A document written by Ian Heads for the day of the funeral tribute to Noel Bernard Kelly OAM, aka ‘Ned’
“This afternoon of 19/06/2020 - will no doubt develop into one of yarns and memories and tears and laughter.
I suspect however that perhaps more than anyone else, the man whose life is celebrated today would disapprove strongly of any fuss being made. But there will be fuss, of course: After all, a grand and colourful character of Australian sport and life has departed the arena forever and will be sadly missed by so many who crossed paths with him down the years.
An unlikely thought from a distant past came back to me on the afternoon I heard the news of the death of the man known far and wide as just `Ned’ a great character of Australian sport and a man seemingly positively indestructible.
Such were his qualities and the legend around him, that on the day the bad tidings came through I was instantly transported back to another day and another era - to a crumpled magazine clipping from the US that had caught my eye long ago – telling of the reaction of an American sports journalist when the announcement was made that the tough and brave American boxer Gene Tunney – who famously survived a long count in a bout against the heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey - had died.
“Start the count ….he’ll get up! “…..hollered the journo at the sad announcement of that day.
To me there were irresistible elements of the spirit of Noel Kelly in that ancient yarn when the sad news came through of Ned’s death. .
It’s a privilege to have the chance of penning these words about Ned, a man I came to know and to admire over the years and …..particularly so through happy days in 1995 when in a sequence of enjoyable weeks, he and I sat down regularly at interview sessions and slugged out a book on his adventures in life and rugby league which surfaced in 1996, arriving under the appropriate title `Hard Man’.
Our shared literary journey turned out well, the exercise a considerable enjoyment largely due to Noel’s irresistible humour and to his straight- down the- middle approach in sharing key moments and favoured yarns gathered in his life at our get-together…. -- the Kelly style being unswervingly fair dinkum i.e. dead straight and , no frills -- albeit with a chuckle never too far away. . From Ned throughout there was no gilding of the lily in the tales he told. For me, a captivated listener through the gathering process of his memories there was much enjoyment - with most of the interviews conducted in a picturesque setting …….. gazing out from a veranda at Maison Kelly across the long view to his favoured golf course…….and further still….to the ocean, with a cold beer in the mix now and then, plenty of laughs, and some snacks prepared by Noel’s wife Chris to whom Noel would dedicate the book that emerged.. ‘a wonderful teammate through it all’ he wrote in tribute of Chris .
It was in such a beautiful Sydney setting in that year of ’95-’96 that Noel Kelly originally from Queensland, returned to his beginnings and his memories to unpack and revisit the events and stories of a rich and varied life, `
At today’s funeral gathering many stories will be told of this unique man of Australian sport. After all, there is much to share - considering the richness of the varied involvements of his life, large lumps of it spent either in the the blood and thunder of the toughest ball game in the world…. or hard at work…..the fact being that his work ethic was unflagging throughout his life laying the framework for the loving family he cherished…….or now and taking a break and hitting a golf ball around, or joining old football mates for a yarn and a beer.
A foundation reality of Ned’s life existed in the friendships beyond counting.
His story is widely known and inspirational in its content and this small tribute has inevitable sins of omission. . Hailing from the small township of Goodna near Ipswich he would settle on rugby league as his game of choice fairly early in life -- the fire lit forever when one of his school teachers took him to watch the annual highlight of Queensland League the annual, Bulimba Cup competition - a three way contest between Brisbane, Toowoomba and Ipswich. Ned was hooked for life.
Of the tackling of his story (as I did) , the first thing to be said is that the challenge of trying to pin down the full essence of Ned’s progress in life and his climb to the heights of international rugby league, was akin to trapping lightning in a bottle.
He was all of the following …and much more
A polished after dinner speaker, humourist, loyal friend of many, keen golfer, and steel boots-and all exponent of rugby league - following a path as tough as any in the stories of the legendary hard men who had surfaced in the game over the long preceding years.
These following fragments touch on aspects of his story and the way he was:
On the matter of Ned’s famed direct action approach to playing rugby league there exists still, in newspaper files one of many signposts -- - a report on a Monday in 1966 in the afternoon newspaper paper the Sydney Sun – accompanied by a dramatic full page poster, the Headline - in its entirety - comprised entirely of just two Words
THAT RIGHT !
It concerned the matter of a right hand blow delivered by Ned in the Third Ashes Test played at the at the SCG the previous Saturday- with Great Britain’s Dave Robinson being the unlucky recipient. The page that followed the story in The Sun back in ‘66 - incidentally featured a beautiful high class photo of Ned looking downright handsome…… and as suave as a Paris model.
In another legendary moment, The Kiwi giant Robin Orchard …was also famously transformed to the horizontal by a visitation from a Ned right hand in a Test match in Brisbane.
Such moments as those featured in the Robinson and Orchard stories, raised over the years keen discussion on the pedigree of the important RL tactical manoeuvre of `Retaliate First’. There is solid support for the theory that Ned was the inventor of the tactic, although the likes of GB’S J Mills with Malcolm Reilly and South Sydney captain and hardman John Sattler contenders for the final too……..
Memory tells me, I first met Noel Kelly in my own rookie days at the time
I was learning the ropes with the Daily Telegraph as a somewhat overawed rookie league fan and cadets sports journo.
I have no specific memory of a `first meeting’ with Ned who I may even have called Mr. Kelly’ -the fact being that we raw cadets were encouraged into that sort of politeness and respect back then in our learning days representing the Sir Frank Packer-owned news sheet.
I suspect our brief encounter took place on a match day in one of the well -worn suburban dressing rooms of the Sydney League scene of the time, a period in the game’ evolution when the RL journos old and new were welcomed into club dressing rooms after matches, with a beer generally thrust into your hand as you passed through the door.. It was a valuable societal nicety -- an introduction of `new chums’ to rugby league and its people.
Many yarns that circle around Noel and his life will be told here during this afternoon……. and there will be guaranteed laughter for sure - Ned being renowned as a man of lively humour and a sharer and teller of tales; the keeper of many football yarns that played their part in helping good causes down the years, via raising money for such notable organisations as the Men of League through Noel’s standing in the game and his popularity and humour and tale- telling skills -- this continuing involvement being his way of `giving back’ to the game he loved.
