Kevin Sheedy - By Denis Pagan

Later today Kevin Sheedy will perform his last official duty as Essendon coach when he delivers the keynote address at an Essendon Network of Women luncheon. There has been no bigger visionary or more influential figure in Australian football during Kevin’s 27-year reign and he leaves Windy Hill a true legend of the game.

Kevin has had a profound influence on the careers of so many and I am forever indebted to him for extending me a lifeline to further my coaching aspirations. The disbandment of the VFL under-19 competition in 1991 left me without a job in football until Kevin offered me the opportunity to coach the Essendon reserves and assist him prepare the senior team. I couldn’t accept his offer quickly enough and the year I spent at Essendon in 1992 remains one of my most enjoyable in football.

A passion for football that is unrivalled and a sheer determination to find a way has been the hallmarks of Kevin throughout his four decades at the highest level. It’s this drive and self-belief that allowed Kevin to achieve so much more than others who were blessed with greater God-given talents. His Richmond teammate and lifelong friend Kevin Bartlett once joked that when Kevin first arrived at Punt Road he could neither kick or handball, but could find plenty of the ball. The story goes that by the end of Kevin’s 251-game career he had become a highly skilled player but couldn’t find the ball!

Kevin is unique and has always marched to the beat of a different drum. To say he has been unconventional and at times, a total contradiction is a real understatement. In his first game in charge of the Bombers in 1981 he mimicked the uniform of his Premier League counterparts by coaching in Essendon shorts, socks, tracksuit top and adidas boots. He also had to be talked out of making a comeback after the Bombers lost five of their first six games, but the side then went on to win the next 15 games and the night series competition. Grand final appearances and back-to-back premierships followed in the ensuing years.

Kevin’s eccentric and unpredictable manner has been a source of frustration for some, but I was always appreciative of the scope he gave me as one of his assistants. In the early 1990s it was rare for a senior coach to delegate too much responsibility, yet Kevin wouldn’t hesitate in handing over the reins and have me take training of the senior group.

The supreme optimist and as wily a politician as those who walk the corridors of power at Spring Street, Kevin has always been an innovator and ahead of his time. He would cancel training and take his players to a restaurant or hold team meetings in the Botanic Gardens to build team spirit and freshen up his players.

The one-time paperboy from Prahran saw himself not just a coach of a football team, but as an ambassador for both his club and the game. He took hold of a conservative, suburban entity and transformed it into a competition powerhouse, helped it achieve record membership and gave Essendon a national identity.

His legacy includes the Anzac Day and Dreamtime initiatives, the extended interchange bench and the creation of the rookie list, while he was also a driving force behind the AFL traineeship scheme. Our game is richer for Kevin championing the cause of indigenous footballers and he was the man the AFL turned to when it was desperate to revive interest in the International Rules series with Ireland.

It has often been said that Kevin is at his best when backed against a wall. I witnessed this phenomenon first-hand in 1992 when Kevin managed to conjure from his side a couple of stirring wins against the odds. In a celebrated game against Melbourne the Bombers trailed Melbourne by 47 points three minutes into the last quarter, but managed to snatch victory with a last-minute goal from Gavin Wanganeen, simply because Kevin made his players believe it was possible.

Later in the year Essendon faced an in-form St Kilda at the MCG after coming off a 75-point loss to West Coast. Kevin’s theme during the week revolved around Tony Lockett, who had kicked bags of 15, seven and nine goals in his three previous outings. The task of curbing ‘Plugger’ was assigned to a couple of Nhill boys, with David Flood selected at full-back and Dean Wallis given the job of filling the leading space. The Bombers won thanks largely to the ‘Nhill boys, nil goals’ tactic which saw Wallis take 14 marks and Lockett held goalless.           

Perhaps surprisingly for someone possessing a ruthless streak, Kevin has never been comfortable delivering bad news. Trusted lieutenants were handed the unenviable task of informing Ron Andrews and Derek Kickett they had been omitted from grand final sides and Kevin was always loathe to criticise players who had performed for him in important games. He doesn’t bear grudges, works hard at building bridges and is loyal to those who have supported him.

Kevin has been a master at manipulating events and using the media to drive a particular agenda. Who will ever forget the 1998 Marshmallow furore, when Kevin seized upon an off-the-cuff remark by Channel Seven commentator Tim Watson to bristle at the imagined inference that North Melbourne players considered their Essendon counterparts to be fragile? At the height of the controversy - which Kevin clearly orchestrated as a rev-up for his players – the playing reputations of both chief executive Greg Miller and chairman of selectors Mark Dawson were challenged, while I awoke one morning to discover my front lawn covered in marshmallows.        

AFL football is unlikely to see another quite like Kevin Sheedy and his record of 886 VFL/AFL games as a player and coach - including 11 grand finals and seven premierships – will take some tossing. While an extraordinary chapter on the Kevin Sheedy story has drawn to a close, don’t be surprised if he reinvents himself once more and bobs up coaching again in the not-too-distant future. 

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