Gerard Joseph Neesham
11 December 1954 (age 67)
Age at first & last AFL game
First game: 27y 148d
Last game: 27y 254d
Height and weight
Height: 175 cm
Weight: 76 kg
Hall of fame
Western Australian Football Hall Of Fame (2004)
Shaun McManus (Cousin)
|Club||League||Career span||Games||Goals||Avg||Win %||AKI||AHB||AMK||BV|
|East Fremantle||WAFL||1975-1977, 1985-1986||79||51||0.65||—||—||—||—||—|
|Swan Districts||WAFL||1979-1981, 1983-1984||97||93||0.96||—||—||—||—||—|
|WAFL||1975-1977, 1979-1981, 1983-1989||218||157||0.72||—||—||—||—||—|
As both player and coach, Gerard Neesham was one of West Australian football's most noteworthy recent identities. As a player, he was hard working, tenacious, and possessed of an insatiable, contagious will to win. That same winning mentality was evident in his coaching, which was also characterised by a uniquely imaginative, enterprising approach, a willingness to take risks, and an ability to subvert expectations and turn apparently inimical circumstances to his own, and his team's, advantage.
Neesham commenced his league football career with East Fremantle in 1975, and despite apparently lacking in pace quickly proved himself a damaging player thanks to his ability to win the hard ball coupled with a capacity for finding or making space for himself. Once in possession, he tended to use the ball well, either by hand, or with crisp, short, accurate kicks. When Old Easts lost calamitously to Perth in the 1977 Grand Final, Gerard Neesham was one of just a handful of members of the losing side able to hold his head high afterwards having given a determinedly aggressive four quarter performance.
Two years later East Fremantle went top, but after 45 games for the club in four seasons Neesham had transferred to Swan Districts, where he would produce the best and most consistent football of his career, exemplified by consecutive Swan Medal wins in 1980 and 1981, and third and fourth place finishes in the Sandover Medal voting in 1979 and 1981 respectively. He also represented Western Australia three times during this period.
In 1982 he interrupted his WAFL career by spending a season with VFL club Swans (formerly known as South Melbourne, and soon to be renamed Sydney). In what was probably the biggest disappointment of his time as a player, he failed to do himself justice, managing just nine senior games for the year.
Resuming with Swan Districts in 1983 Neesham quickly put his VFL frustrations behind him by helping the club to successive premierships at the expense of Claremont and East Fremantle. Neesham clearly approached the Grand Final clash with his former club, East Fremantle, with particular relish, and produced a near best afield performance. This was more than a little ironic given that it would be his last ever game in a Swan Districts jumper. In 1985, after 97 games in five seasons with Swans, he returned for a second stint with his original club, East Fremantle, where he would add another 34 games in two years, highlighted by an extremely creditable performance in the 1985 Grand Final defeat of Subiaco.
Gerard Neesham might well have stayed at East Fremantle for longer, but he had coaching ambitions, which Claremont offered him the chance to pursue. To say that this was an inspired move on the part of the Claremont committee would be putting it mildly, for over the course of an eight and a half season stint with the club Neesham would prove himself the most successful, and by popular consent the greatest, coach in the club's history. From 1987 to 1989 he occupied the role of playing coach, although he played less as time went on.
In his debut season as coach the West Australian football landscape had undergone the most seismic shift in its history following the formation of the West Coast Eagles, a club touted by some as the salvation of the game in the west, and regarded by others as a major nail in its coffin. As far as the WAFL competition was concerned, the impact of the Eagles would be almost wholly inimical. Matches would be played in front of reduced crowds, media coverage would be much diminished, and, given that approaching forty of the league's best players would be siphoned off by the VFL newcomer, the overall standard of play would also undergo a decline.
Had it not been for Gerard Neesham, things might have been even worse. With Neesham as architect, Claremont developed an innovative style of play that, as with many truly great or revolutionary ideas, seemed beguilingly simple - so simple, in fact, that it was hard to believe no-one had thought of it before. Eventually christened 'chip and draw', it was a style which would garner fascination, scorn, incredulity and admiration in more or less equal measure for more than a decade. With the Tigers, it succeeded, partly because it took opposing teams by surprise, and partly because the club was blessed with a proliferation of the right type of players to implement it effectively. Central to 'chip and draw', its rule of thumb if you like, is the principle that possession is nine-tenths of the law. A team in possession is a team in control. Neesham's players were therefore under strict instructions to retain possession of the ball until such time as they could dispose of it accurately, either by passing it to a team mate, or by scoring. A player in possession of the ball could run with it or pass it in any direction, as long as possession was maintained. In sports like soccer, basketball and - most significantly of all in Neesham's case - water polo¹, such a tenet was so obvious it was almost taken for granted, but such had not, historically, always been the case in Australia football, where movement of the ball towards goal tended to be the paramount objective.
Gerard Neesham's water polo tactics took the WAFL by storm. In 1987, the Tigers achieved greater dominance of the competition than any team since East Fremantle's unbeaten premiership side of 1946. At times they appeared to be light years ahead of the opposition in terms of inventiveness, tactical acumen and skill, but in the brave new era of football that was emerging, such prowess was costly. In 1988 it would be a significantly weakened Claremont that would mount its quest for back to back flags, with VFL clubs having deprived it of half a dozen of its premiership stars.
Under Neesham, this sequence of events would play out four times in quick succession, as Claremont won the premierships of 1987, 1989, 1991 and 1993, each time with a different nucleus of key players. Rarely, if ever, can a team in one of Australia's leading state leagues have displayed such resilience and recovery power.
Midway through the 1994 season, Gerard Neesham was appointed coach of Western Australia's second AFL club, Fremantle, which was to commence its involvement in the competition the following year. Utilising the same 'chip and draw' tactics that had proved so successful at WAFL level Neesham ensured the Dockers were competitive from the start, but they lacked sufficient players of real quality to mount a legitimate premiership challenge. Moreover, as time went on, opposing teams got much better at countering Freo's idiosyncratic style, and in Neesham's fourth and final season the team slumped to 15th, its lowest finishing position up to that time. Arguably, then, if ever a coach came in with a bang and went out with a whimper, it was Gerard Neesham, but the bang was a truly spectacular one, and it is for that that he deserves to be remembered.
Author - John Devaney
1. Besides his football prowess, Neesham was also an accomplished water polo player.