BOOZE, AFL AND THE WA SAVIOUR

MIKE WILLE­SEE ON WHEN HE RE­ALISED HE WAS AN AL­CO­HOLIC, AND HOW HE TOOK ON WA’S RICHARD COLLESS FOR THE SAKE OF HIS BELOVED SWANS

The Sunday Times - - FRONT PAGE - Ex­tract from Mike Wille­see Memoirs pub­lished by Pan Macmil­lan Aus­tralia. On sale from Tues­day. RRP $44.99

At one stage of his life, Perth boy Mike Wille­see was ad­dicted to al­co­hol and the Syd­ney Swans. But it got to a point where he knew he had to do some­thing about both his vices. In this ex­clu­sive ex­tract from his new book, he re­veals how he got pro­fes­sional help to con­trol the booze, and why he stuck by the Swans when oth­ers walked away

THAT bad night on air made me re­alise I had a prob­lem. Up un­til then my drink­ing had never af­fected my work. I hadn’t got into trou­ble. I wasn’t loud or ag­gres­sive. Peo­ple con­fuse al­co­holism with drunk­en­ness, but there’s a big dif­fer­ence. Sure, some­times I got drunk. Most of my mates did at times. But al­co­holism is when you have that need. You can’t just say, “I’m not go­ing to drink this week,’”be­cause you’ll feel sick. You ac­tu­ally need a drink to func­tion, or med­i­cal as­sis­tance to stop safely.

Real­is­ing I was an al­co­holic was great, be­cause it meant I could fight it. And I think I’ve been able to fight it pretty suc­cess­fully. I’ll go six months or a year with­out a drink, no prob­lem, but then I get over-con­fi­dent and have a cou­ple, not real­is­ing I’m step­ping back into trou­bled ter­ri­tory. When­ever I start to strug­gle I get med­i­cal or pro­fes­sional help.

Ien­tered a pe­riod where I wasn’t work­ing a lot. I spent a lot of time at Hamil­ton Is­land. The kids would come up dur­ing school hol­i­days. Carol would come up too and stay with us if she wanted. We didn’t fight or carry on. We were done.

It took me a while to get over Carol. The break-up re­ally hurt and I was a bit lost. I had a few very nice girl­friends, one of whom I am still close to to­day, but it was all too com­pli­cated. What I wanted was su­per­fi­cial re­la­tion­ships and lots of laughs. I sup­pose you could de­scribe it as a bit of a play­boy pe­riod. I had all the trap­pings of the mil­lion­aire and a lot of fe­male com­pany.

Of course, while I wasn’t writ­ing or mak­ing tele­vi­sion dur­ing that pe­riod I still had busi­ness in­ter­ests. I bought some ra­dio sta­tions in Mackay, Townsville and Cairns and ended up with a bit of a mo­nop­oly on both AM and then FM ra­dio when it was in­tro­duced in far north Queens­land. It cost me very lit­tle to set up the FM sta­tions be­cause I had all the in­fra­struc­ture in place. And pretty soon I started get­ting big of­fers for the sta­tions.

I still had some ho­tels and the stud in Coota­mundra. But by that stage it was prob­a­bly the Swans that I was put­ting my heart and soul into.

Each year at the Swans we were told we were go­ing to make a mil­lion dol­lars next year, but we’d end up los­ing a mil­lion dol­lars. It be­came ob­vi­ous we were in deep shit and the only thing to do was for some of us on the board to get in­volved in the club’s man­age­ment.

We di­vided up the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. Mine were foot­ball, foot­ballers and the me­dia. Other guys had re­spon­si­bil­ity for re­cruit­ing, but we re­alised my pro­file could help there too. It’s very dif­fi­cult to con­vince a young cham­pion to come to an in­ept club, and we fig­ured that I might at least be able to get them to stay on the phone.

I’d call the par­ents and say, “I be­lieve your son’s play­ing a pretty good game at the mo­ment. Can I come and talk with him?”

“Who’s that again?” “It’s Mike Wille­see from the Swans.” “Oh Mike, thanks for your in­ter­est but he doesn’t want to go to Syd­ney. I don’t want to be rude, but where are you guys go­ing?”

“Fair enough,” I’d say, “but we’re re­cruit­ing. We’re get­ting a great new bunch of . . .”

“No thanks, Mike.”

In 1992, the club “won” its first wooden spoon since mov­ing to Syd­ney. As our per­for­mance on the field went down, so did the crowds. The gate tak­ings cov­ered the cost of the clean­ers. And that was all. There was no money com­ing in.

Mean­while, board meet­ings were akin to what we’d gone through at 2Day FM.

“Che­que­books please, gentle­men.” While none of us had gone into the Swans ex­pect­ing to make a lot of money, I don’t think any of us were pre­pared for the scale of the losses. Maybe the one place that’s sad­der than a dress­ing room af­ter a thrash­ing is a board­room af­ter a thrash­ing when you’re be­ing asked to write a cheque for $20,000.

