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A crooked finger gestures to Smith's legacy

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Chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

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Larger than life: The statue of Norm Smith unveiled at the MCG.

Larger than life: The statue of Norm Smith unveiled at the MCG.

THE tear that welled up in the corner of the eye of Peter Smith, only son of the legendary Norm, as he gazed up at the statue of his father in the instant of its unveiling at the MCG yesterday, said more than any of the accompanying words of tribute.

It did not take a great reach of imagination to think that, in return, those lifelike beady eyes misted over just a little. At his bronzed feet stood many of his multi-premiership Melbourne players, including his runner, Hugh McPherson, whose wheelchair was piloted by four-time premiership defender John Lord. A premiership bond unites them still.

One among the bewitched many this day was Ron Barassi. Truthfully, Norm Smith was father to three: Peter, his flesh and blood, now himself a grandfather; the mystical Barassi, whom he as good as adopted as a teenager and who lived for four years in a bungalow in Smith's Coburg backyard; and the modern game of football, which Smith philosophically sired as he led Melbourne to six premierships.

Barassi identified an even richer bloodline. Not only had he lived and played under the spell of Norm Smith, but he had worked for eight years with his brother, Len, whom some say was his brother's equal as a football mastermind. Both Smiths, he noted, had played for and been influenced by Frank ''Checker'' Hughes. Between them, Hughes, Norm Smith and Barassi played in and/or coached 26 premierships between 1920 and 1977.

History, though, defers to Smith, coach and full-forward of Melbourne's team of the century and coach of the AFL's team of the century, remembered annually when the medal for best on ground in the grand final is presented in his name. A coach in any era, said Barassi, had to be able to get his message across clearly, and needed ''the ability to think of something special when everything else wasn't working. He had that.''

Beyond doubt, he was martinet stern. This posed a problem for sculptor Lis Johnson. In surviving images, Smith's visage is intent, but benign. To animate it, and more truly depict his renowned intensity, Johnson added a few furrows to his brow.

There were other problems. Mostly, Smith is seen sitting on the coach's bench, wearing a famous overcoat. The sitting position was not dynamic enough for Johnson's purposes. And, curiously, Smith's players insisted he lose the overcoat in statue form.

Moreover, the statue was to be one-and-a-half times life-size and, like Michelangelo's statue of David, the head had to be disproportionately bigger again, to appear real to beholders at ground level. ''I've had the giant figure of Norm Smith looming over me for quite a few months,'' she said. All guests yesterday could empathise.

Johnson said she was feeling the pressure in the instant Peter Smith tugged away the shroud yesterday. She need not have. There, all agreed, stood the very image of Norm Smith, in suit and tie, hair parted to the left and swept back, eyes rounded in their zeal, a waggling finger raised.

Noel McMahen, another Smith protege, was pleased to note an authenticating detail - the finger is crooked. Smith unambiguously made his point, he said, but never by pointing.

Smith and Shane Warne will eventually be part of an avenue of five statues from Jolimont to the MCG, complementing nine others circling the ground. The identities of the other three have not been revealed.

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