Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How football got the boot

MY attitude to newspapers and journalism slowly changed when I joined The Courier-Mail late in 1956, mainly because the paper had recently employed more than a dozen blokes in their mid to late 20s from newspapers in Sydney and Melbourne.
They were mainly a very funny bunch, big drinkers and one bloke, John O'Shea, was the funniest and most entertaining bloke I have ever met.
He had an alsatian dog, Blitzen, and often put the dog in the driver's seat of a mate's MG sports car with the the dog's front paws on the steering wheel and the hood down, then sat on the floor almost out of sight with one hand on the accelerator and one on the bottom of the steering wheel. He would fly around Brisbane with the dog apparently driving the car.
He was an excellent reporter but somehow tragedy struck and he ended up living dirt poor on the back streets of Sydney before committing suicide at a relatively young age. What a tragedy.
Mixing with those older blokes improved my attitude to newspapers and so did my appointment as a junior police roundsman, covering crime, accidents and fires but I was still mainly interested in playing rugby league for Brothers and maybe making it to the big-time. I made my Brisbane debut playing on the wing in Brothers reserve grade soon after moving to Brisbane in late 1956. But A grade looked to be a problem because Brothers were the premiers and they weren't likely to drop their premiership players for country bumpkins like me in 1957. The fact that I did mostly night work on police rounds wasn't much help because I rarely got to training but trained by myself during the day.
Then one mid-week, Brothers coach, the great Bob Bax, pulled me aside telling me he was going to give me a golden opportunity and select me in A grade for that Saturday's match at the Brisbane Cricket Ground.
I was tickled pink. This was my big chance. I really was on my way to the big time ... or so I thought.
That Friday night, The Courier-Mail chief-of-staff called me into his office.
"Mr Kavanagh, pick up a long-distance Holden from the garage on your way home tonight," he said. "I want you to go up north first thing in the morning because they're officially opening a new stretch of road that will give us bitumen all the way from Brisbane to Maryborough."
I blinked and stammered.

"But Mr Blakie," I said, "I've been selected to play my first A grade match for Brothers tomorrow. It's my big chance."
Blakie stared at me, frowning.
"What's it to be brother," he said. "Your football or your job?"
I was only just married and my wife, Jan, and I had spent all our savings on our honeymoon to Hayman Island, a few months before. There was very little money in football.
So I rang and told Bax I couldn't play, picked up the Holden and said goodbye to rugby league. My league career was over at the age of 21.
I was so upset I couldn't watch or listen to rugby league for the next three years and then I was forced back into it not as a player, but as the back-up league writer to the great Jack Reardon.
Prior to that, after giving up league, I had been promoted to junior police rounds. It was all night work, talking to police, ambulance officers, firemen and doctors and nurses.
Each night about 11 o'clock I'd pick up about two dozen first-edition Couriers and a coffee bottle of rum and deliver papers to the General Hospital casualty department, the fire brigade, ambulance, Roma Street Police station, the CIB and Water Police. The rum would be opened and shared at the CIB and finished off shared with the Water Police.
Police rounds got me interested in journalism for the first time but I wasn't too happy being taken off it and put into sport. But that soon changed when I started to be sent all over the place - Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide - covering tennis and all over Queensland covering international rugby league tours.

It got even better when they started sending me overseas covering Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games, rugby league tours and travel and feature writing.
It got better still when they asked me to leave sports writing behind and start writing Kavanagh columns about anything I liked. And better still when they asked me to write a Kavanagh's Queensland column by travelling around Queensland for up to five weeks of the year writing about outback people, places and history.
It couldn't get any better, I thought, until one day in 1990 I got a call from an old mate, the late, great artist, Hugh Sawrey, who was then living on his quarter-horse stud in Benalla, Victoria.
Someone sent him a couple of my Kavanagh's Queensland columns and he wanted to know if I was going to travel around the outback again in 1991.
Probably, why? I asked. He said he'd like to tag along to do charcoal drawings to go with my columns. I told him the paper couldn't afford to pay him the thousands of dollars his charcoals were selling for in those days.
Hughie said forget about that.
"The paper can pay for my food and grog and fuel for my 4WD, we'll camp out in swags and when its all over we can sell the charcoals and give the proceeds to the Flying Doctor."
Well, that led to four of the greatest newspaper assignments I've ever had, and that included Davis Cup challenge rounds, rugby league tests and Olympic Games.
For not only was Sawrey a great, great artist, he was great company and a very funny bloke who would stop his 4WD in the middle of nowhere to talk to kangaroos, horses, emus, cattle.
"How ya going mate?" he would say through the car window. "Getting plenty of tucker, eh? Don't worry about the water, mate. There's rain on the way by the look of those clouds."
Yep! I've been a pretty lucky bloke when you remember that journalism was the last thing on my mind when I was looking for a job way back in the early 1950s.


  1. I'm not used to posting comments on blogs, but wanted to say how much I enjoy reading true stories such as these. I worked with "Grumpy" from 2005 til April this year, so I've heard your name mentioned a time or two.(All good of course)
    I'm a "mad" artist and envy you your trips with Sawry. Tell us more. A.M.

  2. I'm new to blogging and am not sure if I've posted this several times now - just wanted to send you a link to a slideshare of illustrations and reminescences by your workmate from times past, Peter Stephenson