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Time to sing the praises of an unsung hero

16-Oct-2020

 

Time to sing the praises of an unsung hero

By Gabrielle Murphy

25 years after he accepted leadership of the Fitzroy Football Club as its last captain in the AFL, it’s high time Brad Boyd was recognised for his heroic feats over those last two tumultuous years when he carried the hopes and despair of the side, the supporters, and the sympathisers on his young shoulders. And so courageously steered them towards that fateful day at Subiaco Oval in Round 22, 1996. 

Plenty’s been said, written and recorded about Brad Boyd the player. And rightly so. A bit of a late starter in terms of stepping up to the rigours of AFL footy training, once he got going at Fitzroy – after being traded from Collingwood – Brad Boyd was by all accounts a superb footballer, and along the way bagged some significant honours.

In his first season as captain Brad Boyd won Fitzroy’s best and fairest. And in the same year represented Victoria in State of Origin. At the end of his career having played 70 games for the Roys and 15 for Brisbane, he was nominated for the Fitzroy Team of the Century. Man-mountain and comrade David Leydon (who knows a thing or two about Fitzroy history) says the only reason Brad Boyd didn’t make the cut was that midfielders like John Murphy, Warwick Irwin and ‘Chicken’ Smallhorn were ahead of him.

And let’s face it, he was so young. For me, in considering Brad Boyd’s legacy, it always comes down to that. So young, with such a huge burden to shoulder as Fitzroy’s last captain in the AFL.

From all accounts – and I’m relying on Fitzroy aficionados like footy historian John Harms and Comrade Leydon here – Brad Boyd was fast and he was agile. He could take a strong overhead mark and had quick hands. He was a club man, a coach’s dream, playing his role and playing it from virtually every position on the field. A natural ruck rover, he’d move without questioning to wherever he was required: from his favourite position in the midfield, to half back flank, to centre half-forward, onto the wing and, when there was no else to fill the gap, even to full back.

Like on that horrible day on Saturday 25 August 1996 when Fitzroy played its last game in Melbourne against Richmond, and coach Allan McConnell called on him to take up duties on the backline in an effort to stop Matthew Richardson in full flight.

Needless to say, it didn’t end well. Nothing did that day. But there was simply no-one else to fill the gap.

John Harms describes Brad Boyd as a footballer’s footballer, a great player whose career was – in the end – cruelled by a failed body. Comrade Leydon’s estimation is pretty similar: “brilliant shortened career”, “able to play wherever he was needed”, “could’ve become anything except for the injuries”

For me, an archetypal ‘Fitzroy’s-my-second-team-type fan’ back in those days of '95 and '96, the memories are not of the player but of the young man who was made captain.

A captain of an entirely different stamp from other club leaders running around at the time. Think Wayne Carey. Think Stephen Kernahan. Not to mention the vast resources backing them up. 

I remember turning to the back pages of The Age and seeing the image of a ridiculously young face, sitting on a rather dilapidated couch on his Northcote veranda, talking about his retirement from Brisbane and touching on his time at Fitzroy. And talking sense with his characteristic grace and dignity. Definitely not Wayne Carey. Definitely not Stephen Kernahan.

 

That article got me thinking. Really?! Leading up to the shameful shafting of one of the VFL/AFL’s founding teams, a club with a history as long as the league, someone so young was called on to steer the ship in those final two turbulent years? And withstand the physical toll and emotional turmoil that came with it?

Made captain in 1995, Brad Boyd was only 23 years old and Fitzroy’s second youngest captain in their long history. 

Only the great Haydn Bunton, at 20, was younger when named captain for the 1932 season but he didn’t even last out the season, relinquishing the position early on to concentrate on his game. But Brad Boyd didn’t enjoy the same luxury. And didn’t consider taking the option a crucial number of his teammates and football mentors did. He didn’t walk away.

 


He tells the story in almost poetic terms:

President gone.
Coach walked out.
Left carrying the can.
Only me and Alan [stand-in coach Alan McConnell] in the end.

And, in his 2015 interview with John Harms, scatters the conversation with adjectives as a visual artist would daub paint on a canvas to describe the situation he faced: traumatic, bizarre, unbelievable, surreal, roaming.

‘Roaming’ stands out as the odd adjective out. But, actually, in many ways it was the effects of being the refugees of the AFL, pushed from one home ground after another (often as the poor relation of another club) that eventually tolled the death knell of the famous old Fitzroy Football Club and pushed crucial players to jump ship, making everything so much more difficult and distressing for everyone involved – particularly the young captain and stand-in coach.

Like not having a training ground to call their own – in fact arriving on one occasion to find their temporary training facility with a lock on the gate. And on another occasion when, because the Coburg ground they were training at was under sand, the team got kicked off a ground at Bulleen by an under 14 team that claimed priority.

