Norm Smith & The Curse Of The Demons

The Age

Friday July 20, 2007

Greg Baum

Norm Smith, who last night was inducted as an official legend, made his reputation at Melbourne but also had his heart broken there.

NORM Smith was at home in Pascoe Vale, about to watch a movie on television one Friday night in July 1965, when a letter arrived by special messenger, sacking him as coach of Melbourne. It was the calling down of a curse.

Breaking the news on page one of the mass circulation The Sun News-Pictorial the next day, Kevin Hogan predicted a backlash among players and supporters to the summary dismissal of a man who had taken the Demons to six premierships in the previous 10 years and who as player and coach had figured in 10 premierships.

Last night he became only the second coach to be inducted as an official legend of the game.

The next day, Smith resisted the importuning of Channel Seven and other media to record a moving and harrowing interview with his friend, Channel Nine's Tony Charlton.

In it, he said Melbourne officials had falsely accused him of lying, claimed they themselves had lied to him, and blamed them for running down what was then the most powerful club in the land.

"It was unacceptable to me to work with men who wouldn't back me, men who would expect me to get the utmost from the players and demand from players loyalty and support, and then at the other end of the line were not prepared to give me their support," he said.

"I said to the president: 'You went to a public school, I went to a state school, but they still spell principle the same way'. And it is a principle for which I am fighting."

Charlton noted that Smith's brother, Len, was ill and had stood aside as coach of Richmond, that stand-in Jack Titus had said he did not want the job permanently, and asked Smith if he might take over the Tigers the next season.

"I'm Melbourne at this stage, Tony, I'm Melbourne," he replied in a voice wrung through with emotion. "To talk about anything like that would be against those principles. I'm Melbourne through and through."

Remembering the interview this week, Charlton said: "It was an electric experience being in the studio with him. We were all very excited about the telecast, although as I look back on it, it was amateurish compared with what they do today. But for its time, it was pretty powerful."

But Charlton admitted to a 42-year regret. "We invited Norm with his wife, Marj, to have a look at it, because there'd been quite a reaction to it. But it upset him and it upset her very much. I wish I'd never done it. We were just thinking from a television point of view and forgetting the human cost."

The next day's newspapers reported the interview, The Sun on its first three pages, The Age front and back. In The Sun, Hogan said it was impossible for Smith to go back to Melbourne.

Meantime, Melbourne president Dr Don Duffy hit back at Smith, saying: "The club is disturbed by the bias of some of the statements made by Norman Smith. It is obvious that there was more behind Smith's dismissal than appeared in the letter to him. We could have said a lot more."

Can friends ever have fallen out so comprehensively and spectacularly? Smith came from humble origins in Northcote, firstly to play brilliantly for Melbourne: his record 546 goals for club was surpassed only last year, by David Neitz.

He coached Fitzroy briefly, but after Melbourne won only one game in 1951, it called him back. Rejuvenated, the Demons lost the grand final to Footscray in 1954, then embarked on a premiership-winning spree unparalleled in VFL/AFL history.

Smith was backed by what one historian called the "backbone of steel": president Bert Chadwick, secretary Jim Cardwell, chairman of selectors Ivor Warne-Smith, and Checker Hughes in what would now be called head of the football department.

Their collective force gathered an indomitable team. Foremost among them was Ron Barassi, whose father was killed in World War II and who from age 15 lived with Smith.

So Smith built a formidable record, although never claiming more for himself than was his due. "He always deferred to his brother Len as being THE football brain in the family," Charlton said this week. "Always. He always very warm in his recognition of Len." So have been many others since.

But even a succesful club necessarily is not an oasis, nor its key figures wallflowers.

Smith described himself as uncompromising and a disciplinarian. Hogan wrote that Smith's "turbulent nature and refusal to trim his words when roused are all well-known. He is not the man to back down to any authority".

But Hogan said he "engendered tremendous loyalty from almost every player who had played under him".

Remembering his friend this week, Charlton said: "He could be forceful and outspoken, and he suffered fools poorly. You didn't want to get on the wrong side of him."

