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On This Day: Barassi takes charge

Ron Barassi was 57 years old and coaching his 457th AFL match. And that after 254 games as a player. He should not have been nervous, but even the greatest could have been excused a few butterflies.

It was Sunday 9 May 1993, 25 years ago today, when Barassi took charge of the Sydney Swans for the first time.

A member of the AFL Team of the Century, a Legend in the AFL Hall of Fame and a member of the Sports Australia Hall of Fame following a glittering career over 33 years as a player and coach at Melbourne, Carlton and North Melbourne, he was one of the all-time greats.

A 254-game six-time premiership player at Melbourne, a four-year captain-coach and three-year non-playing coach at Carlton, where he won two more flags, and a two-time premiership coach during eight years at North. He’d done it all.

He’d been seven-and-a-half years happy in retirement after a career the equal of any, when he received an SOS from Sydney Swans and the AFL to take over a dire situation in which the Swans sat winless at the bottom of the ladder with a percentage of 53.6.

Gary Buckenara, who had taken the Swans to a three-win wooden spoon in his first season at the helm in 1992, appointed 23-year-old Paul Kelly as captain in ’93 to replace Dennis Carroll but was powerless as they lost their first three games to Hawthorn by 57 points at the SCG, St Kilda by 38 points at Waverley and Essendon by 86 points at the SCG, after a Round 1 bye. 

Greg Stafford had made his AFL debut for the Swans in the Round 4 loss to Essendon in which a 20-year-old James Hird had kicked six goals in his eighth game, and Bradley Plain and Paul Salmon kicked five apiece.

The Swans Board had had enough. Buckenara was moved on. But with the Barassi negotiations still ongoing, the club appointed assistant-coach Brett Scott as caretaker coach.

It was a tough assignment for the injury-prone 31-year-old Wagga-born centreman, who had played 59 games in red and white from 1981-89 including the Swans’ first game at the SCG in 1982. 

In his first day at the helm, even before Barassi had accepted the job, Scott coached the Swans to a 93-point loss to Fitzroy at Princes Park. Stafford played his second game and was minus 179 in the points for-and-against column.

A week later it got worse. The Swans conceded the highest score in club history in going down to North Melbourne at Princes Park 16.9 (105) to 35.19 (229). Almost mercifully, Stafford was left out of the side as second-gamer Adrian McAdam kicked 10 goals for North, and a 22-year-old full forward in his 96th game kicked nine goals – namely John Longmire.

With the Swans having lost 19 games in a row, second only in club history to the 29-game losing streak of 1972-73, there was only one way they could go as the man they called ‘Barass’ took over in Round 7 against Carlton at the SCG.

It was also a day Neil Cordy, former Footscray and Swans star turned Daily Telegraph AFL writer, remembers well. It was his 235th AFL game and his 96th for the Swans. And his last.

Having not played since Round 15, 1992, when he dislocated his shoulder for the second time in his 14th and penultimate season, Cordy had made a late start to ’93 and was among four changes to the side that had been humiliated by North.

Cordy and Craig Nettlebeck were included for their first game of the year, with Jamie Lawson and Tony Malakellis recalled. Tony Begovich, John Hutton, Darren Kappler and Andrew McGovern made way.

Cordy, 34, could not have been happier, and admitted recently the Barassi pre-match address that day was one of the few he can remember from his 235-game career.

“I’d grown up a Carlton supporter – I was nine when they won the flag in ’68 - so Barassi was very much on my radar. I’m not exactly sure but the first jumper my Dad ever gave me was a Melbourne one, and I have a suspicion I may have followed Barassi across to Carlton,” Cordy said this week. 

And the pre-game message? ”He (Barassi) painted a picture of how the Swans were going to be a great club one day, and told us this was going to be the turning point. Carlton had been a real powerhouse and were still a very good side, and he told us how one day we’d look back on this game as something very big,” Cordy said. 

It wasn’t quite the win that Barassi had talked of, but it was a vast improvement. Carlton won by 44 points. Craig Bradley had 36 possessions and kicked two goals for the Blues to earn three Brownlow Medal votes, while Carlton’s Peter Dean earned two votes and Paul Bryce, in his first season with the Swans after stints at North and Melbourne, earned one vote for a team-high 29 possessions. Cordy had nine possessions and was promptly dropped the following week. 

