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Farewell to the legendary Captain Blood
August 24 2003
Few men have had a greater impact on Australian football than Jack Dyer, the great Richmond champ. David Austin explains why.
Jack Dyer, who died yesterday at the age of 89, was a footballing colossus turned all-round media personality; a "gentle humorist" with an original, quirky turn of phrase - qualities consistent with his Celtic ancestry.
He was a master of self-deprecation, once announcing to an amused dinner audience that he was "a very ordinary superstar".
But the Irish in the man known as Captain Blood, the old swashbuckler in him, was quickly aroused if anybody dared threaten the wellbeing of his beloved Tigers. Such as the time in 1986 when a merger with St Kilda was mooted. Captain Blood was not amused and said so vigorously.
He was also a forgiving man, pardoning Richmond for sacking him as coach in 1952 after being captain-coach from 1941-49.
During Richmond's great revival from 1967-80 (five flags), Dyer perennially sported a smile as wide as Punt Road. All the while reminding sparring partner Lou Richards that the Magpies seemed incapable of shaking off the Colliwobbles.
Idolised in working-class Richmond and hated, yet begrudgingly respected by rival supporters, Dyer was the most feared ruckman of his era that began during the Great Depression when players were paid ?3 a game.
Vigorous, fast and a fine high mark and kick, he chalked up a then-record 312 VFL games from 1931 until 1949, playing in two premierships: the Jubilee year of 1934 and 1943 (as captain-coach). He missed the 1932 grand final win because of a knee injury.
An injury to his "good knee" in 1934 meant he couldn't twist or turn as a matter of course. Straight ahead was the only alternative, heralding his bruising trademark of bursting through packs, and heaven help those in his path.
He was a regular at finals time. In his 19 seasons at Punt Road, Richmond made the then final four 13 times.
To his chagrin, Dyer was a member of five losing grand final teams, the first in 1931 against Geelong in only his sixth league game as a lanky 17-year-old. That was the beginning of the fulfilment of an early coach's
assessment that he was star material.
An illustration of Dyer's fame was expressed in 1992 when he was inducted into Australia's Sporting Hall of Fame with four other celebrities, Test cricketers Arthur Morris and Rod Marsh and rugby internationals Nick Farr-Jones and Ray Price. To the surprise of everyone but Victorians, all cameras and media tape-recorders were first directed at Captain Blood, whose unique career as player, coach and media performer spanned an astonishing 60 years until he quit the TV screen in 1989.
Dyer was among the initial group of Legends inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame and was named in the AFL Team of the Century, albeit on the interchange bench with Gary Ablett and Greg Williams.
Dyer won the Tigers' best and fairest award six times, the last in 1946, aged 32. He played 14 games for Victoria, leading the Big V in 1941 and 1949.
The moment Dyer took the field the Tigers had a flagship in full sail. It was inevitable that his cavalier style of play would attract a pseudonym. It was not long in coming. And it stuck. One Monday morning in 1935 Age cartoonist John Ludlow depicted him as Captain Blood, cutlass in mouth. It came just two days after three Fitzroy players had the misfortune to get in Dyer's way at the old Brunswick Street Oval and crashed to the turf, sick and sorry, but not stricken.
Doing the rounds of the local picture theatres at the time was a pirate film called Captain Blood, starring Australian-born actor Errol Flynn who spent the best part of 90 minutes putting extras to the sword. In looks,
Flynn had the edge on Dyer, but there were no dutiful easybeats on Dyer's chosen stage.
When the real Captain Blood hung up his leather boots in 1949, aged 35, many a rival slept more soundly. His wily play and effective use of the drop punt, which he was said to have invented, had served the Tigers' cause admirably.
Dyer was not tall compared to today's ruckman, standing 185 centimetres, but his big, raw-boned frame and uncompromising toughness made him a great player in an era when greatness was not in short supply. He played against Nash, Pratt, Bunton, Reynolds, the Collier brothers, Coventry and Regan and was a source of inspiration to his teammates, who grew in confidence in his presence.