So many diverse Noel Kelly stories have been told over the years, such as the arrival of he and Chris to the Big Smoke in an old jalopy in which the only air condition came through rusty the holes in the rear floor. To join to join the institution that became the club of his heart – The Wests Magpies.
In this tribute to him, I have taken the liberty of briefly using other voices and names to do justice, appropriately throwing the ball to memories shared by two renowned sporting figures of Sydney life whose careers were touched deeply by their long friendships with Ned.
Legends themselves, both men admired him greatly and welcomed involvement in Ned’s book –
One was the doyen of rugby league and boxing commentators, the late – and legendary - Frank Hyde the second, the enduring and iconic figure of radio broadcasting, John Laws who shared an interest in boats and boating with Ned and who continues his remarkable broadcasting career to this day.
In his foreword for the book: Hard Man: John Laws, labelled Ned as being…. “no frills”….and “ the quintessential Aussie ” adding, “if we had more like him the country would be set even more firmly on course ….and everyone would have done a lot more laughing and perhaps a lot more drinking!”…….
The observations offered by Frank Hyde some years ago - of Ned the man and Ned the rough-hewn champion of rugby league started this way:
“Noel Kelly is what you would call a rough diamond. He played the game of rugby league about as hard as it could imaginably be played and lived his life as a decent, fair and thoroughly likeable bloke.”
“As graceful as a cow on a bike “ was Frank’s tongue in cheeky description of the technicalities of the Second Test try Ned scored at Swinton in the Ashes series of 1963.
In conversation Frank pressed on to throw a light on both Noel’s personal qualities --and particularly, events of the troubled Kangaroo tour of 1967 - the famous `Bowler Hat’ campaign’, mention of which inevitably conjures up the image of a naked Australian player wearing only a bowler hat walking the frozen winter streets of Ikley, Yorkshire.
I hasten to add that the mysterious and mythical night stroller was NOT… Noel Kelly!!
Said Frank of the 1967 Kangaroo touring team about tough guys Ned and John Sattler:
“They were strong figures in holding things together when rebellion was afoot as what had become a somewhat anarchic tour fell apart. Kelly and Sattler backed by a couple of others offered to deal with anyone who fell out of line. No-one took up the challenge!”…..
That Kangaroo tour was Noel Kelly’s third – a fabulous record.
Mixed among the dramas and the fiery football moments of Ned’s story there is romance too of course as there should be in the telling of any major drama! …. - notably of his first meeting at a dance at Moorooka, Queensland with the girl he would subsequently marry who would become his life’s partner, Celia Hadaway, (who would become known to most- in life’s fruitful -’journey as `Chris’). In a significantly fortuitous move Chris knocked back Noel’s polite request for a dance ……..the moment being fortuitous indeed…. as Noel would come to realise, owing to the fact that the dance in question was one of which Noel had no clue whatsoever – and especially so of the sequence of the required steps needed to transport a young lady around the floor and would have been very unlikely to have made make a good impression on her.
“I was never much of a hoofer,” Noel observed choosing his words neatly for his book years later…..
The long punchline is course is a happy one of love blooming and of the lengthy happy marriage of Noel and Chris and their growing family of and five children.
For today’s few words I dug through my dusty home garage - one that that doubles as a library (and is the bane of my wife’s life) ……….and unearthed the following bits and pieces – things that people may not know about Noel Kelly.
He was born in 1936 in the hamlet of Goodna near Ipswich, in hard depression years, one of two sons of a butcher; the family also grew vegetables and kept fowls.
At different times he was all of the following in his travelling life:
Additionally He was a boxer of promise, losing only once - even though he was fighting mature middle-aged men when he was only 14. Blessed with natural common sense Ned pulled the plug on the square ring. He had been under the guidance of a shrewd trainer who taught him to hit hard with either hand. Said Ned: “I found that when I tagged a bloke he sat down looking bewildered”.
Subsequently, the price he paid for playing league- at its toughest level – meant that he carried many injuries down the years.
A magazine story in 1971 focused on the subject of Ned’s knees and how they rattled when he walked!
By then he had had three cartilage operations.
In later years came the legacy of a crook back that affected his enjoyment of playing golf, an enthusiastic later- life pastime.
By 1959 he had suffered 16 broken noses through his career, providing nice symmetry with…………………
The 17 times he was sent from the field in his playing days, although not ALL of them related to the rough stuff as Ned would quickly point out - considering the fact his career coinciding with an era of hard fought `fair dinkum scrums’ (every scrum was a war) at a time when the whistle blowers would quite often despatch the hookers from the field on the dastardly misdemeanour of repeated scrum infringements.
Throughout all phases of his affair with rugby league - the Kelly sense of humour remained intact.
In a favourite Ned yarn, one that brings together an unlikely mix of rugby league, Ned’s regular send offs-from from the playing fields in his career, and the bucolic pastime of gardening , would get a laugh every time no matter how many times he trotted it out.
The tale ran roughly along these lines, with Ned volunteering that anytime he happened to be working in the garden and the postie approached, sounding a blast of his whistle Ned would immediately head inside and take a shower - so many times had he been despatched from the field by the shrill of the whistle in his playing days after some incident or other .
Tales told here today of a great rugby league player and a wonderful character of Australian sport, will barely scratched the surface of a grand bloke and a mighty career which earned him the fabulous bounty of representing his country on three Kangaroo tours of GB and France …the tour being then the holy grail of the league code.
An enduring image that will stay with me, along with plenty of others, in the matter of the life and times of Noel, `Ned’ Kelly’ is this: Of the moment that takes place each year at a major Wests Magpies luncheon event of each season……..…..when past players of the club gather on stage near the end for a mini concert, Ned among them, and all bursting into song. I can picture him still – Ned in full voice ……and the thought strikes me on each occasion -- that his musical mum would have been very proud.
At fulltime in this gathering of memories of `Ned’, I reckon no better Farewell remarks for Ned could be imagined than those penned by another important character of the Magpies’ saga , an enduring journalistic figure in recording the stories of the game, Roy Masters - whose wrote these words for the Sydney Morning Herald the day after Ned called full time.
