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Image of the tagger as a joyless thug far from the truth

The  football life will always be  a battle for tough guys like Tim Callan.

The football life will always be a battle for tough guys like Tim Callan. Photo: Vince Caligiuri

A few years back I was having coffee with Tim Callan in a Seddon cafe and we got to talking about his football journey.

Tim had originally been picked up by Geelong under the father-son rule (his dad,Terry, played 62 games for the Cats). Between 2003 and 2007, Tim played 15 senior games at the Cats and won their team's VFL best and fairest in 2007.

At the end of the 2007 season, Tim sought a trade to the Western Bulldogs where he played a further 19 senior games, including a few impressive finals appearances.

Tim was one of my favourite players to run out with each week. He prepared himself meticulously, adhered to a strict on-field discipline and was physically courageous to the point of silliness. He's also the only bloke to miss the dart board on three successive Mad Mondays, but that is neither here nor there.

Like so many players who embark on the AFL path, though, his time in the game was too brief. His talent and effort deserved more than the grand total of 34 league games. 

In 2008, as the two of us hunched over our flat whites, he told me something that has stayed with me ever since. Here is my recollection of what he told me.

"Most kids are drafted as one of the stars of their junior teams. They have been put in the middle of the ground and let loose to roam free and do as they please. Their offensive talents have been honed over years of practice. 

"It's only once they get to an AFL club that many of them realise they may not be a star in their team, let alone the entire competition. Only then do many of them realise they have to adapt, find a specific role for the team.

"That is my point of difference. I've never been a star. My whole footy career, through juniors and right up until now, I've been a defensive role player."

I got to thinking about my little piece of Timmy Callan wisdom this week when the annual debate surrounding taggers roared to life once again. Something that I think may have been missed in the whole Brent Macaffer/Trent Cotchin debate is that it takes a great deal of skill and cunning to tag a player of Cotchin's quality.

The cartoon picture we sometimes get of this one-on-one battle is that there is one exquisitely talented player trying to play the game and one player who is a joyless thug. This cartoon is not fair and I would go one further - I think it shows a lack of understanding about how broad the skills in our game are.

As someone who has been both the tagger and the taggee, I have some idea of the mental resilience it takes to overcome either scenario. But my appearances on either side of that coin have only been very occasional. I have nothing but admiration for those players who endure these rigours week in and week out, Macaffer and Cotchin being just two of many.

Most weeks, despite the close attention of the opposition's best "defensive role players", the stars continue to shine. Jobe Watson, Scott Pendelbury, Gary Ablett, Cotchin and co are able to control the game through sheer will and with the help of their teammates. I'm amazed by how often the great players play so well. 

For the role players, the taggers, the stoppers, football life will continue to be a battle - both on the field and in trying to justify their curious ways to so many critics off it.  What keeps them warm at night is a deep sense of self worth that only comes with doing a tough job for your mates and your club.

In 34 league games for the Cats and the Dogs, Timmy Callan put to work his negating skills that he had sharpened since he was a boy. It made him as much a part of footy as the glimmer of the shining stars.

10 comments so far

  • I'm getting a bit sick of footballers getting in the papers to defend the likes of McCaffer, Crowley etc.
    These guys are counter productive to footy. The "Better" they play, the worse the game is to watch, both live and on telly. Murph is lucky enpugh to be paid a fortune to play the game. He would do well to remember that the money comes from fans, either directly or via TV ratings. It might be different from his side of the fence, but from where I was sitting, McCaffer's tactics were disgraceful. The umpire should have penalised him for off-the-ball holds at least twenty times.
    These guys are ruining footy.

    Commenter
    Corbachov
    Date and time
    April 16, 2014, 7:56PM
    • Why wouldn't a coach negate an attacking player? Why aren't you whinging about defenders playing on forwards? Taggers aren't new, they have just got better.

      Commenter
      CJ
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      April 17, 2014, 8:20AM
    • Rubbish CJ, the taggers are no better, it's just that the direction has been given this year to reduce free kicks across the board. This is why taggers, and defenders for that matter, are getting away with more. The umpire's mic constantly picked up the umpire telling McCaffer to "Watch his holds". He just needed to blow the whistle a few times early and set a precedent.