Captain Blood's combative image and prolonged success as a good-natured, avuncular figure on World of Sport, Channel Seven's long-running madcap blend of sports of all sorts and comedy, made him one of the most recognisable and enduring figures in Australian sport. WoS was compulsory viewing every Sunday lunchtime from 1959 until 1987. If the show wasn't responsible for the liquid lunch, it did its cause no harm. Unlike some of today's offerings, it was never crass or vulgar. Chaotic, yes, charmingly so.
It was Ron Casey, the remarkable creator/director and unflappable controller of WoS, who described Dyer as a "gentle humorist". His square jaw softened by a wry smile, Dyer enjoyed playing Captain Blood on WoS. But he was no calculating showman. He was the arbiter of which players were tough and those that weren't. "A good, ordinary player" was his kind way of saying so-and-so lacked a little heart.
Later, three WoS pioneers - Dyer, Lou Richards and Bob Davis - portrayed as the three wise monkeys and sporting traditional WoS livery, jackets and ties - joined forces in a Thursday night program on Channel Seven called League Teams - a riot of slapstick, reminiscences, recipes for curried sausages and occasional references to who was in and out.
Jack Dyer grew up in a tough school in Struggletown, as Richmond was then known, when the Tigers' catchcry was a none-too-subtle "Eat 'em alive".
If the passage of time has dimmed the magnitude of his football exploits, his peers had no doubts as to his standing as a VFL player at a time when 12 teams played on chilly Saturday afternoons at the MCG, Kardinia Park and spartan suburban grounds before adoring, one-eyed tribal fans. No Richmond player has been the object of such devoted hero worship, or more reviled by opposition supporters.
When, at the end of 1949, Dyer stored the trusty Gladstone bag in which he carried his No. 17 jumper and other gear, Norm Smith said the famous Tiger was probably "the toughest and most colourful player ever to pull on football boots".
Wrote Smith, the six-time premiership coached regarded as one the sport's
finest: "The immortal Captain Blood is a legend in his own lifetime. His
story is the story of Australian Rules football. He was six foot of
Muscle, indeed. In the 1940 second semi-final, Smith was on the receiving end of a Dyer crunch. The Demon star said a yellow light flashed across his eyes as he crashed face-first into the turf.
"Don't get me wrong," Smith said. "Dyer was no cowardly football basher. He was one of the three greatest footballers the game has produced, probably the greatest. His strength and courage were a spur to his side. He lifted and inspired them to unbelievable heights.
"He would have stamped himself as the most brilliant footballers in the game had he played as an individual rather than for his team. It was always Richmond first, Dyer last, with Captain Blood."
Smith's comments, republished in The Jack Dyer Story, the Legend of Captain Blood, written by Brian Hansen, were echoed by writers such as Hec de Lacy of the Sporting Globe: "Dyer stands supreme, the greatest of the great," wrote de Lacy. "Football is not for the faint-hearted. I have watched him in action in many games and have never seen him do one thing outside the privilege of a big, strong player."
Percy Beames, captain-coach of Melbourne from 1942-44 and The Age chief football writer for more than 30 years, said in 1944 that if he had all the players in the VFL to choose from, "I'd pick Jack Dyer before I considered any other player in the game".
When the joy of battle was over, however, preferably at the expense of the hated Collingwood, Dyer's warmth and off-the-cuff good humour were revealed to a wide audience when he made the seemingly effortless transition from football's often muddy centre stage - mostly Punt Road - to the media spotlight, in print, radio and television.
If Dyer floored his share of rivals on the field, he had the same impact away from it, reducing many a gathering to stitches with a rare repertoire of colloquialisms and reminiscences, many against himself, accompanied by infectious chuckles.
Dyer's talent to amuse shone through on radio with Ian Major (The Captain and the Major). He didn't need a gag writer. Suave Norman Banks of 3AW was his radio mentor, "rounding off his vocabulary" and telling him he was "a man of the people". An attempt at speech therapy was discarded. "I am what I am," said Captain Blood, whose Dyerisms and English that offended the pedants (that was their misfortune) flowed easily over the airwaves. His Malapropisms were a delight - "Yes, we had an enjoyable time on the French Riverina".