Roy considered at the ending of the piece he penned, “the unstoppable tinnitus that had haunted Ned in his late, fading days” writing:
“Yet the end was peaceful, “Surrounded by Chris, his five children, grandchildren and the sounds from his aviary of beautiful birds singing him to merciful silence”…………
It was a beautiful and appropriate coda for what had been a life so rich and varied.
The story of Ned Kelly, footballer, friend to so many, will remain a treasure of the rugby league game. Never was the going easy for him; all that was achieved came through hard yakka.
In bidding to sum him up years ago, I wrote:
He worked hard, played hard and grew into one of football’s finest men. He did it all with a smile, relishing the cut and thrust of battle and the special mateship that rugged sport can offer.
“Around football he constructed a life built on simple things – love, hard work and fair treatment of his fellow humans.”
Rest well, Ned.
Reflections on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Frank Hyde – great rugby league player, peerless broadcaster…and a towering figure in the game’s story-book.
February 7, 2016
As a young sports journo in the1960s I was initially in some awe of Frank Hyde, such a commanding figure in the game – and already by then by then so well established as the strong, re-assuring (unique!) voice of many rugby league winters – and a man of authority with a league pedigree reaching far back into distant mists. But, progressively, I came to know him as so much more….as a warm bloke, of good humour and humanity and many diverse interests ……..as well as a true pillar of the League story…. of the game’s s past and present…. and its possibilities.
That awareness grew in the 70s and ‘80s when we were both involved with Rugby League Week magazine on which Frank was a straight-up-the guts weekly columnist who said exactly what he thought, being quite prepared in his writing to flail away at the game’s administration and its occasional mugs and shortcomings and such things as dumb rule changes whenever he thought it necessary. Which was fairly often. Football coaches were a particular target for a time as they grew in status and ego and delivered to an awed media their weekly pearls of wisdom - with the gravity of the Sermon on the Mount (those are Frank’s words)
I came to much enjoy his company and conversation which in their breadth embraced such a swathe of territory….…encompassing for me in my personal assessment of Frank Hyde such words as these: ……..genial, plain-spoken, robust, expert, fair dinkum, blunt, strong, honest, edgy compassionate, funny, loyal……………..and many more.
Later, in having the pleasure ….and significant privilege too …….of working with Frank on his 1995 autobiography (Straight Between the Posts), I came day by day to know the full, remarkable story of a man who stands rightly on a day such as this as one of the finest of the Rugby league century – although whether today’s game with its unblinking `now focus’ and uncertain leadership remembers him well enough, I doubt
I relish the recall of those afternoons with he and the unforgettable Gaby, Frank’s wife, in the family home at Queenscliff back in 1995 in the making of the book– with each of those occasions ending with a glass (or two) of the excellent home brewed beer of which Frank was so proud – with the bottles extracted lovingly from a cupboard under a sign which read de bibis nil nisi berum - Drink nothing but the best
The only slightly worrying coda to the ending of the day’s work at that time was the thought of safely negotiating the steep drive which led down to the street from Chez Hyde. Stories abounded of tumbles taken, some by famous league men after visits. When the great sports photographer Ernie McQuillan, who was responsible for the striking cover study done for Frank’s book, went back on several occasions to re-shoot the pic there was a growing suspicion that Frank’s excellent home brew was a significant attraction.
There will be many yarns told of him on this anniversary and because of that certainty mine will be only a brief `time out’ in play. I’ll provide a headline with each of these snippets that follow ; Frank would approve of that: he liked good order and accuracy in his words.
Number 1: OH, Danny Boy!!!!!!!
In Lyons France, on the day of the 1972 World Cup Final, my wife Joy and I , newlyweds on our honeymoon, took up Frank’s kind invitation to catch a free ride on one of his supporters tour buses to the ground. The evening before had been particularly heavy, spent in the colourful journalistic company of the likes of Bill `Tex’Mordey, Geoff ‘Pinky’ Prenter and Jeff `The Pigeon’ Collerson . Hangovers and hazy memories of fine French red wine , were the order of the following morning.
In what we thought may have been a shrewd tactical move out the front of the hotel, Joy and I clambered aboard the second Hyde tour bus, guided aboard by the man himself ….and armed with earlier insiders knowledge that Frank on Bus No 1, would inevitably sing en route to the ground. Craving silence in our fragile condition, we were to be kayoed by a combination of the Hyde tour game plan - and technology. Frank headed off to the No 1 bus, but the moment that our vehicle followed , a long-playing Frank Hyde favourites tape was slipped into the cassette player….. and set for the entire journey at decibels capable of raising the dead.
The trip to the ground was painfully slow (literally) – and Frank’s gravelly, albeit tuneful voice boomed out for every metre of the way. Oh!!!!! Danny Boy!!!!
Number 2 A Man of his Word:
On the occasion of the selection of the first four Immortals in 1981 Frank, Harry Bath and Tom Goodman (as eminent a rugby league panel as surely has ever been assembled in the game) debated long into the night at Sydney’s Wentworth Hotel. The painstaking reduction from an initial list of 100 chosen to the last five….then down to the required four was not arrived at until around 4 o’clock in the morning. Inevitably, a great player had missed the cut – and Frank, chairman of the panel, swore for ever after that he would never release the name. That he never did was a mark of the man………………..although it trickled out years later as these things do that Graeme Langlands had been the one to miss the cut…and Bob Fulton had got the nod.
Number 3 The cruellest cut of all.
Frank Hyde was a leader of men, as his record and reputation demonstrated. It was not until the late 1940s, in conversation with the forthright man who became President of the Australian and NSW Rugby Leagues, Bill Buckley, that he learned he had been pencilled in to the biggest job the sport had to offer - as the likely captain of the 1941 Kangaroos……... There never was a Roo tour of ’41 of course ….thanks to the War, and in what was one of the toughest calls of his fine career Frank never did get to wear the green and gold jersey.
Number 4 Give us a Song Frank!