We were go­ing broke. We re­alised we couldn’t keep it up. Our big­gest ex­pense was player pay­ments, so I said we had to cut their pay. I called in the top six play­ers for break­fast one morn­ing. “Sorry guys,” I said, “we can’t af­ford to pay you what we’re pay­ing you.”

We did it in two tiers where the very best play­ers took a 10 per cent cut and the oth­ers took 20 per cent. Some of the top guys com­plained about that say­ing it was un­fair on the lesser play­ers, but I ex­plained that their 10 per cent was more money than the other guys’ 20 per cent. They knew we were in cri­sis and ac­cepted the changes but the al­ready-low morale sank even deeper.

The big dif­fer­ence from the 2Day FM board­room ex­pe­ri­ence for me was that at the Swans there was no prospect of fu­ture prof­its. Board mem­bers left in droves so that by the end of 1992, there was only four, and then three of us left. Which meant that the bills, when they came, were get­ting big­ger for those of us who re­mained.

The VFL had taken some re­cruit­ing con­ces­sions off the Swans and were just leav­ing us to wither in the for­eign ter­ri­tory north of the bor­der. The West Coast Ea­gles had been al­lowed to draft any West Aus­tralian player when they en­tered the league in 1986. The Bris­bane Bears re­ceived the first six draft picks when they en­tered in 1987. We got noth­ing.

The VFL had, mean­while, changed its name to the Aus­tralian Foot­ball League. The new moniker might have been meant to rep­re­sent a broad­en­ing of its hori­zons, but it was the same old peo­ple run­ning the show. The AFL wanted us to hand our li­cence back to them.

“You’ve got to be kid­ding,” I told Graeme Sa­muel at the AFL. “We just paid four mil­lion for this. You al­ready got four mil­lion off the peo­ple who cov­ered up for Edel­sten. That’s eight mil­lion. Now you want it back again for noth­ing. Will you sell it again to the next bozo who comes along?”

I was an­gry. “We’ve made you so much money just from buy­ing the club,” I told Sa­muel, “but the main thing is that the broad­cast rights have gone up tremen­dously be­cause there’s a team in Syd­ney. Now TV is some­thing that I do know a bit about. And if you don’t

have a team up here you can kiss that good­bye. We’re spend­ing mil­lions and mil­lions up here just so that you can make all the money from tele­vi­sion and you’re giv­ing us noth­ing back. Well, that all stops now. We’re not spend­ing any more. We’re through.” “Give us the li­cence back then,” he said. “No way, sport. I’m not giv­ing you any­thing. You gave us noth­ing, I’ll give you the same. Not un­til you help us with re­cruit­ment and recog­nise how im­por­tant we are to you. We’ll run the club with a bunch of has-beens and a few kids who’ll play for peanuts to get the chance to im­press the tal­ent scouts at other clubs.” “You’ll lose by 20 goals ev­ery week.” “Ex­actly. Good luck next time you want to ne­go­ti­ate your TV rights be­cause no­body in the coun­try’s big­gest mar­ket will be watch­ing.” “Well, we’re think­ing of bring­ing North Mel­bourne up and start­ing again with them.” “You can’t. We own your club here. This is our ter­ri­tory.” I can re­mem­ber at one point telling Sa­muel that the more he bul­lied me the more I was go­ing to dig in my heels. It was stub­born­ness on my part. I had re­de­fined my mis­sion at the Swans as mak­ing sure the club sur­vived. One thing the AFL did do, how­ever, was help get coach­ing leg­end Ron Barassi in­ter­ested in com­ing north. The AFL had set it up so that for some rea­son, an­other board mem­ber, Peter Wein­ert, and I had to in­ter­view Barassi for the job. We didn’t know what to ask him be­cause we would never have pre­sumed to know more about the game than him.

He opened up by say­ing he didn’t know what to say ei­ther. “I’ve been a coach for al­most 30 years and I’ve never been in­ter­viewed for a job be­fore.”

“Sorry, Ron, we don’t re­ally want to do this be­cause you know more than us about foot­ball, but maybe some­thing will come out of the talk. The AFL wants you here and I want you here. It’s go­ing to hap­pen so long as you want it to hap­pen, but I sup­pose the only thing I want to ask is whether you’ve stayed in touch with the changes in the game in the eight years you’ve been away. The game’s changed a lot.”

“I can’t tell you,” he said. “I haven’t been in the game for a while but I watch a cou­ple of games ev­ery week­end. It’s up to you.”

We all agreed that his pres­ence and rep­u­ta­tion would bring some­thing to this rugby league city.

Like Tom Hafey, Barassi had won four pre­mier­ships — be­tween 1968 and 1977 — but his leg­end was big­ger. Whereas Hafey was all blood and guts, Barassi was seen as the great thinker of the game. He started eight weeks into the 1993 sea­son and man­aged one win from 14 games on our way to our sec­ond wooden spoon. He’d in­her­ited such a bas­ket case that we needed all the think­ing we could get.