Once during a radio trial to broadcast football, he asked Phil Gibbs to pass "the benicolars". Dyer's long-time sparring partner Lou Richards reckoned Captain Blood "failed Plasticine" at school. Actually he was good at geometry, hence his straight-ahead approach to football and well-angled retorts. Chuckling, he once said of Richards: "Lou hasn't got any enemies but his friends don't like him." Touche!
John Raymond Dyer Dyer was born into a caring family on November 15, 1913, at Oakleigh. His father Ben was of Irish descent. His mother's name was Nellie. Vin was the first child. Three years later the family moved to Yarra Junction, on to a farm. There a girl called Eileen was born.
Dyer was introduced to football at Yarra Junction Primary School. He played in bare feet. Next he attended St Ignatius College in Richmond, under the Catholic scholarship scheme. There he had the good fortune to have as coach, Brother Peter, a former Sydney rugby league player.
Brother Peter, who regarded Dyer as "the best schoolboy footballer in the world", taught him how to tuck the ball under one arm and ward off an opponent with the other. "It became my stock weapon," Dyer said.
Another Dyer ploy was to chase the ball, stop suddenly and sway back hard with the shoulder. "It's amazing how many players knocked themselves out."
When Brother Peter moved to De La Salle College he organised a place there for Dyer, who lived in Richmond with an aunt. Dyer walked the long way to school to avoid the larrikins. Said Dyer: "If you didn't have a record you were a social outcast. College boys were juicy targets for larrikins."
With the Great Depression looming, Dyer left school at 14 (in 1927) and got a job as a storeman, all the while starring with two rough and tumble teams, the Richmond Hill Mob and Yellow Cabs. He soon adopted the dictum of those two teams - "take no prisoners".
Initially the Tigers were not interested in him. He had to use the ploy of asking for a clearance to Collingwood before the Punt Road hierarchy would consider him. Though trounced by Joe Murdoch in a practice game - Dyer didn't get a kick - Richmond's shrewd coach Checker Hughes liked the lad's approach, though he was confined to the seconds in 1930 and once walked out thinking he was unwanted.
Dyer's first senior game, as a lean teenager, was against North in 1931. The message went out to the Shinboners "to lay off the kid or they'll carry you off on a stretcher".
Dyer grasped the opportunity and was best afield in a convincing Richmond win. Two games later he was back in the seconds. But not for long. He won a berth in the 1931 grand final against Geelong, who were "alley cats" not the "handbaggers of today". Said Dyer: "Bull Coghlan was my opponent, a nice tough guy if ever I saw one. He looked like a beaten up tomcat - scars on his face, muscles on his eyeballs. He didn't offer to shake hands. His opening gambit was, 'Hello, has mother let you out today, sonny?' He followed up this pleasantry with a backhander while the umpire Bob Scott was going about his business at the other end of the ground. After that I was nervous and played accordingly. So did the rest of the team and we were beaten by 20 points."
Afterwards, Geelong's Reg Hickey, later coach of the 1951-52 Geelong premiership teams, consoled Dyer. "Don't let it get you down son. Stick to it and you will be a pretty good footballer one day."
Dyer was only 22 and fast becoming every VFL coach's dream ruckman, having filled out, when he played in the first ruck in Richmond's 1934 premiership team, which humbled South Melbourne, known as the Foreign Legion, by 49 points, reversing the result of the 1933 grand final.
Although he will forever be remembered as one of the hard men of football, the fact that Dyer polled 17 votes in the 1939 Brownlow Medal, finishing equal fourth, was a vote of confidence in his ability by the umpires, with whom he was not always on the best of terms. His favorite saying, "If ya don't mind, umpire", stemmed from a run-in with field umpire Bob Scott at Fitzroy one day. After vigorously brushing aside a rival with the palm of his hand, Dyer, with the ball tucked under his left arm Brother Peter-style, headed goalwards, only to be stopped in his tracks by the umpire's whistle. "Against you, No. 17, rough play," barked Scott.
"Rough play," cried Dyer. "If ya don't mind, umpire, where's that in the rule book?"
Dyer's saying is used to this day to embrace any perceived indignity, whether executed on the football field, in the office, kitchen or on the highway.
For all his on-field ferocity, Dyer was reported only five times and suspended once, for four weeks.
