Former St Kilda midfielder and media man, Michael Roberts, has lifted the lid on just how much his heart still hurts following the losses of club legends - and his friends - Trevor Barker and Danny Frawley.
Roberts - a 77-gamer across eight seasons with the Saints - has had his emotions tethered to the fortunes of the St Kilda Football Club for the entirety of his life, after his father - 1958 Brownlow medalist, Neil Roberts - left a lasting legacy in the minds of red, white and black worshippers everywhere.
"I was always going to play for @stkildafc... I'm the only kid that was conceived on the rub-down table at the Junction Oval after he won the Brownlow. 9 months to the day... a Brownlow baby!"
— Unpluggered Podcast 🔴⚪⚫ (@unpluggered) August 5, 2021
Now 62 years of age, the former Beaumaris junior has seen the lads from Linton Street rise and fall from both sides of the boundary line, acting as a conduit between the fleetingly glorious past into the unknown of the present.
Speaking in an emotionally charged interview on the Unpluggered Podcast, Roberts commented on just how much Barker and Frawley meant to him, and how the pair of tragic and untimely deaths were sadly in step with much of the club's devastating history.
As the two golden-haired boys at Moorabbin during the late seventies and early eighties, Barker and Roberts were said to have an almost telepathic understanding whilst on the oval. However, many who frequented the infamous 'Saints Disco' of the era believed that the duo's best work came off the field.
“He [Barker] just took a shine to me,” Roberts remembered.
“He was a Cheltenham boy and they played on a Sunday in the Federal League, and I was a Beaumaris boy and we played on Saturday in the South-East Suburban League.
“He was three years older than me, but we were inseparable. We were like brothers. Everywhere I went, he went, and everywhere he went, I went. We were shoulder-to-shoulder on and off the track. We used to almost wax out on the ground at times.
“'Barks' was like a brother. He enjoyed the things that I enjoyed."
“We had a holiday house down in Lorne, and he was desperate to get down there every year. We traveled up to Queensland a lot.
“We really enjoyed our time.”
Although the pair's shared playboy image saw them cut a swathe through Melbourne's nightspots for the better part of two decades, the partnership came to a devastating halt in 1996, when Barker lost his battle with colon cancer, just shy of his 40th birthday.
“That was a sad day. That was a slow burn, him passing,” Roberts reminisced.
“I didn’t see him in his last month, and I saw him a lot. I was shattered, but he didn’t want to show that he had actually reached such a condition.
"He was skeletal.”
Roberts recounted one of the last times he saw his great mate, and explained the devastation he felt at seeing his friend with the cheeky grin being slowly robbed of his life.
“I remember I was hosting a function for the club – it was a jumper presentation - and I was waiting for him to come into the room and he was late,” he said.
“I remember him walking in and I thought ‘Jeez, he looks yellow, he’s lost so much weight'.
“I actually went out onto the balcony – and it upsets me now thinking about it – and he told me his condition and we both cried and gave each other a hug.
"I’ll never forget that.”
Shortly after this exchange, Barker was laid to rest in a cemetery just around the corner from where he first cut his teeth as a junior footballer. Even though time will never add years to Barker's biography, Roberts felt that if the St Kilda legend was still with us today, the club would be in a much stronger position.
“He’d be running things,” Roberts told Unpluggered listeners.
“He was so good in the media... on and off the track, he was a great player.
“He was so respected - but a larrikin, and that’s the way you’ve got to be, I reckon. You’ve got to have a little bit of ego and arrogance, and a little bit of larrikin. You can’t be a librarian, but you’ve got to dedicate yourself to training hard and playing hard, and that’s what ‘Barks’ did.
“He deserved every accolade thrown at him.”
"They say 'strength [through] loyalty' and it can't be any truer - the fact we've talked about 'Barks' & Danny Frawley, hopefully a few of the @stkildafc boys can see this - it means alot to me..."
— Unpluggered Podcast 🔴⚪⚫ (@unpluggered) August 7, 2021
23 years after the man who St Kilda would come to memorialise with their best and fairest award passed, Roberts and the Saints were once again shrouded in sorrow after the heartbreaking loss of another former captain, Danny Frawley.
The juxtaposition between Barker’s passing and that of Frawley still rankles Roberts and is something that he is yet to find peace with.
“We lost two skippers, ‘Barks’ and Danny Frawley,” Roberts said.
“Barks was a slow burn and Spud’s was so sudden... so upsetting.”
"They were scallywags," he said, his voice breaking with the emotion.
"Got into so much trouble, and got out of it."
As someone who shared a locker room with 'Spud' for a pair of seasons, Roberts is well-versed in what the dogged defender brought to the table in a footballing sense. Yet, it was as a mate that he believed Frawley truly shone.
Despite the beach-boy from Bayside seemingly appearing from a different planet to the potato farmer from Bungaree, the Saints' own odd couple created a strong bond of friendship, and it wasn't until they were altered that Roberts could sense the tides shifting.
“I knew that he was up and down. We went for long walks and we talked a lot and there was a lot of emotion," Roberts remembered.
“He got quite emotional talking about things, and his behaviour patterns changed, and he needed reassurance. You knew something was up."
Renowned for his fervent efforts to preach the message of mental health awareness, shattering the archaic stigma around speaking up, and the attempt to ward off his own demons, the footballing world was left shocked by how Frawley's life had ultimately ended.
For Roberts, the devastating news of his friend's passing came from an unlikely source - a fellow golfer at Royal Melbourne.
“I was playing golf at Royal Melbourne and a bloke was actually in tears in the car spot."
"He was a mad St Kilda supporter and he said, ‘Have you heard?’ and I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Your great mate, 'Spud'… he’s gone.’”
“I really had to gather myself because it was so sudden.”
Like most who have been impacted by suicide, Roberts professed that he still felt an array of negative emotions when pondering the massive void that Frawley had left in the lives of so many.
“It still affects me thinking about it because there's so many situations that ‘Spud’ would be with us and enjoying it," he said.
“He’d be enjoying [Robert] ‘Banger’ Harvey coaching for Collingwood, because we know how much that senior coaching role meant for ‘Banger.’
"‘Spud’ should be here to experience that.
“There’s situations every day like that, that really irk me. I fluctuate in emotions. I get sad, and angry, and disappointed because we thought we had it in control, but obviously, it was out of control."
— Unpluggered Podcast 🔴⚪⚫ (@unpluggered) March 25, 2021
Irrespective of the fact that Roberts rounded out his VFL career as both a Tiger and Lion, his ties will always be bound to the Saints.
And irrespective of the fact that he can no longer call or catch up with his former captains, bonds will always be tied to them.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of both of them, because they were so close and so involved in my life," Roberts remarked in finality.
Following a Covid -19-interrupted 2020 season, the St Kilda Football Club honoured Danny Frawley in Round 2, 2021, with the inaugural 'Spud's Game'.
The event is set to be hosted on an annual basis in an attempt not only to celebrate the man who gave so much to his beloved Saints, but to also continue championing the causes that he fought for until the bitter end.
Even though Roberts revealed that the contemporary style of AFL football is one that he feels out of step with, you can bet that the man who spends his afternoons prowling the boundary for Triple M will have one eye on the heavens - and a tear in the other - the next time the Saints pay homage to a man who loved them more than any.
If you, or someone you know, are experiencing mental health challenges and are in need of help, please contact Lifeline.
You can listen to Michael Roberts on Unpluggered on all major audio platforms, or via the player below.