It is often said that football is the panacea to all evils. While it will never be quite that for Gavan McGuane, something as simple as a bunch of weekly phone calls from old teammates is a very special ‘football’ brand of healing in one of the game’s great tragedies.
McGuane, Southport premiership captain, coach and legend, has been legally blind since a chemical accident in 1994. He was 36 when he was left with 20 per cent vision in one eye and no vision in the other.
He learned to cope. It was like pushing through with a bad ankle only a trillion times worse. But the ‘how are you going?’ calls he gets like clock-work from his 1983 Southport premiership teammates is like gold and have helped him through an even deeper downward spiral and a ‘miracle’ upwards turn over the past two years.
McGuane had things going well, he said, until a COVID booster left him totally blind for 20 months. Then, on Monday 24 July 2023, specialists spent seven and a half hours implanting a new cornea, a new cataract and a new lens into his ‘good’ eye which has seen him regain 30 per cent vision in that eye.
Talk about Lee Majors and the $6million man. This was priceless. On 4 November 2023, when the now 64-year-old will be inducted into the Queensland Football Hall of Fame, he will at least have some vision to go with the electricity of one of the game’s great nights.
It’s been a long, tough road along which football has been only part of it. But a big part of it for one of four brothers who grew up in the football-crazy town of Ballarat. Tom trained at Carlton, Brian trained at Collingwood and Terry and Gavan trained at St. Kilda under newly introduced VFL zoning regulations, but all fell just short of the mark.
Uncle of Collingwood great Mick McGuane, Gavan played in a losing grand final with Golden Point in the Ballarat League in 1979 and on the Tuesday afterwards was told by a good mate he was going to Surfers Paradise for a holiday. McGuane said, “Where’s that?” It’s in Queensland, he’s told. “Where’s that?” he asked. “I honestly believed everyone lived in Ballarat or Melbourne.”
“I was a typical Ballarat kid. I laid bricks, I drank grog, I chased girls and I played footy. You don’t realise there’s more to life at that stage, but I thought ‘I can lay bricks in Queensland’ so I gave it try and here I am,” he said.
He got a brick-laying job on the Gold Coast and joined the Southport Magpies in the Gold Coast Football League. He won a premiership under Bob Webb in 1980 and in 1981 under ex-Geelong great Bill Ryan was made captain at 22. In 1982, after 1980 Kedron QAFL premiership coach Norm Dare had shocked the competition by moving to the coast, McGuane skippered Southport in their last game in the Gold Coast League – a grand final loss to arch-rivals Coolangatta.
In 1983 Dare and McGuane led the Gold Coast powerhouse into the QAFL as the Southport Sharks. Contrary to popular opinion, it was not a coin toss with fellow newcomers Sherwood, who were also the Magpies, but a calculated club decision. Due to the intense dislike the Southport Magpies had built up among rival Gold Coasters it was feared they may have had trouble attracting players and even supporters if they kept the name.
In the inaugural Foster’s State Championship, which started in February 1983, included regional teams state-wide and ran parallel to the premiership, they beat Sherwood by 73 points, Sandgate by 86 points, Kedron by 43 points and Windsor-Zillmere by 19 points in the wet in a game notable for the debut of Jason Cotter, later to become a club legend, and a subsequent 10-match suspension by 18-year-old Carl Gwynne following a clash which left Morningside captain-coach John Blair with severe facial injuries.
It was a wet Foster’s Championship semi-final and an even wetter grand final at Windsor Park on Exhibition Wednesday, televised live by Channel 7. With their QAFL finals debut only four days away Southport fielded a virtual reserves side. But still they led for three and half quarters and lost by two points.
Six months earlier, on 20 March 1983, Southport had played their first QAFL game against Western Districts. With about 3,000 people crammed into the close confines of Owen Park they led at every change and won 7-12 (54) to 5-12 (42). Ruckman Peter Guy and McGuane were standouts with Steve Grossman, Doug Byron, Ted Lake, Lynton Keighran and Tim Tagliabue (three goals).
The historic first side, which included 15 players from the Gold Coast League in 1982, was:-
B: Ken Clark, Randal Black, Zane Separovich.
HB: Brian McNeil, Doug Byron, George Budge.
C: Tim Tagliabue, Mike Woolnough, Lynton Keighran.
HF: Craig Crowley, Tony Coeli, Ted Lake.
F: Lino Girardi, Mark Doyle, Peter Boyce.
R: Peter Guy, Steve Grossman, Gavan McGuane (c).
INT: Gabe Nuspan, David Apted
EMG: Steve Fairweather, Wally Walsh
COACH: Norm Dare.
They lost the next three games but finished second on the home-and-away ladder at 12-6, a game behind Morningside, and beat third-placed Sandgate in the qualifying final by five goals. In the second semi-final they upset a well-rested Morningside by seven goals. Into the ‘big one’.
