The great North Melbourne premiership side of 1975 is filled with names etched in North Melbourne folklore.
With David Dench, Keith Greig and Wayne Schimmelbusch indoctrinated as Legends of the club, and Barry Cable, Malcolm Blight and Ron Barassi Hall of Fame inductees, it is without a doubt one of the all-time great footballing sides.
1975 was the first VFL Premiership in North’s history, and the second of five straight grand finals the club would play in – it was the birth of one of football’s great dynasties.
With four goals in the first half of the ’75 grand final from midfield, John Burns was key in setting the tone in what finished as one of the greatest days of this historic football club.
After 95 games for the club, Burns stepped away from North at the end of the 1978 season, unfortunately missing the 1977 premiership triumph due to injury.
A remarkable centreman, it was no fluke that success followed Burns his whole career as he also won the 1972 WAFL premiership with East Perth. He joined North’s ranks in 1973, with the club rising from the bottom of the ladder and on the cusp of greatness.
This is North Media’s, ‘Where Are They Now?’
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First, I just want to touch on that 1975 Grand Final. You were named in the centre and kicked four goals. What allowed you to be so dominant and set the tone for what ended up being one of North’s all-time great performances?
It’s called ability, is that a fair answer? To be brutally honest that’s a long time ago but they are good memories. I’ve seen a few videos from North Melbourne over the past fortnight, especially about the 1975 grand final on YouTube which has brought back a few memories. The whole build-up, the whole culture of North Melbourne, I just think everybody was so, so focused, and I think it helps that we were being led by probably as good a coach (Ron Barassi) who has ever coached football and he had everybody up and running. Yeah, I kicked four goals and I played OK, but sometimes you’re at the right spot at the right time. When you’re on a roll you keep going. When you’re playing footy and you lose confidence you can’t just open up the wardrobe and pull out some confidence. If you kick a goal from nearly 70 yards - it was a long goal that first goal - and all of a sudden you’re up and about. I would assume the crowd there that particular day was in excess of 113,000. I reckon 95,000 of them were barracking for North Melbourne. If you’ve got some ability and you’re playing on a big stage, if that can’t lift you, I don’t think anything will. Personally I was at the right place at the right time with some ability, with 20-odd other guys in the side who had the ability to be on that stage on that day and it’s something none of us will ever forget.
You touched on Ron Barassi, obviously one of the legendary figures not just in North history, but in the history of the AFL. What kind of impact did he have not just on your footballing career but also on your life?
It’s obviously 50 years down the track and life has totally changed, we know that. In those days it was almost like “Christ has come again”, that’s the impact Barassi had on the footballing fraternity, and he was at North Melbourne. Everybody just looked up to him as the man, and he was. The beauty of him, and it’s taken me nearly 50 years to work out, he’s a bloody good bloke. He was a fantastic coach and he was so dedicated to the game. It wasn’t about Ron Barassi and him being the great coach and winning the accolades, he just wanted to spread his football experiences and spread the love. He was so good at looking at 30 or 40 guys in that group that year where he had to individually speak to every person, because we’re all different. Barassi was not before his time, but he’s someone everyone just looked up to. He was the messiah. He punched ‘Snake’ (Phil) Baker on the chest, imagine a coach punching a player in the chest these days, it just couldn’t happen, but that’s what our period was like - he wouldn’t do it now. He just had this pure, raw ability, and I think it was Sam Kekovich said it didn’t matter who we played on the day, we would have beaten them by the efforts that Ron Barassi had put into the North Melbourne Football Club in 1975. I actually fought with Barassi all the time I was there, it’s not that I didn’t like him, it was a motivation for me. At the end of my career I moved back to Warrnambool and he came and stayed at my place on multiple occasions. The friendship probably got better after we finished! Sport is sport, business is business and out of those sometimes he’d relax a bit and he was a totally different person.
Your first season at the club was 1973, the season after North finished bottom of the ladder with just one win. What attracted you to come to the football club at that time?
When you’re a Victorian living in Perth, and like every Victorian kid you wanted to play VFL football, I would’ve played with whoever came and spoke to me at that particular time. All the ducks lined up for me to go to Geelong. I had a good association with Polly Farmer, it was close to Warrnambool, but that’s when North Melbourne got on their bike. Guys like (Allen) Aylett, (Ron) Joseph, (Barry) Cheatley, they were having meetings at 4am on a Monday, planning what they could do for the football club. Those things were unheard of, so it was the initiative of the board. If you build a house you need a good foundation. The foundation of a football club is the administration and there was none better than North Melbourne in the 70s, then led by a giant of the game in Allen Aylett. My answer was easy, I just wanted to get back to Victoria to play football. I’d had a little taste many years prior to that when I was zoned to Fitzroy. I played a practice match and didn’t play very well, I was kindly advised to try again, in other words I wasn’t up to it. Bill Stevens was coaching Fitzroy at the time and when I chose to go back to North he was the assistant coach. I told him not picking me was one of the best decisions he ever made, because I would’ve signed on for about $25 a game, a few years later going back to North the prize was a bit bigger, so I thanked him for his bad judgement! He’s one of the nicest blokes I met in my football journey, just a gentleman. They painted a picture at North where they weren’t going to linger down the bottom for much longer, even though they hadn’t had any sort of success for a long time. They had the right people in place to take the club to another level.
You missed the 1977 Grand Final and came back to have a strong 1978 season. How did it feel to see your teammates win the premiership once again, but this time without you in the side?