In the early 1980s, Rugby League Week, of which I was then editor, shamelessly nicked an idea off the Aussie Rules mob and staged the game’s first Rugby League Grand Final Breakfast . It proved a rousing success, and drew a big crowd to the Wentworth. Star of the event was the Immortal John `Chook’ Raper dressed in pyjamas, dressing gown and spats – and flourishing a magnum of champagne from which, as he descended the stairs, he took an occasional swig.
Unbeknown to many that morning there had been a significant luncheon held a few days before, featuring Frank Hyde who was to be a star attraction at the Breakfast - and the imposing, talented and witty cabaret star Sue Cruikshank who was also booked to do a spot there in her hilarious persona of `Tiger’ (as in Balmain) Lil’. Various of us waifs and strays from RLW attended the pre- event lunch in the particularly seedy downstairs bar of a close-to-the-office inner city pub, in which the first impression on any arrival was of your shoes sticking to the carpet – which they were….. owing to the gallons of beer and other fluids which had been spilt on it over aeons. The colourful Pub manager, a rugby league fan who we knew as `Captain Morgan’ would highlight any RLW luncheon there by appearing in due course with free bottles of port, which he did, destructively….and on this day. Late in that afternoon came the stand-out highlight - an impromptu concert delivered by Frank and Tiger Lil. Together, side by side they sang a bracket of songs. It was wonderful. A League Week staff attendee who left late afternoon to attend water polo training, was found hours later asleep on a bench just outside the pub. It had been that sort of lunch. For his part Frank, obviously found his way back to Queenscliff and safely negotiated the steep climb to the house - for he was there full of life a few days later at the Breakfast – which was subsequently deemed a ground-breaking smash hit and ran for 20 years or so in the period that followed..
Frank Hyde’s story is full of spirited tales of friendships and footy and travel – with great enjoyment and sense of fun the fellow travellers along the way.
In the telling of his life and times - with its first memories from back in around 1919 - pages 126-134 are my special favourites in the book that became a reality in 1995 - at a time when the building Super League storm crackled in the background .
In fact, those few slim pages of a chapter called `The Importance of Being Tiger’ rank very high in my own mind among anything else that exists in the 40 or so books I have worked on since about 1988. They tell of the beautiful knockabout friendship between 2SM’s Frank and his 2KY broadcasting rival and pal E. (for Ernest) ‘Tiger Black’.
For anyone who cares about rugby league…..the way it was …..the way perhaps it can be …….I commend them to you. It was a chapter that effectively wrote itself as Frank reeled off tales of his little mate Tiger. The stories shine with the enjoyment of life …and of the game…and true mateship…………..and of the thrill too of the grand, long tours that used to be the way of the Kangaroo experience They are a wonderful snapshot of human friendship and the shared experience.
There could surely be no greater irony that the year in question when Frank sat down to tell his story was 1995 – with the game edging daily into the midst of the commerce- and- greed- driven war for rugby league’s future that would almost tear it apart. We can only wonder what he would have made of today when the much loved sport that provided the back drop to his life has gone from being just a game……..to a game-slash-business………and on to today’s manifestation of a business-slash game. I suspect that very likely he would have grumbled away ……..but loved it still.
Today, the great Frank Hyde OAM is remembered - a man with a dual love of family and a game called rugby league. He touched so many lives along the way…… would have loved the friendship and harmony of this day with its happy memories..
And you could back it in …..that somewhere along the way, at some time, he would have sung Danny Boy.
Irony of ‘95
In the shadow of his 80th birthday, the old warrior has a crook back which gives him hell and plays havoc with his golf swing. But as has been his way through life Noel Raymond Kelly, aka Ned , heads resolutely on, still golfing regularly down at his much loved Long Reef, still full of the good-hearted gruff humour and the generous spirit that has been the trademark of one of the very special lives of the rugby league century. Ned remains a treasure of the game - and a nod of appreciation in his direction+ from those charged with running it these days would seem entirely fitting on the milestone occasion of January 22 when the 80 years clock clicks over.
The fact is that a profile of the rugby league story in the wider sense – one that is a saga of courage, dedication, achievement and an unflagging work ethic accompanied by continuing care for the game – dwells within the stocky frame of Noel Kelly. For any youngster enamoured of league, a trip to the local library to borrow Ned’s 1996 book Hard Man will reveal inspiration galore in the story of his unlikely climb to the very pinnacle of the game from the base of a tough, no favours, impecunious country upbringing. His arrival from Queensland in Sydney in 1961 with his wife Chris and a new baby, came shakily, via a rusty old ute in which the only air-conditioning was courtesy of the holes in the floor. Never was the going easy; all that was achieved in the years that followed came through hard yakka. In his early days on arrival in Sydney to join Wests, Ned worked three jobs.
In trying to sum him up years ago, I wrote: “around football he constructed a life built on simple things – love, hard work, fair treatment of his fellow human beings, friendship, good humour.” That formula, encasing his talent as a footballer, produced a glittering career at the highest level which included 25 Tests and a place in rugby league’s Team of the Century. When the Great Unpredictability of football provided a low key ending for him as a player in Wollongong in 1970. Ned linked up with that most friendly and welcoming of clubs North Sydney – and as a coach put some real steel into the Bears in five eventful seasons. From there came the final leg, which continues to an extent to today – of his unofficial role as an ambassador for the game – the fact being that Ned, being a gregarious bloke of generous spirit was happy to grace the podium at functions beyond counting, telling his stories, reminding people what a great thing it is to be involved in a game such as rugby league. He doesn’t do quite as much of it now – but keeps his hand in, remaining as Patron of the Northern Suburbs Men of League chapter. Ned chides himself for overdoing the footy trips: “I was carrying on like a 21 year old, going away for all those weekends. I woke up that Chris was sitting at home on her own all these years. I scaled back ….…there were a few reasons.
If the story of Noel Kelly, footballer is here and there overly robust (he was sent off 17 times in his senior career), well, that’s just the way football was back then – i.e. dog eat dog and every scrum a mini-war. Ned started his football as a lock forward but was destined to spend his entire senior playing days in the front row, at hooker or prop. Today’s perpetually sore neck which plays tag with his aching back reminds him constantly of that. But the wider picture of his football days and hard working life beams out an uplifting message for any young reader: All is possible.