He added: "He had a humble side. He hated losing, and didn't lose too often, as the record shows. But he was very warm towards those who succeeded against him. He was very gracious about it."

Even a good thing runs its course eventually. In 1964, the "backbone of steel" was ageing and breaking up, and the team was growing old, too. Near the end of the season, after a match against St Kilda, Smith called umpire Don Blew a cheat. Blew sued, the matter was settled out of court, but Smith felt his board had given him only tepid backing.

Melbourne won the flag, but Barassi shocked at season's end by leaving to become captain-coach of Carlton. Some committee-men wanted to block the move, but Smith gave Barassi his blessing, figuring he had given Melbourne as much as could be expected of any one man. Somewhere, a bell tolled.

Melbourne won the first eight games of 1965, but then lost to St Kilda by 10 goals, their heaviest defeat in the Smith era. They were beaten twice more in the next three matches, precipitating a crisis.

The next Wednesday night, Smith was asked to appear before the committee. Believing he was about to be sacked, he went intending to offer his resignation, but was talked out of it by his brother, Len, who urged him to eat humble pie.

"Have you ever eaten humble pie?" he asked in the Charlton interview. "It's got an awful taste."

Smith agreed to forswear public criticism of the board, and to tell the players of his solidarity. But privately, he urged the president to sack the board. Smith admitted to Charlton that he argued frequently with the match committee, but constructively. "We're a football club, not a girls' school," he said.

Tension was still thick in the air when players and coach met secretary Cardwell after training the next night. Believing the purpose was to tell the players how best to get to the Coburg ground - North Melbourne's home ground that season - Smith declined Cardwell's invitation to speak. He said he had already made his position clear to the players on the training track. Captain Hassa Mann affirmed it, and so did two others.

But the board took it as a last straw. The last paragraph of the letter it delivered the next day read: "Obviously, you do not intend to honour your word, and the committee is not prepared to allow your disruptive tactics to continue. Your appointment as coach is cancelled as from this date."

Smith said he was stunned. "The allegation was that I had told a deliberate lie," he said. "Anybody who knows me knows I would rather fight than lie. I was tried, sentenced and convicted without any right to say anything on my own behalf." Oh, for the straight-shooting days when spin was what Richie Benaud bowled at the MCG in the summer!

The next day, Melbourne lost to North in the wet. That night, players, trainers and family gathered at Smith's house. On Sunday, the Charlton interview aired. By Monday, Smith was urging members to rise up against the club's board.

Speculation mounted that he would go to Richmond. Duffy said that as Smith was no longer coach of Melbourne, he could do as he pleased. Seemingly, an era had passed in an instant.

Extraordinarily, after a two-and-a-half hour meeting convened the next day by "interested supporters", Smith was restored as coach. Again, it was page one news. In The Sun, Cardwell said: "All the difficulties between Norm Smith and the committee have been resolved. Everything in the garden is lovely."

Rejoined Smith: "I think we will see Melbourne more united than ever." He and Duffy were pictured, clasping hands. But the picture was too fey, the curse too powerful. Melbourne won only one more game for the season and failed to make the finals for the first time in 13 years.

"They certainly never recovered any confidence in the coach when he was reinstated," said Charlton. "Respect was the casualty. It was never the same. Never. He wasn't the same Norm, because he didn't feel the same about Melbourne. The tryst was broken."

It would be 22 years before the Demons even played in the finals again. Now another coach and era has come and gone, still without a flag. Observed a blogger this week: "Nothing will change until someone comes in (who) will die for this club, and I don't think we've had someone like that since Norm Smith."

The curse had other malign effects. "I've felt to this day that the whole episode led to his heart problem, which ultimately brought him to grief," said Charlton.

Smith coached Melbourne until 1967, then re-emerged in 1969 to coach South Melbourne, taking the Swans in 1970 to their first finals appearance in 25 years. But he died in 1973, aged just 57.

© 2007 The Age

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