MATT WATSON Fabulous Phil: The Phil Carman Story. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress
A rivetingly flawed biography of one of the most talented Australian Rules footballers to ever pull on a boot.
Let’s begin with the flaws.
This is a book with 55 chapters and books with so many chapters usually see me casting them aside – they’re just too bitty. It draws on interviews with many people and normally I don’t like excessive quoting. It has me questioning the whereabouts of the author’s voice.
Yet the bits mostly work, for the book is a compulsive page-turner. So too does the chorus of voices. They convey contrary messages, but then ‘Fabulous Phil’ Carman was a contrary man: introvert and extrovert, social but not sociable, liked but essentially a loner, an independent free spirit tied to a team game.
‘If’ is a little big word.
- if Collingwood hadn’t engaged in such bastardry in keeping him out of football between 1970 and 1972;
- if Collingwood hadn’t been such a basket-case of a club when he arrived in 1975;
- if he hadn’t broken a bone in his foot and missed seven matches, he would have won the Brownlow Medal in his first season instead of finishing fourth;
- if he’d had a mentor like Norwood coach Robert Oatey during his VFL career;
- if he’d had a coach worth listening to in his Collingwood years – Murray Weideman and Tom Hafey bored him with their approach to the game;
- if boundary umpire Graham Carberry hadn’t invaded his personal space in 1980, leading to the head butt that saw him suspended for 20 matches;
- if he hadn’t been his own worst enemy …
… things might have been different.
The trouble was he was his own worst enemy.
If ever there was a couldabeen champion it was Phil Carman. A champion wins Brownlow and Magarey Medals, a champion dominates major matches and plays in premiership sides, a champion wins multiple club best and fairest trophies, and (barring injuries) plays 300 league games in his career.
Carman played 58 games in five interrupted seasons for Norwood in South Australia and 100 games with four Victorian Football League clubs (Collingwood, Melbourne, Essendon and North Melbourne). He shoulda played in a Collingwood premiership in 1977 but got himself suspended in the preliminary final and coach Hafey forever blamed him for the lost title. He shoulda won a Brownlow, and while he did win the Copeland Trophy (Collingwood’s best and fairest award) in his first season, that was his solitary club award. At an age when he might have been ending a glorious playing career to much applause, he was turning out in bum leagues with Kangaroo Flat and Sandhurst and as captain-coach of Eastlake in Canberra. Finally, when as coach he lifted Sturt from the pits of despair in 1995 to take them to the 1998 SANFL grand final, he had the disappointment of losing narrowly to Port Adelaide.
Phil Carman had talent to burn and he burnt it. Only at Norwood did he express anything like his true ability and then his career was interrupted. At Collingwood under Weideman and Hafey he was cut too much slack because of his talent. At Melbourne he didn’t give Carl Ditterich a chance as coach. At Essendon he was excited to play under Barry Davis but then came the suspension. At North Melbourne he might have worked well with Ron Barassi but injuries were taking their toll.
Without doubt he was the fittest player of his era, a dazzling excitement machine who stands out in the memory two generations since he began. As the first professional footballer he possessed an extraordinary range of skills and especially the seeming ability to hang in the air when flying for a high mark. For half of my life I have argued that Carman was the second-most talented footballer I have seen (behind Barrie Robran). As a South Australian I have placed him ahead of Russell Ebert, Malcolm Blight, Paul Bagshaw and Rick Davies, and in Victoria ahead of Gary Ablett Senior and Wayne Carey.
Talent, of course, doesn’t necessarily translate to achievement and a lot of people have probably considered me a lunatic. One reason I enjoyed Matt Watson’s book is that the testimony of others – Graham Cornes, Peter Moore, Robert Oatey, Ross Dillon, Barry Cable, and Lou Richards – supports my view.
If I have a criticism of the book it is probably that at 420 pages it is too long. Carman’s suspension from the 1977 VFL grand final is laboured and two key questions are not fully explored. We know that Collingwood struck a hard bargain and that if he played VFL he would play with them but was there never a chance of him beginning with another club? Carman’s individualist streak, his love of running and training by himself also points to a wrong choice of sport. Perhaps he was the great Olympian we never had.
Fabulous Phil is a warts-and-all biography (as it needs to be) and a well-rounded portrait of its subject, containing elements of pathos as Carman’s life (and football) begins to unravel in Victorian country leagues before a welcome recovery coaching in Adelaide where his major football began.
Matt Watson Fabulous Phil: The Phil Carman Story Brolga Publishing PB 420pp $34.99
Bernard Whimpress is a historian whose most recent book is Adelaide Oval: A Photo-Document 2009.
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