On an early summer’s morningI spent a couple of hours with Ned at his Collaroy Plateau Home, essentially just `talkin’ football. These are just a few of his scattered observations
“I’d bring back the scrum, he says, “and make it work. Rugby union manage that and League could too. The scrum would bring back a contest for the ball…something that has virtually gone from the game.” A single referee would do him and Ned believes the game should also make better use of the Sin Bin …..and wonders aloud why the Kangaroos’ war cry (which featured before games on his three tours) was ever dropped. “The crowds loved it,” he said. “It was great entertainment…great theatre.” Ned urges more support too for country football, lifeblood of the game’s long years. “It’s going backwards out there,” he says.
We stray into a subject of some sadness, talking of great players who have left the arena, and the numbers of others struggling with health problems. The tone brightens with recall of their qualities as Ned ruminates on champions of his experience …of the likes of Reg Gasnier (`the best centre), of Johnny Raper and Graeme Langlands (10 out of 10)…….He muses further over the great warrior Chang……”he wore a chip on his shoulder…………but there was no better player,” he says.. You could have played him anywhere ….even hooker!”
At the milestone of his 80th birthday, Ned remains a fan, notwithstanding his concerns over some aspects of the modern game. “I’ve always been loyal to the Wests Magpies – and always will be, “he says. He still goes to games from time to time during each season, admitting however, “but geeze I can get comfortable in the chair in front of the TV sometimes…especially if the weather is a bit crook!”
The worrisome back brings a wince to the Kelly dial as a he climbs from his seat on my departure, but the handshake at the door from the meaty Kelly fist is as firm as ever – and so too the steady gaze…… yet with the familiar sense that a twinkle is never far away…..
The tormented late days in the life of journalist and broadcaster Mike Gibson provided a tragic coda to the story of a greatly talented man who lit up all areas of the media into which he strayed. Mike, a lifetime believer in the North Sydney Bears, was found dead at his home on September 23, 2015. He was 75. The many tributes that followed were heartfelt, telling of his eclectic passage through the varied halls of print, radio and television journalism. But there was a gap in the remembrances too - and it concerned Mike Gibson and rugby league. The tributes offered a gentle nod to Mike the league writer, but the over-riding focus was on his successful later years when he blossomed into a knockabout star of commercial radio and TV.
It is entirely appropriate that this MOL journal should balance the ledger in the story. My overall view of him is that he was THE great all-rounder of the modern Australian media – and that in the comparatively brief period he was a full-time league correspondent, he became something of a pioneer in the game with his crisp and colourful writing - plus developing into a breezy and expert commentator on radio and TV
Mike Gibson joined the Daily & Sunday Telegraphs in the late ‘50s, and, gravitating towards the Sports Department, became the Tele’s greyhound writer. In 1963, he took the first firm step that began his restless progress through the working years, when he paid his way to England and covered for the Tele a triumphant Kangaroo tour - one that featured what is now recognised as the finest of all `Roo teams. Four years later he would be along for the ride on the sensational Bowler Hat tour of ’1967. So it was that he covered the full stories of arguably the two most colourful Kangaroo tours in rugby league history.
Gibbo was the Daily and Sunday Telegraph’s chief rugby league writer between 1965-mid ’69, succeeding George Crawford, a devoted hand from the old school whose writing was strictly wedded to formal Tele style – i.e. simple active voice…. and plain. I chanced to be Mike’s offsider through most of that period, benefitting substantially from the ongoing Gibson Masterclass. In ’73, when he joined the Roo tour for a few weeks we were room-mates at the historic George Hotel in Huddersfield, the place where rugby league was born in 1895.
Mike became a change agent in coverage of the game with his turn of phrase and colourful words - underpinned by a particularly lively imagination. His brief years at the Tele produced some of the most stylish writing rugby league had or has ever experienced.
A genial character with a puckish sense of humour, he wrote sport with affection and freshness.
He left behind many gems – and a brief scatter of his words follow here. Typical was a famous column he penned in the ‘70s concerning the state of the injured knee of UK and Manly ace Malcolm Reilly which had dominated the league news of the time. Gibbo went right to the heart of the matter – and interviewed the knee itself ….which spoke in a thick Yorkshire accent.
Norm Tasker, who worked alongside Mike in the Tele sports-room for several years, recalls: “The tour story he wrote about the dart board at the Kangaroos pub being so worn out as to not hold the darts anymore, reflecting the boredom the tourists faced in the north of England, announced him as a writer of consummate skill.”
Mike could write hard when the occasion called for it:
“The Australians handed France the Ashes on a platter….they treated the French team as a bit of a joke and the French tour as a lark” (on the Ashes winning and misbehaving Kangaroos of 1967, dropping the ball and losing the series on the French leg)
“ New Zealand is a second rate rugby league country. We are obliging by sending a second rate team” - slamming the Australian selectors in 1969
Almost always he wrote colourfully :
“He was akin to `Captain Marvel, Superman, Brick Bradford and Batman and Robin all rolled into one” – on the flying Norths winger Ken Irvine.
In 1966, when Mighty St George stumbled at last, and lost a semi-final he called them presciently: “a legend on `lollypop’ legs. Saints 11 year reign ended the following week.
When Easts beat Parra 15-14 in final round of 1967 …Mike tagged them rugby league’s ‘Cinderella team’……the team that could not win a game last year, the team that became a bar room joke’.
There is much of it in the archives…………although…not enough
There exists a personal favourite…….reflective of both the Gibson humour and style: a telegram sent to my wife (Joy, known to friends as `Scott’) and me on the arrival of twins in 1975, when only one child was anticipated.
Mike’s words read simply: Great Scott! Two Heads are better than one.
I savour too the memory of a speech he gave at a Sportswriters dinner around 1980 in which he praised the quality of the brigade of sporting scribes, despite the sniffy view of them held by some in loftier sections of newspapers. Mike reckoned the sports blokes had the last laugh, with his affectionate view of them (an all-male domain back then) being of: “just a bunch of blokes having fun up the back of the paper.”
