The West Coast boys done bad
Ten years after the Eagles’ 2006 premiership, a culture is laid bare
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It was the morning of the 2005 Australian Football League grand final, and nerves were shredding the bowels of two of the country’s finest midfielders. Chris Judd and Daniel Kerr, in between numbly staring at music videos, were making earnest trips to the bathroom. Other players responded differently. Brent Staker, 21 and seemingly untouched by anxiety, was cracking wise and slapping “the boys” on their arses. Later, when Staker was fumbling easy balls out on the field at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Judd saw the hand of nerves – and would consider Staker’s pre-match clowning a fake, a pretence for his mates. It wouldn’t be the first or last act of feigned bravado among the group, but it may have been one of the more harmless.
The West Coast Eagles were at the big game again. It was their first grand final since 1994, when they had hoisted their second premiership flag. Those older premiership players – Woosha, Mainy, Bluey, Suma, Roo – were legendary in the club. A few were still around: John “Woosha” Worsfold as coach, Peter “Suma” Sumich as assistant coach, and Chris “Mainy” Mainwaring as the club’s larrikin saint and mentor to its captain, Ben Cousins. The most ambitious of the new generation were in awe of the achievements of the older.
The Eagles were playing the Sydney Swans, a team Cousins felt had been on a collision course with his own. In the roughly egalitarian cycles of footy, the clubs were in similar positions. Both had begun restructuring at the same time a few years earlier, and in the mid noughties a West Coast v. Sydney match would reliably be a nail-biter. “They were an incredible midfield,” former Sydney midfielder Luke Ablett tells me. “The challenge was containing them.”
Like the Eagles, the Swans players were told by coaching staff to treat the grand final like any other game – the same preparation, the same commitment, the same roles. In the week leading up to the match, the coaches tried to insulate their players from nerves, but there was only so much they could do. “It’s difficult trying to keep it normal,” Ablett says, “among things like trying to organise tickets for everyone, doing interviews, crowds at training, and just getting so many calls and texts from people.” On grand final day he would be tagging one of the game’s greats, Chris Judd.
Chris Judd arrived in Perth in 2001, aged 18. He had been drafted at number three by the Eagles. He was reluctant to leave Melbourne and move west, but had little choice in the matter, and landed in an alien city. Rather than the distinctive suburbs of Melbourne, formed around busy strips, Judd found an insipid stretch of suburbs huddled around shopping centres. “Where’s the epicentre of Perth?” he asked as West Coast’s development manager took him on a tour of the city. “We’ve just passed it,” came the reply.
Perth was white with sunlight, leavened by limestone, its suburban development enthusiastically hemming to the long coastline. Judd wrote last year, in his memoir, Inside, that the cherished idea of living “an urban lifestyle somewhere in the inner city” was un-replicable in Perth, and that he should have capitulated early and “bought a surfboard … or gone fishing”. Years later, after Judd had ascended Mount Footy, Perth began to close in on him. He felt claustrophobic. The city began to feel “spooky”.
Judd was joining a club that for years had enjoyed something of an exalted status in the distant city – not only was it successful but it had also been Western Australia’s sole team in the AFL until the Fremantle Dockers’ arrival in 1995. The Eagles had joined the competition in 1987, as part of the Victorian Football League’s national expansion, and in 1992 they became the first non-Victorian side to win the flag. By the time Judd joined, the club that had featured in three grand finals was languishing after the exodus of the previous generation. In 2001 the club finished 14th. But at the helm was Ben Cousins. His AFL debut had come in 1996, at the age of 17, and he’d made an almost immediate impact. By the time he’d turned 20, Cousins was a sex symbol and athletic idol, and had been added to the portfolio of unctuous player-manager Ricky Nixon. In the year Judd arrived, Cousins was named co-captain.
It was also a club that had sheltered certain individuals’ hedonism, including those of its older generation – excesses that were known to police but, until the mid 2000s, were largely suppressed. “I could tell you stories that would put your hair on end,” Fred Gere tells me. Gere, a former WA police officer, rose to the rank of commander before his retirement a few years ago. In senior roles, his specialty was the monitoring of organised crime syndicates and outlaw motorcycle gangs. And it was in that job that Eagles players came onto his radar.
