The Swan from Salisbury North — Michael O'Loughlin
MICHAEL O’LOUGHLIN — Sydney (303 games, 1995-2009)
I come from the Yorke Peninsula, the oldest of six. What I remember as a kid is barbecues with everyone kicking a footy, throwing a ball, playing cricket—any sport. Back yards, not being as big as they should be, yet everyone joining in, uncles, aunties, cousins, whatever; playing footy with a soccer ball or whatever was at hand. Growing up in Salisbury North, 20 minutes out of Adelaide, going back and forth to our community in the Yorke Peninsula, everybody played football, you went to carnivals, you were always watching your father and uncles playing, your mum and aunties playing netball, so it was a natural progression to play yourself.
I did not even know the VFL existed until I was about 11 or 12. I followed Central District in the South Australian comp because my uncle, Wilbur Wilson, played there and he was a bit of an inspiration for me to look up to. He was the only one playing semi-professionally, appearing on TV and that, but I didn’t realise that you might be able to make a living out of it.
My father’s from Ngarrindjeni and Raukkan. Ngarrindjeni is the Indigenous nation around the lakes of the lower Murray. And my mother’s from the Noarlunga mob, traditionally a part of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains. I was brought up a city slicker but spent a lot of time back in the community growing up, for holidays, special occasions and so on. There’s a massive indigenous population in Salisbury North and nearby Elizabeth, and I have a massive family back there. To listen to the old boys, Dad was quite a player, but he was in and out of our lives. Mum was the pillar.
A lot of my of mates work in the Holden factory there or jail, and are doing it pretty tough. Not a lot to do there, beside playing pokies or bingo or pinching cars. Or kicking balls around. It can be pretty rough, a lot of crime, a lot of alcohol, drugs. The Snowtown murders took place across the road from the high school I went to. But it’s an amazing place: everyone knows everyone and if you’re struggling people will help you out. Footy plays a massive part in that community. It’s a religion, as it is throughout Adelaide, and can be a bit of escape.
As a little five, six, seven-year-old kid, you were out the back, behind 20 other kids trying to get the footy. You mightn’t get it for an hour and a half; the big kids wouldn’t let you touch it. So when you did, you had to make it count. But that sort of scrappy, improvised, free-for-all is a great way to learn. I’ve seen it in South America when I’ve been on a coaching course there: little barefoot kids as young as five, under bridges or on any scrap of spare land, playing street-ball. No wonder they’re so good.
With our Indigenous footy you play wherever you can, the backyard, the street. You play, you see a car coming, you stop. The car goes, you’re away again. You always have a footy in your hands. You go to sleep with it. And then you start thinking, “I’m OK at this and might make a go of it,” and then the hard work, sacrifice and discipline begins.
I’d played juniors for the local club, the Salisbury North Hawks, with other Indigenous kids who went on to the big league: Gav Wanganeen, Troy and Shane Bond, my brother Ricky and Shane Tongerie, who played a few for the Crows, all of us from the one little club, and the club’s really proud of that. It’s terrific to see so many more Indigenous players in the game now. But my attitude was always, love you to death off the field, brother, but on the field I’ll do anything to stop you. If my own brother got in my way, I’d try to knock him out. I’m a very competitive person. I was never one for ringing people up before games or standing around and chatting after the game. I was always first off when we lost. If we’ve been beaten, I don’t want to loiter at the end of the game, I want another crack at them.
Sydney took a punt on me and drafted me. When I turned up there for pre-season, I hadn’t played against men, only boys, and had absolutely no idea of what would be involved. When we started training, I won the first lap and thought that was it. But there were eight more, and all the sprinting we then did, and I came last in each one. For the first month I was billeted out and all I wanted to do was to go home. It was so hard, so taxing on the body. I couldn’t walk with the amount of running they did. They had to take me off running and put me on a stationary training bike. The Swans must have shaken their heads and wondered, “What have we picked up from Adelaide?” I was out of my depth. But if you tell me there’s something I can’t do, I’m the sort of bloke who’ll stay there and do it. From my point of view it was about proving people wrong. When I got drafted, there were those in Adelaide who said, “Congratulations”. The next thing they said was, “He won’t last.” Or, “Why did he get drafted?” But that’s life, there are always people who are jealous, and there are always people who are better than you. Always. But there’s nobody who works harder. That’s the belief I had. I worked harder, and made more sacrifices. I kept at it until the training and physical effort became addictive. I make no apologies for the success I’ve had. It’s all through hard work.
It’s a common theme in the community where I grew up that many of the guys who had great talent chose to do other things. I’m sure that now they’d think about it, many would do it differently, but it was drummed into me from very early by my mother and my grandmother, and even my great grandmother and my uncle Wilbur, that smoking and carrying on and walking the streets wasn’t the way to go. I was taught if you drank before a game, you were going to play shithouse. I’m no angel. Hey, I don’t mind a party, but if it’s on a Friday night, I’m not drinking. I was the oldest of six and I saw my mother struggle to provide food and clothing. I thought, “There has to be a better way.” I’ve always accepted responsibility for that sort of stuff. For me, it was a no-brainer. I’m the oldest, I’ve got to look after the family. How am I going to do that? Well, I’m OK at school, but I’m not going to become a professor anytime soon, what else am I good at? Footy was the one that came straight to me. I had talent at football and thought that might be the way to change our family’s lives.
