Stynes created own niche

Fitzroy's Brett Stephens does battle with Stynes.

Fitzroy’s Brett Stephens does battle with Stynes.

AMID the sorrow over an exceptional life ended prematurely, other emotions endure. For Barry Richardson, who first identified the special qualities of a young Jim Stynes during a 1984 recruiting trip to Dublin, it has been the pride of watching the gangly Irish kid become the man who gave much more than he received.

”In some ways, the boy became my hero,” said Richardson, the former Richmond premiership player and coach who was a facilitator of Melbourne’s early 1980s Irish experiment and Demons chairman of selectors during the latter stages of Stynes’ 264-game career.

”It’s some degree of awe, some degree of admiration, some degree of disbelief. He’s one of those people that no one adjective probably describes him. His resilience, his aura, his skill as a footballer, which was allied very strongly with that determined streak. The ability to change and adapt – very good. He’s been a unique character.”

Stynes became something of a folk hero, a champion of both the Melbourne Football Club and the broader charitable world, who in 1994 co-founded the youth support organisation Reach.

Indeed, Richardson was right to think he had identified a young man of outstanding character on that famous Irish expedition, when he first saw a pale teenager with baggy shorts who resembled ”a giraffe with rubber legs”.

Except that, even then, there would prove to be more to Stynes – the natural leader and standout personality among the group of hopeful Irish athletes gathered on a dreary Dublin day. ”I found out some years later that on that first night, unbeknown to me, when all the boys arrived from various parts of Ireland, Jimmy managed to take them out in Dublin and get ’em all pissed!” Richardson laughs.

”The other thing that stands out is that we’d run these three-day camps, and spend all morning trying to teach them the early skills, and come lunchtime they’re all pretty sick of it, and pretty wet anyway. But I gaze out the window and there’s Jimmy plodding around this oval in the rain, trying to bounce the ‘silly fookin’ ball’, in the mud. So if early leadership was taking them all out drinking, then early determination was trying to bounce this stupid ball.”

It would eventually be a celebrated transition to the professional foreign game, but success was not instant.

Stynes’ under-19s coach at Melbourne was the rough-edged junior taskmaster Ray ”Slug” Jordon, Barassi’s long-time lieutenant known for his blunt, blue-tinged delivery. Jordon has lately dealt with health issues of his own, but chuckles heartily at his early memories of the man he always fondly called ”that pig-headed bloody Irishman”.

An example: a long-ago practice match at Mount Macedon, Melbourne having been granted permission for ruck coach Peter Keenan to run with Stynes on the field, to teach him where to run. ”Come quarter-time, I said to Jimmy, ‘How ya goin?’ ” Slug recalls. ”He said, ‘Terrific – every time the fella waves the white flags, two of ’em, I’ve gotta piss off back to the centre’. I said, ‘Is that all you’ve bloody well learnt? Jesus Christ, we’re going slow ‘ere!”’

Later, the two would have what Jordon describes as ”stand-up arguments” over Stynes’ insistence on playing on, Gaelic-style, after taking a mark at full-forward, determined to break unaccustomed tackles and getting dragged for his sins. ”I used to try to leave Jimmy on the ground as much as I could but, oh, bloody pig-headed bugger,” sighs Jordon. ”He wouldn’t conform to what you had to do.”

Then there was Jordon’s apocryphal tale of Stynes’ first game, a version the player always denied. Still, Richardson recalls: ”As Slug tells it, during the course of the first half when Jimmy was playing in the ruck, he was saying to the umpire, ‘Hey, ref, ref, will you bounce the fookin’ thing straight, ref. Have you got down from the side of a hill or something?’

”So the ref comes in at half-time and says to Slug, ‘Listen, the Irishman’s driving me mad. Can you tell him I’m not the ref?’ And the boundary umpire came in and said, ‘And can you tell him I’m not the ball boy?’ He kept saying, ‘Throw it in, ball boy.’ ”

So Stynes caught on, but not immediately, and at the behest of an unconvinced John Northey, the rookie was sent to further his education under former Demon Greg Hutchison at VFA club Prahran in 1986. ”It was pretty hard for him, because he basically got shunted away from Melbourne to go and play football somewhere else,” says Hutchison, now St Kilda’s football manager. ”But he came and really embraced the footy club and got involved, and he was very competitive, prepared to work hard and prepared to learn, and the rest is history. Just an all-round terrific person.”

Thirteen years later, as Melbourne’s assistant coach to Neale Daniher, Hutchison would also be involved with the delicate and difficult decision to end Stynes’ great career, then sentenced to spend a rather frosty evening at the Bentleigh Club sharing a table with Stynes’ visiting father, Brian. But, in between, there was the AFL’s consecutive games record of 244, four club best-and-fairests, two All-Australian selections and the 1991 Brownlow Medal.

The blackest moment, of course, came at the end of the 1987 preliminary final against Hawthorn, Stynes’ sin of running over Gary Buckenara’s mark costing Melbourne its first grand final appearance since 1964. But that would come the following year – never mind the 96-point drubbing from the Hawks, nor Jordon’s description of Stynes as ”the worst tap ruckman known to man” in what was a candid critique of his questionable centre-bounce value.

Still, the rangy Irish import would become the prototype for a new breed of oversized ruck rover whose courage to play, and play, through pain and injury would become legendary. ”Jim’s aerobic capacity was enormous, to be able to just keep running all day, and just his durability to come out each week after getting clobbered in the ruck and play 244 games in a row was amazing,” says long-time teammate Rod Grinter.

”I remember one situation where he had crook ribs, and John Northey said he’d only play him if he could get through a training session where Danny Hughes and I and did two-on-one work with him – the two of us just basically bumping into Jimmy at ball-ups and boundary throw-ins. He just copped it all and [showed] such spirit to be able to get up and play. Yeah, amazing.”

Stynes’ fabled willingness to play with and through injuries led to accusations that he occasionally took the field when he should not have, but Neil Balme, Melbourne’s coach from 1993-97 and now Geelong football manager, says that, with hindsight, he could recall just one game – against Carlton – when that was the case. ”There were so many times when he rose from the ashes to be able to play, and each time he actually performed well, except maybe this one … he strained a medial ligament, or something, but he was all right the week after.”

And the week after, and the week after that.

Popular and dry-witted, the qualified schoolteacher remained as single-minded about his football as he would soon become about his charity work, joining film director Paul Currie to establish Reach in 1994.

”I think he was stretching out to lots of other things and people, rather than just having relationships in the footy club,” says Balme, although it was the ailing Demons to whom Stynes turned his indefatigable efforts when persuaded to succeed Paul Gardner as president in mid-2008. He became the very public face of a club and led the campaign to wipe out its $5 million debt.

Through it all, Stynes was battling tumours that would not be beaten.

”What’s the great legacy of Jim Stynes?” muses Grinter. ”Oh, just his willingness to help others. When people are down … he was there to get you up, there to get you going again.”

And so it continued, for as long as he was able, and, far beyond what can ever be repaid. Seven months ago, when he announced Dean Bailey’s sacking, the president’s body was frail, his eyesight failing, the audience shocked by the extent of his decline. Stynes should have been in hospital rather than at AAMI Park that August day, but still managed to apologise for not being able to lead as strongly as he had wanted.

This from a dying man, but one brave and determined to the end. A matter of pride. His. Barry Richardson’s. Melbourne’s.

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