well, that’s not true”
How his period in exile had affected his studies — he was in final year of an economics degree at Monash University:
“I’ve had trouble sleeping”, adding that the uncertainty was, “affecting his studies. It was impossible to attend some lectures”.
His dispute with Carlton was based on security (length of contract) rather than take-home cash:
“Basically I wanted a long-term agreement to avoid the almost yearly hassle and uncertainty.”
As for the rumoured move to the second tier Victorian Football Association:
“Geelong West made a genuine offer. Everyone knows the offer was $500 a match. My intention was, then, to play with them. Carlton weren’t communicating and it was only when they sensed I was genuine about a move to the VFA they made a move.”
His new home:
“North seemed like a good club — progressive, on the way”, and, “I’m really taking it (football) seriously now. I’m determined to settle down and give North Melbourne my best.”
The impending reunion with his former mentor at Carlton, Ron Barassi (right):
“He’s a good coach.”
On leaving Carlton:
“There are no hard feelings. I’m extremely gratified they released me so I could continue playing league football. I still have many friends in the club.”
Being labelled psycho, temperamental, unstable, big headed, moody and a rebel:
“It’s a brand, a pattern, something you’re stuck with. I’m sorry to disappoint all you people but Brent Crosswell is not like that.”
His expectations, both short and long term:
“The exciting part about it all is that I’ve still got time to show my true ability, to be part of a successful team. I hope it doesn’t sound conceited but I honestly believe I have at least five years of top football ahead of me.”
Prior to the opening siren Crosswell swapped places with the mercurial in Malcolm Blight (left). Blight, dominant in defence the previous week against Footscray, moved to centre half-back.
A six-week hiatus between senior assignments wasn’t evident as Crosswell dominated his Collingwood opponent and future dual Brownlow Medallist Peter Moore. Wayne Gordon’s attempts to quell Crosswell’s influence also proved futile. It was no fault of the new recruit that the Kangaroos trailed the Pies by nine points when the final siren sounded. Named as North’s best, Crosswell collected 21 kicks, took 12 marks and dished out six handballs.
A 15-point loss to Des Tuddenham’s Bombers a fortnight later saw the Shinboners slump to a 3-6 record. Tumbling to tenth spot on the table, North Melbourne’s mission to land their maiden VFL title was officially on life support. In his Monday morning review of the previous weekend’s activities, Percy Beames believed the Gasometer Gang would have to wait another year to realise the ever-elusive pennant.
“The in and out Roos would have to win 11 of their last 13 games to have any hope of making the 1975 Finals. I cannot see them doing it.”
Percy’s prognostication proved prescient. The Roos got rolling and went 11-2 over the remainder of the home and away fixture to finish in third place. Their reward? An invaluable 'double chance'.
Playing 14 of a possible 16 senior games after his May arrival, Brent Crosswell enjoyed his most consistent season of senior football since 1970. Contributing in myriad positions across the ground, his efforts would’ve heartened both Barassi and the off-field staff who had engineered his release from Carlton. But, as advertised earlier, the Launceston-born Crosswell lusted the limelight and large audiences integral to September football. Borrowing from a political slogan earlier in the decade, it was time.
Drawing Carlton in the Qualifying Final provided Crosswell and his coach an opportunity to extract revenge on their former employer. Outscoring their opponents in all four quarters the Kangaroos' final winning margin of 20 points flattered the Blues. Next up, Hawthorn at VFL Park, with direct entry to the season finale the prize for the victor.
For the third time in as many meetings in 1975 John Kennedy’s men jumped out to an early advantage. In trying conditions the Hawks lead at every change and advanced to the clubs fourth Grand Final with an 11-point win. Tasked with minding the dangerous John Hendrie, Crosswell kept the damaging left-footer forward in check and was named amongst the best for North. The loss didn’t end the Shinboners pennant push but did condemn them to a sudden death repechage with their conquerors of the previous season — Richmond.
The first hour of the first ever Preliminary Final staged at Waverley proved to be a close affair with the Roos five points up at half time — 5.6 (36) to 4.7 (31). With all four Tiger goals to his name, Allan Edwards was the standout forward on the field. If not for the efforts of the rookie teenager, North Melbourne may have already booked a place in the following weekend's decider.
Originally selected in a forward pocket, Brent Crosswell was quiet early and at half time was moved into defence were he lined up on Gareth Andrews. Stretching the margin to a handy if not insurmountable 14 points at the final change, the Kangaroos would have expected a final charge from Tom Hafey’s men — and that’s exactly what they got.
Crosswell, now marking Edwards, had managed to quell the young Richmond forward’s influence. He came to his side's rescue when he prevented Noel Carter’s shot on goal from registering maximum points. But the Tigers weren’t done for and, with time-on looming, a mere six points separated the combatants.
When four time premiership winning ruckman Michael Green marked deep in a forward pocket it appeared certain he would tie the scores. Rather than take the set shot Green, believing he was unattended, played on. A desperate lunge from Crosswell and fellow defender Frank Gumbleton managed to wrest possession of the ball from Green. A rushed behind reduced the gap to less than a kick. Green’s miss allowed North Melbourne to find its second wind. Arnold Briedis and Wayne Schimmelbusch added a little insurance with the last two majors of the match and the Shinboners' maiden premiership dreams remained alive.