We’re talking about a totally different era, after the game you’d have a beer and a sausage roll. My point of view is in my time at North I met so many wonderful people, but none better than Laurie Dwyer. At the end of the season we’d all go back to our country towns for a four-week break and not many of us would arrive back in tip-top condition. At the start of 1977, I turned up a little bit shoddy and snapped my achilles tendon. To answer the question, the week before the grand final in ’77 there were rumours that I was going to be on the bench. I’d played the week before in the reserves and they were thinking of putting me on the bench in the grand final because of past performances. I was asked to go into the coaches room and that question was posed to me. The answer was if somebody go injured in the first five minutes, I didn’t think I’d be fit enough to play out the game. Was I and am I upset about that? No, I’m not. I’d had my day in the sun, even though I would have dearly loved to play in another grand final. It gave the opportunity to another bloke to play. It’s not about me, it’s a team game. Footy is a team game and North Melbourne was the best. If I couldn’t perform to help that side it would have meant I let them down. So I said no and on the way out Laurie Dwyer asked me what I’d said - he knew the question they were going to ask me. He told me I’d done the total right thing. Deep down, I know I did the right thing, because it’s a team game and even though I might’ve only played the last three minutes and got another medal on my chest, I’d had my day and I was happy about that. I was as happy as Larry for the boys to win the second one. It was a bit sad, but we won, North won, the team won. That’s what’s important.
Unfortunately, football playing careers can’t last forever, what did you do to set yourself up for when your playing career ended, and what have you been doing with yourself since then?
I was probably a bit uneducated in the sense, that unfortunately I had a lack of parents so I had to go to work and I was working before I was 14, so education wasn’t at the forefront. The things along the way that you learn, street smarts if you want to call it that, if you can get that and harness it really well you can survive. I was very lucky that I played football and I wasn’t bad at having a look at a property here and there when I first came back to Melbourne. I set myself up after going back to Warrnambool. I bought quite a sizeable business, but I won’t go into that in depth. I’d be amazed if the players with the money they get now don’t set themselves up in a manner where they’re going to be comfortable. As you said, it doesn’t go on forever so they have to be look at doing that now. In the old days we weren’t fortunate in that space, but most of us have got by. The thing that’s come out of it is the knocks that we took in those days, and even though the AFL and past players have been excellent in that forum, there are a lot of players who came out worse for wear just because of the way the game was played in those days. It was a tough, rugged game. I saw clip the other day where the ball went over the boundary line and some bloke threw it back. In our day the bloke would be throwing back a 20kg ball, we only had one football and it would rain, rain and rain. Try and kick a 40-yard drop punt with a heavy ball at Morrabbin. Overall, I think most guys did OK, but some struggled, that’s just the nature of how it was. The money that was commanded then, the high-ranking players might get a percentage more, the rest of the blokes might’ve been on match payments. Gary Farrant for example went back to the farm and life went on for him, but with a premiership medal around his neck, but he just went back to the farm in Cohuna with his lovely wife and family. Where there’s a will there’s a way to survive. I’d love to be playing now, I’d love to assess how much I’d get, I’d love to be able to set myself up through footy, but people can dream.
Speaking of playing now, is there anyone on North’s list at the moment who might remind you of yourself in your playing days?
There’s been a few over the years. I still follow the club and I get frustrated. He’s not like me because I was different and I’ve never met him, but that number six, (Taylor) Garner. I love the way he plays football. He reminds me of an old-fashioned footballer, he just goes at the ball hard. He lopes along like he’s running at half pace and makes it look effortless, but he’s a guy who I really admire and he would’ve survived quite clearly in our day just because of the way he goes about it. All old players have someone they like, and he’s my pick. Over the journey North has produced and have had some absolutely fantastic guys, and you watch and you barrack for every one of them. If I see some kids coming down from the country you always try to tune into a country boy, because it’s where my roots are. I think the game today is a bit different from the way we played it. Some people say the game isn’t as tough these days but that’s nonsense. With the way the ball moves, how quick it moves and the hits they do these days at such a fast pace, you wouldn’t want to be on the ground getting some of the whacks they get these days. Some people who were tough in the old days were giving a bloke a whack from behind, that certainly isn’t tough. The way the attack the ball these days and the pace it’s played, it’s bloody tough. That’s just what I feel.
You definitely sound like you’re still a fan of the club, being a step back as you are now what are your thoughts at the moment about the direction the club is travelling?
It goes back to if you build a really good foundation, you’re going to have a pretty solid house. If people can get the inner sanctum going I think that’ll flow on. It might not be this year or even next year, but I think down the line the fruits are going to bear. It all goes in cycles. North Melbourne people are solid and they stick. All we have to do is stick together. In certain facets and parts of the game you watch you can see quite a bit of improvement. I think the coach, even though I don’t know him, one thing I do notice when you watch the football and you see when they flash to the box on TV, he seems very controlled and very level. To me he comes across very well and he looks to be as good a person as you could get to do the job.
One last question for you, if you could sum up your time and experiences at North Melbourne in a few sentences, how would you?
Great relationships, great friendships, the best part of my life that I’ve had. I’ll finish with one final story. When I first got there and started playing I was going alright, I’d go to the social club and get 150-200 pats on the back. There were a couple of blokes there who wouldn’t give you two bob. You could have 35 touches and kick 6 goals and they’d say “we were lucky to get a good game out of you”. Cold, hard, fantastic North people. In my sixth game I hardly touched the ball, I went back to the club and all those people had gone, I was getting no pats on the back, so I went over to the corner to those two. That’s where I went after every game from there on in. When you’re at the top people can be very funny and very fickle. I’d go to them after every game and they’d give me nothing unless I’d kick 10 goals, but you knew where you stood.
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