Friday 30 July 2010

The longest-serving coach in QAFL history chalks up a major milestone when he oversees his 300th game for Morningside on Saturday.
John Blair was already the Panthers’ longest-serving coach when appointed to a second term in late 2001, but has added almost nine years more to the five years he spent at Esplen Oval from 1981-85.
When he sits down in the coaches box at Dittmer Park on Saturday to coach against Mt Gravatt, it will be hard not to reflect on the immense changes undergone to the game and the QAFL since he ventured north from Victoria in late 1980.
Morningside is the only club left from the 10 who participated in the 1981 competition, and Blair has been one of the major reasons for that.
As a player, the ultra-competitive Blair reached the elite level, notching 33 games with South Melbourne, Fitzroy and St Kilda.
At the end of the 1980 season, however, he knew St Kilda was not the ‘fit’ for him.
“I was looking for something different,” he admitted.
Blair had been coached in the Fitzroy reserves by Norm Dare, who had moved north to coach Kedron to the QAFL premiership in 1980.
The duo spoke on a number of occasions and Blair’s interest in Queensland grew.
He applied for the job at Mayne, where the selection panel of Shane Johnson, Noel Best and Ron Spaulding opted for North Melbourne personality and premiership player Mick Nolan.
However, Spaulding was impressed with what he saw in 25-year-old Blair and rang Morningside, telling them they would be mad not to interview him for their vacant captain-coach role.
The Panthers committee headed by young president Ian Polglase, having seen their club win just the one premiership in 31 years to that stage, heeded the advice and appointed the strongly-build key position player within hours of interviewing him.
“I knew Queensland was a frontier where a lot of VFL people like Ronnie Wearmouth, Frank Gumbleton, Alex Jesaulenko, Pat Wellington, Dare and Nolan were moving to,” Blair said.
“For me it was a huge honour to get the Morningside job because I was the non-entity out of those names – they had all played 200 VFL games or played in premierships and grand finals.”
Blair wasted no time in showing the Panthers they had made a wise choice, guiding the team to third place in his first season in charge in 1981.
He won the Grogan Medal the following year while taking Morningside to the grand final where, ironically, they were beaten by Mayne in bruising, cracking contest.
Southport beat the Panthers in another great battle in 1983, while a teenage Jason Dunstall helped Coorparoo to beat Morningside in 1984.
Despite finishing third in 1985, when he headed the League goalkicking with 86 majors, Blair saw the writing on the wall and left for stints with Windsor-Zillmere, Sandgate and Sherwood.
Morningside remained his first love as he undertook roles at the Brisbane Bears with Robert Walls and the State under 18 program under former Swans teammate and close friend Mark Browning through the 1990s.
When the Panthers hit the skids – financially and playing-wise – in 2001, it was Blair who they turned to.
The slow burn of the grand final defeats two decades earlier had never left his gut.
“They were extremely hard to take,” he said. “A lot of work and effort had gone into getting to those grand finals.
“Each year we were beaten by a different team, so we were the best club over that three-year period but had nothing to show for it.”
In fact, the seniors and reserves played in seven grand finals in his first four years at the club without a victory.
“It did eat at your fabric,” he said.
With the Panthers struggling and some people ‘throwing stones’ at the club, Blair decided he would do something about it rather join those tossing the brickbats.
“I had been living in the district for almost 20 years in the same house about two drop-kicks away from the footy ground (Esplen Oval),” he said. “As a local person, I felt I owed the club.
“My son was also coming through (the juniors) along with the likes of Mark Rootsey and Damien Bonney and I wanted to make sure there was still a local senior club that they could play at.”
Blair blooded plenty of youthful players in 2002 and the Panthers finished fifth, before charging to the premiership with a  big win over Mt Gravatt in 2003.
“It was a extremely special,” Blair admitted.
Then again, so was the following year when Southport went through the season undefeated, only to lose by seven points to the Panthers in a classic grand final. The man in charge at Southport was Dare, who had been head-hunted by the Sharks to regain some silverware after three years without a flag.
