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On This Day: Carroll's debut

Dennis Carroll watches on during a quarter time break at the SCG.

Dennis Carroll was a typically unassuming young fella when he moved from the Riverina to Lake Oval dreaming of a career with South Melbourne – and he remembers two strong lessons he was given very early on.

It was the summer  of 1980-81 when 20-year-old Carroll was the beneficiary of some straight forward advice from colourful Swans coach Ian Stewart.

The first was prior to training one night when Carroll, still trying to put names to faces at his new club, walked into the Lake Oval training rooms and issued his customary friendly greetings.

“As you do I used to call every second person mate. I said ‘gidday mate’ to a few players and trainers and then Stewey walked past I said ‘gidday mate’ to him. Well, he didn’t take too kindly to it.

“He turned around, grabbed two handfuls of whatever I was wearing and slammed me back against the lockers. He pointed his finger and told me in no uncertain terms what he thought.

“He said to me: “I’m not your &%$#% mate and I’m never going to be your mate so don’t call me mate.”

The second unforgettable lesson from coach Stewart, a triple Brownlow Medallist later to become an AFL Hall of Fame Legend, came not long before the start of the season.

“I’d had a pretty good pre-season and my training form had been OK but I hadn’t played well, so when it came time to pick the side for the last practice match at Lake Oval, I wasn’t chosen.

“Instead, I was to play in the Reserves and just before we were about to run out, Stewey came up and grabbed me by the jumper with both fists, pushed his face against mine and said to me, “if you don’t fire up today son you can @#%@ off back to the country.

“It was a pretty confronting thing for a young bloke down from the bush but it was a good wake-up call and I went out determined to try to do my best.

“I was playing on the wing and to his credit Stewey positioned himself on the fence right in front of where I was playing. Right through the first quarter he was personally coaching and encouraging me.

“Things like ‘well done’ and ‘push up’ and the like. Then, in the second quarter he walked right around the ground to take up the same position on the opposite wing and did it all again.

“At halftime in the Reserves he had to go in and prepare for the Seniors, but it was something I never forgot. He had a great football mind and I figured he must have seen something in me if he was prepared to go out of his way to help me.”

Stewart, South Melbourne coach from 1975-77 and Carlton in 1978 before returning to South in 1979., was going into what turned out to be his last year in charge at Lake Oval in ’81.

Although Carroll didn’t spend a lot of time with him he says the impact of the Richmond and St Kilda Team of the Century member on him was huge.  Even if Stewart did keep him waiting until Round 8 of the 1981 season for his first AFL game.

It was 37 years ago today, on 16 May 1981, that the same shy kid from the Riverina, who went on to be one of the all-time Swans greats, made his debut against Melbourne at Lake Oval.

Carroll was among five inclusions to a side that sat eighth on the 12-team ladder with a 3-4 win/loss record and had been beaten by 65 points by Collingwood at Victoria Park in Round 7. Melbourne, coached by Ron Barassi, were 11th with a 1-6 record.

“I do remember it ... kind of. I played on a half-back flank, we had a pretty good win (by 44 points) and I had a lot of fun. I thought I did OK and made a reasonable contribution to the team, and I remember thinking to myself ‘this is what I’ve been dreaming about’.”

Barry Round, who went on to share the Brownlow Medal that year with Fitzroy’s Bernie Quinlan, captained a Swans side that trailed by eight points at quarter time but kicked 7.5 to 2.1 in the second quarter and was never headed. Carroll had 15 disposals.

Also in the side that day were Rod Carter, Tony Morwood and Stevie Wright, who would be teammates for a decade

“After the game we went back into the rooms and sang the song, and then it was off to the social club for a function. And then I dare say a few of the boys may have headed down to a pub at Port Melbourne … the Fountain Inn.

“As anyone from that era will tell you the boys used to get out and let their hair down after the footy on a Saturday, and then invariably they would back up somewhere on Sunday as well.”

It was the beginning of a wonderful career that was probably always meant to be.

Born in Coolamon and raised in Ganmain, a small town outside Wagga, Carroll had football in the blood. His father Laurie Carroll played 10 games for St Kilda in 1948-49 and uncle Tom Carroll played  55 games for Carlton in 1961-63.

Tom Carroll kicked 143 goals – 54-62-27 over the three years – and topped the club goal-kicking each year. He was the competition’s leading goal-kicker in 1961, just ahead of Geelong’s Doug Wade, and in ’62 was runner-up to Wade.

Dennis Carroll grew up on the family farm in the old South Melbourne recruiting zone but admits he barracked for Essendon and describes himself as a ‘late developer’ who was picked up almost by accident by the Swans.

“I went away to school in Wangaratta and didn’t play a lot of footy at home, and after I finished school I had a year working in the bank in Albury and playing with the Albury Tigers, who were in the North Melbourne zone.

“One day (Swans recruiter) Greg Miller came up to watch Albury play North Albury. He was looking at a guy called Daryl Jordan, who went on to be a very good country footballer but I must have done OK because that was the game that earned me a chance at South.”

Carroll packed up and moved to the big smoke. After boarding with the family of a club supporter for two months he moved into a flat with his cousin Wayne Carroll, who had already played with the Swans, and young Riverina recruit Brett Scott.

Scott went on to become his best mate at the club, and, amazingly, would play an unlikely but significant role in Carroll’s career at the end of the journey.

Carroll’s first year at South Melbourne in 1981 was the last year in which the team played at Lake Oval. In 1982, although they continued to live in Melbourne, they played their home games at the SCG.

Therein lies the roots of another Carroll life lesson, although it was self-taught after Swans stalwart Ricky Quade had replaced Stewart as coach.