How low can you go? The Comrade reckons that for Fitzroy in 1996 it’s pretty easy: how about a best and fairest night at the Fitzroy Town Hall run as a pie night?

“It was absurd comedy,” says Brad Boyd. “The administrators left us high and dry.”


When he’s asked to assess his captaincy Brad Boyd doesn’t consider the enormity of the task he was handed, but what he could have done better.

“Knowing what I know now, I could have done some things differently if I’d been more mature, older,” he says. “At that age it was just doing what you could.”

And by that he meant as a footballer, not as a captain. “I suppose it was just about getting a kick and doing a job on a weekend – doing your job on the ground. I wasn’t a loud talker on the ground. And really, I probably didn’t know what I was taking on.

“On a purely simplistic level, I was in the prime of my career going into the 1995 season, and I wasn’t vying for a leadership role. I just inherited it. It was an added pressure that maybe I didn’t want or need.”

“But It was what it was. And I did what I could at the time. Then it all evolved. In the eye of the storm. It all happened so quickly, ended so quickly and I’m pretty sure the supporters felt this sense of shock too.”

The Comrade certainly does. “At the beginning of 95,” says David Leydon, “there was a new captain (in Brad Boyd) and a new coach (in Bernie Quinlan).

“In that first game we were 54 points down at half time, in fact hadn’t even scored. And only notched one goal by three quarter time, so went into the final quarter 90 points down, and went on to lose by 74.

“That’s a debacle for a first-time captain and first-time coach.”

Cash strapped and in need of financial backing, club administrators had invited some potential sponsors as special guests to the game that day – as a way of convincing them to come on board. “They’d all walked out by three quarter time,” says the Comrade. “Some didn’t make it past half time. And there’s Brad Boyd: 35 possessions, 17 kicks, 18 handballs.

“There’s your unsung hero. The place fell apart in the space of one week.”


The Roys who played the final AFL game for Fitzroy in far-flung Subiaco wore black arm bands to mark the day.

Without wanting to dwell too much on the final dark days – enough’s been said and written about that – there are a few things of note towards the end that highlight the pressure cooker situation Brad Boyd found himself in as captain and which exemplify the quiet composed way he conducted himself in such a tough gig for one so young. And why he’s my (and the Comrade’s) nomination for unsung hero of the AFL.

There was the time, late in the doomed 1996 season – when the Coburg ground was still open to them for training – and the usual Thursday night meal in the club rooms was cancelled because the caterers hadn’t been paid. While most players just headed home, Brad Boyd took a contingent of players to the nearby Fasta Pasta instead. How low can you go? And then turn up on the Saturday to play a game of AFL football.

 


Heading the table and the team: Brad Boyd presides over after training player dinner

And then, as if things weren’t angst-ridden enough in that last week leading to the final game at Subiaco, Brad Boyd was in danger of not even taking his place in the side that headed across the Nullarbor. Because, in the lead up to that game, he found himself heading off to the tribunal to answer a charge of making ‘an obscene gesture to the umpire’ during that last game at the MCG against Richmond.

He got off pretty easily in the end. The tribunal bought Brad Boyd’s evidence that he made the gesture alright, but it was to someone in the crowd. Admitting to being obviously frustrated, Brad Boyd had the calm good sense – even in the heat of that disastrous showing – not to look at the umpire as he made his feelings clear.

“Yeah, that’s right,” says Brad Boyd. “The gesture was definitely meant for the umpire. But I didn’t look at him when I made it.”

When Brad Boyd looks back, he does it through the same eyes and perspective as he did in 95 and 96, that is in purely football terms. But I don’t reckon anything comes close to what Brad Boyd faced throughout those years of 1995 and 1996. And he did it with characteristic humility and dignity.

The Comrade agrees. “He did it with grace and self-assuredness. The thing about him is he underrates his role in those last days. Downplays his role and is and was seemingly unaware of the regard and esteem with which Fitzroy supporters held him.

“Brad Boyd never acknowledges his key role,” says the Comrade. “Instead he always deflects. He is selfless in character and a staunch leader but really this was just an extension of the way he played his games.

The Comrade points to the fact that Brad Boyd’s possession count was often higher in handballs than kicks to back this up and makes the conclusion that this was prompted by his aim of trying to bring other players into the game.

“He was, to a lot of us, a beacon of hope. Someone we could always trust to have a crack and fly the flag for a struggling team. Just like Kevin Murray in some of the dark years in the 60s.

“And, largely because of him, Fitzroy supporters can look back and be proud.”


Captain Brad Boyd: leading from the front to the end.

Thanks to David Leydon for so generously sourcing and offering the images from his personal archive, and to him and John Harms for their perspectives on that time of Brad Boyd’s unheralded heroism.

 

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