Former GWS youth player and friend of the Walsh family, Don Harley has written an incredibly touching and moving tribute to the late Adelaide coach for Zero Hanger, with a rare insight into what life was like with Phil Walsh.
Phil Walsh and his wife Meredith, or Mem as we knew her, knew that knocking formalities, usually expected upon visitors, could be dispensed with as they were regulars to dinner on a Wednesday night. I had newly settled into living in the family home of the Annear’s, as one of their sons, Harry, was my closest friend.
Phil had played football with John Annear in the 1980’s, and both players had been involved in the controversial ‘player poaching’ scandal that ensued after Richmond stars David Cloke and Geoff Raines defected to Collingwood.
As a result, the Tigers went on a recruiting drive that almost sent the club broke, with Annear and Walsh joining a host of other Magpies to change their colours to yellow and black.
The two families had remained close despite the geographical separation.
Mem is one of the most beautiful people you could hope to meet. When newspapers across the country would one day document Phil’s insatiable appetite for everything football, it would seem incomprehensible that there could possibly be a woman who would put up with it all.
Mem was only ever too keen to share with us boys the inside secrets of inner workings of football club’s that, as football diehards, she knew we craved. The kind of person to be the first to offer help or time to anyone who needed it, she would often greet us at home with a warm smile and with an amazing tolerance for the sort of mischief us boys would get up to.
Phil sat up the end of the table contributing sporadically to parts of conversations that suited him, his mind perhaps still consumed with football after taking an assistant coaches role with the West Coast Eagles. Walsh was a career assistant coach that had been lured across to join the Eagles following a successful stint with Port Adelaide that included the 2004 flag.
Not long into our meal, Phil turned to me, inquisitive about our recent football fixture.
“How did you play last weekend,” he asked.
“OK” I replied.
“The guy I was playing on was huge though, so I had a pretty tough time.”
With little pity for my plight Phil looked at me and said “well, why haven’t you got into the gym to get stronger?”
It’s intimidating when a man of his calibre replies like that. A simple reply to his question, intended to be a quip for the amusement of the dinner table, had been countered by the kind of remark that would underpin his now famed mantra of ‘upholding elite standards.’
A self-confessed ‘hardarse’, Walsh was constantly challenging all those he came into contact with to improve, with the kind of brutal honesty that held you to account for everything that you said or did. It was perhaps a very brief and insignificant insight into the standard of conversations he would have with his players.
The ruthless disregard for excuses that would prepare them for an equally as ruthless competition. I didn’t dare tell him about the party we went to the night before the game!
In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, Phil even turned to Kim Annear, who kindly puts on a routine pasta dish each Wednesday night, and told her that the lasagna wasn’t one of her best. It didn’t take long to work out that that was Phil. That simple evening meal, and the others that followed, was littered with the attributes, philosophies and peculiarities that made Phil such a renowned coach, mentor and father figure.
Walsh had a successful playing career in his early days, spanning three clubs and 122 games as a dashing wingman who was capable of hitting the scoreboard.
He would tell us in detail about his admiration for some of the great coaches of his playing era, including Tommy Hafey, the Richmond and Collingwood great, who was renowned for his exhaustive fitness regimes.
On reflection, many of Hafey’s mannerisms were evident in Walsh who was rigorously disciplined in both fitness and match preparation. So much so that Walsh would often wake in the early hours of the morning to begin his exercise routines before heading to work on any given day.
It’s been widely acclaimed that Walsh was the man responsible for the forward “press” that saw the Eagles rise from wooden spooners to finals contenders in 2009-2011. However for those in the inner sanctum, to merely regard the “press” as Walsh’s tactical innovation would be selling the man short.
Walsh would sit around the dinner table explaining to us about the intricacies of the modern “press” that had Roman military origins, a sort of chess like structure that saw a ball pressuring player replaced in the shape by the player behind him.
“When solider’s go to battle the front line meets combat head on” Walsh said.
“The second line doesn’t stand and wait for the ensuing fighting but rather replaces the soldier in front of him. So long as no-one gets sidestepped, no-one can get through.”
In a football context, Walsh was referring to the forward pressure that so many successful teams of the modern era employ. Walsh was the architect of a full-frontal suffocating structure that, “provided no-one gets sidestepped”, would force opposition players to turn the ball over.
This kind of manoeuvre was based on the ideal that successful armies wouldn’t wait to be attacked to defend their land but would actively pursue and ‘attacking defence’ to eliminate the threat before it starts. This kind of ‘out of the square’ thinking would be a key characteristic in Walsh’s coaching career, the type of innovative thinking that would have him at the forefront of tactical football developments.