The first six months in Sydney I rang home every day, and cried and carried on. But my mum is a pillar of strength. She also rules with an iron fist and said, “You’re not coming home. The only reason you’d come home is if you don’t make it.” If it wasn’t for Mum, I’d have probably gone back to Adelaide.
I was really lucky to be in the 1994 draft. I turned up along with ‘Plugger’ (Tony Lockett, right) and ‘Roosy’ (Paul Roos), Shannon Grant, Anthony Rocca and my great mates, Matthew Nicks and Leo Barry—a pretty handy crew. Ron Barassi’s reputation was intimidating but he was a lovely guy and he was really important in promoting the game and demanding respect for the team, and that had been in short supply in Sydney in the early ’90s.
For me personally to get the trust and respect of the other guys I had to change a lot of things. I was only 70 kilos when I came here, so I had to change my body type, change how I trained, what I ate— everything. I used to have a cheeseburger every day. I haven’t had one for 21 years. I was so shy, I could hardly get two words out. But you can’t stand at the back of the line at a footy club. You have to ask questions to learn.
This club’s like my original community in that you pay respect to your elders. If you’ve put on the red and white jumper, whether for three games or 300, and are passionate about the club, we’re passionate about you. The best thing about this footy club is how we acknowledge and respect all of our past players. That’s really important because if you think about the struggles this club’s had, from being near to extinction, to bottom of the ladder, private ownership, small crowds and so on, and then look at us now, you realise that if you don’t remember where you come from you don’t know where you’re going. That wasn’t the case when the club moved to Sydney in the ’80s. Billy Williams, a champion from the ’40s and ’50s, names like his weren’t on the lockers back then but they are now and that’s really important.
These days clubs pair up new players with mentors, but back then it was “monkey see, monkey do”. Paul Kelly (left) started as a shy country kid but he was one who set the example of how you train, which is always to do more than what is strictly necessary. In the second half of the ’90s he was just indestructible with a tremendous work ethic and really generous to the young guys. You gravitate towards these people; if I was 70 kilos when I came to Sydney, I was 93 when I finished and in part that was because I wanted to be as muscled and powerful as Paul Kelly. Another thing I did was get hooked on boxing, so I started doing sessions with the boxing coach in addition to the sessions at the club. It was all about the extra effort needed to improve.
I spent my early years playing on the backline and midfield, but then I hurt my knees, moved permanently to the forward line and had to change my body size. So I did the boxing and the weights, given that I’m not very tall and had to be stronger to play on (Matthew) Scarlett or (Darren) Glass and so on. For the last six or seven years of my career, I did a modified training program, using the pool and sliding machine rather than full sessions with the others. Which was hard, often training by myself, but Roosy knew I had to do that to get my body right to get through games.
Oddly enough, Plugger was the first player I met in Sydney. When I turned up, an official took me to have a jog with another new recruit. I assumed it would be Rocca or Shannon Grant, but it was Plugger. We had a gentle jog along the beach and I couldn’t get the grin off my face. That night I rang everyone back home to tell them. Then for years I had the best seat in the house watching him play, getting a spray if I didn’t kick the ball to him, which was fair enough. He was a very, very funny man in the locker room, too. I don’t think people understand how much he helped put the Swans back on the map after the dismal early ’90s. I’m really lucky to call him a mate.
The ’96 Grand Final team was a fantastic group. We’d just missed the finals in ’95 but we’d been down for so long and no one thought we would get anywhere, so ’96 there was no weight of expectation on us. Rodney Eade (below) was a first-year coach. We lost the first two games, then we started hitting our straps. Plugger, Roos, Paul Kelly and a good group of young guys. We’d trained real hard and knew we were fit. When Plugger kicked that point (in the Preliminary Final), I was the first to jump on him cheering, “We’re going to the Grand Final,” then everyone else piled on. He just said, “Get the fuck off me!” He had a sore groin.
We didn’t win but it was a fantastic experience for us all, and for me as a young kid. The thing about Grand Finals is that they really are much more intensive; you might normally have two seconds to get rid of the ball but in a Grand Final you’ve only one second. I actually thought that the 1998 team was better and should have made the Grand Final that year. We were knocked out of it by Adelaide at the SCG in the wet. It was close but they really taught us a lesson that night.
Then after some success in the ’90s we fell away a bit. I think we were rather stale, me included. Rodney’s a great coach, very smart, and I liked him, but he had problems with some players and was removed as coach. So we had to reassess what we wanted to be as a club and whether we were going to cruise or do things differently and be successful again. That’s where Stuey Maxfield was so important, along with Roosy, in cranking up the expectations about how we trained and behaved. Now good enough was no longer good enough, and we all had to be accountable to each other. That’s been a major strength of the club ever since.