“Darey was seen as the coaching messiah in Queensland and while I generally believe coaches are overrated once a game has started, I really felt like I was a player against Norm that day,” Blair said.
“I know I felt challenged as he was considered the gun coach and we had a terrific battle day. That was one day where I felt (our staff) coached really well as a group.”
While Blair was finally fulfilled by the premiership success that he had craved, he nonetheless has a special place in his heart for the players of the early 1980s.
“We had a reunion at the club a few weeks back and it was fantastic the number of blokes from the 80s who came from interstate,” he said. “As a group we are pretty close, even though we didn’t win a flag.
“We were beaten by a different team in each grand final, so over the three years we were the best club but didn’t get a premiership.
“In certain respects our success, or lack of it as some see it, became the cornerstone of the force the club became – we created a culture where we believed Morningside were winners.”
Blair indicated that his longevity in coaching was due largely to the support network around him.
“It comes back to having tremendous support from home,” he said. “Without the sacrifices, effort and understanding of (wife) Maureen and the kids, I could never have survived this long.
“It’s the other people you are surrounded by too, the other coaching staff and administration. I would not have lasted this long if the QAFL had not funded club development managers –  Jack Barry has been at Morningside for five or six years and I think the next best at another club has been two. He has been outstanding.
“Assistants like Mark Holman and Brad Edwards have been great.”
He has the greatest respect for club doctor Walter Zolte, who he ‘recruited’ in 1982 and has been at Esplen Oval ever since. And former ‘young upstart’ president Polglase, who alongside Michael Duke appointed Blair for a second time in late 2001 and still assists him today as team psychologist.
The players too – a number who are triple premiership players after grabbing glory again in 2009 – are what have kept him going through nearly nine years in his second coaching stint.
“There’s a solid core of senior players like (Jacob) Gough, (David) Lillico, (Nick) Clark, (Nic) Tomlinson, (Jarrod) Price and (Shaun) Mugavin, some who have been with me here since ’02. That stability has made it easier.
It is testament to Blair’s coaching ability that has been able to adapt with the times.
“Footy has changed a lot over the last six years, let alone since the ‘80s,” he admitted. “I was a naïve 25-year-old who thought coaching meant turning up and doing a few training drills and ranting and raving at quarter-time and the breaks.
“It has evolved so much, particularly in communications skills, and the drills are so much more game specific.”
Many AFL coaches have mentors, and Blair still has his – his father Jack.
“He has had the biggest influence on me and still does today,” Blair said. “He can go into fine detail about hand positioning and is very good technically with kicking, despite never having played at a high level.”
Respect is a key word for Blair, and he has plenty of it for his players.
“They have to be as professional as they can at our level with the limited resources available to them and I think they do it as well as they possibly can,” he said.
Perhaps a big part of his successs is that the players are much more than that to him.
“Part of coaching is to make sure that players come out of the system as good people and have a real meaning to their lives – it’s not just about the footy,” he said.
As for the future and adding to his record-breaking achievements, Blair wasn’t giving too much away. 
“I have retired every year for the last five years,” he joked. “We’ll see what happens with the new Northern League competition, and my youngest at home is turning 16, so the nest could be empty sometime soon.
“It might be time to see a bit more of the world than where Morningside takes me.
“We’ll wait and see what happens.”
Gregg Chapple, who currently runs the Kingston Heath Golf Club, was general manager at Morningside when Blair joined.
“Whenever I hear the word Morningside,I always think of John Blair,” Chapple said.
“My memories of the 80s were the three grand final appearances and how the Panthers just did not get over the line. As a longtime South Melbourne supporter it was easier to cope with the losses.
“I remember one of those games in particular out at Mayne. As the Morningside team slowly fell apart under the pressure, with several players succumbing to injuries, one man stood tall and tried to hold back the tide to no avail with as I recall,  a broken bone in his leg.
“How would I sum up John Blair in a few words? Tough, determined, unrelenting, fearless, a leader of men.”   

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