The Dennis Carroll Story: PART ONE.
Sunday 6 October 1968: Dennis Carroll was only seven at the time, but it was a day he remembers well. A momentous day in the history of the small NSW country town of Ganmain and the start of a love affair that would last more than half a century.
The third of eight children of local farmers Laurie and Maureen, later to become a stalwart of the Sydney Swans, played his first game of football in a fund-raiser organised by the local council to help build the town a swimming pool.
It was ‘Carrolls v The Rest’ under coach Francis Carroll or ‘Father Frank’, the Catholic Bishop of Wagga who later became the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn and a much-revered church figure who was Laurie Carroll’s cousin.
Among the older players were Laurie, a Ganmain football institution better known as “Dooley” who had played with St Kilda in 1948-49, and Dennis’ uncle Tom, who won the 1961 Coleman Medal playing with Carlton and topped the Blues goal-kicking three years in a row, plus brothers Joe, Bill, Tony, Brian and Kevin. The juniors included Dennis, brothers Chris, Stephen, Colin and Scott, and more cousins than he knew he had, including Wayne, who, like Dennis, went on to play for South Melbourne/Sydney.
“Dooley” Carroll played in seven premierships for Ganmain, sharing his last in 1957 with seven other members of the Carroll clan. Tom Carroll kicked five goals in his VFL debut against St Kilda’s then Victorian fullback and subsequent Brownlow Medallist Verdon Howell, and on top of his ’61 Coleman was runner-up to Geelong champion Doug Wade in the ’62 Coleman.
Young Dennis recalls being “so excited” about his first taste of Australian football, even if, having only previously played rugby league, he admits he didn’t really know what he was doing.
Little did anyone realise that from that fun-filled charity fundraiser in Ganmain would emerge one of the great servants of South Melbourne/Sydney Swans Football Club. And that the then seven year old would stamp his mark as a player, captain, coach, selector and administrator of the highest order.
Or, that a future national media identity, Swans president, patron and life member would make a short and largely unproductive visit to Ganmain for the “Carrolls v The Rest” game.
Mike Willesee, a young ABC reporter at the time, was sent bush to cover the occasion but, to the disappointment of the locals, nothing went to air. “Not too many people knew what happened but my Dad knew and one day he asked him. As the story went, a young Mike had started watching the game before venturing to the social club next door and found a few beers and a couple of local girls more appealing than the football,” Carroll recalled with a smile.
As the collective Swans family spends the new year's break reflecting on a year like very few, the tale of the jaunty journalist is one of countless that might cross the mind of Carroll as he reflects on a life-time commitment to the club.
The now 60 year old, head of Sydney's player welfare operation for the past 11 years, had been planning his exit with CEO Tom Harley for 18 months, and at the end of a season turned upside down by the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic, he decided that after 40 years in red and white the time was right to step away.
His last few months at the club were like no other as the world battled Coronavirus.
The Swans went 85 days between Round 1 at Adelaide Oval and Round 2 at the SCG as the competition was shut down, and then played 16 games in 97 days, with five five-day breaks including three in a row to close out the season.
Not impacted as heavily as some Victorian clubs, they were forced to hub in Brisbane for one week, three weeks in Perth, two days in Adelaide and finally, three weeks in Cairns.
They played four games at the SCG, two in Perth, eight in Queensland including at the Gabba (3), Carrara (3) and Cairns (2), two at Adelaide Oval and one at Docklands Stadium back in Round 2.
It was a long, tough slog, but according to Carroll it was a "really good and positive experience”.
“Because we had a relatively young list who genuinely enjoyed each other’s company we took a lot out of it, travelling around Australia, living in nice accommodation and playing footy,” he said.
The story of the shared journey of Carroll and the Swans, and the multi-faceted role the one-time half-back flanker played in the club’s move from South Melbourne to Sydney, would make a wonderful book, with untold highs and lows and literally thousands of tales in which he has been involved
So much so that to do him any sort of reasonable service his tribute has had to be broken into three parts, with a subsequent focus on the club’s move to Sydney and then his move into administration.
Carroll played 219 games for the Swans from 1981-93 to rank 25th on the all-time playing list and was captain 131 times from 1986-92, ranking fourth on the club captaincy honour behind only Paul Kelly (182), Bob Skilton (165) and Jarrad McVeigh (139).