He took over as coach in 1941 when Richmond refused to pay Perc Bentley an extra 10 shillings a week. Bentley went to Carlton. It cost Dyer money to take the coaching reins, for his basic salary of ?7 as a player had been topped up to ?10 by supporters. Now he was back on ?7.
As captain-coach he led Richmond into three consecutive grand finals in 1942-43-44 for one win over Essendon in 1943. One of the stars of that torrid five-point victory was Tiger character Jack Broadstock, who went AWOL from army camp to play. After the grand final at Princes Park, Military Police were waiting to arrest him, but Dyer talked the CO into allowing Broadstock to join in the victory festivities, which he did with gusto. As promised, Dyer delivered Broadstock, somewhat the worse for wear, at the railway station the following morning to return to army camp.
Dyer took on the chin his sacking as non-playing coach after a three-year stint from 1950-52 when the Tigers finished sixth, sixth and ninth. It hurt that his replacement was Alby Pannam, who came from Collingwood of all places. To Dyer's delight he didn't last long (three years). "Small men never make good coaches," said Captain Blood, chuckling.
Like most opposing players of that era, Dyer despised the highly successful Collingwood, which had beaten Richmond in the 1927, 1928 and 1929 grand finals. So deep was his dislike of the Magpies, Dyer said he wouldn't watch black-and-white movies!
Des Rowe, who played under Dyer and went on to coach the Tigers, described Captain Blood as an "old softie as a coach. People took advantage of him. He was the kindest of people, a wonderful man." No, said Rowe, Jack "never asked us to pair off in threes", as once reported.
Dyer joined the police force in 1934. Soon after he married Sybil, a friend of the president's daughter. They had two children Jackie and Jill. After nearly 10 years as a copper, which did nothing for his popularity,
especially at Victoria Park, Dyer and his wife took over a Port Melbourne hotel, thanks to John Wren, a Collingwood man. Later the Dyers had a milk bar. Football alone could not support a family in those days. Dyer's fierce loyalty to the Tigers reached a crescendo in 1989 when financial troubles sparked talk of a merger with St Kilda.
He reacted by giving VFL president Ross Oakley a verbal shirtfront. "The commissioners forget that when Richmond is competitive they draw the greatest crowds. If Oakley doesn't realise that he should be back peddling insurance."
Dyer was scathing of VFL house. "They've got more employees than Myer's. I wonder how much they waste on public relations because they haven't got any."
The Richmond faithful rallied behind Captain Blood. Money rolled in, the club was saved and one of the spin-offs was the formation of the Jack Dyer Foundation, characterised by gleaming new club rooms and equipment. A far cry from the spartan clubrooms Dyer first walked into 70 years ago.
The launch of the Foundation at Punt Road one Sunday morning in 1996 was one of Captain Blood's last official appearances. Upwards of 1000 Tiger supporters gathered in the refurbished, landmark grandstand, built in 1913, the year Dyer was born.
"There he is," someone cried as Dyer, wearing a light-coloured suit and tie, emerged from the social club. Applause greeted his every slow step as the slightly stooped, proud figure made his way 100 metres to a dais in front of the grandstand, across the turf he had trod with distinction, fearsomely so, for 19 years.
As usual, he was in good humour, when greeted by current players Matthew Knights, Matthew Richardson, Wayne Campbell and Co. Asked by club president Leon Daphne if he had been in the habit of hanging his No.17 jumper on a nail in the old clubrooms, Dyer chuckled and replied: "Yes, but you had to bring your own nail."
It was typical Dyer.
No man got more laughs at Punt Road, no man was more respected. His jumper No.17 is considered the club's most important.
Jack Dyer was Richmond. But he will be missed by all.
November 13, 1913 - August 23, 2003
Nickname: "Captain Blood" (after the Errol Flynn pirate of the same name).
Played: 312 games for Richmond, 1931-49. 443 goals.
Captain: 1940-49 (160 games)
Coach: 1941-52 (225 games)
Club champion: six times (1932, 1937-40, 1946)
Leading goalkicker: 1947 (46), 1948 (64)
Premierships: two - 1934 and '43 (as captain coach)
Grand finals: seven
Finals: 23 games, 27 goals
Captained Victoria in 1941 and 1949