IT WAS a turning-back-the-clock experience last Sunday when I stepped out of the taxi to walk into the new Metricon Stadium on the Gold Coast. Twenty years ago I was into my second season as Brisbane Bears coach and the ground was simply known as Carrara. Today, the only things that remain from that time are the enormous light towers that Christopher Skase evidently coerced the local council to pay for.
Outside the main stadium is a full-sized training ground, perfectly manicured. It used to be a rough paddock where we would do morning skills sessions in summer. It was so hot and humid, giant ruckman Alex Ishchenko would squelch in his boots as streams of sweat ran down his body, onto his legs and into his socks. The first person I bumped into was Norm Dare, who coached the Bears in 1990. Now in his 60s, Norm is still coaching the Southport Sharks.
In the early '90s, everything at Carrara was easily dismantable. Portables were used as admin offices, change rooms and gyms. It didn't instil confidence. The club was privately owned by Reuben Pelerman. A couple of times a week, Reuben, who owned hotels and hospitals, would swing off the Nerang-Broadbeach Road to check things out. Depending on the weather, his Jaguar would slip and slide or create billows of dust as he drove into the car park. On match day, Reuben would entertain his guests in the room next to my coach's box. The crayfish and champers would be in full swing as the ball was bounced. By half-time, however, Reuben and his guests would be gone. That also didn't instil confidence.
In 1991, the club's membership was 1800. Crowds of 5000 were common. If we played Carlton, Collingwood or Essendon you could add an extra 2000 as their faithful flew up for a mid-winter break. Last Sunday, close to 16,000 watched Gold Coast scare Geelong.
Former Lions player Marcus Ashcroft showed me the Suns' new facilities. Ashcroft was a shy, Gold Coast teenager when I started to coach him. Now he is 40, has three kids, three premiership medallions and became the first Queenslander to play 300 games of AFL football. He is also the general manager of football operations with the Suns. I'm really proud of him.
It was good to catch up with Malcolm Blight, who is overseeing the Suns' coaching staff. It was 20 years ago at Carrara that Malcolm's Cats gave my Bears a hiding. They kicked 37.17 (239) to create an AFL record for the highest score: it still stands. Geelong's score beat Fitzroy's 36.22 (238) that was set in 1979, a game in which I played. My old Fitzroy teammates are still dirty on me for losing one of the few records we had. I remember going out at three-quarter-time in that match against Geelong and seeing our full-back, Mark Zanotti, stretching his neck. When asked what the matter was, he replied that his neck was stiff from watching the ball sail over his head.
I was told that former Bears captain Roger Merrett was there on Sunday. Sadly, I didn't see him. On that fateful day against Geelong, Roger was to be our big hope. He was set to surprise everyone by opening in the ruck, not the usual centre half-forward. His instructions were simple: at the opening bounce he was to aggressively jump into Geelong ruckman Damian Bourke. Roger relished the set task. He readied himself for a flying leap; he arched his back, bent his elbows and scuffed the turf in anticipation. All of us, players and coaches, couldn't wait. On his third step in, Roger's knee buckled. He went down in a screaming heap. The game stopped. He was stretchered off. Roger's game time was eight seconds, another record that still stands.
And the memories kept coming. Shaun Hart is development and reserves coach with the Suns. Three premierships, the 2001 Norm Smith Medal and close to 300 games give him instant respect and credibility in football. And yet it almost didn't happen. At the end of 1991, I almost sent him home to Shepparton as his skills and football smarts were not up to scratch. It was only his insatiable appetite for hard work that made you think he deserved a second chance.
Richard Champion was calling the game from the radio box next to mine last Sunday. Twenty one years ago, he drove with his new bride Ann-Marie from Adelaide to the Gold Coast hoping he would be good enough to play football. His personalised number plate, "Champs", on his Commodore didn't last long as his teammates let him know that surely he couldn't be serious. I used to tell the boys that if they were going to make a mistake, it might as well be a big one. Richard made an art form out of that instruction.
Richard didn't play in the premiership teams, but he set the standards for younger teammates and is now firmly entrenched in Brisbane with his business and media career.
And one of those young teammates of his was a 16-year-old Michael Voss. The current Brisbane Lions coach and 1996 Brownlow medallist would arrive at Carrara in his school uniform with a big smile on his face. The week he turned 17, we played him on a wing against Fitzroy. He had 20 disposals and kicked three goals. We knew then he was going to be good. Just didn't realise how good.