Fabulous Phil – gathering the story

June 12, 2017 by
Filed under: AFL 

We all have life changing events.  On Friday night in August 2015, Geelong played Collingwood at the MCG in round 23.  As Collingwood dismantled Geelong in the first quarter, my relationship was dismantled over beef ribs.

Fabulous Phil - The Phil Carman Story...

In the ensuing months, I wished for a diversion, a project.  Something to focus on.  It came out of nowhere through Shane Bond, who I met through my mate Paul in 1987.  Shane played for Collingwood and North Melbourne.


Shane called me in December 2015, offering an opportunity to write a book about Phil Carman.  I immediately said yes.  Over the years, Shane said many times that Phil is the best player he’s ever seen.  Having watched Phil play live a couple of times and on television, I knew how mercurial he was.  Mostly what I remembered was the Michael Tuck suspension and the Graham Carbery head-butt.


After giving me Phil’s number, Shane told me to call him.  When I first spoke to Phil, I explained the book couldn’t be based solely on his memories.  The volatility, brilliance and controversy needed testimony from men he played with and against.  Phil understood.  He wanted his story told.


It took six weeks to get to Melbourne.  In that time, I spent hours researching his life and career, exploring dozens of websites, fan forums and newspaper archives.  I ended up with 40 pages of questions.


On February 7 2016, Phil and I sat down in the study at Shane’s house.  He wore a headset and microphone that transcribed (incredibly inaccurately) his words.  Over two days and 11 hours of interview, he didn’t shirk a question and was unflinchingly honest.  We were both mentally exhausted afterwards.  He gave me a box of newspaper clippings and photographs.


When I got home to Brisbane, panic set in after transcribing the interview.  Writing a book seemed impossible.  The diversion I craved was suddenly calamity.  By the end of February, I was struggling badly.  In desperation, I reached out to two authors for help.


Paul Amy, who wrote Fabulous Fred – the life and crimes of Fred Cook, told me to keep writing.  ‘The hardest part is figuring out where to put everything,’ he said.


Matt Zurbo, who wrote Champions All, settled me down.  ‘Just sit at the computer and write,’ he said.  ‘The book will write itself.’


Thank you to Paul and Matt for their time and words.  It wasn’t wasted.  I heeded their advice, putting Phil’s archive of newspaper clippings aside.  There was too much information to get through and the clippings were holding me back.


As the weeks rolled on, Shane gave me phone numbers of former footballers Phil played with or against.  Phil provided a few numbers.  I tracked down a few myself.  Coaches too.  And people Phil knew when he was a kid.


My mate Paul introduced me to Simon Madden.  The three of us sat down for breakfast in an Essendon café.  When I mentioned Phil, Simon’s eyes lit up and he laughed.


‘Phil Carman,’ he said.  ‘Fabulous Phil?’


Everyone I interviewed for the book laughed when I first mentioned Phil Carman.


I called Carl Ditterich and sprung an interview on him.  He needed a cigarette first.  Graham Carbery, the boundary umpire Phil head-butted, was hard to find.  Eventually I emailed a man I thought would know him.  About ten minutes later, Graham called.  ‘I hear you’re looking for me,’ he said.


Graham’s interview, given the infamous head-butt, was pivotal.  Another boundary umpire, Andrew Toy, agreed to be interviewed for the first time about his run-in with Phil in Canberra.  The run-in left Phil with a 10-week suspension.


I interviewed men who coached Phil.  The recollections of Kevin Sheedy, John McBain, Barry Cable, Murray Weideman, Robert Oatey and Barry Davis offered greater understanding of Phil’s temperament.  I would have loved the chance to interview Tommy Hafey.


Michael Tuck was worried that he’d be blamed for Phil missing the 1977 grand finals through suspension.  Michael is not to blame.  He opened up during the interview and gave insight into a brutal era of football.


The book kept growing.  Phil’s wife, Wendy and their children, Georgie and Rhys had their say.  Phil’s ex-wife, Betty talked to me.


Vin Catoggio described the day Phil whacked him in the middle of the MCG during a final.  Ray Shaw, Peter Moore, Rene Kink and Kevin Worthington recalled a brilliant player who wouldn’t conform.  Their frustration remains to this day.


Max Richardson told me a story about punches.  Bruce Gonsalves made me laugh.  John Dellamarta saw it all and is still amazed.


