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
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.