In this month’s edition, Gazette sports editor RUSSELL BENNETT sits down over a beer with AFL Outer East commission chairman Tony Mitchell to help Gazette readers get to know just who sits at the top of the local region’s most expansive league…
Russell Bennett: When did you get your start in football, Tony?
Tony Mitchell: I was 14 and I started at Croydon in the under-15s.
RB: Where were you from, originally?
TM: I grew up in Croydon – the old man lived there for 55 years and he only moved about three years ago! (laughs).
RB: Croydon would have been a pretty different place back then mate…
TM: Oh god yeah, Russ. Croydon was a fairly competitive first division side in Eastern (the EFL) in those days, and they were the days when the under-17s was the top junior age group and the seniors played at one ground with them, and the reserves and the under-15s played at the other ground. If you were playing East Ringwood, for example, one would be at East Ringwood, and one would be at Croydon. That’s how they used to do it, and then of course they realised all the grounds were getting hammered every week! (laughs).
The guy who used to coach us, Felix ‘Flick’ Fraraccio – who was my second coach and is involved up at Healesville as the ex-president – was a fringe player in the twos and ones, so if he was in the twos when we were in the under-17s he used to have to leave at three-quarter time to get to another ground!
RB: How’d you go in the under-17s?
TM: I had a couple of reasonable years and developed a fair bit. Felix used to train us really hard and made sure we were disciplined, so I was lucky enough to win a best and fairest in the last year in a pretty good side. From that side, a couple of blokes headed to Carlton, and a couple to Essendon in the under-19s. We had the zones in those days, and the Maroondah Highway used to be the border. One of my mates ended up being the captain of the Carlton under-19s, and three of us went to Essendon – including myself – in the (Paul) Vander Haar days. He was the greatest junior player I’ve ever seen – without a doubt. I held him to six goals in a half one day! (laughs).
RB: So you were a key defender?
TM: Yeah I played centre half-back and when I started playing seniors I went on the ball. I couldn’t play centre half-back in the seniors – I just lost it. I couldn’t get the mojo back.
I remember playing against Vander Haar at Vermont – he played for Ringwood – and we were playing this second semi-final. They were a good side, but he wasn’t there so I thought “you beauty!”. Thing is though, he had to play for his school – he went to Whitefriars (College) – so he played there, and then came on at half-time in our game and kicked six! He kicked this one goal where he was right in front of the pavilion at Vermont and kicked it left foot, post high from 60 out. I just thought “you have to be kidding me!”.
Out of that era, he made it and a guy by the name of Terry Cahill from North Ringwood made it. We had a special scholarship squad from our region where we trained on the second ground at East Ringwood.
The region also had blokes like (Paul) Salmon, (Kevin) Walsh, (Dean) Bailey, (Gary) O’Donnell, and Nobby (Neil) Clarke. They did pretty well out of us.
RB: So what happened from there?
TM: After that I left and got approached to go out to Coldstream. We were in third division and I played out there for probably five or six years. I went to Warburton one year in 1980 – the coldest place god ever put breath into! (laughs). I played up there, and then went back to Coldstream.
After that I went to The Basin and did my knee so I had a year off, and then went and coached Silvan for a couple of years in ’86 and ’87, and in ’88 and ’89 I coached Mount Evelyn and gave it away at about 31. The footy was different then – it was really tough.
I remember my first senior game at 17, when I was at Croydon in and out of the 19s at Essendon. I wasn’t good enough or fit enough at the Bombers, but it was a great experience.
I remember playing against Mitcham there, and I was on the half-back flank. A guy I worked with at the bank was an assistant coach to a guy named Ron Thomas (who played 11 senior games with Richmond), and he was one of the hardest men I’ve ever seen play. Anyway, I went to shake hands with this young bloke I used to work with and the next minute I was flat on by backside! He just went crack! That was his way of saying welcome to the big-time. Early in the second quarter I had him lined up for this almighty shirtfront and I got him – I returned the favour, straight up the middle! (laughs). It took him a while to get up, and I said “I reckon we’re square now mate”.
RB: That’s just the way footy was in the ‘70s and ‘80s, wasn’t it?
TM: Oh yeah Russ, it was tough. You knew what you were in for.
I then sort of stood out of footy for a while (when I finished at Mount Evelyn) for five or six years. I’ve got three daughters, so I spent some time with them and my partner went through breast cancer, which was pretty tough because you do think the worst. I also went into a new business at that stage, so there was a lot going on.
But in ‘96 I got invited to come on to the board at the Yarra Valley.
When we came on, the league was really struggling financially. We implemented a bit and helped out, and slowly built from there and 23 years later, I’m still here.
It’s always been divisional, our competition. We had two divisions but back then we still had Silvan and South Belgrave, and Mount Evelyn hadn’t come in at that point.
RB: But you ended up leaving the board at one stage, didn’t you?
