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Pioneer Stynes sparked code's emergence from Victorian age

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The Jim Stynes we knew

Our football writers take a look back and reflect on their personal experiences with the late Jim Stynes.

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The death of Melbourne's Irish legend Jim Stynes comes at a poignant time for the AFL. As the game spreads to a new frontier, Stynes, more than any player, coach or official, encouraged what had been an insular, parochial sport to reconsider its place in the wider world.

That a born-and-bred Irishman could excel on the greatest stage, and win its most prestigious individual award, was a shock to the system. Perhaps even an affront to those who had flattered themselves that a quirky sport played mostly in the southern parts of a sparsely populated country was the epicentre of international athletic excellence. But, to those with broader vision, Stynes proved an inspiration.

He was not just the player whose success accelerated the AFL's ''Irish Experiment'', which would include the recruitment of Swans' premiership defender Tadhg Kennelly. Nor merely the star of one of sport's most romantic tales. Stynes was a symbol of greater possibilities. The oft-quoted example when the AFL talked about bold plans for expansion or recruiting talent from outside its heartland.

Retirement ... Jim Stynes.

Retirement ... Jim Stynes. Photo: Ray Kennedy

When Israel Folau runs out for Greater Western Sydney on Saturday night, it would not be too far-fetched to suggest Stynes is the one to thank - or to blame - for the AFL's audacious raid on the NRL. After Stynes, youngsters from farflung regions, or even mature athletes from other sports, were no longer considered square pegs in the AFL's round holes.

That Stynes became Melbourne president at a time when the club was financially crippled, and spiritually defeated, provided a Hollywood ending to an already preposterous story. An Irishman who had grown up oblivious to the game was not merely at the helm of a club that was, in its pomp, the pride of the Melbourne establishment. He was helping to save that club from oblivion.

Pioneers almost always possess exceptional characteristics. Stynes was no different.

Inspirational ... Jim Stynes.

Inspirational ... Jim Stynes. Photo: Joe Armao

When he came to Australia as an 18-year-old, having revealed his unusual athletic ability to Melbourne's covert recruiters in Dublin, the then VFL was a tougher, colder place. There were no assimilation programs or club counsellors. Enduring the inevitable homesickness, not to mention the frustration of what Kennelly called ''chasing the rabbit'' - that odd-shaped Sherrin - was as much a test of perseverance as athletic prowess. A few earlier Irish recruits, and several who followed, did not make the grade.

I first met Stynes in 1987, just after he had graduated to the Demons' senior squad. He was then a still-unlikely part of a rag-tag Melbourne team that, under tough coach John Northey, was the AFL's Cinderella story. Even then, Stynes struck you as an unusually strong and mature character. Affable, polite and fully engaged in his new pursuit. But with far broader interests and broader ambition than many of the knockabouts with whom he shared the sheds. It was not a surprise, later, when he became co-founder of the Reach Foundation that helps teenagers reach their potential.

In 1987, Stynes experienced a harrowing football ordeal. In the dying moments of a tumultuous preliminary final, Hawthorn's Gary Buckenara marked the ball and Stynes ran across his mark to mark an opponent. From the subsequent 15-metre penalty, Buckenara kicked the winning goal, depriving the Demons a place in what would have been their first grand final in 23 years. There is a famous photograph of Northey, his face twisted with rage, pointing a bony hand at the crestfallen Stynes. His caustic words: ''Don't you ever f---ing do that again!''

Decorated ... Jim Stynes won a Brownlow Medal in 1991.

Decorated ... Jim Stynes won a Brownlow Medal in 1991.

The following pre-season, I talked to Stynes about that moment. Despite the months of public humiliation, you could sense he was resolved, not hardened or bitter. Subsequently, after he had played in a grand final with Melbourne in 1988 and won the 1991 Brownlow Medal, Stynes said his lowest moment had inspired him, not defined him.

About the only criticism I heard of Stynes throughout his career - and his life - was a back-handed compliment. Having suffered all sorts of fractures, strains and sprains from the bash and crash of the ruck, he set the AFL record by playing 244 consecutive games. When he failed to perform at his best, it was suggested he should have taken a week off here or there. That his big heart ruled his head.

Out of concern, some said the same thing as Stynes simultaneously worked to rebuild the Melbourne Football Club, and fought against cancer. Yet, even after stepping down from the presidency, Stynes appeared at the club's blazer presentation ceremony last week despite failing eyesight. Word had spread Stynes did not have long to live. But such was his faith and tenacity that, as in his playing days, no one was ever willing to leave Stynes out of the line-up.

Disappointment ... Jim Stynes's career included finals heartbreak.

Disappointment ... Jim Stynes's career included finals heartbreak.

Ordinarily, you might suggest Stynes's memory would provide an inspiration for Melbourne this season. Yet, such has been the contribution of a man from Dublin to a club, a game and a city throughout his lifetime, his inspiration was felt long ago.

Sydney Morning Herald

Twitter: @rdhinds

Email: rhinds@smh.com.au

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