When a footballer plays for more than one club, it’s rare that they become, and remain, universally appreciated by both sets of fans.
Leigh Colbert is one of these rare cases, with his courageous style of football seeing him become an icon of both Geelong and North Melbourne, splitting his playing career evenly between the two sides.
After 105 games for Geelong, Colbert crossed to North on the eve of the 2000 season, joining the premiership winning side of 1999 and adding 104 games to his tally.
After missing the entirety of the 1999 season due to a knee injury, and experiencing a ruptured pancreas after a horrific clash with teammate David King in 2003, he could have easily hung up the boots considerably earlier than he did, but he continued to be a strong leader and contributor until his retirement at the end of the 2005 season.
Injuries had the potential to derail his career, but Colbert's drive and perseverance always held him in good stead.
This is North Media’s, ‘Where Are They Now?’
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Starting back when it all began for you at North, your final season at Geelong was written off through injury. What prompted you to explore potential opportunities with other clubs, and how did the move to North really come about?
In the shortest answer possible, I was really lucky in that I played state footy with quite a lot of the North players and history will show there’s been lots of player movement between North Melbourne and Geelong. The likes of Tim McGrath, Darren Steele, Brad Sholl, Robert Scott, Cameron Mooney, Kent Kingsley, so there’s been lots of players go either way. For me it was really easy because I already had existing relationships with John Blakey, Glenn Archer, Anthony Stevens, Shannon Grant, Wayne Carey, I knew all of them quite well off the field, and the Sholl brothers were probably the mainstay in all that. The easiest thing for me regarding North was I knew what I was getting into which made my decision really easy, and that’s the main reason I ended up at North Melbourne.
You came into a team that had just experienced the pinnacle of football, what were the standards and ability of that group like compared to the Geelong side you’d come from? Was there a tangible difference in the intensity or the closeness of the group?
Once you’re playing at the elite level, every footy club has to train hard. I don’t think there’s any one club that necessarily trains harder than the others. Richmond in the last four years won’t have been training any less or more than how Carlton have been training. The most important thing I noticed was how selfless North Melbourne were. That’s the thing great sides and great teams have, they’ve just got that selfless approach. When I arrived whether it was Peter Bell, Adam Simpson, Anthony Stevens, John Blakey, Shannon Grant, it didn’t matter who kicked the goal, it was all about the team. I think Richmond were the same recently, Brisbane certainly were in their heyday, even Geelong in in the mid-2000’s onwards, they get more satisfaction from giving the goal away than actually kicking it themselves. I think that’s the one thing that stood out, the selflessness of the group.
You played 13 games in your first season at the club, 16 in your second and then 22 in your third, how difficult was it to get back to playing fitness coming off of such a severe knee injury, and how long did it take you to regain full confidence in your body?
Hindsight is easy, but I don’t think I was ever able to get back to the physical ability I had before the knee. There are a few different reasons for that, and I actually did it again so there were a few setbacks. The trouble was I had to really change the way I played and trained. In the end under Dean Laidley I never trained during the week and probably did 30-45 minutes of the last training session before the game. It was very different to my first eight or nine years at Geelong where I was out there Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, or under Malcolm Blight it was Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I trained every session. A lot changed in my own preparation and getting ready for the games. I knew I couldn’t put the work in on the track, and the difficulty was trying to play games knowing the person you’re playing on has probably done more work than you. I had to try and be a bit more rat-cunning I suppose, because physically I wasn’t going to be able to match them. I had to try and be a step ahead in reading the play.
One thing that never changed over your career was the immense amount of courage you played with. Past teammates have gone on record saying you’re the most courageous player they’ve ever played with. What does the praise for that part of you game mean to you?
