Last month Crikey’s Neal “Crullers” Woolrich got stuck into The Australian’s footy columnist, Patrick Smith. Hugo Kelly looks at what makes Patrick tick.

Every sportswriter has a closet full of stuff-ups and when, like Patrick Smith, you write a splenetic daily column for nearly a decade, your fire and brimstone is bound to burn you more than occasionally.

The Perkins column was not Patrick’s finest hour. But he was not alone. No less an eminence than Harry Gordon, fabled biographer of Australia’s Olympic heritage, declared Perkins sunk after he dragged his sorry body into lane eight for the final in the slowest qualifying time, some 40 seconds outside his own world record.

Never underestimate a champion was the pertinent lesson when Perkins came out and creamed the opposition 24 hours later on the way to back-to-back 1500 metre Olympic titles. And it would be unwise to underestimate Patrick Smith’s contribution to vigorous examination of sport in this country.

Both Neal “Crullers” Woolrich and I turn eagerly to Patrick’s column in the Oz every day. Perhaps I’m more inclined to do it with a smile than a frown.

I’ve also followed Neal’s work with Crikey with interest – from a distance. Although we both write for the website, we live in different cities and we have yet to meet, as is the impersonal world of Internet publishing.

It wasn’t like this back in the old days, when newspaper offices rumbled to the midnight roar of the Goss offset printing presses, whose very ink flowed through a young reporter’s veins; and every single paragraph had to be typed out, double space, on triplicate carbon paper using wonky typewriters, then presented for inspection to grumpy Ted Cowham, the copy taster with the world’s largest steel spike – upon which he took sadistic delight impaling a cadet’s best prose.

Journalism was not yet a profession, but a trade, a world swirling with the clash of ideas and tobacco smoke and inhabited by giants, none more imposing than Patrick Smith.

Back in the mid ’80s, I was a cadet reporter assigned to the Age sports department, and Smith was deputy sports editor. He was a tall, strong man with a full golden-red beard and a slightly stooped figure that reminded you of a Norse god in a comfy paddock, or a pensioned-off fast bowler which he was.

He was, by reputation and before radar, the fastest bowler in Victoria’s history never to play for the State. Why he was consistently overlooked by the selectors is a matter for conjecture, but officials and former teammates at Prahran Cricket Club say Toorak Park never saw a more combustible character launch a six-stitcher off the long run. The Patrick Smith 22-yard stare was legendary. He refined, then re-defined, the term “white-line fever”.

As deputy sports editor, he resembled a fresh stallion in the paddock; not quite sure about the new job and still keen for the racetrack, but prepared to enjoy the ride. But by the time he took over from Micky Gordon as sports editor, Patrick had matured into a benevolent dictator, a boss who expected his team to deliver a sharp, good looking section packed with fresh news. And who in return earned loyalty amongst a staff who knew he’d stand up for you if necessary in the tricky world of office politics.

That was last millennium, when Patrick was a One Act performer. These days, he’s everywhere – so prolific, he’s a multimedia franchise.

In Melbourne, you wake up to Patrick Smith a little after seven, as he chews over the morning’s footy news with breakfast radio jockeys Kevin Bartlett and Gary Honey. You eat breakfast while digesting his daily column for the Australian. When you hit the office, it’s time to check out the AFL’s website to see if it’s as lame and out-of-date as ever and there he is, Patrick, peering out at you with his unique opinion on footy.

On the weekend, you pick up the Footy Record on your way to the game and there he is again, in extreme close up, staring at you as president of the Australian Football Media Association, writing yet another column on the state of the game.

When out-of-towner Tikky Fullerton wanted a media commentator to discuss the latest AFL machinations in her Four Corners story last month, she got Smith in front of the cameras. And, unlike some of the other windbags on the show, he made quiet common sense. All of which was unimaginable back in the ’80s, when the VFL was a quiet pond in the national sports landscape. Before convergence and cross-promotion became sporting mantra and before Patrick overcame his dread fear of public speaking.

Despite his confident manner in the office, Patrick was petrified of raising his voice in public, and avoided it at all costs. But the time came when he had to give a speech at the paper’s sports star of the year awards. “Patrick had a few nerve steadiers during the dinner then a few more,” says a journo present at the ceremony. “By the time he got to the podium he was off his face.”