For sure Mike Gibson himself had plenty of fun along the way …….and all of us saddened by his death last Septembert on the cusp of yet another grand final not featuring his beloved Bears, could at least take some solace from that.
Mike was close to the great coach Jack Gibson who he interviewed humorously and brilliantly for tapes that dwell within the wonderful library of film-maker Graham McNeice. The Big Bloke could be an awkward interview subject, but he relaxed in the company of the “other Gibbo”. I suspect that Jack’s final words on the Mike and his contribution would have been simply this:
“Kid – you played strong, done fine”.
Richie Benaud and Ian Heads, pictured at the unveiling of the sculpture of rugby league legend Herbert Henry `Dally’ Messenger outside Allianz Stadium. Saturday March 29, 2008.
It was a long and turning road that led me to joining a respected sports writing colleague and friend Norm Tasker in our creation of the book Richie: The Man Behind the Legend, celebrating the life and times of the great cricketer-commentator Richie Benaud.
The book’s introduction begins with these words: “The extraordinary reaction to Richie Benaud’s death in April, 2015, was born of an international respect that is the preserve of a very select group of people. Even the millions who did not know him felt somehow that they did, such was his command of the television medium. He was the ultimate communicator. To those who did know him personally — as a sportsman, as a television commentator and more importantly as a man —Richie’s passing meant so much more”...............
I suspect I was in the company of many young blokes of my generation when I bowled leg-spin (or attempted to) in the cricket I played - specifically because of Richie Benaud. I was a big fan of his in the early ‘50s, a regular attendee at the Sydney Cricket Ground for Sheffield Shield matches and occasionally at Tests if there happened to be enough money in the household to stretch that far. My mate from across the street, George Cragen and I would catch the bus to Paddington, and trek down the race from Moore Park Rd to the ground, to savour many accumulating summer days there. Our accompanying baggage would be autograph books, a couple of sandwiches in a brown paper bag - and a bat and a tennis ball which would be swung into action whenever there was a break, for a hit on the path which ran along the front of the Randwick-end Hill. During play, the autograph books were dug out on the occasions any fieldsman was despatched into the very deep `deep’ i.e. against the fence. It was there on such days, along with bunches of other post-WW2 kids, George and I learnt the game and came to know of the giants (to us) who played it; the likes of Sid Carroll, Syd Barnes, Ray Flockton, Keith Miller, Jim de Courcy, Warren Saunders, Brian Booth, Richie Benaud, Alan Davidson, Arthur Morris, Ray Lindwall, Bob Simpson, Jim Burke, Ian Craig. Even sixty years on a magic surrounds such names , as strong now for an old journo as it was then. Such players were gods to us, and their gathered signatures endured for years as Aladdin’s Cave bounty in autograph books sadly long since gone.
The dashing Benaud, modelled in turn on the debonair devil-may-care Miller, was a special favourite. But with him, and his young companion in spin, Bob Simpson, it was more than that. Watching them, I had a real sense as early as the mid ’50 of the dark, sweet allure of the art of leg spin bowling, with its many mysteries. After the fire and fury of the quicks the artists of spin would quietly enter the fray, seemingly innocuous, but armed with legerdemain that on some days masked the sting of a hornet.
Avidly absorbing this new and magical sporting theatre and having read as much as I could find in coaching books and magazines such as Sporting Life and Sports Novel I came by and by to the playing of real cricket myself – as a short-sighted, bespectacled member of the first ever team fielded by Vaucluse Public School. There, I became the resident spinner, doing my best to bowl out of the back of the hand. The genesis of that team came about in 1954 through the efforts of a man who would many years later provide me with a further, close link to the Great Benaud. Phil Tresidder, whose beginning in sports writing remains surely the dream introduction of them all in a working life, was the change-agent in question. `Tres’, as he was always known had gone to England as a journalistic teenage hopeful in 1947 and had, in succession, played a role in the coverage for the Daily Telegraph of: the 1947 Wallaby tour, the London Olympics of 1948, the legendary campaign of Don Bradman’s cricket `Invincibles’ of that year and the tour of the 1948 Kangaroos rugby league side featuring the young Clive Churchill. The deputy head master at Vaucluse Public, Mr Plunkett, chanced to be a family friend of the Tresidder’s – and it was Phil who convinced him that a cricket team would be a good thing for the school.
In toto, my own truncated but enjoyable cricket `career’ lasted from 1954-61 before being snuffed out by the reality of a working life. During that time my bowling efforts, with Vaucluse Public, Sydney Boys High and briefly the Green Shield teams of with Waverley and North Sydney, were doggedly (if not overly successfully!) of the leg-spin variety. Then, with a working life underway, came an unlikely opportunity to learn the craft of journalism , seguing into sports writing with the Telegraph. My weekends were gone – and largely, so were my cricketing days.
By then Richie Benaud himself was a journo – and deadly serious about it - a police roundsman with the Sydney Sun, learning the second of what would be his three `trades’ in life (cricket, journalism, sports commentary). Our paths crossed occasionally in the following years - although, being rostered to sports distant from cricket (rugby league and swimming mainly) there was not much more than occasional passing contact. That changed in later years, thanks again to Phil Tresidder who lived just up the road from Richie and his wife Daphne at Coogee – three or four beaches along from Bronte-Waverley where my wife Joy and I had a place. There began occasional enjoyable catch-ups over dinner with Phil and Richie and Daphne at which the conversation would roam over many subjects – albeit with cricket always hovering somewhere nearby. I recall one especially memorable night - when we met for pre-dinner drinks at Chez Benaud with its commanding view of Wedding Cake Island and the Ocean beyond. Eventually, Tres, Joy and I headed out for dinner with a special Benaud guest, the great West Indies (and Randwick!) speedster Wes Hall, who was catching up with old friends in Sydney. There followed a memorable dinner at a local favoured Italian restaurant.
Getting to know Richie more closely after early hero-worshipping days followed by working years of only distant contact, brought not even a faint hint of disappointment with it. The man was all I could have expected – so quietly impressive - and blessed with what seemed to be a mind in which cricketing and other stories were filed as if books in a library. His knowledge of cricket and its nuances was monumental. But Richie set his personal field placement far wider; in essence he was a polymath, possessing a curiosity and interest in many different things. Within him dwelt an obvious kindness, a calmness, a sense of care for people. And lurking just beneath the surface at all times was a lively, if dry, sense of humour…………………………………..