Walsh came over again not long after his well-documented accident in Peru, where he was side swiped by a mini-bus and admitted to hospital with life threatening injuries. He reluctantly spoke about the incident, but spoke about how he had decided to ditch alcohol in favour of living a healthier and fulfilled life to the one he had nearly lost.
He was certainly not unhealthy by any stretch, but I’ll never forget how he leaned back in his seat and scorned us for the array of beverages we had on the table to accompany our meal. “It’s just so bad for ya (sic) that stuff” he would say with a typical country boy swagger.
He would go on to tell us that he and Mem harboured desires of moving back to Adelaide to be closer to the friendships and relationships they had formed during his tenure at the Power. Port Adelaide had worked hard behind the scenes to entice him back, given their own dramatic fall from grace following the consecutive sackings of premiership coach Mark Williams and former skipper Matthew Primus. They believed Walsh could deliver the hardness and stability to complement new coach Ken Hinkley and to fast track the development of their young players, who were susceptible to the formation of a losing culture.
The Port advances were working and the Walsh’s, unknown to us, were planning their return to the city of Churches. A point that wasn’t lost on the table was the answer to a question about senior coaching by another at the table to which Walsh replied “I would have to certainly look at it after all that has happened.”
History would complete the narrative since the last of the Wednesday night dinners spent with the Walsh’s. They would return to Adelaide to assume a midfield coaching role with the Power before the Adelaide Crows would pounce on him in a move that only surprised those who were not privy to the change in his intentions since the accident in Peru.
Adelaide were under no illusions as to the significance of the coup. In an interview recently, Crows CEO Andrew Fagan spoke of Walsh as “the kind of coach you want… he’s a leader of men, unambiguous, inspiring and genuinely (cares)”. A number of great life lessons can be adduced from his ascension to the Crows’ top job.
The first was that, during the interview process, Walsh chose to decline the offer of time to prepare for the review of match footage that ordinarily afforded 30 minutes rehearsal. Walsh instead offered to review the footage for the selection panel sight unseen in a resounding example of confidence in himself and initiative.
The second was the immediate interview of every player on the Crows’ list upon receiving the nod for the job. Walsh sought to make himself available to each and every player on the list to build relationships with his players to make them feel comfortable. He would later tell the media that all ’46 players’ on his list were important and that when he engaged with his players he would always try to touch on something ‘not footy’ straight away.
“I don’t do it to tick a box, I do it because I care about him as a person” Walsh would later say.
When the news broke about Walsh’s murder in the early hours of last Friday morning, the inevitable feeling of numbness cast over family, friends and football followers alike. A cold-blooded murder of this nature seemed inconceivable given so much of Walsh’s character made him appear invincible, the kind of aura reserved for a super hero attributed to by not only his physical stature but also his limitless wisdom.
As Phil is laid to rest this week, many will reflect on the impact he has had on their lives. There was a brilliant story written by AFL 360’s Mark Robinson on Walsh earlier this year, that explored all the ‘Walshisms’ that made him so unique. The article gave a rare insight into Walsh’s philosophies that included his open plan office setting to make himself and his coaches more approachable as resources and not simply as authoritative figures.
He spoke of his demand for ‘elite standards’ and his disdain for players who wished to ‘cut corners’ to achieve football success. Players would be subject to ‘man conversations’ with Walsh, that were designed to promote complete transparency between coach and player to avoid the buildup of tension and mistrust. Coaches of professional and amateur clubs alike would do well to adopt many of Walsh’s mannerisms in their own clubs or, indeed, employers in their workplaces.
I am of the opinion that the basis of the viral adulation and subsequent grief felt amongst those who would never have met Phil would be that many of his philosophies transcended football and could translate to people’s own lives.
Having elite standards to excel in your chosen field, an insatiable work ethic to achieve one’s goals, honest and direct communication and, perhaps the most significant, not to let it take the occurrence of a near-death experience to overcome self-doubt and insecurities to pursue an ambition.
Football has truly lost one of its great figures who had given so much, yet had so much still to give.
He would tell stories from his time at the inner sanctums of football club’s or print off gym programs of the game’s stars to help us get better. He would tell us how war stories inspired his football theories and would speak of his excitement about the future of young players.
Whether you knew him or not, Walsh bought a certain humanisation to a sport that has become so much about results and revenue that some of the game’s great personalities are either gone or subdued due to the game’s pressure and restraints.
Perhaps a moment that best typifies this notion is when Walsh told his players they would have to jump off a jetty at 6am if they lost a key match day statistic. For whatever reason there is to mourn the death of Phil Walsh, I say “here’s to you Walshy, may your legacy never be forgotten.”