“We always played at the SCG on a Sunday afternoon, so we’d fly to Sydney in the morning, have brunch at Sydney Airport and catch a bus to the ground for a team meeting before we played.

“When we started doing a lot of flying one of the big things Quadey insisted on was doing it the right way. We had to travel with pride and represent the club properly. There were to be no shenanigans. We did it really well and to this day I think it’s something we’re proud of,” he said.

But – and there had to be a but – who was the first player to miss the plane? None other than Carroll.

“I was still living with Brett Scott and Wayne Carroll and to this day I say they must have turned my alarm off but I was woken by a phone call from (Chairman of Selectors) Tony Franklin saying ‘we’re at Tullamarine … where are you?”

“I was still in bed so he told me to get on the next flight and that he’d see me in Sydney.

“We were playing Footscray and I found myself on the same flight as the Footscray players. I was just a young kid, not very well known, but I was in club uniform and got a few smirks from some of their players who worked out what had happened.

“When I got off the plane in Sydney the boys had finished their brunch and were on the bus waiting. I got on and not a word was said. No ‘how are you?’ or ‘good to see you’. Silence, although there were a few funny looks from a few teammates.

“At the SCG we went downstairs for the team meeting but before the other players arrived Quadey and Tony (Franklin) let fly. Metaphorically, they took out a double-barrel shotgun, put in two cartridges, and shot me between the eyes. For five minutes they tore shreds off me.

“When I came out of the meeting I still hadn’t had anything to eat so I asked one of the trainers if he could go out and find something. He came back with a dirty old egg sandwich but luckily we had a win and I played OK. But I can tell you I never missed another flight.”

In fact, Carroll was very much the model footballer – a wonderful player and a fine leader. So much so that heading into the 1986 season, at 25, with 86 games behind him, he was appointed captain.

In his first game at the helm half the side was older and had played more football, but it turned out to be an inspired choice. Carroll captained the club for six years until he stepped down at the end of 1992, and 25 years on his 131 games at the helm is fourth on the club’s all-time list behind only Paul Kelly (182), Bob Skilton (165) and Jarrad McVeigh (139).

For 12 years Carroll was one of the best half-back flankers in the game, having a beautiful kick with both feet and a wonderful ability to read the play. It was no surprise that in 2003 he was named in the club’s Team of the Century alongside good mates Round, Morwood and Wright.

He went through a bitter-sweet time in 1986-87, when the Swans were genuine contenders under coach Tom Hafey after the recruitment of such great players as Greg Williams and Gerard Healy, only to be eliminated from the finals in straight sets.

Carroll missed the ’86 finals due to injury when the club suffered two close losses and played his only two finals in ’87 when they were smashed.

On 29 June 1986 Carroll played his 100th game in a match against Geelong at the SCG, kicking three goals in a game he cannot remember well, and on 28 July 1991, a month after he’d become a father for the first time, he became the 13th player to reach 200 games for the club.

Remembering the game for some shared banter with colourful umpire Peter Cameron, the Swans beat Richmond by seven points at the SCG. Carroll had 32 possessions, two short of a career-best, and earned three Brownlow Medal votes.

In both milestone years he polled double-figure votes in the medal, finishing equal 11th in the vote count in ’86 when teammate Williams shared the medal with Hawthorn’s Robert Dipierdomenico. In 1991 he was equal 18th.

Curiously, Carroll represented NSW and Victoria in State of Origin football but counts among his few regrets the fact a detached retina saw him miss NSW’s upset win over Victoria in the wet in 1990, when John Longmire kicked eight goals for NSW to be best afield.

In 13 years with the Swans Carroll played under a staggering nine different coaches, who together make one of the great Swans trivia questions. There was Stewart (1981), Quade (1982-84), Franklin (1984), Bob Hammond (1984), John Northey (1985), Tom Hafey (1986-88), Col Kinnear (1989-91), Gary Buckenara (1992-93) and Brett Scott (1993).

Franklin, who had played  32 games for South in 1974-75 and took over as Chairman of Selectors following the move to Sydney., coached one game after Quade fell ill and before Hammond took over for the last eight games of the 1984 season. Scott coached two games early in 1993 after Buckenara was sacked.

It was the same Brett Scott with whom Carroll had shared a flat with in his early years.

Scott’s first game as caretaker coach against Fitzroy at Princes Park in Round 5 was Carroll’s 219th and last game before he finally admitted defeat to a long-term calf injury and retired.

If he’d lasted two more games there would have been a 10th different coach, with Scott only warming the chair until the great Barassi took over in Round 7, but Carroll was done.

He coached the Swans Reserves for four years from 1994-97 while building a business career with City Ford in the motor industry, and while running City Ford worked closely with coach Rodney Eade in a part-time but busy role as Chairman of Selectors for four-and-a-half years from 1998.

When Eade left partway through 2002, Carroll decided his time was up. After more than 21 years in red and white he refocussed and split his time with his business and his family – wife Ingrid and children Astrid (now 26), Ben (now 24) and Jake (now 20).

He was done with football. Or so he thought.

A phone call from Sydney Swans CEO Andrew Ireland in 2009 lured him back. Carroll took on a joint role, helping Paul Roos and Chris Smith to set up the QBE Sydney Swans Academy and heading the crucial player welfare/development team.

After five years he stepped aside from the Academy to work full-time in welfare, and there he remains today. Understated and unassuming but admired and respected by all, he is a critical figure in the much-admired culture of the Swans – and if you ask any decent player manager they’ll tell you he’s the best player development chief in the competition.