Frank Gumbleton discussed Ron Barassi’s plan to counter Phil’s brilliance.  Peter Keenan, who missed the 1978 grand final through suspension, talked about the impact of costing North Melbourne a premiership.  Ross Henshaw remembers Phil being drunk one afternoon.  Wayne Schimmelbusch remembers Phil being quiet.


Neil Craig recalled a lot of runs with Phil and his desperation to beat him.  Geoff Southby felt a knife in his back each time Phil kicked a goal against him.


Phil discussed his coaching career with the Sturt Football Club.  I discovered his tireless effort to help save the club.  He recalled the first time he went back to Sturt more than a decade after being sacked as coach.


Former Sturt players, Simon Feast, Brodie Atkinson and Chris Thredgold said Phil wouldn’t put up with any rubbish.  Former Sturt President, Steve Chapman, gave a brutal assessment of Phil.  Mick Weatherald, Phil’s assistant coach at Sturt, talked about the tears he shed.


I harassed Graham Cornes, Eddie McGuire and Dermott Brereton for forewords.


The writing process


Given I live in Brisbane, all but three interviews were recorded by phone.  Most went more than 20 minutes.  Transcribing a 20 minute interview can take an hour or more.  It’s a frustratingly slow process, flicking back and forth between the audio and the document.  I was good for about six or seven words before stopping the recording to catch up.


Then, as Paul Amy said, I had to figure out where to put those words.  I researched each player beforehand and conducted interviews in chronological order.  It was easier to find space for their words that way.


I became obsessed, usually writing two hours a night.  In four months, the book had its bones.  Each interview embedded me further in football history.  It was fascinating.  Friends suggested I should get out more.  I didn’t.


After 10 months, the book had taken shape.  There was just 20 nights when I didn’t write about Phil.  I felt each night without writing was setting me back.


I talked to Shane and Phil two or three times a week about progress and what the footballers were saying.  Phil was always happy to offer clarification or correct my errors.


On December 1 2016, I printed the book.  It was too long and needed a hard edit.  When the book was finished and emailed to the publisher on December 19, I sat at the computer and tried writing about cricket.  I wrote 11 words.  They weren’t in the right order.  For weeks, I couldn’t write.  My creativity was spent.


By mid-January I still couldn’t write a sentence.  But there was more work to be done.  The editor, Julie Zocchi from Brolga Publishing, emailed the book back with track changes.  Julie told me to take a deep breath before I went through her edits.  I did.  Then realised it was a waste of breath.  Julie’s editing was magnificent.  She was a pleasure to work with, as Mark Zocchi and all at Brolga were.


For months, emails went back and forth about the layout, cover and photos.  I wrote captions for photos, a media release and back-cover copy.  Acknowledgements.  I signed a contract.


It is 19-months since Shane called me, offering an opportunity.  It is 17-months since Phil and I sat through 11 hours of interviews.  The book is now in physical form.  It would not have been written without Shane Bond.  I cannot thank him enough for calling me first.


Thanks to Phil for laying his life bare.  There were difficult times during our interview but he answered every question and waited for the next one.


The former players, umpires and coaches I interviewed helped shape the book.  I thank them all.  Only one former player I contacted wasn’t interviewed, despite several attempts.  It wasn’t a refusal.  We just ran out of time.   Everyone else I interviewed was happy to talk.


A few players asked me, tongue in cheek, why no one had written a book about them.  They were players with premierships and medals.  It got me thinking about football history.


There are football books that should be written but are yet to be written.  All they need is an author.


Anyone who wants to write a book about football, go ahead and do it.  It is hard work.  There are overwhelming moments when it all seems too tough and you’re bogged down in words.  It will take a year, maybe two.  But, as Matt Zurbo said, the book eventually writes itself.


So pick a player.  Pick a club.  Pick an era.  Former footballers have amazing stories to tell.  If you tell a former footballer you want to write, there’s a fair chance he will talk.   If you write a football book, there’s a fair chance a publisher will listen.


For years, I wanted to write a book about football and never did anything about it.  Thankfully, because of Shane Bond, the opportunity presented itself.  I got incredibly lucky.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  Make your own opportunity.  Find a football story.  And write…


Fabulous Phil – The Phil Carman Story can be purchased here www.philcarman.com.au



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One Comment on Fabulous Phil – gathering the story

  1. Patsy on Tue, 13th Jun 2017 6:01 am
  2. A truly magnificent effort. ……….we are so proud of you

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