Fans often recall big games with joyful specificity. Players less so. For Judd, the 2005 grand final “was the most important day of my footballing life at the time”, yet it “was a blur [then] and still is”. Cousins’ recollection is better, but he admits in his 2010 memoir, Ben Cousins: My life story, that “it’s true that grand finals go faster than any other game”. Adrenaline and intense single-mindedness can conspire to amnesia.
It was an intense final that fluctuated dramatically. The gritty and ultra-defensive play resulted in two very low scores. Ablett wasn’t doing well containing his man. Judd had 29 disposals, for which he would receive the Norm Smith Medal for best on ground. Ablett would have three disposals for the game.
There is one particular moment Ablett remembers because few will let him forget it. In the final quarter, when Sydney was up by two points, he took a brilliant contested mark in his defensive pocket, before squaring his kick straight to Ben Cousins, who was taking a breather at the top of the goal square. Cousins couldn’t believe his luck, and booted it through for a goal. In popular recollections, the mark that preceded Ablett’s error is always forgotten. Only the blemish remains. “My first goal in a grand final put us four points ahead,” Cousins wrote in his memoir. “Fuck, I thought, they can’t beat us now.”
But they did. Sydney won, 58 points to 54. Cousins was numb, and can’t much remember the post-game ceremony. And then came the off-season and the demons.
In Perth, you got to know the haunts of the wilder Eagles even if you didn’t mean to. These places were the source of much of the city’s gossip. It was well known, for instance, that in 2002 Cousins and Daniel Kerr had exchanged blows in one favoured Claremont nightclub, and Kerr was left bloodied on the floor while Cousins ended up at the bottom of a staircase with a broken arm.
Another favourite was the infamous Metro City nightclub, which still stands by the city’s railway lines like a broken sentinel. The size of a large apartment block, Metro is the most shamelessly ugly of Northbridge’s mega-clubs and beer barns – sites of tribal violence and bikie investment. Inside, the club is cavernous and gauche – like a dimly lit spaceship hurtling its passengers towards regrettable pleasures.
The bikies ran the floors and doors at many of the venues, taking a monopolistic grip on the drug trade. Much blood would be spilled maintaining that commercial advantage.
Ben Cousins and Michael Gardiner were perhaps the Eagles players with the strongest contacts in the underworld. Gardiner was the club’s gifted ruckman, until the emergence of Dean Cox in 2004, and its vice-captain. He and Cousins would mix at Metro with convicted heroin trafficker John Kizon – invariably dubbed a “Northbridge identity” by the press – and notorious bikie Troy Mercanti, then a Coffin Cheater, later a Fink, and now an inmate. Mercanti is currently serving seven years for a long reign of physical and psychological abuse against his partner. (“You beat her without mercy, Mr Mercanti,” said the sentencing judge. “You are a coward.”)
The gangs kept Mercanti around because of his reputation. And presumably the players loved his notoriety, borrowing from it as they developed their own. They were exchanging their own dubious glamour with a man who had whipped his partner, shattered her eye socket, and forced her to crawl on the floor and bark like a dog. Outlaws. Later, Cousins would have Ned Kelly’s final words – “Such is life” – tattooed upon his abdomen.
In January 2005, Mercanti was approached at Metro by an aggrieved Scorpion Boy who slashed him across the face with a knife. Mercanti responded by firing five times into the limbs of his assailant. Allegedly, blood was mopped up, gun residue cleaned, and Kizon pocketed the gun – for safety, he later testified, not deception.
Cousins and Gardiner weren’t there, but in May the police brought them in for questioning when their phone numbers showed up in the call records of one of the suspected accessories before and after the fight. Cousins and Gardiner said nothing, as if observing a Mafioso-like omerta, and police publicised their anger at the pair’s reticence. Coach John Worsfold would later tell the players to return to the station and offer their co-operation, but it was too late. The “boys” had already offered their middle finger. They were outlaws, after all.