The push to get Roos to coach, that was really the supporters. The players weren’t as actively involved, as I recall. If we were asked, I think most of us said that we were keen on a change and that we’d love Roosy to coach us. We wanted him but we didn’t send deputations to the chairman or anything. It turned out to be a master-stroke.
In ’05 we won after 70 years, and that was fantastic for me and my people, and of course for my other mob, the Swans people. To show the premiership cup to the old Bloods supporters was incredibly moving.
That also started the epic battles against West Coast, when for several years the margin was never more than a goal. I loved those games, particularly at Subiaco. Your 22 against their 22, in front of 48,000 people calling you every name under the sun. Nothing beats playing the best in hostile territory when you’re not supposed to win. You really challenge yourself to test yourself against a (John) Worsfold or (Guy) McKenna. I know John really well now and he’s a nice guy. Then, he’d belt the shit out of you but if you weren’t intimidated and kept going for the ball you’d earn his respect. McKenna gave me a couple of the biggest baths I ever had. He was just so smart. He kept cutting Plugger off and Plugger would say, “Whose man’s that?” and I’d have to say, “That’s my man.” But they’re the lessons you learn.
The famous photo where I’m in the face of West Coast supporters was just the circumstances. Near the end of another really tight game, we moved the ball quickly from the backline. Drew Banfield got an unlucky bounce; I was in the right place to put it through and the momentum took me to the fence and into the face of this poor bloke. I don’t have a copy of that photo, though the AFL commissioned a massive painting that hangs in the Swans rooms. But I’ve met that supporter a few times and he got his own back. He turned up at the airport the next day with about 50 copies of the photo, which he got me to sign. Then he sold them on eBay, so he was smarter than me!
The thing about the Swans is that we’ve been incredibly consistent over the years. We’ve made the finals almost every year. We haven’t lost by 100 points more than once in the last 15 or 16 years. Only Geelong has been as consistently good as us in playing finals footy and never bottoming out, whereas the Eagles, Hawthorn, Collingwood all bottomed out before bouncing back up the ladder. I’m really proud of the fact that we played well not only week by week but year after year after year.
If you want to do something individual, play tennis or golf. Footy’s a team game and your job is to play a role for the team. So if that means you only get five kicks but you stop your opponent from being influential in the game, you’ve done your job. Not everyone’s a ‘Goodesy’ (Adam Goodes, left). A lot of fans don’t understand the roles players play and they are misled by all the stats about disposals and so on. That’s not what it’s about. It’s not about getting cheap possessions or easy kicks. Leo (Barry) took that wonderful mark in the Grand Final, but we won because we played really consistent footy against West Coast, Geelong, St Kilda and in the Grand Final in turn. That’s not luck.
People say that indigenous players have a natural ability or a freakish talent, but that view underestimates how hard we work and what we have to do to make a career out of it. Goodesy’s won two Brownlows and countless other awards, and who do you reckon’s the hardest trainer at the Swans? When he started he didn’t have a clue. He took up the game at 15 and was lazy because nobody had shown him how not to be. Like me, it was only when Paul Kelly and a couple of others took me under their wings that I thought, “OK, I get it now.” What you need is someone or some organisation to provide guidance and teach us what to do. Then the combination of talent, an informed approach to training and sheer hard work can make a career possible. I emphasise to our Swans Academy kids that what we have here—the SCG, the gym, the pool, the track and so on—is just a facility to help you get better. That’s all it is, a resource for you to turn into an opportunity.
There are lots more opportunities, AFL and other programs, for Indigenous kids now, too. Sport is really important as a key to education and employment. I tell our kids we don’t need more footy players as much as we need doctors and lawyers and people running organisations, and for that to happen they need to finish school. And that in turn is helped by using sport as a hook, bringing out the footy or netball and using Indigenous sportspeople as models. We get a lot of Indigenous community and school groups who come to Sydney to see the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, and then come to the SCG to watch the Swans training.
Racial vilification hasn’t been a problem for me at AFL level, but in junior footy there was a lot “F--- abo” and “black c---”. Later you would sometimes hear this sort of thing coming over the fence, but it mainly made me feel embarrassed for them showing how dumb they are.
For a lot of players, footy’s just a stage in their lives and they move on to other things. But for me, footy has given me everything I’ve got now. It’s taught me how to act, what to eat, how to get fit. It’s helped me financially and put a roof over my head. My mother’s done so much for us that I made that promise when I left. “Mum, I’m gunna play AFL and buy a house for you!” She said, “Don’t talk crap.” Because of footy, I was able to do it. How good is that?
This is an extract from Heart and Soul — Footy Stories by Those who Played the Game by Matt Zurbo, published by the Slattery Media Group. Copies of this book can be purchased through Slattery's online bookstore by clicking here.