TM: Yeah, in 2007 because we had a business in Mansfield. I went on the VCFL board then and we had a pretty good team. Back then we had to tackle things like the Wonthaggi situation (two clubs becoming one), and we had to get across what was best for footy.
Winding up Swanpool and Tatong was pretty tough too. They were super tough calls to make, but I knew a lot of the people involved when I was in Mansfield. Sometimes clubs are just better off merging to save their history.
In that role, I got to see how clubs were really traveling. I was on the audit committee too, through my background in banking.
RB: So there’s a real clamp down on finances now when it comes to salary caps, but back then there would have been a few clubs who tried to flout the system…
TM: There was one in particular up near the border of New South Wales who used to flout it a fair bit, but the best thing we’ve done in country or metro footy is introduce the player points system. That’s something I’ve been a strong advocate for, and I was on that committee in its infancy.
We’d already had a points system for 10 years up in the YVMDFL (now AFL Outer East) and our Division 1 was very even. I was always confident it’d work everywhere – it was just a matter of convincing some of the guys from Eastern (EFL) and Essendon (EDFL).
Ours in the Yarra Valley did need an overhaul though – there was no doubt – but we put a lot of work into it.
I knew the salary cap would do nothing without the points. People would be foolish to think things can’t go on (financially) in the background, and it probably still is happening now.
RB: Tony, you’ve seen a lot of footy in your time. What are some of the standout performances or seasons you’ve seen?
TM: Ben Haynes is the best kick I’ve ever seen – he was unbelievable – but the best individual season I’ve seen, by far, was (Haynes’ former Essendon team mate) Gary Moorcroft’s in 2008 when he kicked 153 goals for Silvan – not including finals, where they went through and won the comp undefeated. I’ve never seen anything like it, and he didn’t even win our league best and fairest! (laughs). God only knows why!
RB: That was the year Darren Sheen slotted 130-plus for Cora Lynn…
TM: Yeah, Gaz kicked 10 or more goals in nine games that year. I watched him kick 13 out of 16 one day in the pouring rain at Healesville and the umpires weren’t sure whether to give him the three votes (laughs). That was the best year I’ve ever seen, but the best single game performance I’ve seen is when Andrew Shipp kicked eight in a quarter for Gembrook Cockatoo at Mount Evelyn. He only kicked nine for the game, I reckon!
Look, overall, I’ve had a great time so far watching this competition evolve.
RB: And that brings me to the current day, Tony. What are your thoughts on the current state of play in the now AFL Outer East?
TM: There are challenges there, yes, but they’ll sort themselves out – I really think that. Divisional footy and netball is a no-brainer, and I think the fate of those sports locally depends on it. But we’re not scared on making big decisions like grading the under-18s, for example. That’s the critical thing – a lot of people are scared of change. We cop plenty of flack, and if you can’t cop it on the chin you shouldn’t be doing the gig.
When you think about divisional footy, look at Powelltown with a population of about 240 people and the whole town is based around the timber mill. But they’ve got fantastic individuals out there who’ve been there for decades. They’ve been in recess before, and we had to make a tough decision to tell them one year they had to field a senior side when they thought they could only field twos players.
Thornton Eildon has gone through some real tough times too, and we’re helping them where we can too, but if we didn’t have what is now three divisions, these clubs wouldn’t survive.
One of my old coaches used to tell me this, and it’s still very true today: “When you win the flag, it doesn’t matter what grade of footy you’re playing in”. That’s what people need to get their heads around – the medal hanging around your neck is the same at the end of the day.
As an industry, we have to be bigger on divisional footy and we’ve got to work on the growth of the game, and what’s best for it.
RB: And lastly, on that, do you think there needs to be a real cooperation happening between the AFL Victoria regions?
TM: Look mate, this isn’t about reinventing the wheel. Use the expertise that other regions have, because they’re only too happy to help you out. If they don’t have the experience or the knowledge to solve the problem, they’ll know someone who does. I understand people want to protect what they’ve worked their butts off to achieve for their clubs and leagues – and most of us are volunteers – but at the end of the day it’s a matter of what’s best for the sport.
We (at AFL Outer East) had some very open discussions with our clubs and some were given the option of going into Division 1 or Premier, and they’ve got their own reasons for that. We would have spent three hours just putting clubs into different divisions on a whiteboard. The only one we all agreed on from the outset was Division 1 (the second tier, behind Premier). A couple of clubs are struggling at the moment, but we’ll make a decision at the end of the season in the interests of the competition. We’re flexible with that, and working with the clubs – not against them.
There have been some scores in Premier that haven’t been ideal, but at the end of the day we can sit down and do something about it.
Our next step is looking at the northern clubs – Kinglake, Yea, Alexandra, and Thornton Eildon – and what can be done for them. If that means opening our borders up, then so be it.
RB: Tony, it’s been a fascinating chat with you mate and I think our readers would have got plenty out of it…
TM: Thanks Russ.