In a spine-tingling grand final in front of 10,000 people at Windsor Park, the Sharks led by a point at the first change, trailed by two points at the second change and were four points up at the last change. Morningside kicked three goals in a row to get five points in front.
McGuane, doing what good captains do, sharked a ball off the pack and kicked a superb left-foot goal going into time-on. Then it was all Peter Guy, who would later win the club’s inaugural best and fairest. Playing virtually on one leg, he pulled down a spectacular mark for a goal and won a tough free kick for the clincher. They were his only goals for the entire season.
Zane Taylor, who would have shared the Grogan Medal with Guy and Sherwood’s Bill Peirce but for a one-week suspension, won the Joe Grant Medal from McGuane, Stephen Wells, later to become a recruiting guru with AFL club Geelong, and local stalwart Sel Short.
It was an extraordinary moment not just in Southport history or Queensland history but Australia-wide. Previously no debut club in a senior competition anywhere had won more than eight games. Southport won 15 games and a flag. For the historians, the premiership team was:-
B: Mick Youngs, George Budge, Mick Herring
HB: Andrew Bos, Sel Short, Zane Taylor
C: Lynton Keighran, Stephen Wells, Ashley Miles
HF: Tim Tagliabue, Doug Byron, Peter Boyce
F: Jason Cotter, Peter Munro, Zane Separovich
R: Peter Guy, Peter Ives, Gavan McGuane (c).
INT: Craig Crowley, Tom O’Connor.
EMERG: Ted Lake, Gabe Nuspan, Dave Franklin
COACH: Norm Dare
An always honest and sometimes blunt McGuane admits he left Southport at the end of 1985 after a falling-out with Dare. He joined Coolangatta, losing the 1986 Gold Coast League grand final by a point, before going back to Southport to win the flag in 1987. Believing he owed Coolangatta something, he went back as a playing/coach in 1988 in a shared role with Neil Ross. Another flag.
In 1989 he got a call from Southport president Dr. Alan Mackenzie offering him the coaching job after 1988 premiership coach Danny Brennan said he would not seek re-appointment. “Where do I sign,” said McGuane. Although, Brennan later tossed his hat into the ring the deal was done, and McGuane took the Sharks to the 1989 premiership flag.
It couldn’t get any better, but it did. They went undefeated under coach McGuane in 1990 with a home-and-away percentage of 325.1. They scored 200-plus five times, 150-plus six times and 100-points in the other seven games.
But then it got worse. In what was a curtain-raiser to the real drama, and another chapter in the QAFL’s most intense rivalry, Southport lost the 1991 grand final to Morningside by 61 points. A move from Owen Park to a new headquarters at Musgrave Hill 18 months earlier after a $2 million donation from Wally Fankhauser had seen the club coffers take a hammering. An operating loss of a reported $87,000.
There was even a push for the club to return to the Gold Coast League, narrowly defeated on a vote of members after the Board was split, and McGuane was not paid. “I had two young boys and needed a job so I quit,” he said, before later serving as a match day bench coach to help ex-Bears forward Cameron O’Brien, the new captain-coach.
McGuane stuck with his brick-laying before a move into insurance – “the worst thing I ever did” – and then the pub game, where in April 1994, doing the right thing by his workmates, as his always did his teammates, everything went horribly wrong.
“I was working in a hotel and was about to clean the keg lines in the cold room,” he recounted. “I was only supposed to be at work for half an hour but I’d been there for nearly an hour. The person who was supposed to do it wasn’t around so I thought I’d quickly do it. I’d done the job a thousand times, but as I rushed into the cold room, I didn’t put on the goggles. The floor was slippery and the rubber mat had a curled edge.
“In all the panic and mayhem I tripped on the mat and fell onto a keg full of cleaning agent. My hand pushed down the plunger and the pressurised alkaline contents sprayed directly into my face. Blind in one eye and limited vision in the other. The pain was incredible. I had 57 days in hospital and an unsuccessful eye transplant.”
But rather than feeling sorry for himself he became a ‘Safety Advocate’ for Workplace Heath and Safety Queensland, visiting businesses across the state to increase the awareness and importance of safe work practices. His message was clear: “Think about what it is you do and don’t put yourself at risk just to get something completed five seconds faster than it would have otherwise been. Make sure everything is put into the right perspective so you get home safely.”
Remarkably, McGuane continued to coach and took Broadbeach to the 1996 QAFL flag. In 2004 he was delighted when son Luke, playing at Broadbeach, was drafted by AFL club Richmond. He played 105 games with the Tigers (2005-13) and seven games with the Brisbane Lions (2014-15), and was a recurring source of great joy for his father with brother Joel, who provided a stem cell transplant for his father’s operation in 2023.
On 13 May 2023, not long before the surgery that restored some vision, McGuane had attended a 30-year reunion of Southport’s first QAFL premiership. “There were 150 people and a great three-day weekend. Those guys mean the world to me. Always have and always will. Ten or 12 of them ring me every week or two just to check in and see how I’m going. Things like that keep me going.”