Judd writes with great sensitivity about Cousins’ eventual drug addiction. He says of his teammate that cocaine became a way for him to stop “overthinking”, a way of numbing the neurosis and anxiety that flows from being famous in the fishbowl. And while Judd is right to condemn an often prurient and cynical media, he can’t take the full measure of this culture. It wasn’t just drugs.
“Gardiner took it to the next level,” Fred Gere says. “Started wearing Coffin Cheater colours. And Cousins was linked to drug dealers that are now jailed. But go back – the West Coast Eagles in the ’80s were in denial mode too.”
In 2001, as a student journalist, I went to cover a Sexpo event held at Metro. My meagre credentials had still qualified me for the VIP lounge, in which I exploited the free bar and watched a burlesque show from the railing of our raised floor. I was joined by Eagles players, both past and present. It was the middle of the AFL season.
The Eagles were necking drinks as eagerly as me. They were leering, swaggering – enjoying their exceptionalism and intent upon maintaining its physical borders. They seemed contemptuous of everyone that wasn’t a young woman, yet loved having others to dismiss. They hollered their appreciation of the gyrating bodies below us.
Perth doesn’t have a monopoly on wretched male fantasies or sick footy cultures. But growing up here, it was tempting to view the city’s sun-baked complacency as an agent of the Eagles nightmare. And a nightmare it was. Cousins now periodically suffers drug-induced psychosis. Kerr’s drug problems have also been severe. Another Eagle almost died on a bed in a Las Vegas hospital during a trip at the end of the 2006 season. In 2007, Chris Mainwaring died.
Here was the Pride of Perth. Popularly treated as talented rogues or meat for gossip, but rarely as avatars of a hopelessly squalid form of masculinity. Or very simply in need of help.
Such is the culture of Perth, of Australia, that these words might appear panicked or hyperbolic – but only because very few spoke the obvious at the time. This was a sick culture, and the sickness carried to our broader inability to censure it meaningfully. Judd is correct – but perhaps not quite for the reasons he says – when he writes: “When I look back and try to discern in the community any lessons taught or learned from what happened to Ben Cousins and from the West Coast years, I can’t see any.”
The media’s inadequacy is obvious, but the players used that as fuel for their indignant dismissal of criticism. “It was good guy versus bad guy,” Judd writes. That’s not a formula for self-examination, and while Judd advocates for a more sophisticated understanding of drug abuse, he’s silent on his teammates’ rebellious flirtations with thugs. Judd seems simply to suggest that boys will be boys. “The three best players at the club were Cousins, Kerr, and Michael Gardiner, the ruckman,” Judd writes in his memoir.
In different ways they were all pretty wild characters. And the reality about young men is that they idolise players like that. Whether it’s at your local football club or a professional club in the big league, a guy who can take on three trouble-makers with his fists or a guy who can drink until 6 a.m. and then sweat it all out on the track quickly develops legend status. At West Coast, you would always hear about the exploits of Chris Mainwaring, for instance, the way he could live it up and still perform, week after week.
In 2006, the Eagles had one of the best midfields ever to play. It was a pleasure to watch – creative, explosive and unified. By this point, they could anticipate each other. What’s more, they seemed to like each other, even as the shadows were falling. “A group of like-minded, hard-working footballers are trying to win one another’s respect without even being conscious of it,” Judd wrote.
At the beginning of 2006, Judd sensed the wheels coming off a few teammates’ lives, but he sensed a flag too. “It felt as if we were always going to win the premiership that year.” There remained a strong cohesion and commitment. “I say this a little tongue in cheek,” Gere says, “[but] the culture at West Coast was like Rome this week with George Pell. There was a culture of denials … I’m disappointed in how the club dealt with this stuff.”
