North’s 1999 premiership winning team is packed full of iconic names that have gone down in club folklore, with some of the best players in club history coming together for one of North Melbourne’s most successful eras.
Craig Sholl is one of those names, with the former number 24 becoming an iconic player and a key cog throughout the North teams of the 1990’s.
With 235 games, 165 goals, 2 premierships and a Syd Barker Medal, Sholl built an incredible honours list in one of North Melbourne’s most defining eras.
A career bookended by games against Melbourne, from his 14 disposals debut in 1987 to his 7 goal final game in 2000, Sholl’s remarkable career at North coincided with a critical period of increasing professionalism throughout the competition.
From the bottom four finishes in 1988 and 1992, to Grand Final heartbreak in 1998 and premiership glory in 1996 and 1999, Sholl was a constant through some of the highest highs and lowest lows in the history of North Melbourne.
This is North Media’s, ‘Where Are They Now?’
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You won the Syd Barker Medal in 1991, tying with Mick Martyn. Future winners like Anthony Stevens, Wayne Schwass and Wayne Carey were also in that side. That was a side on the cusp of becoming a really powerhouse in the AFL so what did it mean to win the best and fairest in such a strong side?
A couple of them were injured I think so that was probably part of it! To win a best and fairest anywhere at any level is a huge accolade for anyone. Whether its Echuca footy club or Bright footy club or North Melbourne footy club to win a best and fairest is just an absolute honour, so it was great for me to win it in that year in what was at the time a really good group of players.
I spoke to John Burns and Arnold Briedis from those successful 1970’s North sides and I’ve never heard anyone speak about a coach in the way they spoke about Ron Barrassi. Denis Pagan is probably the only comparable coach in North history to him. What influence did Pagan have on not just your football, but also your life outside of the game?
Denis was great for all of us. He was hard as everyone says, he was notorious for it, but he was also a very caring fellow. I’m lucky enough to have gone into business and a lot of his theories I’ve taken into business, and they’re all pretty basic if I’m being honest. The things he instilled into us, he just instilled that we need to believe in ourselves and do everything we can to get the best out of ourselves. The only way to do that is by working hard. I’ve taken a lot of Denis’ stuff into the business things that I do now and even outside of that. It’s pretty basic and pretty easy, but he taught some important lessons to a lot of us players when he was our coach for all those years.
You said he was hard as a coach, but was the environment like that he created around the team that helped enable it to be so successful?
He made us believe in ourselves, and that’s the main thing. We were all country kids brought down into Melbourne, none of us really knew a lot about it, so he really helped us and instilled in us to get along as a team. It wasn’t so much that Denis Pagan was any different, he just made us all play together as a team and really, really believe in each other. He helped us become really good mates with each other. When we’d go out for dinner or go on a footy trip or something there’d be 20 of us, not just a handful of us. We were just all close. He got all of us older blokes to look after the younger blokes and stick together.
You played your 200th game in the 1998 Grand Final, what was the feeling after the game, especially considering it was such a personal milestone for yourself?
With it being a Grand Final the milestone didn’t even matter at that point. The feeling after the game is something we’ll take with us for the rest of our lives. With finals footy, if you’re going to play in a Grand Final there’s only one thing to do, and that’s win, because if you don’t it isn’t a very nice feeling after it. It just drains the whole year, it makes the whole year feel worthless. It’s just drains the whole lot out of the whole side. After we lost that game we had to regroup again and we were lucky enough that we did.
You talk about regrouping, was there anything in particular the group did to dust itself off to really attack 1999 and come out on top?
It was a lot about belief. We knew we had a really good side. In the second quarter of that Grand Final we kicked something like 2 goals and 11 behinds, it was a day we just couldn’t get anything right all day, and that’s not an excuse but we knew we had the side to be able to win it, so it didn’t take us long to get back into the groove of winning another one. To put it simply we just had a great side, we had great players who were also great blokes, and we had a whole lot of belief in ourselves to be able to go out and execute.
Your final game was a preliminary final loss to Melbourne where you kicked 7 goals, was it a bit of a bittersweet goodbye to top level football after showcasing you could still be a seriously effective influence at the highest level?
I wanted to go out with a bit of a bang, I’d had a couple of injuries at the end of my career, that back injury meant I just couldn’t do what I wanted to do. I just knew that I wanted to have myself a game, but I didn’t expect I’d kick 7 goals! The thing is it was in a preliminary final and we lost so in the end the 7 goals I kicked didn’t mean too much really.
You were playing at quite an interesting time when players were really starting to be able to live off AFL wages. How did the professionalism and the lifestyle around the AFL change over the course of your playing career?
Well we went from a stage of having to have a job earlier in my career to then not actually being allowed to have another job. I remember Wayne Schwass got dropped one day I think by Schimma (Wayne Schimmelbusch) for something to do with his work, and then in comes Denis not much later and it wasn’t so much that you weren’t allowed to have a job, but footy had to come first. That’s when we started training in the morning which I thought was a lot better, because at the time all you wanted to do was play league footy and you’re not worried about work or money, because not many of the boys were exactly on big contracts, but I think what it did create by changing it around was it helped create the closeness of us all. We’d train in the morning and then all go out for breakfast together, then we’d come back in the afternoon and do our weights and other stuff, but I just think the professionalism was a huge change. I don’t know how I’d have managed travelling every second week and doing all the full-time footy, because Darren Crocker and myself had our own business. We’d go to work for a couple of hours and then come to training. The change was, in a way, I’m glad I didn’t go through the next change. I’m glad I was in that era where we were able to work and get our mind away from footy a bit if that makes sense.
Did you go back to that business side of things once you finished playing and finished league footy, did you hold onto that business with Crock?
We did for a little bit but then we got rid of it, because I was never going to stay in the city. I ended up coming back to the bush and we did sell it. Crock and I had a great little business there. One thing Crock and I had, even in a business that was close to the footy club, all the boys would come down and play cricket at our work pretty often, so it was pretty casual work, and make sure you include that Crock wouldn’t work too hard either!
Would you consider yourself to still be a fan of the club?
Oh, for sure, you know I’ve had my turn but I’m a big fan. Not that I follow footy too much anymore but North Melbourne is certainly my home.
Are there any players on the list at the moment that might remind you of yourself from your playing days, or you just enjoy watching?
I love Jack Ziebell, it’s nothing to do with us playing a similar style because he plays a lot harder than I ever did. I really enjoy the way he goes about it and leads the club. I also love watching all the kids come through. The feeling that we got as young players would be no different to what they feel today, playing your first couple of games just being out there on that stage. It’s such a hard level to play even in my time and I think it’s probably even harder now, I feel a little bit sorry for some of these players, they’re not allowed to have as much fun as we did. I’m sure they still have a lot of fun but I just love watching them come through with the pressure they’re under just to stay there. They have to treat it as their life now.
If you could sum up your time at North in a few sentences, how would you?
Gee, I’d say life-changing, very much life-changing. It taught me to handle pressure and just coming from the country into Melbourne was such a big change in my life and I’ve carried it on in my life. We’re very lucky in that a lot of doors open with league footy, a lot of doors. I’m travelling around Australia at the moment and the amount of opportunities that are created and the amount of doors it still opens is just amazing. If you could ever go through that experience it’s well worth it.
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