After mumbling a few hasty words, he stumbled off the stage. It was the last thing he remembered that night. Early next morning, his wife Sue found a shoe on the front lawn, and a husband in the hedge.

These days, Patrick’s a polished public performer and a well-briefed sports writer pumping out 800 words a day, five days a week for the national broadsheet, a job he got by accident. After more than five years as sports editor, his career path was abruptly crushed in 1993 when new Age editor Alan Kohler called him to his office. “Sorry Patrick,” said Kohler. “I want my own man as sports editor.”

“Who’s your man?” asked Patrick. “Steve Perkin,” replied Kohler. The moment he walked out of the editor’s office, Smith launched a campaign to deny Perkin the job.

“He’s an operator, a political player,” says one of Patrick’s supporters. “He took his sacking on the chin, but he genuinely believed Perkin, who was sports editor of the Sunday Age at the time, wasn’t the right person for the job.”

As sports editor you cop it from all sides. Punters are calling in asking where are the racing results, or complaining there’s not enough netball. Although it didn’t help his high blood pressure, Patrick thrived on the daily conflict.

“Patrick’s not afraid to take someone out,” says a former colleague. “And when you go in hard you can cop a hiding. I know more people who hate his writing than like it. He’s very tough, a Rottweiler.”

“Patrick’s writing’s informed, he makes phone calls and knows what’s going on,” says a rival journalist. “Smith’s brilliant on the politics of the game. He’s got no feel for the game itself, but he solves that problem by not doing match reports.”

Seven years later, Patrick Smith left the Age in spectacular circumstances. It was the eve of the 2000 International Womens’ Day, and the Age had turned over its key jobs to female staff members. Caroline Wilson was acting sports editor, and she found herself on the end of a pithy Smith bollocking.

The exact cause of the conflict between Wilson and Patrick is a little cloudy. But it was apparent that Patrick was becoming frustrated at Wilson’s growing ascendancy in the paper’s sports and general news pages.

“It was a clash between two strong willed reporters,” says one figure close to the events. “Smithy was essentially being replaced by Carro as the paper’s marquee writer. And Patrick, being a bull at a gate, put management in an Us or Them situation.”

“It was tough for everyone, with spilt loyalties all over the shop and high tension in the office. Particularly awkward for (sports editor) Steve Linnell, who was close to Patrick and ended up backing Carro.”

Wilson, the daughter of a former Richmond President, complained about Smith’s sledge and Age editor Michael Gawenda gave Patrick a written warning. At this point Smith rang The Oz to take up a previous job offer.

The Oz splashed its coup on the front page, and reported a version of the story in its Media lift out. The Diary reported that Smith rang Linnell to advise of the Oz offer and Linnell simply advised him not to bother coming in.

Breaking the story, Crikey asked at the time: “Did The Oz even know Smith received a written warning for abusing a female member of staff? Then again, does this mean the days of the old fashioned bollocking are truly numbered? When journalists’ skins are so thin that action is being taken over harsh words, should the punter think their conduits of information are anything more than a bunch of sooks? Whatever happened to the Col Allan text book of editorial bollockings?”

Patrick’s move to The Australian has been a good one for all parties. The Oz needed the punch and credibility he brought to its sport pages.

And at the Age, his declamatory style of analysis tended to block out other voices. Voices like Greg Baum, who had made little impact since joining the paper after years of craving broadsheet credibility while a cricket/footy reporter for The Sun News-Pic. Recently, Baum has carved a more confident and quite entertaining – niche as the Age’s resident Hanrahan: “We’ll all be rooned!” he cries at every AFL outrage that, invariably, threatens the very fabric of the game.

For her part, Caroline Wilson, who has attracted criticism from Wayne Jackson for her multiple gigs, has seen her profile grow since Smith departed.

“Carro’s the paper’s front window for sport. She enjoys the unqualified support of Michael Gawenda and Steve Linnell,” says an observer close to the action. “She can do no wrong as far as Michael’s concerned. And she’s the apple of Steve’s eye.”