In February of that year, Cousins was driving friends home after a wedding. Knowing he was over the limit, he promised that he would flee if he encountered a booze bus. He was true to his word, abandoning his Mercedes-Benz (and his girlfriend) in the middle lane of Canning Highway, before engaging in a bizarre slalom course through the backyards of properties. Cousins then found sanctuary in the Swan River, emerging finally to seek a telephone at a closed restaurant. He was later charged by police. His captaincy was untenable, and Judd reluctantly became the team’s new leader.
The Eagles finished the 2006 season as minor premiers. Kerr and Judd placed third and fourth, respectively, in the Brownlow Medal count for the league’s fairest and best, behind Sydney’s winner, Adam Goodes. And they would meet Goodes’ Swans in the grand final again. It seemed fated.
Up by 25 points at half-time, the Eagles dramatically relinquished their big lead when the match resumed. At the start of the game’s dramatic final stretch, a goal by Goodes sliced the Eagles’ lead to just five points. Another tight loss looked painfully likely. As had been predicted, the game was a classic.
The Eagles won by one point. “Here at last was the premiership,” Judd writes, “the culmination of all that hard work and sacrifice, the Holy Grail that my teammates and I had devoted ourselves to since we were kids.”
Things started deteriorating rapidly after the grand final victory in September. The bad behaviour developed a brutal momentum – the function of insularity, machismo and addiction.
Just over two months later, in December, Cousins was arrested for being drunk in public outside Melbourne’s Crown Casino. From the lock-up he called Ben Sharp, a former Eagle, for help. Sharp was described in court, after his arrest last year for armed robbery, as a prolific drug dealer who had used ice on and off for ten years, including when he played alongside Cousins.
By the time of Cousins’ arrest out the front of Crown, Michael Gardiner had made Melbourne home – axed by the Eagles in 2006 after crashing his car, he was traded to St Kilda.
Mainwaring fatally overdosed in October 2007, his body sacrificed to cocaine. He was almost as big a celebrity in Perth as Judd and Cousins, an ever-smiling face of sports television. But he had been spiralling out of control for some time, and Cousins was one of the last to see him alive.
Judd has nothing to say in his book about Mainwaring’s death. Cousins has plenty. He recounts that upon hearing the news from his father he was paralysed. “No. This had not happened.” He was a pallbearer for the funeral. “It was one of the greatest honours of my life. He was a better man than me.”
In 2007, Kerr was twice charged with assault and handed fines. Last year, he was found guilty of splashing friends – and their home – in petrol, and threatening to set them alight. Soon after, he faced Perth Magistrates Court for alleged repeated breaches of a violence restraining order brought by his ex-partner. And on and on it goes.
Other Eagles were captured on police wiretaps, peripherally ensnared in the surveillance of serious drug running.
Chad Fletcher, having collapsed in Las Vegas on the boys’ 2006 celebratory bender, was charged with possession of cocaine in 2010.
Dean Cox would write in his 2014 memoir, Iron Eagle, that at the peak of the dramas John Worsfold had questioned each player as to whether they were using or had previously experimented with drugs. “I don’t know the exact number of players who answered in the affirmative,” Cox wrote, “but I suspect it was in double figures.”
In January 2012, Cousins would be committed to hospital after apparently suffering a psychotic episode. In March last year, he was arrested in the Perth suburb of Bicton after leading police on a slow-speed car chase. A few days later, it was reported that Cousins had been sent to a mental-health facility after he was found inside the Special Air Service’s Campbell Barracks in Swanbourne. Cousins was arrested again that month, for the third time in two weeks. He had been trying to outrun police in Canning Vale after behaving erratically outside a Sikh temple, and climbing onto the roof of a nearby house.
On the eve of last year’s grand final between West Coast and Hawthorn, the troubled former Eagle Daniel Chick alleged that he, Kerr and Cousins had used extravagant amounts of the asthma drug prednisone, a corticosteroid. Chick also alleged that the use of illicit drugs had been common at the club, as was the abuse of prescription medicine such as Xanax, Valium and Temazepam.
John Worsfold scotched Chick’s credibility. “I’m disappointed because really from my perspective there’s not really much to substantiate all that,” Worsfold told a Melbourne radio station.