“I was the oldest player in the League that year and I was pretty much done. He (Barassi) had a chat to me and said there was no point investing games in me and that he was going to play the kids. That was fair enough and about a month later I retired,” he said.

“Dennis Carroll had retired earlier in the season due to injury and a few weeks later we did a lap of honour around the SCG together. There were about 5000 people there. We still laugh about it today.

“I knew it was the right decision and to be coached by Barassi even for one game was a nice way to go out. This was Ron Barassi ... the Ron Barassi … arguably the most respected figure the game has ever produced.

“Looking back on it now I just wish he had given me four more games. I finished on 96 games for the Swans – you get your name on the locker at 100. It didn’t mean anything back then, but now I understand how special that sort of thing is.”

Cordy finished the season playing alongside brothers Graeme (who had also played with Footscray and Sydney) and Roger with the Wodonga Bulldogs in the Ovens and Murray League. They lost the grand final to the Wangaratta Rovers. 

Now battling for AFL space in a Sydney media dominated by rugby league, Cordy said the impact of Barassi on the club was ‘massive’ and still is. 

“He turned the whole place around, albeit with help from a long list of good people, and really they’ve never looked back since. Plugger (Tony Lockett) and Roosy (Paul Roos) followed, and now we’ve got Buddy (Franklin), but it all started with Barassi.”

The great coach’s decision to drop the veteran half back flanker wasn’t all bad. He was spared a further agony the following week, in Round 8, when the 15th-placed Swans travelled to the Gabba to play the 14th-placed Brisbane Bears. They lost by 162 points – 8.9 (57) to 33.21 (219) – as Brisbane posted their highest score and biggest win. 

The 120-point margin at halftime, when the scoreboard showed 0.4 (4) to 19.10 (124) was and still is the biggest in AFL history.

Four competitive losses followed before the AFL world was rocked by the sudden death in a Sydney hotel room of Alan Schwab, the AFL’s executive commissioner who had been sent to Sydney by the League to oversee the revival of the club.

This prompted a move north by Ron Joseph, a close Barassi ally who had played a pivotal role in getting him to North 20 years earlier. He took over as Sydney CEO in a move which further helped to consolidate things.

Eight days after Schwab’s passing the Swans scored a much-needed breakthrough win in Round 13 against Barassi’s original club Melbourne, winning by 40 points at the SCG to end the streak.

Richard Osborne, wearing a helmet after being taken off the SCG in an ambulance four weeks earlier following an accidental head clash with teammate Dale Lewis, was the hero.

A former Fitzroy star who had been part of a huge influx to the Swans in 1993, Osborne kicked 10 goals in his eighth game for the club. He would add only eight more before leaving for Footscray the following season, and later Collingwood.

The win over the Demons would be the Swans’ only win of the year, but at least they’d turned things around. And as Swans historian Jim Main would say in 2016: “It’s entirely possible if Ron Barassi hadn’t come to Sydney the club would not exist today and the national competition would be a much paler imitation of what we see today”.

Barassi took the Swans to a four-win season in 1994, when they collected the wooden-spoon for the third year in a row, but eight wins in 1995 was a sign of better things to come.

After stepping down as coach at the end of ’95 and helping the club in the appointment of Rodney Eade as coach for 1996, Barassi looked on proudly as the Swans finished top of the ladder with 16 wins and a draw and qualified for the grand final in the AFL Centenary Year. 

It was the club’s first grand final since 1945, and the only thing missing was a win. They lost to North by 43 points. 

History shows that 27 Swans players played their first game in red and white under Barassi, including 300-gamer Michael O’Loughlin and 100-gamers Brad Seymour and Daniel MacPherson, while it was on the Barassi watch that Paul Ross and Tony Lockett were recruited to the Harbour City to have such a profound impact on the club and the game in Sydney.

All that after Barassi had made the most prophetic comment in an interview in the 1970s. Asked where he’d be in 20 years, he’d replied: “Coaching a team in Sydney”.

Ever the visionary was the great Ronald Dale Barassi.