Colless clears shadows

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Business as usual: Sydney chairman Richard Colless has presided over a period of great stability at the club.IT IS no small feat that Richard Colless will be at AAMI Stadium today to watch his beloved Swans take on Adelaide. The longest-serving chairman in the AFL has seen Sydney contest 14 finals series during his two decades at the helm; remarkable in any context but particularly given his club’s often colourful but, in equal measure, black history.
Nanjing Night Net

Now the Swans can lay claim to being the most stable club in the competition while nowhere near the wealthiest. And as the 65-year-old pioneer of the national game well knows, stability is something money cannot buy. Because there was a time not so long ago that making it to a game of football – even a Swans final – was sometimes beyond Colless. And a time before that when he couldn’t quite understand why. Around 2009 and 2010, his bouts of despair saw him come close to standing down as club chairman.

Earlier this year, when The Saturday Age detailed the extraordinary contracts which set up the coaching handover from Paul Roos to John Longmire, Colless ventured that he had been ”invigorated” after ”a period when I was not at my optimum,” and that he would probably stick around as chairman at least until the end of 2013.

This week, in a more expansive interview, Colless revealed in more depth the extent of his health issues. ”I had a number of diagnoses,” he said. ”I suppose depression is the simplest or widest definition of what it was.

”In the end, I had a brain scan and was told I was suffering from hyperperfusion, which comes as a result of minor brain injuries. The best explanation I’ve had is that it might be down to getting concussed when I played football.”

For years, Colless, an All-Australian University footballer, laboured under the belief it was a hospital handpass at a University of Western Australia intraclub game that led to a potential near-death experience and a tracheostomy that was his worst injury.

The commerce student had been invited to train at Perth in the WAFL, but that was the end of his playing ambitions, which he says now were probably inflated. Instead, it seems the concussions were the more damaging incidents that have come back to haunt him.

Well aware his revelation is a timely one given the recent and disturbing data originating from the NFL in the US, coupled with the AFL’s increasing focus on concussion, Colless will not name his own specialist but confirmed the same man deals with a number of former AFL players dealing with depression and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

On a personal note, he is now taking medication ”which seems to be doing the trick” and, since 2010, has honoured a promise to his wife of almost 34 years, Susie, to keep his travelling football commitments to a minimum.

The couple’s three children are now scattered, with Dan, 32, the producer for Ten’s Before The Game, Rosie, 30, working for Chugg Entertainment in Sydney and Angie, 25 working in sports marketing in London. Colless spoke to The Saturday Age, having just returned to Sydney from Bendigo, where he was visiting his mother in her nursing home.

Given Colless’ enduring relationship with the game, and even allowing for his occasionally rocky relationship with the AFL, it seems strange that he has not discussed the link between concussion and depression with competition bosses. Or perhaps not. ”That’s not how it works any more,” he said. ”Maybe it’s in part to do with the personalities involved. I had a reasonable relationship with [former chairman] Ron Evans but that, too, was maybe a legacy of how it used to be. There was a time the chairmen and presidents would get together every month or two to thrash out the game’s issues and then we’d sit well into the night and converse over a few glasses of red. Now we meet perhaps two or three times a year and those sessions are information or fact-finding sessions. Nothing more. In fairness, the quality of management at both club and AFL has increased dramatically over that time and now it’s all about CEOs meeting the CEO.”

At any rate, Colless is not a regular fixture at AFL functions. He has not attended a Brownlow Medal count for years and 2012 marked his first visit to the annual Hall of Fame inductions.

”Less is more” he says of his increasingly rare state-of-the-nation addresses. Tellingly, his most recent took place before Sydney played the Giants at the end of June and Colless declared that a genuine cross-town rivalry between the two clubs had to be earned, not manufactured. GWS officials were not impressed.

The subject of Sydney’s second team is a deep and emotional topic for Colless. The club’s birth has coincided with the Swans and the Giants gaining New South Wales zones – something Colless first pleaded for to former AFL chief Ross Oakley in 1993 – and football academies.

Having chaired the NSW-ACT AFL Commission for five years until 2002, he remains disappointed the AFL rarely defended him against accusations of conflict of interest from Victorian clubs. His feuds back then were far more frequent and he believes it was the premiership of 2005 that changed his style forever.

