Gems from a sporting legend
When he was only around ten years old, Kevin Sheedy saw the Olympic Stadium being built, and wondered if he “would ever get there.”
Little did he know that he would become one of Australia’s greatest ambassadors of football.
Kevin Sheedy AM recently delivered the second annual David Parkin Oration for Sport and Social Change at Deakin Edge in Melbourne’s Federation Square.
In his oration “Building a Game for all Australians” Sheedy shared some pearls of wisdom gleaned from his long career, including the importance of Aboriginal players (whom he helped to introduce to the AFL) and the pivotal role that football plays in the life of Australia.
Mr Warwick Hadfield, Professor Chris Hickey, Dr David Parkin OAM, Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander, Mr Kevin Sheedy AM and Professor David Shilbury.
Sheedy’s sense of fairness, his hard work, creativity, openness and sense of humour captivated the audience throughout the presentation.
“The game is about Australia,” he said. “People are very fortunate either to be born here or to come here. In Australia, you can still make your dreams real and, yes, kids still dream. As a kid I loved sport, more than maths or science.”
However, he did use maths to select his sport, with the odds of making the national cricket team much lower than the state football league!
Sheedy began his football career with the Richmond Football Club, which, he said, “was very scary.”
“I was a lovely kid until I went to Richmond,” he joked, “but I was learning and picking up knowledge along the way.”
From Richmond, he joined Essendon in 1981, where he coached for 27 years, leading the team to four premiership triumphs.
His visit in the 1980s to the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin, to conduct football clinics with Aboriginal children, was transformational - for both Sheedy and Australia.
“I could not believe the talent that I saw on the islands,” he said. “The kids even watered the ground so they could play in the mud.”
“When I came back to Melbourne, I asked the bosses at Essendon why there had never been an Aboriginal player with the team in 40 years.”
Sheedy made it happen, with the first Aboriginal player being Michael Long, who “played football like you’d never seen.”
“He was skinny. He’d never seen a weight or been to a gymnasium. Half way through the first year, he went back to Darwin. When I rang and asked him why, he said ‘it’s cold’. I said ‘I’ll buy you an electric blanket and two doonas.’ He came back.”
After Essendon was beaten by Collingwood in the 1990 Grand Final, Sheedy was sent by the late David Evans (Essendon Chairman) to Disney World to do a creative thinking course, where he had a Eureka moment.
“Edward de Bono made me think differently. I came back and said ‘we have to go to the MCG,’ although Evans wanted to stay in Windy Hill.”
Again, Sheedy had his way and the club made the move in 1991 – gaining significantly increased attendance, membership and revenue for Essendon.
“It took Richmond three years to convince the Melbourne Football Club that they could be the second tenants, but this was a brilliant decision that saved all the Melbourne clubs, bar Fitzroy,” he said.
“Now, a billion dollar stadium is being built in Perth. Football is an entertaining game. We need to get back to that. .. My job at Essendon was to find enough talent to make people laugh and win (someone should tell that to Mick Malthouse).”
“Now we should ask how we can get one of our most significant businesses (the AFL) into the world market. There are 165 nations sitting in our city. For Multicultural Week recently, a young Chinese Australian called the game in Mandarin, which was broadcast in China.”
Sheedy was the inaugural coach of the Greater Western Sydney Football Club, which he coached for its first two seasons until the end of 2013. This year, he was appointed to the club’s Board and remains in Sydney.
During the oration, Sheedy mentioned three other career highlights: the establishment of the annual Indigenous and Anzac Day games, which were conceived as a means to pay tribute to Aborigines and those who fought for Australia; and the establishment of the AFL Sports Ready program, which provides traineeships for young people.
“In the early ‘90s, I sat in front of Bill Kelty, Ian Collins and Simon Crean and suggested that we have a $1 surcharge on every finals ticket to create jobs, with the Government to match $1 for each ticket. Through this Sports Ready project we have since created 13,000 jobs.”
Kevin Sheedy gives the impression that he will never run out of ideas for ways to improve football and Australia. His influence on Australian society has been “second to none,” said Dr David Parkin. “Sport does command power, even unite nations and to harness support for the greater good is no easy process.”
Dr Parkin added that he was honoured and humbled that the Oration had been established in his name. “Deakin has been my second home for the past 40 years,” he said.
The Oration acknowledges Dr Parkin’s contributions to Australian society in leadership, sport and education. David Parkin OAM is a former Australian rules footballer and was a four-time premiership coach. He had a distinguished academic career at Deakin and, since formally retiring in 2008, continues to contribute to the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences in sessional roles.