Graeme Sa­muel and the AFL came back to us with a counter deal. They had a bloke from Perth, Richard Colless, who they wanted to in­stall in my place. But I wasn’t go­ing to go eas­ily.

“I will not step down un­til you show me how much money you’re go­ing to put into the club, how many ad­van­tages we get,” I said. “Like can we re­cruit ex­clu­sively in the Rive­rina, for ex­am­ple? I don’t know. Give us some­thing. You think about it.”

They came back and promised cer­tain con­ces­sions. I can’t re­mem­ber what they were, but I agreed to step aside. Sa­muel asked me what I’d been hang­ing out for.

“The sur­vival of my club. You would’ve f---ed it. You didn’t care. And we’ve al­ready made you so much money with­out a word of thanks and with­out a dol­lar back.”

The club still owed Peter Wein­ert and me a lot of money that we’d loaned it. I think it was about five mil­lion. So we still had a bit of lever­age. Richard Colless ar­rived from Perth to take over. He’d been told by AFL head of­fice in Mel­bourne that we were ar­se­holes. “Get ’em out. They’re can­cer.” But he han­dled us sen­si­bly.

“Look, they want you to go,” he said.

“We’ll go. No prob­lem. We stayed to make sure this club sur­vives. And if we see you do­ing that, we’ll walk qui­etly out the door.”

Since Colless was on bet­ter terms with Mel­bourne, he was able to ne­go­ti­ate the type of con­ces­sions that we weren’t able to get. And once we saw those con­ces­sions in writ­ing, we walked away with hon­our. The club was go­ing to sur­vive.

As the Swans started head­ing to­wards a health­ier balance sheet, Colless was left with one big prob­lem — the money the club still owed Wein­ert and me. He asked us in for a meet­ing. “Look, the ac­coun­tants are com­plain­ing that our books are un­bal­anced be­cause we owe you five mil­lion. This might sound stupid but we want you to for­give us that debt.”

“Why should we?” I said. “We’ve car­ried this club. It wouldn’t ex­ist if it wasn’t for us.”

“OK, I’ll play hard ball,” he said. “We’re in charge now. And you won’t get the money back. You just won’t. If we have a sur­plus, we’ll put that money into ju­nior de­vel­op­ment. We’re not go­ing to give it to you. I think you’ve known that all along and we want you to help us clean our books.”

There might have been a pause, but we didn’t need to look at each other. We spon­ta­neously said yes. “Take the money. We’re here for the club.”

That gave us a lot of cred within the club. Once Richard got in­side the place and spoke to peo­ple, he saw that we weren’t the malev­o­lent force he’d been led to be­lieve. The club started turn­ing around, so we were happy with him. He named the chair­man’s room the Wille­see Wein­ert Room. They started invit­ing us to func­tions and made us life mem­bers. Peter Wein­ert put up a great fight for our sur­vival and is still a sup­porter of the club to­day.

Barassi’s pres­ence, mean­while, was great for the club. It sent out a mes­sage that we had a vi­sion and that gave us the chance of re­cruit­ing promis­ing young­sters.

The great­est les­son I took from my time at the Swans was that for a club to thrive it needs cham­pi­ons at ev­ery level. Not just the play­ers. The board’s got to be good, as well as the chair­man, the man­age­ment and the re­cruiters. If ev­ery­one’s good, you’re go­ing to play in grand fi­nals, just as the Swans have done reg­u­larly for the last two decades un­der Richard Colless. He was far more im­por­tant for the club than any sin­gle coach or player.

I get asked how much the Swans cost me and I’ve al­ways said an arm and half a leg, and that’s as ac­cu­rate as I can be be­cause I re­ally didn’t keep track of it. I’ve heard it said that I did my dough on the club. The way I see it, I didn’t lose a cent. If the Swans had col­lapsed, I’d con­sider that a huge loss. They sur­vived and ev­ery time I see them on the pad­dock, I get a re­turn on my in­vest­ment.

Left: Mike, stand­ing left with his brothers, Don on his shoul­ders and Peter on Terry’s, about 1964 in Mel­bourne. Above: Mike with seven of his grand­chil­dren in 2010. He has five more since this pho­to­graph.

Above: Four Cor­ners alumni re­ceiv­ing the 1991 Lo­gies Hall of Fame award – Kerry O’Brien, Mike Wille­see, Richard Car­leton, Neil Mercer, Ray Martin, Mar­ian Wilkin­son, An­drew Olle, Peter Man­ning and Chris Masters. Left: Do­ing a spot on ra­dio for Perth's 6IX from Canberra in about 1966. Right: Pope John Paul II made an enor­mous im­pres­sion on Wille­see. His “con­ver­sion’’ fol­lowed later and took ev­ery­one by sur­prise.

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