There is a photo of Darryl Sutton taken after the 1977 semi-final. Sutton is slumped on a bench, his back against the wall, eyes closed and legs stretched out. Lathered in sweat, Sutton is completely exhausted. A lit cigarette sits idle in his hand. He is too tired to smoke.
It is my favourite image of Sutton, a player who left everything on the field in a 47-point win over Richmond. The following week, Sutton starred in defence in a 67-point preliminary final victory against Hawthorn.
I can imagine him slumped in the dressing room after the preliminary final, smoke in hand, eyes closed in exhaustion.
In the 1977 grand final, North trailed Collingwood by 27-points at three-quarter time. Ron Barassi shuffled the team around, throwing Sutton forward. Early in the last quarter, Sutton took a mark from behind and kicked a goal from 40 metres out, helping get North back into the game.
The grand final ended in a draw. North Melbourne won the replay by 27-points. Sutton was solid in defence.
I admired many things about Sutton, his consistency, his ability to play tall despite being 184cm. He had a great leap, was a dependable mark and deceptively quick. His best trait was his consistency. Sutton never played a bad final for North Melbourne. He did his job.
Sutton could also go forward and kick goals. In 1976, he kicked six goals for the season. Five of those goals came in the preliminary final against Carlton. North won by a point. I always thought Sutton could’ve been used up forward more. He was a great mark and beautiful kick. He had defensive flair suited to the forward line.
At the end of the 1980 season, after 91 games with North, Sutton left the club. It left me disappointed. He was an integral part of North Melbourne’s backline in the seventies, playing in four grand finals for two losses, a draw and a win.
Football history is littered with premiership players who move on. The fans must deal with it, just like the players and clubs.
Sutton didn’t play in 1981, but came back for two more seasons, playing with Richmond and Sydney. Age and injuries curtailed his consistency, though he did kick 25 goals for Sydney from 14 games in 1983. He retired having played 111 games, kicking 65 goals.
Twice he was named All-Australian, in 1979 and 1980, after playing brilliant football with Tasmania. It is testament to Sutton’s ability to play well when it mattered. After retiring from VFL football, Sutton coached North Hobart for two seasons. I never knew until he died that he kicked 12 goals in a semi-final in 1984.
In 2008, North Melbourne honoured their premiership players with life membership. Sutton gained another accolade. He deserved it, as they all did. But amid the honour lurked an unseen illness Sutton would battle for the rest of his life.
Early onset dementia
In 2016, I interviewed many footballers for a book about Fabulous Phil Carman. I contacted Peter Crackers Keenan, to get his story about missing the 1978 grand final due to suspension. Keenan gave me a great interview about punching Don Scott, the suspension and Ron Barassi’s retribution.
After the interview was over, Keenan and I chatted about North’s premiership heroes. Keenan was particularly fond of Mick Nolan, who died in 2008. We talked about Nolan’s role in Keenan quitting North Melbourne. Then Keenan mentioned Darryl Sutton.
He’s in a bad way,’ Keenan said.
Sutton was in care. He had dementia. It came on early, before he was sixty. The diagnosis, early onset dementia, was now full on. I remembered that photo of Sutton, exhausted on the bench, too tired to smoke a cigarette. A premiership hero no one had heard from in decades.
I was rattled. I remembered his wavy red-brown hair, the piercing blue eyes and the number five on the back of his jumper. ‘He was a good player,’ was all I could say.
‘I went with Ron Barassi to visit him,’ Keenan said. ‘We took some photos of him when he was playing. Sutton pointed at a photo of Ron and said good bloke.’
Good bloke. Seeing his former coach brought forth a smile. Sutton couldn’t remember the premiership or those he played with, but he recognised his coach in the photos. Good bloke. Keenan said Sutton kept repeating it, pointing at Ron and saying good bloke.
Keenan and Barassi hugged Sutton before they left. The visit upset both of them. Keenan was still upset by Sutton’s illness during our interview. ‘It’s dreadful seeing a teammate like that,’ he said. ‘Makes you think you’re doing okay.’
I asked Keenan what he remembered about Sutton’s ability. Keenan said Sutton was a key player in North’s success. ‘Underrated. Could play short or tall,’ Keenan said. ‘Rarely beaten. Respected.’ Then Keenan laughed. ‘Copped a few sprays from Barassi. We all did.’
In the short documentary War Without Weapons, shot in 1979, Ron Barassi delivers a spray to Sutton at quarter time. North were playing Carlton at Arden Street in round 18. Carlton was on top of the ladder, North was second. It was a crucial game. Both sides kicked six goals in the opening quarter.
Barassi was upset with the defence leaking goals and ruining the good work of North’s forwards. ‘Darry, you’re a bloody disgrace,’ Barassi yelled. ‘I’ll tell you why. You’ve got the bloody football game beaten. You’ve come down here, not concentrating. The ball goes out toward the Carlton small man. You stayed back with your man. You could’ve got to the Carlton small man but oh no, I’m going to protect myself.’
Sutton appears in the vision, staring at Ron, an unsure look on his face as a teammate wipes his face with a towel emboldened by blue and white stripes. Stephen Easton was in the background, hands on his hips.
‘I don’t want mind a bloke going bad Darryl, but to me it’s probably because you’re not switched on properly.’ Barassi pointed at Sutton. ‘Now you get over and try and mind the bloody forward pocket, okay. Stephen (Icke), you go to centre-half-back.’
Throughout the exchange, Sutton’s expression does not change. He kept his eyes on Barassi.
Barassi’s spray is revealing. It showed Sutton’s versatility. A quarter time move from centre-half-back to the back pocket, from playing on Mark McLure to the resting rovers, Wayne Johnson, Barry Armstrong and Rod Ashman.
Farewell to a North Melbourne legend
Darryl Sutton died on January 28, 2017, aged 64. Pneumonia took him. His death can’t remove his legacy, a premiership hero, North Melbourne legend. Taken too soon but forever remembered.
I recently wrote a story about journalists doing no more harm. Darryl Sutton was one of the footballers I refused to name in the story. Following his death, I can do no more harm by writing a tribute to a premiership hero, a player who spent himself on the field and was too exhausted afterwards to smoke.
Darryl Sutton now has peace and space. And we have the memories…