Friday, October 28, 2011

Book review: Barassi, by Peter Lalor

A re-post from our affiliate book review blog, Books with Balls.

When my grandfather died in 1991, I was eleven and before we left his house in Warrnambool for the last time, my sister and I were invited to take with us anything small we'd like. Being a sports nut, I went straight to the bookshelf and prised away the Courage Book of Brownlow Medallists (the up-to-date 1975 version), Run Digger by Bill Lawry, Crackers by Peter Keenan and two near-ubiquitous football books: Boots and all! and Captain Blood by Lou Richards and Jack Dyer, respectively.

I also found a scrapbook from 1964 made by my then 14-year old mother for her father, exclusively detailing Ron Barassi's move from Melbourne to Carlton. Coming from an age of relatively free player movement (remember the mid-season draft? Trevor Spencer!! Bret Bailey!! Andrew MacNish!!) I was astonished that so much newsprint could be devoted to one man moving clubs.

Mum explained that it was "a pretty big deal" back then, but I couldn't comprehend how important Barassi was - not just to the Melbourne Football Club - but to Australian Rules Football. With the passing of longtime friend Ted Whitten, Ron Barassi is Australian football's elder statesman and greatest advocate.

Peter Lalor's book Barassi follows the footballing fortunes of a man whose influence is so great one needs reminding that he spent the first fifteen years of his public life overshadowed. He began a football career defined by his father - a former player killed at Tobruk - and then became coach "Norm Smith's boy" due to a close relationship with the club coach.

He had to break free of public opinion and did so by agreeing to coach Carlton. He reiterates that the move was the best thing he ever did because it gave him his own identity. It is an identity with which every Victorian (Australian?) can associate.

The book doesn't provide much information about Barassi's personal life simply because outside football, he had had little personal time. It briefly details the breakup of his first marriage and elements of his current relationship, but his life is one lived almost entirely in footy. This makes the book, in essence, a year-by-year catalogue of Barassi's life which while at times informative also leaves the reader slightly flat. There are periods of detail mixed with passages of summary - which while sounding like the ideal mix, leaves the reader with questions.

Like his mentor Smith, he was demanding of himself and his players but was tactically more astute than the Red Fox. He had strong ideals about how the game should be played and how players should carry themselves. Ron Barassi - according to former player "Crackers" Keenan - is the most honest man he's met. He learned about the importance of integrity from family (and extended family), tactics at the knee of the Smith brothers and of marketability from club presidents like George Harris and Allen Aylett. Those traits defined him - and his clubs.

It was to Barassi that the AFL turned when the Sydney Swans were so shambolic in the early nineties - only a coach, a personality even, of his magnitude could turn around what had become a major embarrassment to the league.

Lalor reveals that, on taking over a floundering Sydney franchise, Barassi lined the club's back-room staff up against one wall of the bowls club used as the club's HQ, then asking each member of the playing group to name the support staff. None of the Swans could - a sign of lingering disrespect for those around them . As the Swans matured, they made a run to the 1996 Grand Final.

Ron Barassi has a strong claim to being the most recognizable Victorian of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Since then, only Shane Warne and Nicole Kidman could challenge him. It's a shame though, that Barassi only tells most of his tale.  

Four stars.

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