He played four times for NSW at State of Origin level, including the Bi-Centennial Carnival in Adelaide in 1988 where he was vice-captain to Terry Daniher, and represented the Big V of Victoria three times in the mid-1980s.
Having received Life Membership in 1989, he was named in the Swans Team of the Century in 2003, was inducted into the Swans Hall of Fame in 2009 and was included in the NSW Team of the Century in 2019. The annual award for the club’s most improved player is named in his honour, and there was even a Kippax/Carroll Room at the SCG to recognise the Swans great and Australian cricketing great Alan Kippax.
Carroll was the first of the South Melbourne players who relocated to marry a Sydney girl and the last of that group to retire. He was Reserves coach for four years and chairman of selectors for five years, before 11 years in a player welfare and development role, which has become more important by the year.
It carried various titles, including that of Executive General Manager – People, as Carroll set a standard that became the envy of the opposition and a benchmark for the competition.
He was a largely unheralded figure, content to work behind the scenes and appreciated most by those who benefitted from his care and commitment, and his experience and his knowledge.
While his legacy will be best described by others, the ever-humble Carroll put it perfectly when he summarised his emotions after walking out of the club’s SCG offices for the last time as a Swans employee.
“I’m very proud to leave knowing I’ve played a small role at a club that is well entrenched in the Sydney sporting landscape and is very much in the conversation among the clubs that are most highly respected, not just in the AFL, but across all codes,” he said.
Indeed, while Carroll himself won’t say it, other Swans insiders will. Without people like him, Rod Carter, Brett Scott, Mark Browning, Tony Morwood, Barry Round, Stevie Wright, David Murphy and Ian Roberts, among others, who gritted their teeth and fought through the tough years, the good years that followed may not have been.
Not even a lucrative offer from Carlton, at the time a power club of the competition, could tempt him to abandon the challenge the Swans agreed to tackle on behalf of the national competition.
Indeed, the club had come a long, long way from the days of that family charity match in Ganmain, and Carroll’s first taste of the game that has dominated his life.
At the time of his first football outing South Melbourne were looking for a new coach after Allan Miller, a senior executive at the ABC who had replaced Bob Skilton at the helm in 1967, had finished with the club five days earlier. The Swans had twice finished ninth under Miller, who was one of few who have coached in the AFL without having played at the highest level.
Officially Miller had stepped aside for health and business reasons, but unofficially he’d been sacked as the club targeted the legendary Norm Smith, a six-time Melbourne premiership coach who would take charge of the Swans for four years before being named coach of the AFL Team of the Century in 1996.
Skilton’s third Brownlow Medal and the debut season of newcomer Peter Bedford were rare 1968 highlights in a 1960s decade in which the club won 55 of 184 games, with two draws. The 1970s were no better, despite finals appearances in 1970 and 1977, with the club winning 72 of 222 games, with one draw.
A young Carroll was oblivious to the Swans troubles. For no particular reason he was an Essendon supporter, with a soft spot for St Kilda and Carlton through family connections.
With the invaluable benefit of hindsight it was always going to take a lot of hard work by a lot of dedicated people to restore the club to its previous high standing in the competition. And time and time again, Carroll would prove himself to be up for the fight.
Born in Coolamon, down the road from the family farm at Ganmain, he moved with the family to a new farm outside Tarcutta. He then left the farm at 12 to go to boarding school in Wangaratta and left school after Year 10 to join the bank, moving around the Wagga area as he was transferred from branch to branch. Four in four years.
In 1980, aged 19, he played with the Albury Tigers. After an invitation to play in a lightning premiership organised by South Melbourne recruiting boss Greg Miller for the best prospects in the club’s four zones, he won a contract with the club for 1981.
He moved to Melbourne to live first with Miller and his partner Pam, and later the family of a club supporter, before moving into a South Yarra flat with cousin Wayne and fellow Riverina recruit turned best mate and Swans caretaker coach Brett Scott.
Before his first game with the club young Carroll had learned two valuable lessons from sometime cantankerous senior coach Ian Stewart.
The first was prior to training one night during the 1980-81 off-season 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 ’81 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.”
After starting the season in the Reserves, Carroll, wearing guernsey #40, debuted under coach Ian Stewart in a 44-point Round 8, 1981 win over Melbourne at Lake Oval on Saturday 16 May.