Keeping your eye on the ball is the main thing, and you didn’t want to be someone who didn’t to be honest. It’s very humbling in a lot of ways to have those plaudits put on you, but I think I was a pretty limited and average player who just worked really hard. I didn’t have a lot of natural ability, I just worked. The thing I was probably most proud of, especially in my North days, was that physically I wasn’t anywhere near it but I could will myself and find other avenues to beat my opponent and be a contributor. I don’t think I was anything super when it came to ability, I just worked. I think too I was very fortunate to play with guys who I think are some of the all-time guys who you wouldn’t have liked to have let down, and that’s part of it. You’d look around and whether it was Archer, Stevens, Blakey, or from a Geelong perspective the likes of Garry Hocking, who’s one of the toughest there’s ever been, and to be honest ‘Stevo’ was a bit the same. They used to be taken out of training sessions and drills because they were hurting players. Malcolm Blight made Garry Hocking stand off to the side because he was hurting his teammates. I’ve heard Jack Viney might be a little bit the same at Melbourne. There are just some players who are ferocious at the ball, and I was lucky to be surrounded by some incredibly courageous people. I stand on the record to see what Anthony Stevens went through physically, I don’t think I’ve seen another player do what he was able to do, and then to back it up mentally with everything else that was going on and still have a smile on his face, he doesn’t get the plaudits he should in that regard.
A side effect of that type of on-field courage can be some pretty serious injuries, and you had you fair share. You talk about that mental side of keeping your eye on the ball, how do you get that back up the level it needs to be after suffering an injury like a ruptured pancreas?
I don’t think you think about it too much. In that case the biggest annoyance was the wound itself, the scar was the tender part but everything else felt alright. I don’t know if that’s courage too much, you just put your head down. I was realising around that point too I didn’t have that long left so I was trying to enjoy every last bit. At the same time, I didn’t feel in my own mind that I wanted to hang around and play any longer than my body was willing, whether that’s pride or ego I’m not sure. Nothing against anyone who plays a year or two longer than maybe they should, but I never wanted to be one of the guys who hung around to make up the numbers. I wanted to feel within myself that I was picked on my merits and worthy of a spot over and above personal goals or achievements in the game.
Was that the main motivation for hanging up the boots? You played 21 games in your last season and you were still a very solid contributor to the side.
I was really lucky under Dean Laidley, he enabled me to cross-train the whole week and then play, but even then, it was starting to take its toll. Early in your career you can play on the Saturday and then get up the next morning and run 10km and feel pretty good, but Father Time goes on. If you talk to any player now in the back end of their career they’ll probably say it takes until Wednesday to get right for the next week, but then there’s freaks like Boomer Harvey and John Blakey who just keep on keeping on. For me it was taking until Friday night to have no fluid in my legs, unwind from the week before and then I was suddenly back into the battlefield. It takes longer and longer to get over. In short, it took its physical toll, but also its mental toll. Could I have scratched another year? Quite possibly, but I didn’t want Dean Laidley to think he had to play me at the back end. I didn’t want him to feel he owed me anything, and the footy club certainly doesn’t owe me anything. That goes for both footy clubs, I was very fortunate to play and get an opportunity. I was very thankful to play at two sensational clubs. I think it was the right timing, and as hard as it was, it was time to move on with life and really get going.
Speaking on moving on, you got going in the media space once your playing days finished up. Did you always have aspirations to move into that kind of role, or did you ever consider coaching? What was the career path you had mapped out for yourself for the end of your playing days?
I was always interested in flying and ‘Laids’ was really good in that respect. I finished off a commercial flying licence while I was still playing, I’d done all my ratings and all the theory exams for the airline, so I’d made my mind up that that was the career path I was really interested in. I enjoy flying and it was probably one of the outlets I had in regards to football, and every player needs one of those. I know lots of clubs, development coaches and welfare officers are trying to instil that in players now. That’s what flying was for me, it was a real outlet and I really enjoyed it. I started in 1996 at Geelong and was still flying in 2005, so that was where I was going. The media thing happened at the last minute. At the start of 2007 Fox Footy got the rights and, from what I understand, Nine had had the rights for years and Fox, Seven and Ten basically shared it for 2007. Three weeks before the season started Fox Footy had to put a team together. It wasn’t really planned, it was a phone call where they asked me if I was interested in doing boundary work because they basically had nobody else. Rohan Smith and I were thrown in the deep end, but it was good fun. It was really good because it gave me a chance to unwind from my playing days, and I certainly didn’t wake up sore from footy, a few hangovers if I’m being honest, but not from football. It was a good way for me to ween myself off of footy a bit. In 2006 I did a bit of a stint with the West Coast Eagles, but from Melbourne. Every time they played in Melbourne I got involved with John Worsfold who I was a big fan of. He’s a remarkable man in terms of him as a person, and that was the only real reason I dipped my toe into the coaching side of things. I think I would’ve really like a senior coaching job, but I realised there are only 18 jobs and it’s really cutthroat. It’s cutthroat as a player, but I think it’s even worse for all the coaches.
