Digging deep: Phil Carman has settled into life in Mount Gambier. Photo: The Border Watch
Given he turns 63 in September, Phil Carman would be excused if he just wanted to be a spectator these days, watching footy matches from the comforts of a glassed-in social room with a lager in hand. ''But I'm just not the sort of bloke who wants to hang around in the social club having a beer,'' the former Collingwood, Essendon, Melbourne and North Melbourne player said.
Carman is adamant that he still has plenty to offer football, especially at a grassroots level. That's why an ad in the Bendigo Advertiser late last year, which had been placed by Western Border league club East Gambier, caught his eye. The Bulldogs were after a senior coach and Carman was on the phone.
''I went to the club to speak at a luncheon two or three years ago, and I had kept in touch with the president,'' Carman said. ''When the job came up we got in touch with each other and here we are.'' On being awarded the coaching position, Carman, his wife Wendy and 22-year-old son Rhys wasted no time relocating over the South Australian border to Mount Gambier.
''When we interviewed Phil, he made the comment that he likes to have a bit of a move around every 10 years or so,'' said East Gambier president James Kitschke. ''So regardless of what happens footy-wise, I'd imagine he's here for a few years.'' Carman grew up in the western Wimmera outpost of Edenhope and rose to prominence while playing for Norwood in the SANFL.
Recruited by Collingwood for the 1975 season, Carman's time in the VFL was peppered with extreme highs and lows, and he became better known for his many suspensions than his undoubted talent. After leaving the VFL, Carman played and coached in the Bendigo league for almost a decade, switching from Kangaroo Flat, to Sandhurst, to Kennington and finally to North Bendigo.
Into his 40s by the time he hung up his boots, he then headed to South Australia where he took Sturt from the bottom of the ladder to the SANFL grand final during a seven- year stint as senior coach.
In the early 2000s he returned to Bendigo and coached Kyneton, then had another stint at Kangaroo Flat.
The gig at East Gambier is his first senior coaching job since then. At the age of 62, he'll be one of the oldest coaches in bush footy.
''That doesn't matter,'' Carman said. ''You don't forget what you know about footy.''
Since arriving in Mount Gambier, Carman, a landscaper by trade, has started a new business and has done some work on one of the farms owned by Kitschke, while Rhys has begun an electrical apprenticeship. Having spent last year playing in the Bendigo league with Strathfieldsaye, Rhys is his old man's key recruit.
Only a handful of other new players have joined East Gambier, as the Bulldogs are intent on developing their talented youngsters. It means Carman's squad is very young.
But what about the generation gap? Aren't the youngsters from Generation Y difficult to coach, especially for a bloke in his 60s?
''I've had no worries with them,'' Carman said. ''My son actually said to me six or eight weeks ago, 'They're really starting to warm to you, dad.' I suppose having a son the same age as most of the players means I'm up to speed with what they're all up to.'' The East Gambier youngsters, most of whom were born a decade after Carman's VFL career ended, have even done homework on their coach's stint in the big league.
''With a bit of Googling and a bit of talk around the club, they now have a fair idea of what transpired over those years,'' Carman said.
Kitschke believes Carman's manner has helped him win over his players. ''He's very calm and very switched on. He knows what the opposition are doing and he's got a very good nature about him when he speaks to the players.'' East Gambier, which has not won a senior flag since 1988, on Saturday kicked off its home-and-away campaign with a tough assignment against reigning premier North Gambier.
Although Carman's team won't finish in the top couple of places on the ladder, it remains a decent chance to make the finals. That's because the move of Portland and Hamilton Kangaroos to the Hampden league means the Western Border league now has only six clubs. And four of them will feature in the September action.
''It would've been better if they'd made it a final five,'' Carman said with a chuckle. ''But we think we might be able to sneak in there.''