The making of Brendan McCartney

Brendan McCartney's bigger than I thought. Chunkier. As a footballer, he would have been capable of making his own path through a pack.

His sun-hardened complexion – the legacy of someone of Irish and Scottish heritage growing up in the heat and glare of the Mallee – is offset with bright, lively eyes. His father, Graeme, was the Nyah butcher.

Graeme McCartney was in partnership with his brother Billy. Billy coached the Nyah footy team and Graeme, who had one game with Richmond but came home because he didn't like the city, played in the centre. When Brendan was a kid, Billy took him on his meat runs. They were still killing their own meat in those days and Billy exposed him to that side of life, too.

Brendan McCartney can recall, in detail, the Nyah change rooms – sawdust on the wood floor, cloth ankle bandages, the smell of liniment searing the nostrils. The McCartneys from Nyah played the Roses from Nyah West. The statue of Bob Rose outside the Collingwood club offices is an indication of the status he achieved in the game. Billy McCartney knew all the Roses. Of the Nyah football team, Brendan McCartney says: “They were only country footballers, but they were heroes to me.”

As a kid growing up in Nyah, McCartney believes he was taught “solid values”. “If you called Mrs Parish from down the road something other than Mrs Parish, you got a clip over the ear.”

He was taught to work hard and be humble. His father always said, “Don't dream of a better job – do a better job.” The thing about solid values, says McCartney, is that they stay solid.

He aspired to play AFL footy and describes himself as a “pretty honest” footballer with a creative side. “I understood where to run and how to tap into good teammates.” He got to train with the Geelong under-19s but wasn't asked to continue. A career in the Geelong Football League followed, but injuries cut him down in his mid-20s and he took up running. Running was harder, he says, because you had to train alone. Missing “the team thing”, he became the coach of country football club Ocean Grove.

McCartney's account of his football career is a long list of thank-yous. He starts with his childhood coach, Laurie Henry. “He coached in a way that made you want to try so hard for him and the team.” John Schofield (father of West Coast's Will) was the older player who protected him when he first graduated to senior football. “Someone'd be giving me a hard time and I'd hear a whack in a pack and know that all had been resolved.”

His father was an excellent judge of a footballer, both as to talent and whether the individual in question would prove a good teammate. “You learn something from them all,” he says.

While playing country footy, this man with a passion for learning became a teacher. What did he teach? “Whatever they gave me, but somehow I always ended up getting kids with a lot of go in them who were flighty.” His favourite book, Marva Collins' Way, is about a black teacher battling the odds in a tough school in Chicago. “I can quote whole pages of it.”

McCartney gets asked to speak in public an increasing amount. He's surprised; I'm not. He has clear ideas on a subject many in this culture are fuzzy about: how young males should be – to borrow a notion from Aboriginal culture – initiated. That is, transitioned into manhood. “Young men,” he says, “really do need a strong male influence. They need firm guidance coupled with empathy.”

He thanks the committee at the Ocean Grove Football Club, with whom he won four flags. In 1998, Jeff Gieschen, the Richmond senior coach, gave him the chance to work at AFL level. Then he was given the chance to be part of “the build” at Geelong. He describes then coach Mark Thompson as “an incredible football person with a clear understanding of what matters in a game and what matters in a team”.

The best moment of McCartney's AFL career to date was walking down the steps from the Geelong coach's box at the end of the 2007 grand final, knowing everything they had believed in and laboured for had been proved right. When I ask him the worst moment of his career to date, he pauses, then says, “When you see really good people get kicked when they're down – players who've made a mistake in life or coaches who haven't met expectations. I've never understood why people do that.”

In 2011, he followed Thompson to Essendon under new coach James Hird. McCartney describes Hird as a driven man with a deep love of his club who is “humble, given the heights he reached as a player”. Hird publicly applauded McCartney as a coach and Thompson encouraged him “to have a go” for the Port Adelaide job. He didn't get it, but the feedback was good so he applied for the Western Bulldogs coaching position, beating former Charlie Sutton medallist, Leon Cameron, now the coach of Greater Western Sydney.

McCartney is about building a club. He shows me a quote of Sir Alex Ferguson's, thanking two power brokers at Manchester United during his early years: “Thanks for giving me the time to a build a football club, and not just a football team.”

He disagrees with those who say AFL football is brutal. His word for it is confrontational – “every minute, every hour” – and says his best experience at the Bulldogs has been hearing some of the senior players talk about their feelings for the club and then watching them “walk the talk”. Once people feel they belong to an organisation, he says, “they are obliged to help it grow”.

A coach, he says, is part teacher, part dad, part big brother, part friend, but he has to have a hard edge to him. “Sometimes you have to be blunt and brutal with a young player who's not getting it. You have to say, 'Young feller – you're doing this. You'll do what we tell you'.” Later, when the young feller does what he's been told, McCartney thanks him for making the club better. “Nowadays, you have to be collaborative.”

His second favourite sport is Test cricket. His favourite cricketer? Allan Border. “He was a ferocious competitor who knew his place in the game and respected it.” In the AFL, he is impressed by players such as Joel Selwood, Simon Black, Lenny Hayes, Dale Morris … “I like humble, hard-working people who give.”

McCartney thanks Simon Garlick, the CEO of the Western Bulldogs, and the board of the club. “They've provided stability and providing stability requires a certain courage.” Then he thanks me for my interest and, like others before me, I see a vision which is inclusive at every turn and based on sound values.

The story The making of Brendan McCartney first appeared on WA Today.

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