“Wayne Jackson’s attacks on Carro for bias, and for working for Fairfax and Channel Seven and so on, are a bit rich,” says one colleague. “You never hear him criticising Eddie Everywhere I mean, here’s the AFL CEO claiming not to know the AFL’s lawyer (Jackson Browne) was Eddie McGuire’s lawyer. Yet he has a go at Carro for wearing different hats.”

“Patrick’s a team player,” says a former colleague. “Despite his explosive temper he will stand up for you.”

Smith the sports editor used his dry wit to serious effect. When he thought your yarn was less than adequate, he’d scan the copy quickly then pick up a stack of pieces of paper from his desk and toss them in the air, letting them float dolefully to the ground, as if to represent the utter futility of it all.

One evening, a group of sportswriters, including Patrick Smithers, Garry Linnell, Martin Blake and your correspondent, decided to nick off to the pub early. Returning to the office sloshed in the early morning hours to collect the first edition, we encountered a fuming Patrick Smith, still cooped up in his nondescript office.

In the days before mobile phones, the only way of contacting absconded journos was via a direct phone line to the nearby watering hole, the Golden Age. We had slipped the high-tech communications net by drinking elsewhere.

“Good morning boys,” announced Patrick as we staggered in “Had a good night have we?There’s three stories on the back of The Sun today – and we’ve got one of them!” It was the day The Sun broke the story Alan Bond was set to become president of Richmond. And Patrick was seething. He’d just been on the phone trying to chase up the yarn with embattled Richmond president Neville Crowe. Neville’s wife had given him an earful and told him never call them at home at 1am ever again.

Patrick was a straight shooter, not a backstabber, and if he was ever unhappy with you, he told you to his face.

He barely hid his professional contempt for those he saw as getting an easy run. When a teenage all-rounder from Essendon, Simon O’Donnell, snared his first game for Victoria as a teenage all-rounder with potential but no significant club cricket performances on the board, Patrick’s ruddy face turned purple as he grunted abuse about the selectors to anyone on the editorial floor.

One day, an Age graduate cadet, Andrew Gleeson, informed Smith that as the clock had ticked over to 5pm, his shift was over. “I’m leaving now,” said Gleeson. “I’ll finish my story in the morning.”

Patrick, naturally, wanted the story that very night. He was from the old school you get the story done, no matter how late you stay.

“Oh, is that right?” he spluttered, looming over poor old Andrew like Basil Fawlty on Viagra.

The sports section fell silent while Patrick decided whether to go with the pile-driver or the flying drop kick.

Patrick: “Very well! Off you go. Good for you.”

Then mounting chief footy writer Ronny “The Rat” Carter’s desk, Patrick proclaimed loudly to the entire editorial floor: “I’d just like to announce that Mr Gleeson is leaving the building And thanks for coming. We’ll just muddle through without you.”

Patrick Smithy breathes fire, a scary sight for opposing batsman from 22 yards, let alone a green cadet who’s under the misapprehension he’s joined the public service.

Crullers may get the chance one day to meet his bete noir. My advice would be simple: Don’t stand too close mate.

Patrick’s writing style is, naturally, a matter of taste. Sure, he’s capable the occasional bout of hyperbole. He can sound a little shrill, like when he launched a Jihad against AFL Players Association president Benny Gale last month just because he dared raise the possibility of players getting more money and Melbourne clubs folding: “Gale has set back the cause of the players association irrevocably,” Smith thundered. As if!

And: “Supporters (read, envious sports hacks) struggle enough with the fact that 23 year old men can earn $300,000 and more for chasing a football. They will abandon the players completely now that they have determined to deliberately put clubs at risk.”

Never have more words been expended analysing, promoting, dissecting Australian football. Never has so much rubbish been written about our great game. True, some of it has been written by Patrick, but Crullers goes a little heavy on his sins of omission.

Since my footy writing days on the Age, the business has grown exponentially, the coverage is enormous and the journos have even got their own social club the Australian Football Media Association, of which Patrick is president and from which Patrick last season received the prize for best footy column.