Fast forward to autumn 2015. It’s April 11 and the nation mourns at news of the death of the Great Benaud (still B’Nord to many of his old mates) at 84. A State Funeral offered by the Federal Government is courteously and quickly declined by Daphne and the family. To his friends this is in no way a surprise. They understand well that Richie, a quiet man, perhaps even shy, would not have wanted all the fuss.
The media coverage on those early days of sadness lit up with many fine and genuine tributes. Fran Benaud (Richie's daughter-in-law) and Cathy Gauld (PA) assisted Daphne to organise (in three frantic days) a private farewell for him, held on April 15 in the presence of an invited crowd of 300+ at his home golf course - a place so much a part of his life - The Australian, at Kensington, Sydney.
The seeds of the book Richie: The Man Behind the Legend, featuring Brendan Read’s stunning cover photo of Richie at the ground he loved, the Sydney Cricket Ground, were sewn that afternoon in the many stories told during the official ceremony and in private conversations that stretched well into the afternoon. That day there began a process which would ultimately expand across the globe – reaping an extraordinarily rich and varied harvest.
Almost simultaneously in that first week of mourning, a separate conversation took place between the two former Sydney Sun workmates and friends, Richie’s brother John and Norm Tasker, in which the possibility of a book telling Richie’s story and stories was raised. In due course Norm and tabled the idea with respected Sydney sports historian and publisher Geoff Armstrong , to an enthusiastic response despite the tightness of deadlines. Later, I took to Daphne Benaud this growing thought of a book that would in some ways be about the `Unknown Richie’ - addressing the great diversity of his life, in cricket and way beyond. It became a consideration and discussion point – and then a positive reality – with the strong and committed support of the family……..
The work began in early June, 2015, and inviting the contributions that would eventually fill almost 400 pages of tales of Richie, the editors/compilers, Norm and I, pursued our quest to encompass the full breadth of Richie’s life via those who had known him – all the way from primary school mates back in the late 1930s. Through the scholarship of the book’s editor and publisher – cricket historian and author Geoff Armstrong – came wonderful photos to enhance and complement the text, and countless long-forgotten facts, dusted off from the archives to add to the mix. And so, in a short, intense period a book was born and produced….
By the end of the gathering period we had compiled a `team’ of 88 people across the world who, with love and readiness, had offered their personal memories and stories of Richie. Channel 9 generously offered more tales via their heartfelt work in a major tribute program which featured observations and memories of Richie - the unchallenged `captain’ of the Nine commentary team for many years
Many of the stories in Richie are from cricketers who played with or against him through some famous encounters. Some are from people who knew him as a child, and grew up with him. There are those from journalists and broadcaster who worked with him, in press boxes and commentary boxes around the world. There are tales of summer days in the south of France, of the travails of maintaining his fabled Sunbeam Alpine motor car over half a century, and tales of innumerable acts of kindness, many underpinned by the strand of humour that was such a part of the Benaud persona……
Together, the many scores of `tales of Richie’ gathered illuminate the highways and byways of a unique life in sport, the media – and beyond. RICHIE : THE MAN BEHIND THE LEGEND – is a book that does justice to the modest, much loved figure who is at its heart – and to his inspiring and uplifting story of quiet, yet breathtaking achievement.
RICHIE:THE MAN BEHIND THE LEGEND
A very special book telling the full story of one of the greatest of Australian sporting lives.
Available wherever good books are sold
To order the book online, below are recommended sites.
This season of fairy-tales ended for rugby league with Jarryd Hayne packing his bags and getting ready to climb aboard a cloud sign-posted `Hope' and head off for a new sporting life in the USA. The media was full of speculation on the entirely unexpected twist of such a star pulling up stumps to fly away and joust with America's game. After all, the scribes and commentators were only just coming to terms with the fact of a couple more gods from league’s modern pantheon - Sam Burgess (Rabbitohs) and Sonny Bill Williams (Roosters) making their own exits-left, bound for rugby union, and, very likely, the bright lights and razzmatazz of rugby's World Cup. Hayne, extraordinary talent that he is, can be rated the longshot of the three. He will indeed be a stranger in a strange world in America's vastly popular but idiosyncratic game, of which England's peerless wordsmith Geoffrey Moorhouse wrote in his seminal 1989 book on rugby league `At the George' :
“This is a sport in which grotesquely overdressed and often grossly overweight men run very short distances before thudding and blundering into each other en masse; whereupon the game stops dead, sometimes for minutes at a time”
He continued the theme, calling American football:
“ A bastard game played by men wearing padded knickerbockers, broken up by time-outs and garnished with goose-pimpled cheer-leaders on the sidelines.”
The genial Geoffrey reserved his only positive words on gridiron for what he called the `preesentation' of the American game i.e. loud and flashy and high kickin'. You get the drift that he was not a HUGE fan. But whether he makes it or not in that arcane world Jarryd Hayne's out-of-the-blue decision landed as a great sporting story, another page in the peripatetic inclinations of the players of modern football codes. Genuine best wishes will accompany this unusual and high-talented football player on his adventure. In return and re-assuringly for the Parramatta Eels star, the security blanket of a continuing rugby league career and a big money contract will surely await him back home if things don't work out.
Hayne made his call on the coat-tail of season 2014's other fairy-tales. The Academy Award winner by a fair space in that department came via the South Sydney Rabbitohs finally killing off the longest premiership drought in the club's history by winning the Grand Final. When the men (and boys) in the cardinal and myrtle finally disposed of the gritty, hard-scrapping Bulldogs in the late, championship minutes of the game, it seemed that a whole city rejoiced. There was - literally - dancing in the streets and the hoop-la continued for days. The Peoples' Team had won again after 43 years in the wilderness! In those heady days and nights that followed, all seemed right once more with a working man's game which has become more of a business/game these days with rather too much emphasis on the `business' for many fans - and a perceived deficiency at high administrative levels in the old heart and soul qualities and the nous that had shaped the sport - albeit somewhat roughly at times - into what it became……..
