The one-sided match was meandering through the third quarter to its predictable conclusion when a violent incident suddenly transformed proceedings. A highly talented star brutally struck an inexperienced opponent, who fell to the ground. Trainers arrived to assist, helped him up, and he was taken from the field with a reddening towel over his bleeding mouth. He was conveyed to hospital and diagnosed with a broken jaw.
But this was not Andy Brayshaw last Sunday, it was my brother at the MCG in 1974. Neil McMullin was playing his first full game for Melbourne. Back then, before the advent of interchange, teams chose two reserves, known as the 19th and 20th men, to sit on the bench until called on by the coach, who sat beside them. Neil had been a reserve the week before, when he was introduced at the Lake Oval late in the last quarter when spectators were already leaving.
So the match the following week against Hawthorn was his real debut. I rang home the day before to find out where he was going to line up, and was stunned to hear that he was starting in the back pocket.
Neil had hardly ever played in defence in his life, and not once in his years at Melbourne in the Under 19s and Seconds. He was a creative type, a centreman or half-forward, and this was back in football’s Jurassic era when players essentially played and stayed in specialist positions. It seemed inconceivable that a young newcomer to a struggling side would be placed in a position that was totally foreign and asked to mind Hawthorn’s champion rovers, Peter Crimmins and Leigh Matthews.
At the MCG I was nervous as the game unfolded, and the weather matched my mood — cold and drizzly with ominous dark clouds. During the first half, while Hawthorn built a solid lead, Neil handled his unfamiliar task satisfactorily. When the ball came his way after the resumption, he gathered it and circled inside to look for a teammate ahead, but Matthews pounced. Detecting an opportunity, Matthews propelled himself towards Neil and collected him with a raised elbow. Down he went.
This was not unusual for Matthews at the time. A number of similar incidents, coupled with his outstanding football skills, made him a dreaded rival. He would charge at opponents from their blind side like Cyril Rioli, but whereas Rioli wanted to catch them in possession and win a free, Matthews seemed intent on hurting them. As he has admitted, he was a “brutal” and “callous” player.
Now, though, he’s footy’s affable grandfatherly guru, and has joined the chorus calling for a red card. This has predictably prompted reappraisals of his 1985 clash with Neville Bruns. It’s the one that’s most notorious because it’s on film and Matthews was charged by the police. But it wasn’t the only one.
Matthews was not reported for striking Neil, and with trial by video decades away the incident was brushed aside as completely normal. On a football TV panel that night someone asked how McMullin had fared. “He ran into Matthews and that was the end of him”, the pundit at the game replied dismissively. In contrast, a journalist at last Sunday’s game described what Andrew Gaff did as “a dog act”. The tsunami of outrage from the media and elsewhere directed in recent days towards Gaff — a scrupulously fair player until last weekend — confirms the transformation in attitudes to footy violence.
This includes the coaches. Ross Lyon has never been more upset at a Fremantle press conference — perhaps never more publicly emotional in his career — than he was last Sunday when talking about Brayshaw and his mother’s tears in the rooms. (Another big difference there — it was unthinkable in 1974 that women could be in the rooms.)
Neil’s coach responded to his injury differently. When he was guided off the ground and replaced by the 19th man, he proceeded around the boundary with the bloody towel over his mouth. His path to the rooms happened to take him past Melbourne’s bench. His coach, unaware of the severity of the injury, said nothing as Neil passed, waited until he was out of earshot, and then — according to the 20th man, as Neil heard afterwards — muttered “weak prick”. He was not a successful coach.
I accompanied our father to find Neil. The rooms seemed empty and silent after all the pre-match hyperactive positivity, although an occasional eerie, distant roar drifted up the tunnel-like race as Carl Ditterich pursued retribution for Neil’s injury.
As soon as Neil saw us he asked me whether the culprit had been Matthews. I nodded. He seemed consumed more by fury than pain. Playing in the VFL was something he had toiled hard for years to achieve, and he was angry that it had been taken from him in such fashion.
We made our way to the car park to drive Neil to hospital — no ambulance provided then. His bandaged head and club dressing-gown attracted attention. At the hospital, proceeding through a ward, an elderly patient saw the Demon logo and became anxious that her demise had come.
Neil had difficult weeks ahead, as Andy Brayshaw has. He was limited to liquid food for a month, and his jaws were bound together for two weeks. During that fortnight he had a worrying moment when he happened to be on his own — he felt on the verge of throwing up, yet could not open his mouth.
But he retained a positive outlook, and returned to footy as soon as he could. His second game back was against South at Waverley. Peter Bedford gave him a backhander to the chin and smilingly quipped “looks like it’s mended OK”.
After that season Neil retired from the VFL to concentrate on his medical studies, and became a surgeon. The game has changed immensely in the 44 years since he left it, and the differences have rarely been more starkly evident than last Sunday. Neil is now involved in top-level footy again as a player-manager.
Ross McMullin is a historian and biographer, whose most recent book is Pompey Elliott at War: In His Own Words.
This piece was first published by The Age on 10 August 2018.