“That’s not to say Daniel wasn’t up to mischief at different times, but some of the way he portrayed it as though people at West Coast had a tray of medicines that players could take pre-game – that obviously wasn’t happening.
“In terms of what Daniel took in his own time and out of our sights, I really have no idea about that.”
Loyalty is paramount in masculine cultures. In the police or military it is almost sacred – and entirely necessary. You must trust that the bloke next to you has your back, will demonstrate physical courage when you are being assailed. This trust, once proven in battle, hardens into an untiring loyalty. At a football club the principle is the same, even if the stakes are much lower. You must trust that your teammates won’t shirk a tackle, will screen opponents, will push themselves through fatigue and run into space. You must trust that your mates will leave no effort unspent, that your brothers are as fixed in their ambition as you are.
Chris Judd opens his memoir with a comparison between the culture of the West Coast Eagles and the one he found at Carlton when he moved there in 2008. I expected an excoriation of the former, or at least a painful rumination. I was wrong. What works, and how do we win, are the only important questions. Ruthless myopia is the signature of the champion.
At Carlton, Judd was surrounded by mediocrity, and this appears to have aggravated him much more than the fierce self-destruction of his previous mob.
If you’re driven to win premierships and gain all that comes with them – the sense of achievement, the lifelong friendships, the lasting memories – you will give almost anything. This was how it was at West Coast. We had a formalised vision of how we would prepare for and play the game, but beyond that, between the lines, we could sense strongly the idea of a football career that would live with us long after we had hung up our boots … When I arrived at Carlton, I experienced nothing like this.
What sounds like clear-headed wisdom becomes stranger when Judd describes a night in 2003 when he and Daniel Kerr were driving down a Perth freeway and saw what appeared to be a mannequin fall upon the road before them. When they pulled over to the emergency lane to inspect what had happened, Judd came across a man taking his last, shallow breaths upon the asphalt. He had leaped from the overpass above, and his skull was split open. “It doesn’t look too bad. You’ll be OK,” Judd counselled the unconscious man.
The story seemingly comes from nowhere, much like the man that had fallen before them, but Judd wraps the story up in one page.
I remember that I felt sorry for the poor bugger, whose life had come to that. But, and I hope this doesn’t sound too cold, it didn’t have any long-lasting effect on Kerr-ey or me. The club offered us counselling, but I don’t think either of us took them up on it. It became one of those things that happens in life.
Why was the story included at all, if watching a man die couldn’t inspire an ounce of reflection? Perhaps it was mentioned to demonstrate how fiercely rational Judd is; perhaps it was there because it seemed “interesting”. Noticing how jarringly blunt and haphazard this anecdote was, I wondered about the numbing single-mindedness of the champion athlete. Judd reveals much greater feeling when he writes about Brent Staker’s clowning, or his inferior teammates at Carlton. One wonders how willing or capable he is to reflect upon a team that were as effective at destroying themselves as they were at destroying the opposition’s defences.
So it is no surprise that Judd reckons with the collapse of the West Coast Eagles in this way:
Three years previously, the prevailing attitude was that we stuck by the miscreants and did not give a stuff what the rest of the world thought about them, or us … But by 2007, many players were sick of the distraction, sick of the headlines, sick of the way the club was being perceived by the wider world, sick of the fact that it was the same few players who were getting into trouble, time after time, sick of everyone being tarred with the same brush. It might have only been five or six people who were constantly hitting the headlines … but on a list of just 45 players, that’s more than 10 per cent, a disruptive chunk.
A “disruptive chunk” is a neat understatement. Judd was at this point captain, and that “disruptive chunk” were slowly killing themselves and the club’s reputation. Then Judd offers the most damning admission, even if he doesn’t realise it: “The cost of the previous three or four years of laissez-faire management was too high, to individuals and to the club.” Judd’s reflection, if you can call it that, comes whispered on page 175. The flag was the dream.
