The Candy Man comes to Carlton
Question: name the only Carlton senior footballer in 113 years of League competition never to wear the famed dark Navy Blue guernsey? If you answered “Andrew Balkwill”, then you’ve got the M&Ms.
Balkwill was amongst the senior 21 who took to Optus Oval in the pale blue strip of the confectioner’s candy for the round 3 match with Adelaide at Optus Oval; the “M&Ms match” as it became known.
For Balkwill, this was his one and only senior appearance for Carlton, in what was a sponsorship and marketing initiative worth a cool $250,000 to the club.
Balkwill completed his senior debut in the same game as his fellow South Australian, Ben Nelson. The match would also double as the 50th senior appearance for both Scott Camporeale and the avant-garde Luke O’Sullivan, the latter having taken 10 seasons to get there. It also would mark the third and final appearance for Mick McGuane in a Carlton guernsey (of sorts), on a day in which supporters first frequented the recently-completed Legends Stand at the eastern end of the ground.
“It’s more than 10 years ago but I certainly remember moments about that game,” said Balkwill, the former Central District footballer and now the Deputy Headmaster of Adelaide’s Sacred Heart College, an all-boys school from years 6 to 9. “I certainly remember comments from friends and family in the crowd who found it difficult to find me because the numbers didn’t stand out as they normally would.
“There was obviously a fair bit of marketing and hype around the fact that M&Ms were releasing the blue M&M to their range and that the players would all be wearing that colour guernsey. Much was made of the guernsey and the sacrilege . You know, ‘What are they doing to the Navy Blue?’ but we all just went about our business as normal in preparation for the game.”
By his own admission, Balkwill was “never going to be a Stephen Kernahan of this world”.
“I was drafted quite late in my playing career, around the age of 24, so in that sense I was probably a fill-in player as that older brigade of Kernahan and Williams were getting on in their careers, and the younger blokes like Whitnall were coming through,” he said.
A mobile big man, Balkwill had joined Carlton from SANFL club Central District, for whom he had turned out in the 1996 Grand Final loss to Port Adelaide. He didn’t nominate for the 1997 draft, given that Port Adelaide had the right to draft any SANFL-listed player as part of its process for fielding a competitive team in its first season in the AFL. “Ben Nelson and myself were offered by Port as trade for Brent Heaver, and Ben made his senior debut at Carlton in the same game as me,” Balkwill said. “It was all very, very exciting. It’s every young fellow’s dream of playing AFL. It was all a bit surreal, running out onto the ground before a big crowd, and I’d only just recently experienced that in one of Central District’s first-ever Grand Finals in the SANFL, where almost 50,000 people turned out at Football Park.
“Optus Oval had a different feel to it. It was still that suburban ground, with the old grandstands and the fans packed in close, and you certainly had plenty of support.”
Williams, who had been suspended for the second time, and Christou, as well as Kernahan, Silvagni, Spalding, Brown, Pearce and Hanna, were all unavailable for the match. For the record, Carlton won the M&Ms match by 28 points – 15.18 (108) to 12.8 (80). Carlton ruckman Matthew Allan earned the three Brownlow votes and Aaron Hamill and Anthony Koutoufides booted three goals each.
Balkwill has a copy of the game on video, “but to tell you the truth I’ve never watched it”. He can’t remember who his Adelaide opponent was, nor did he realise that the match doubled as McGuane’s last hurrah. “I first got my opportunity in the game when Mick McGuane came off injured. I can’t remember now whether that happened late in the last quarter or early in the second. So I went out and basically did what [David] Parkin instructed me to do, which was to go and find the ball early ... and I think I got my first possession out on the half-back flank somewhere. As the game went on I had moments on and off.”
Balkwill hung on as an emergency in a handful of games for Carlton through the course of 1997. In 1998 he developed what later became fashionably known as osteitis pubis, which he ultimately discovered stemmed from a back ailment not dissimilar to that which cut down Ang Christou. Though he has no idea of what became of the pale blue shorts and socks, he still has the unmistakeable guernsey, which he packed in his kit bag after the match despite the persistent requests of the club’s marketing types to put each one up for auction. The guernsey now hangs in his wardrobe with other guernseys from his career, “and the plan is, at some stage, to frame it”. “But I’ve got a six year-old son now, and I’m not afraid to let him wear it as he gets older,” he added.
“It was disappointing not to get to play more than one match and when I had the ‘Thanks very much’ interview with David Parkin and Wayne Brittain at the end of ’98, ‘Parko’ said to me, ‘Balks, I should have given you more games’, to which I replied, ‘Oh well, that’s the way it goes,’” Balkwill said. “I was optimistic about it all, because I had already been given a chance I thought I was never going to get. And to say should’ve, could’ve and would’ve, well, I’ve seen too many blokes like that.
“When I got told ‘That’s it’ for my time at Carlton I actually thanked Parko for the opportunity. He looked back at me in shock and I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And he said to me, ‘There’s only been two players in my time as coach who have ever thanked me for the opportunity: you and Matthew Clape’, who got the axe the day before. No-one had ever thanked the man for the opportunity to come and play for the Blues.
“For me, it was a fantastic experience, and tell you the truth I’m more famous for playing in that one solitary game for Carlton than I would have had I played 20 or 30.”