I think of him during another year of tribulation for his club – blessedly not my club, but any club that has had to go through what this one has damages the game I love so much. This individual I think about is as competitive as they come. He crossed over just before the shit hit the fan. Deep down, I wonder what he thinks now. He knew the window had closed at his previous club – one that had come so close, but yet had fallen short at the final hurdle. Soon it was headed for a stint of cellar-dwellering, despite his best efforts. He wanted so much for the ultimate. It looked a seriously stronger list where he opted to head to. Guided by a canny coach, a former champion of the outfit, they were on the up and up, starting to look the goods – or so he reasoned. Now, a couple of seasons in, there is no let up from the pain some might say that this mighty club has inflicted on itself. It just goes on and on. The players, for the most part, have been stoic and loyal, despite the testing times. The captain, as courageous and straight-talking as they come, has admitted that a recent injury, seeing him off the field for the long haul, came as somewhat of a relief. There is debate as to whether he will continue on carrying the load, such has been the pressure of the messy affair. And the player I am thinking about, looking at his old team, under a new coach who is building them back up and now possessing a list full of talent, in his more reflective moments, must be shaking his head. Yet he will suit up and go into battle week after week for his new employer, still giving his all because that is the way he is made. But along with his colleagues, be must wonder if there will ever be an end to it – will it all eventually be too much and the grand old club will be bent and beaten. He says the right adages to the media and works frenetically on the field to paper up the ever widening cracks, but how long before it all comes tumbling down around him? It’s another bitter winter for the Bombers. There is no greater test of his or the club’s character.
And then there’d be Longie. He is a hero from another football age – and still a hero today, even if his playing pomp is far behind him. His era was a time before footy became a corporate game, massaged to suit the big end of town and the demands of a voracious media. Some claim the core fans have been forgotten and the spectacle is but a mere shadow of its former self – but I would disagree vehemently with the latter at least. Longie knows that it has all changed, but for him, a servant of Essendon in his playing days still with strong ties, he had a different battle to fight. In many ways he is still fighting it. He is inscrutable, but he too must be bleeding for his beloved club, as well as for a coach/father who is back there to lend a hand; to see if a wise old head can help drag it back from out of the mire. It’s not his fight though – Sheeds can have it on his own. It’s not that he is not up for a job, but he has stood tall in the past on another issue and that particular journey is the one he feels he needs to see to the end. And as we have seen in recent times, with all the brouhaha over the Adam Goodes debacle, there is still much to be done off the field. Back in the day, with Sheedy at his side, he changed attitudes and made our indigenous game a safe haven for indigenous sportsmen, a place where they can display their magic for our collective wonder. We are all in thrall of what the Jettas, the Franklins, the Ryders and the Riolis bring to the table for our fantastic sport.
One of our leading writers on Aussie Rules, Martin Flanagan, took Michael Long on and has devoted a fair amount of time over the last decade trying to pin him down so as to construct a linear biography. It hasn’t worked. He failed. It was impossible from the get go – as impossible as it seems to be for Longie’s team to extricate themselves from the bogey-man that envelopes them today.
What we have, instead, is ‘The Short Long Book’ – a lovely play on words to describe an equally lovely product. And it is that perhaps with this factual novella-sized work we get to the touchstone of the man better that a more traditional hagiography would ever do – for that is what a biography of this man could not help but be. For what he’s done and continues to do he is universally admired – including by Flanagan, such a capable renderer of words. Nicky Winmar may have provided the photographic symbol, but Long provided the story and the grunt to get it done. He was a black man who took that long walk to change perceptions – and he took the nation along with him. At its termination he told a nay-saying Prime Minister a few home truths.
In telling the yarn of how he failed to pin his elusive quarry down, the author has come up with a mini-gem. There are yarns within the one great tale too, dominated by the time Michael L took Flanagan into the desert lands and the Top End of his people so he’d understand more. It is also the saga of how MF became the Great White Hunter to Longie and his mob. In such tales, tall but true, we are given a hint of what makes such a mesmerising subject tick – one that, despite his elusiveness, is an out and out hero.
Martin F tells of how a Longie would relate to him a story, but the telling could take several years to complete as he would deliver it one sentence at a time. The book is brim full with tellings of these wonderful stories. There’s the young Longie sleeping regularly on his mother’s grave. At a similar age he found all his belongings on the family lawn when he dared to float the idea that his future lay with basketball rather than Aussie Rules. He got the message loud and clear on that one. And there’s………well there’s plenty more, but it is a short tome. Better you go out and purchase your own copy. But, just to pique interest a little more, in it you will find a hilarious description of the great footballer’s running style, another of Dermie’s infamous shirt-front of Paul Van Der Haar and best of all, there’s the magpie goose.
The nation will remember the Essendon star for his ‘Mandela’ year, 1995. To his credit, the villain of the piece, Collingwood’s Paul Monkhurst, now stands alongside Michael Long as an advocate for racial tolerance. At that time, when the black man he targeted with his racial tirade reacted by standing up for a principal and telling us all it would, from now on in, definitely not be left on the field on that day nor any other. He pointed out where we were all failing; he pointed us towards a better tomorrow.
Unlike many commentators, I refuse to concede that our game has lost its soul. In recent days we have only to look to the footy family’s coming together over the death of a coach who went before his time; as well as for a champion’s sister passed before hers. I also know that the great club of Michael Long, Kevin Sheedy, James Hird and countless other legends, as well as now a player who seeks grand final glory for himself, will rise to the top again
The Long Walk website = http://www.thelongwalk.com.au/Home