His first column last month for the AFL propaganda sheet, the Footy Record, was an introduction to the footy media association. Patrick chose to highlight, among other facts, that: “The AFMA this year is sponsored by Carlton Draught, which many will think is the perfect marriage of medium and product”.

And: “Each year, we pat each other on the back and hold an awards night. This year, it will be supported by Carlton Draught and Foxtel.”

Footy Record editor Michael Lovett adds in a footnote: “The AFL Record is delighted the AFMA has accepted the AFL Record’s initiative in providing this open space for AFMA members, while recognising Carlton Draught’s role as sponsor of the Association.”

And just in case readers didn’t guess who’ll be catering for those thirsty journos at their annual awards night, the folks at CUB slap their logo on the page: “Carlton Draught is the proud sponsor of the Australian Football Media Association.”

Is that clear?

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that by employing Patrick on its website and giving him space in its journal, the AFL is trying to buy some acquiescence of its own. As Julian Burnside put it in the ABA’s Cash for Comment inquiry: “He whose coin I take, his song I sing.”

And recently, it’s fair to say the AFL has been given less than a tough run from Patrick. He has been moderate, even lenient, on the AFL over its $500 million media deal with a consortium including his employer. Here’s what he said on 19 April: “The AFL will release a document that shows the new agreement is far superior to the one held with the former holder, Channel SevenThe difference in free-to-air coverage compared to the NRL is stunning. According to the league document, on a typical weekend in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, 15 AFL games are broadcast compared to five rugby league matches..For all that, the AFL media rights deal will be considered to have failed because it cannot deliver into parts of northern Australia what it did under Seven. (Chairman Ron) Evans appreciates that.”

The relationship between Smith and the AFL is getting blurred even his supporters in the media believe there is a perception problem. “Maybe he’s getting too much exposure,” says a friend. “Some things open him up to suggestions of conflict like his face on the AFL website.”

As to Crullers’ suggestion that Smith has gone soft on the AFL over its $500 million rights deal with his employer: says a rival reporter: “Lets get real. Which Fairfax reporter sledges Fairfax?”

The media’s conflict of interest problem is systemic, not necessarily personal. When was the last time Terry McCrann hammered ex-OneTel director Lachlan Murdoch over the OneTel fiasco? Never? Apart from the big headlines in The Oz announcing News Ltd’s Australian record $7 billion writedown, how much strident criticism of the company did you read in the empire’s papers? Very little When you take Rupert’s coin you seal a silent pact not to damage the great man’s interests.

I last saw Patrick a few weeks ago at the funeral of another giant of the trade, long-time Age sportswriter Peter McFarline; although Patrick wouldn’t put himself in McFarline’s league.

As well as leaving a legacy as a great newsbreaking journalist, McFarline loved to report on the action out on the field. Not so Smith. While Patrick will discuss tactical themes, like flooding the defensive 50, or zoning the back half, he can’t tell the story of the game in action. He cocks a cloth ear at the nuances of footy. Unlike a Martin Flanagan, he can’t translate onto the page a free-flowing Che Cockatoo-Collins in full flight, or a pungent clash between Micky Martyn and Matthew Lloyd. So he doesn’t try.

But if you want a consistently competent and insightful analysis of footy politics, he’s your man.

Crullers points out that Patrick works from home. Smith is not the only hot-desking sports commentator. Many sports media heavy breathers work from home, with varying degrees of success. A fellow called Geoff McClure writes a daily sports column for the Age called inventively “Sporting Life”.

If you’ve ever read Geoff’s rambling offerings, you’ll be struck by the amount of column space he devotes to TV coverage of sport. That’s because it’s his prime medium for watching the game. He never gets to the footy. He lives in bloody Tasmania, from where he files his column.

It shows. Most of his stuff is derivative or just plain dull. A sports writer who never gets to sporting events and bases his entire corpus of work on what he saw on telly, or gleaned from the Internet? Post modern genius. Scott Ostler and Peter McFarline are rolling in their graves.

It might be excusable if he was a good writer. And he isn’t. He’s a shocker, with a clumsy wooden style. Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s never been to the MCG. Here’s a snippet from February which indicates like Sergeant Schultz he knows no-thing:

“in some cases the number of cameras used in Wizard Cup matches will equal those used by Seven for grand finals. In fact, one MCG insider said in the end it had to put a limit on the camera number, saying it feared any extra would impede on the ground’s crowd capacity.”