Crosswell, whose final quarter efforts would be described by the Herald's Alf Brown as “match saving”, could now prepare for his fifth VFL Grand Final. Having just ended one dynasty, the men from Arden Street could now focus on creating their own.
History beckoned. A full capacity concrete colosseum awaited. Saturday, September 27 1975 was the sort of day Brent Crosswell longed for.
As mentioned earlier, Hawthorn had won all first quarters in their three previous meetings with North Melbourne in 1975. Establishing a lead, any lead, whilst not essential would give the Kangas a psychological boost and quell any nerves. A John Burns goal within 90 seconds of the opening bounce provided the Roos with an ideal start. Hawthorn responded with a six-pointer to Barry Rowlings, but from there on North steadied and took a two-goal buffer to the quarter time break.
Given his penchant for prime time, it was no surprise that Brent Crosswell was at the vanguard of the Roos first term offensive. A rock in defence, Crosswell grabbed 10 possessions (eight kicks ans two handballs), took two marks and continually drove his team forward. A brilliant, bustling 50-metre running goal halfway through the quarter gave notice that it was 'his', and by extension the Kangaroos' day.
The further the game went, the wider the margin grew. When the siren sounded North Melbourne 19.8 (122) had defeated Hawthorn 9.13 (67). On an emotional day that saw the Kangaroos procure the glittering prize they’d coveted for half a century, none served them better than Brent Crosswell. Amassing 18 kicks and six handballs as well as taking nine marks, Crosswell marshalled a solid Kangaroo backline that kept the Hawks well below their season average of 105 points per game.
Judged best afield by four of the five Melbourne Herald footy scribes who covered the game, Crosswell had justified the faith his new club had shown when acquiring his services five months earlier. In his Monday review of the game Percy Beames was glowing in his praise of North’s early season acquisition:
North’s flag, Blues Blunder. Crosswell the winning move – The Age, Monday September 29 1975
Carlton can take some of the credit — or blame — for North Melbourne’s history-making Grand Final win over Hawthorn on Saturday. By allowing Brent Crosswell to cross to North Melbourne after seven rounds this year the Blues may have decided the premiership.
The Kangaroos were a good side before Crosswell arrived. With him they became the outstanding League combination of 1975. At the same time I believe Crosswell’s switch may well have cost Carlton the flag.
The following day Beames named Crosswell on a half-forward flank in his VFL “side of the year”. Joining their freshly minted teammate in Percy’s premier posse were John Rantall (back pocket), Keith Greig (centre), Barry Davis (ruck rover) and Barry Cable (rover). The decision to name Crosswell on a forward flank, rather than in defence, was simple:
For the past couple of weeks Crosswell starred in defence for North but the former Carlton star can shine anywhere. Early this season Crosswell filled centre half-forward, full forward and the half-forward flank.
With Operation Premiership accomplished, Crosswell could bask in the glory of a third VFL pennant. His fourth and final premiership triumph would follow in 1977 when the Kangaroos defeated a plucky Tom Hafey-coached Collingwood side. After the initial Grand Final ended in a draw, the sides reconvened a week later with the Roos prevailing by 28 points, 21.25 (151) to 19.10 (124).
From his debut in May 1975 through to a losing Preliminary Final in September 1979, Brent Crosswell played a total of 76 games for North Melbourne, taking in the Grand Finals of 1975, 1976 and 1977 (including the rematch). The final stop on his 15-season VFL football odyssey involved a three-year stint at Melbourne (1980-82), the last two seasons under the watchful eye of Ron Barassi. Crosswell represented the Demons on 48 occasions.
Both Carlton and North Melbourne have honoured Brent Crosswell, having awarded him life membership of their respective clubs. Crosswell was inducted into the Tasmanian Football Hall of Fame in 2005 and was upgraded to icon status in 2012. In retirement he has shared his unique view of matters football, politics and culture in various publications and books. His efforts are believed to have inspired contemporary football voices such as Martin Flanagan and Bob Murphy. Sadly, Crosswell has battled Meniere’s disease since the mid-1990s
“Jacko (Mark Jackson) was a commercially manufactured character. Tiger Crosswell was the real thing” — Len Thompson¹
When Brent Crosswell made his big league debut on Easter Monday 1968, the country’s premier indigenous football competition, the VFL, was a different beast to the modern day AFL. It begs the question — would a young man with a similar disposition to a 1968 model Brent Tasman Crosswell be considered for a spot on an AFL list half a century later? The conservative, somewhat 'vanilla' philosophy espoused by all stakeholders in the nation’s leading sporting competition suggests otherwise.
Let’s give thanks the Tiger was a man of his time. Our time. He was right on time.
A huge thank you to my great friend Angelo Cristoforo for making available some of the documents used to research this topic/piece.
1. “1970” by Martin Flanagan, Allen & Unwin.