The signing of Ron Barassi as captain and coach of the Carlton Football Club in late 1964 undeniably remains the most audacious signing in league history. How did Carlton, on the end of its team’s worst standing in 100 seasons of existence, wrest the game’s greatest name from the clutches of the Melbourne establishment?
Over the years, many have laid claim to their part in the push to “Get Ron” from the Redlegs to deliver the old dark Navy Blues from the football backwater. Back in 1995, when surviving members of George Harris’ famed Progress Party gathered for the 30th anniversary of “Barassi to the Blues”, all magnanimously declared it a joint effort.
In truth, the push for Barassi was on in earnest months before the Progress Party swept into power at Princes Park - and central to it were two leviathans of the city’s business sector, a prominent Melbourne solicitor and a fearsome former Carlton footballer who forged an equally imposing reputation as both a powerbroker and a kingmaker.
The four men - Sir Leo Curtis, Sir Maurice Nathan, Graham Emanuel and Laurie Kerr – were also bound by an unswerving loyalty to the Carlton Football Club.
A story which in part tells the whole in respect of their unqualified allegiance relates to Sir Leo and Sir Maurice. It is a tale told by Ken Hands, who was six seasons into his senior coaching tenure when forced to make way for Barassi.
Hands, a dual Carlton premiership player whom John Nicholls long regarded as his mentor, can well recall the pair rubbing shoulders with well-heeled supporters as far back as the war years.
“I don’t know what it’s like now, but a lot of supporters used to come into the rooms afterwards – people like Maurie Nathan and Leo Curtis,” Hands recently recalled.
“There was a group who used to meet over lunch in Lonsdale Street before Carlton games. They’d have their little punt on the game, and quite often through ’45 and ’47, if we won, we’d probably get an extra couple of quid.
“That’s how the money came about. Perc Bentley might announce ‘If you win by three goals today there’s two pound a man’, and if you’d get three quid to play and two quid on the side, it was pretty good.”
Sir Leo, Sir Maurice, Emanuel and Kerr have all since died, and, at the time of writing, only three members of the Progress Party – Lloyd Bendall, Gordon Newton and Ivan Rohrt – are still around to shed any light on the stunning coup to secure Barassi on a three-year term at a cost of £9000 plus bonuses.
But Kerr’s widow and the Carlton’s Football Club’s No.1 female ticketholder Vivienne Kerr, together with the great Ronald Dale himself, have drawn on their collective memories to detail the behind-the-scenes machinations which ultimately led to football’s most audacious signing.
“Maurice Nathan loved Laurie, and Leo was one of our dearest friends. I always used to go to the footy with Leo and Maurice Nathan and we’d sit together. Laurie delivered a speech at Leo’s 90th birthday party, we were all best friends and a great part of our friendship was our love of the club,” Vivienne said recently.
“In mid-1963 - I can’t remember the date but one Sunday night - Sir Leo Curtis phoned Laurie. The discussion went that perhaps Laurie might sound Ron Barassi out, so Laurie arranged a luncheon with Ron, I think at the Hotel Australia.
“Laurie was very satisfied emerging from the lunch. He didn’t put Ron in an embarrassing position by saying ‘This is what you must do’. It was just to sow the seed. This was what Laurie did, and that was how he operated. He did some amazing things in his life.
“It was maybe 10 months later that Ron was approached by Graham Emanuel and Kevin McEncroe on behalf of all members of the [Carlton Football Club] board to put the thing to Ron.”
Barassi was one of four men – all of them untried as coaches – known to have been interviewed for the Carlton job. Collingwood’s Murray Weideman, along with Essendon’s Jack Clarke and Bill Hutchison, were all in the mix, but Barassi was the peach. Undeniably, Barassi was torn by his historical links to the grand old flag for whom he and his father so grandly represented, but Harris was relentless in making the great grandson of an Italian migrant an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Ronald Dale Barassi was officially appointed captain-coach of the Carlton Football Club on the night of Thursday December 22, 1964. But more than a month lapsed before Melbourne granted its long-serving premiership player a clearance.
On the night the paperwork finally came through, Barassi was photographed flanked by committeemen Harris, Emanuel, Eddie Fakhry and Rod McLean, each one of them fawning over the club’s recruit of the year.
“As a coach, I have no revolutionary ideas,” Barassi told reporters privy to what was history in the making, “but my ideas are proven ones and I am confident they will work at Carlton.
“I will try to mould the perfect team. No-one has achieved this yet, but if you aim high I think you have a better chance of success.”
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