I saw a story about you going into business with Glenn Archer, how did that come about?
We still have the business. They always say surround yourself with people smarter than yourself, and I’m not counting Glenn as the smart person here. My sister is the smart one and he’ll attest to that. We started an entertainment business called Kode. We started doing everything from corporate conferences to sporting tours and it’s been great. We’ve been operating for over ten years now, but we’re obviously doing it a little tough at the moment. Having said that we’ve been lucky from a conference side and certainly some marketing and sponsorship as well. We’re hanging in there and that’s still going, but my sister is definitely the brains behind it while Glenn and I are just along for the ride.
Moving back to footy, having split your time so evenly between Geelong and North, would you say you’re a North fan, a Geelong fan, or does each club mean something different to you?
It’s funny, Geelong is almost like my first girlfriend and will always be my first love. That’s absolutely true and it still is, but having said that, the way football clubs at the top end are, the turnover is so high but I still love watching Joel Selwood play. In the whole league if there’s one player I try to tune in and watch, it’s Joel. He’s from Bendigo of course so that’s another bit of background on him. I know his mum, his dad and his brothers. I’ve got that relationship there already. The physios and other staff like that who were at Geelong when I was there aren’t there anymore, but it’s great to see Steven Hocking going back. That being said, my kids are all Kangaroos fans, I’ve got two boys and a girl, and I think that’s where my best friends are. I’ve mentioned a lot of them already, but the likes of ‘Stevo’, ‘Arch’, Shannon Grant, Matthew Capuano, those guys are the guys I still frequently talk to. I’m in touch with Brad Sholl who was Geelong and North, there’s definitely connections there all the time. It’s funny, like any job or sporting club you’ve been involved with, you tend to find four or five people you become really close with and they’re the people you take for life. It’s a fascinating topic and I’ve spoken to ‘Arch’ about it a few times. He’s a one club player and an absolute champion, and wouldn’t have it any other way. Most players coming into the AFL think that way and would love to be a one club player like Nick Riewoldt, Robert Harvey, ‘Arch’ or ‘Stevo’, but then once I step back and see I was a two club player, I didn’t get exactly that, but I have five or six really close friends from two clubs. If I hadn’t have come to North I wouldn’t have the likes of ‘Spider’ Burton as a really good friend. If you’re at the one club you can be a bit narrower with your people, if that makes sense. I wonder if I had been like Dale Kickett and played for five clubs then maybe I’d have an extra 20 friends.
One final question that I ask everyone, if you could sum up your time at North Melbourne in a few words or a few sentences, then how would you do that?
Great question. I think it was a special time, but it wasn’t without its challenges either. If you look at the period I was there I don’t think you have to be a rocket scientist to work out what some of those challenges were. I think we all came out of it as better people, and it was honestly a special time. To reflect and look back at the quality of some of the players I played with over my career, Wayne Carey is the greatest player to ever play the game as far as I’m concerned, and then at Geelong I was also lucky enough to play 70 or 80 games with Gary Ablett Senior. I haven’t seen a player be able to do the things he could do on a footy field, but for me Wayne stands out because he consistently did it, and from an on-field leadership and captaincy perspective, he certainly epitomised what North Melbourne was for a decade plus. Special moments, special times and lots of great relationships. It is a neat footy club and the legacy of some of those people, the likes of Aub Devlin who really shape that Shinboner football club is what makes the place so special. There’s lots of guys who were there for 30 or 40 years, the real stalwarts of North Melbourne know who they are. When I was at the club, everyone on the staff and in the playing group were so close that it was almost like a country footy club playing in the AFL, which I think is the best way to be, and that’s why I enjoyed my time at North Melbourne so much.
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