Does he make this stuff up? Or is there a competition by sporting officials to get the most stupid quote in his stupid column.

Let’s get this clear, Geoff. The MCG holds 90,000. Your average Wizard Cup crowd is less than 20,000. The final might draw 50,000. A few cameras won’t cut the attendance one iota.

A representative McClure column starts with a few pars on how terrific Eddie McGuire’s Footy Show was last night/promises to be tonight, or maybe a snippet from some TV producer about an upcoming footy show on Channel Seven.

We haven’t seen so much sucking up for a job on telly since Corrie Perkin decided to devote her weekly Sunday Age column to telling TV-land types how to run their schedules all in the guise of pop culture analysis.

Then McClure will throw up a few pars plugging an Age hack’s latest book. On a good day, he’ll sign off with a candyfloss photo of Anna Kornikova, or Tiger Woods’ Norwegian girlfriend, attached to some flimsy “sports” premise.

My point? Many of his rival sportswriters in full flight make Patrick Smith read like Red Smith.

Bless him, Patrick hasn’t listened to a word Crullers has been saying since our man launched his attack last month. This is what Smith wrote on 8 May: “Football has sold its media rights to three broadcasters for a $500 million package over five years. That’s half a billion big ones. You reckon for that money the networks are entitled to cover and not cover in the case of the Gold Coast, the ACT and the Riverina whatever they damn well like”.

As you age, principals can fade as practicalities loom larger in the face of life’s grinding responsibilities – feeding your family, pleasing the taxman, paying the mortgage. Some of us are slow to catch on. Others leap onto the marketing slagheap and sell themselves to the highest bidder.

So do I think Patrick has sold out? As I saw him squeeze into his impossibly small second-hand Korean car after the McFarline funeral, the answer was self-evident. Unlike some media types, Patrick is no sell-out in a Valentino suit and a slick haircut.

As Patrick wrote when discussing the absence of Gary Ablett from the AFL hall of fame: “If ratbags, victims and loose cannons were to be excluded from the Hall of Fame there would be no one to judge it, no one to enter it and no one to write about it. The Hall of Fame is not for celibates or saints alone.”

Ends

The Two Minute Guide to Mr Smith:

PATRICK SMITH LOVES:

* Essendon (when they’re winning);

* Kevin Sheedy (when he’s not being too manic);

* Ron Evans;

* Footy fans (when they sit down, shut up and enjoy the game on Pay TV);

* Creative dissonance in the Sports department;

*The PBL/News Ltd consortium (the multimedia team from heaven);

* Efficiency. A solid, profitable bottom line for all clubs;

* Wayne Jackson (it was a long courtship, with a few early hiccups, but it’s turning into a mutually rewarding relationship);

* Homespun comedy jargon: “Calamity Castle” (Docklands stadium), Grant “Cornflakes” Thomas;

* Ex-jocks & now radio jockeys Kevin Bartlett & Gary Honey (they awake him every morning with soothing tones).

* Bona Fide Essendon stars like Hirdy & Lloydy; * Tough sportsmen and women.

PATRICK HATES:

* Essendon (it’s a love/hate thing);

* Kevin Sheedy (when he’s being not being sensible);

* Soft footballers, or clubs, coaches, officials. In fact, anyone who’s soft and “squishy”;

* Footy fans (they’re always whingeing, moaning or rioting);

* Channel Seven (can’t forgive the way they sabotaged the game last year. Mind you, their “guerrilla campaign” stacks up pretty well after this year’s TV fiasco);

* Human emotion (keep it off the footy field);

* St Kilda’s “Cornflakes” Thomas and Rod Butterzzz;

* Other people’s footy jargon hardball gets, flooding;

* Caroline Wilson;

* Quirky players selected by Kevin Sheedy on “character” not footy talent – like Kevin Walsh;

* Flair.

ends

Subscribers can read the original Crullers piece in the archive by using their username and password and then searching for it.

Hugo Kelly can be reached at [email protected]

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