”I can’t imagine what life would have been like if we hadn’t won one of those two grand finals,” said Colless. ”I’m certainly less psychotic. I’d react to anything. For example, when someone like Eddie McGuire says: ‘When you shake hands with Dick Colless make sure you count your fingers’. Eight years ago, I would have sued him. Now I’m like: ‘Oh well, that’s Eddie’.”

But it is the heavily promotional philosophy behind the Giants during their first AFL season that has truly perturbed Colless. ”I think it’s a flawed approach,” he said. ”It might buy bums on seats for a week or a month or a season but it doesn’t last. Look at Richmond and their membership and their crowds. They’ve made two finals series in 25 years and that support is a result of four or five or six generations. They don’t go to the football to be entertained. They go in the hope of seeing Richmond succeed again.

”We got annoyed when Kevin [Sheedy] made some statements about our club and Kevin is shameless. He’ll do anything to generate publicity – and good on him – but we believe in allowing our actions [to] speak louder than words.”

Sydney chief executive Andrew Ireland, whose contract with the Swans until the end of 2014 was recently extended again until the end of 2016, has for a decade played an increasingly pivotal role in the Richard Colless story. When asked to single out his closest friends, Colless names Swans stalwart Ricky Quade and Ireland before pointing out that he has plenty of friends in and out of football and never wants to stop making more.

Asked if Ireland, the former Collingwood player-turned-administrator with fingerprints on premierships at the Brisbane Lions and Sydney, helped him through his critical period two or three years ago, Colless responded quietly, but with some emotion: ”Oh yes.”

Ireland came to the club to head its increasingly fractured football department in 2002, a year Colless rates as his most traumatic at the club, interesting given what he has endured more recently. Another man was recommended to the board but Colless intervened and wooed Ireland, who had left the Lions in 2001 in some acrimony despite their flag that year.

The two men usually speak two or three times every day and Colless, once famous for having given Collingwood president McGuire the finger on Four Corners (he was set up during a break in filming by journalist Ticky Fullerton and her Swans-supporting producer), tends to leave the political statements to Ireland these days.

When Paul Roos made some derogatory statements about Greater Western Sydney at a corporate lunch late last month, Colless instructed Ireland to counsel Roos. ”I can’t conceive there’s a better manager in the AFL system than Andrew,” said Colless. ”You have [Geelong’s] Brian Cook and [Adelaide’s] Steven Trigg, who are outstanding managers, but no one is better than Andrew Ireland.”

Colless’ most famous other intervention was to overrule his board to appoint Rodney Eade as coach at the end of 1995. By 2002, that relationship had fractured.

Colless says now he supported Eade far longer than others at the club and did so until the evidence against the coach became to compelling to ignore. ”I don’t bear him any ill will,” he said of Eade. ”I sat there genuinely hoping, for his and David Smorgon’s sake, the Bulldogs had made a grand final and I’m disappointed it was portrayed as a clash of personalities with Rodney and myself.”

In more than a century of the VFL-AFL, only Colless has presided over more than one club. Having moved back to Perth in 1985 Colless was West Coast’s first chairman in 1987, one of a group who had established the West Australian Football Commission in a bid to save WA football, which was broke and faced with the threat of losing its major source of revenue, with Victorian clubs refusing to pay transfer fees for its footballers. Colless was 39 and recalls those days: ”Crash or crash through. I wish certain aspects of it all hadn’t happened – certainly I regret putting in $1 million of my own money to the club.”

Given the nature of Sydney at the time Colless believes it unfair to compare his switch to, say, a Collingwood man moving to Carlton. The man who once considered changing the Swans’ colours to the navy and white of NSW now has the Bloods stained on his DNA.

He subscribes to the ”Bill Shankly” theory, based on the legacy created at Liverpool by the famous soccer manager who passed on the job to one of his younger coaches, Bob Paisley, who had more success than Shankly, and was followed by two more successful managers, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish.

”We’ve got the right culture at this football club,” said Colless, adding that his proudest achievement has been the emergence of self belief over his 20-year term, which began in May 1993 with Colless as the fourth chairman (after Peter Weinert, Alan Schwab and Ken Gannon) in five months.

”The way our footballers play is a metaphor for our club. I think Paul Roos is Bill Shankly and John Longmire is Bob Paisley…

”Brett Kirk? He might be Kenny Dalglish.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.