Alongside an AFL Commission inquiry, in late 2007 the club charged former WA deputy premier Hendy Cowan and KPMG executive Steve Scudamore with investigating its culture, and, specifically, 35 separate incidents of poor off-field behaviour, involving 13 players, between 2001 and 2007. This behaviour included assaults, drug and alcohol abuse, and links to underworld figures. Cowan and Scudamore reported back the following year:
Many of the stakeholders interviewed, internally and externally, believe more should have been done by the Club to investigate and to deal with these matters earlier and with more severity. This does not just relate to the allegations of drug use, but the broader attitude and behaviour of the player group and the impact of this on the Club’s brand.
The language can be as numbing as the ex-player’s memoirs. Flirting with death and gangsters becomes a disruption to the “club’s brand” that results in “media catching incidents”.
Unlike the internal investigation in 2001 prompted by the then coach Ken Judge, following a tip-off that some players were likely to be using drugs, this report at least recognised serious problems and offered serious solutions.
Among footy players, loyalty is an unalloyed virtue. In reality, it is not. As an abstraction, loyalty has a neutral moral value – it might service vice or virtue. Multiple corruption studies suggest loyalty is the handmaiden of cover-ups. While footy players and commentators love to champion physical courage, fewer will attest to its moral variation.
Another expression of this loyalty is the unspoken code players have with tribunals. Say nothing, even about a rival player who has injured you. It’s no different to the code of silence Cousins and Gardiner assumed when questioned by police about the Metro shooting. Judd was quite open about this when discussing the time Essendon’s Dustin Fletcher kicked out and struck Judd on his knee.
My knee swelled up immediately … I was seething at Fletcher because he’d ruined the game for me. He was reported for tripping and I was hell-bent on hamming up the injury and lagging him at the tribunal … I’m sure Woosha wouldn’t have wanted me to testify against Fletcher, either. In the game’s unwritten code, it simply wasn’t the done thing.
Even if you think you’ve been subject to malicious injury, it’s not the done thing. You don’t rat.
I wondered if Fred Gere was offended by the serial offences of the men in the fishbowl. The outlaws flashing him the finger. He tells me he was not. “I didn’t feel upset. They weren’t dealers, but users. They were public figures – held in high regard – and if you fall off the wagon it’s a big task to get back. They’ve got a lot more to lose. I hope Cousins gets his shit together. I don’t begrudge him. They’re no different to any brother or sister that’s dealing with drug problems.”
“I guess you have to separate their success and talent on the field with what happened later on,” says their old opponent Luke Ablett. “Personally, I don’t consider that their GF was won through cheating, as others do. It’s sad and disappointing to know what was happening then and what happened later on to the people involved. But, really, when I think back to the Eagles at that time I really only think of how good they were, how good those games were, and of the rivalry that we had, which wasn’t based on hatred or violence or retribution, but on mutual respect.”
It might be that everyone was only thinking about how good they were.
Ten years since their last premiership, and eight after Cowan and Scudamore’s report, the Eagles are much improved. “They’ve done rebuilding – the quality of their players, their culture, and their offering of assistance to players to meet their standards,” Cowan tells me. “That bit is very important. And they haven’t lost any membership. Attrition is very low at Subiaco.” Runners-up last year, they start this season among the favourites for the flag.
West Coast went close to having their AFL licence revoked, at least according to the rumours. “The talk [was] that [the AFL’s then CEO] Andrew Demetriou had established his own inquiry because he believed West Coast had brought the game into disrepute,” Cowan says. “That story [that he wanted to revoke the licence] went strongly around town … I asked Demetriou why he wasn’t expanding the terms of reference of his inquiry to include all the AFL. This was a time when five players – none from West Coast – had reported illicit drug use, two of them twice, and Hawthorn’s leadership team were asked to visit a drug rehabilitation centre and report back to their teammates what they saw there. Now, you never saw that reported. It wasn’t public knowledge. Only West Coast.”
Cowan has respect for Worsfold, who he believes began to correct the ship, and for Judd, who, in his interviews with him, described a “champion player” who had been “let down”. “But there was certainly denial in that club,” Cowan tells me. “Plenty of denial.”