      Commenter
      Corbachov
      Date and time
      April 17, 2014, 9:38AM
    • Firstly, I'd sooner read an intelligent bit of prose from a current footballer than a headline seeking rant from an ex player.
      Secondly, you've missed the point. It's difficult to tag an elite player, therefore you ARE seeing a skilful player & mostly the elite player who is being tagged is pushed to another level as well, his team have to put into practice the coaching strategies to counteract the tagging and all round it's another dimension to the game that makes it so enjoyable to watch. If it was as simple as see ball, get ball, kick ball we'd all be nodding off......
      Great work Murph, keep it up & look forward to your 'after footy' career in the world of journalism somewhere but in the meantime love them twinkle toes!

      Commenter
      Borissimo
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      April 17, 2014, 11:09AM
  • very nicely written in style and an insightful bit to add to the secret footballers piece.

    Commenter
    grantio
    Location
    hawthorn
    Date and time
    April 16, 2014, 8:29PM
    • Robert,

      Of more importance is how the game is played. Kevin Bartlett on the couch says do away with interchange, I agree. The dropping the ball should be rigorously enforced. There should be four reserves, substitutes only. A minimum 25 metres kick. The player receiving free kick MUST kick it himself. Taggers are a part of football, it's the lack of enforcement that is making the game suffer. There has never been a time in the history of the game previously where it is being damaged from within as now. It looks bloody awful, I walked out on a game my lifelong team was playing in, for the first time, after seeing the consistently kicking the ball backwards from the forward line, on occasions all the way to fullback. It's not innovative, nor is it Australian rules football.

      Commenter
      Gungadin1949
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      April 16, 2014, 8:44PM
      • Kevin Bartlett talks about how the game will be lost to future generations, while ignoring the fact that it's only the older generation who seem to have a problem with it. I'm not sure of your age, but the phrase "Lifelong team" suggests many decades spent watching football. I'm 26 and here to tell you that I would hate nothing more than for the game to be artificially turned back into the sort of kick-to-kick that you pine for. It's not imaginative, it's not exciting, and it's not interesting. Today's game is fast and unpredictable. How could you not like the fact that a half-back is just as likely to pop up and kick a game turning goal as a half forward? How could you not like the fact that Jamie Elliott and Luke Bruest are just as likely to kick 5 goals as Travis Cloke or Jarryd Roughead? In today's day and age, everybody is on display at all times, and it's brilliant, and it's also what the current generation wants.

        Commenter
        Mitch
        Date and time
        April 17, 2014, 9:44AM
    • Your turn of phase and insights into the humanity of sport make for fine reading Bob. Keep 'em coming.

      Commenter
      John Finkelde
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      April 16, 2014, 10:48PM
      • Bob, I understand what your saying but if more players are tagged in each team, say 5 or up to 10 then the game becomes a battle with no relevance to the past and boring to watch now and in the future. Wouldn't it be better for clubs to recruit more players with the skills to break the lines, run through the middle and goal or hit someone lace out. I know what I'd prefer to see. You team mate might have been able to do that but was told to tag. I think he laments that fact. Mc Caffer scragged Cotchin and broke all the rules of a fair contest. No one I know wants to watch that.. Mc Caffer might be a highly skilled player . Well never know.

        Commenter
        Nick
        Location
        Melb
        Date and time
        April 17, 2014, 8:53AM
        • Tagging is just a modern name for 'playing tight' on your opponent. I remember Tommy Hafey saying how important it was that your opponent didn't get a kick. Playing defensively is after all the name of the game. In Aussie Rules, quite differently from Soccer and Rugby, when we run out we have a specified locational opponent. But I object to tagging when umpires refuse to enforce the rules. What we saw Macaffer do last week was impede, hold and scruff Cotchin continuously. Much of this was well 'off the ball'. Tagging is good and so are the rules. Let them both remain.

          Commenter
          Mike
          Location
          Darwin
          Date and time
          April 17, 2014, 10:56AM

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