Sometimes it's the small things that illuminate big events best of all for we who look on - and so it was with the Rabbitohs. Out for dinner with my wife a few nights after the Grand Final, we encountered a bubbly young waitress in a near-city pub restaurant. A teenager, she had come from home to start work that night - and it happened that her home was not much more than a decent two-iron from Redfern Oval, Rabbitoh heartland. That evening, heading for work, she had made her way through scenes of wild joy in the streets around, as cars and trucks circled, music played (`Glory, Glory to South Sydney' unquestionably Top of the Pops) and there was dancing and singing and flag-waving and over-spilling happiness in the precincts of the district. Red and green was everywhere. The young waitress had had no previous contact with rugby league, but, oh boy, she had caught the bug now!! "I'm joining the club for next season!" she gushed. You could only wonder as to how many times that story was repeated now that the team called `The Pride of the League' had climbed back to the top. The game got lucky that night after a roller coaster season.…….
As an old sports journo of 50 years or so around the traps, I was chuffed to be a bit-player in the other reaffirming fairy-tale that was celebrated in rugby league in the late months of the season of 2014. The idea which had taken up lodgings long ago in a small pigeon-hole somewhere in a dusty corner of my head, had become a reality in 2014. Something observed and experienced 40 years before had become a book of 344 pages, ‘The Night the Music Died' – celebrated on this website. It tells a seriously unlikely tale of how a team of knockabout bushies from the NSW west, probably 500/1 chances if the bookies had been calling the odds that year, had taken on all-comers in the first-ever, under-lights Amco Cup competition of 1974 and - blow me down! - had won the bloody thing!
A book-maker of a different kind, was my running mate in the challenged tackled - Sydney's Geoff Armstrong, a man of encyclopaedic knowledge of sport complemented by a deep understanding of the arcane world of publishing, the former gathered from childhood, the latter honed to a sharp edge through a number of successful book projects skilfully negotiated. With initial interest in the idea of such a book no more than lukewarm from publishers, we decided to have a whack anyway – and, so, financed the project ourselves. "You won't get a thousand books into the marketplace," one `expert' told us. Well, we laced on our boots and headed into the unknown notwithstanding, having talked to a handful of good people in the industry and garnered some support. Also deeply re-assuring was the sense of history and heritage that continued to rumble beneath the surface of the game, although seemingly unknown and un-noticed at times. Anyhow, at last count as the Spring of 2014 edged towards summer close to 10,000 copies of `Music’ had gone into the market place, and the book, warmly received in its telling of a tale from 40 years before, was snubbing its nose at the doubters.
Along the way the process of the making of this book about ancient times became something very special in itself. The story emerging, gradually taking shape via the 50 or so interviews so generously and honestly given, was genuinely remarkable – arguably THE great underdog story of Australian team sport.
The team of knockabouts, coached by an old St George champion, Johnny King and led by a hard-nosed policeman from Bathurst, Paul Dowling after all had performed near miracles along the track that season – beating `gun’ Sydney premiership sides Canterbury, Manly (the premiers) and Penrith en route to the Cup, plus a team from Auckland which contained nine internationals, plus competing fiercely against growing odds in in one of the wildest matches ever played – against the touring Great Britain side.
For me, an author grateful for the chance of telling the tale, it proved to be the gift that kept on giving. Wonderful, emerging stories abounded among these hard men from the west, the east-west span of their territory reaching 550 kilometres from Lithgow to Cobar. Wonderful too, the tales and secrets of the unlikely victories, personal opportunities taken, and some lost, triumphs carved out by men who could hardly ever train together because of the tyranny of distance – and in fact barely knew each other before they gathered in Sydney for their first game.
But the real joy came gradually and late in the project – in the growing realisation of the truly wonderful bond that existed within the (18) living players. Forty years on, they were and are indeed a `band of brothers’ as the book suggests and to encounter them together en masse as happened a couple of times through the season was special indeed. In all my years in the business I can think of little to match those occasions in the understanding of what the shared experience in sport (and unlikely victory) can mean to men and women…..
Late in proceedings the National Rugby League , to their ongoing credit, joined the fray in a positive way. After some foot-dragging early and a hint of fumbling along the way, the League hosted the warriors of Western Division on a splendid September day in the `Big Smoke’. The `boys’ and some wives and partners came to town and were feted in a special and at times emotional 40 years anniversary event at the League’s excellent museum at `League Central” at Moore Park. At dusk the visitors from the west were whisked across to the ritzy venue Carriageworks for the NRL’s `One Community’ night – one of the finer occasions of the sporting year.
The League’s nod to history and tradition and magic very likely flew in the face of some professional advice given to a game that is very slickly (overwhelmingly?) `now- focussed’ these days. Solid rumour suggests that one of the highly paid `consulting firms’ brought in by the `New League’ under Dave Smith, had decried the value of `history’ in their report, suggesting that little could be made for the game’s all-important `bottom line’ from the realms of things past.
The consultants were of course wrong as other games that are played have proved and continue to prove - the likes of cricket, AFL and NFL. In all of them the nod to history is important - deep and strong and fair dinkum - entirely as it should be.
That the League eschewed such cold corporate advice and instead said howdy to the boys of ’74 and brought them to town and marked the occasion of an important anniversary of their Cinderella story of that long ago season was, ultimately, rather wonderful. The players were given awards that should have been theirs’ 40 years ago, remembered, photographed, interviewed and welcomed with great warmth.
Standing tall alongside such events as the Great Rabbitoh Revival and Jarryd Hayne’s magic carpet ride to an unknown future this brief afterglow for the boys of Western Division in the game’s 107 th year was in its own way…. a fairy-tale too.
It was that kind of season.
There will be signing sessions, with a chance to meet some of the 1974 Western Division team at:
`A Readers; Heaven Bookshop' 184 Mort Street Mudgee, Wednesday, September 3, 5pm-7pm
Big W Dubbo, Thursday, September 4, noon
Big W Bathurst, Saturday, September 6, noon