Windy Hill was always a logical destination for Kevin Sheedy. He grew up in a family that barracked for Essendon, his grandparents living just around the corner from the club’s ancestral home. So while he had his bedroom painted yellow and black during his Richmond days, it wasn’t the greatest leap to become loyal to red and black. The greatest leap was proving himself as the game’s first full-time coach.
The novice suddenly found himself up against legendary coaches like Ron Barassi, David Parkin, John Kennedy and yes, his great friend and mentor, Tom Hafey. So at Essendon, he needed all the help he could get, particularly as his demands raised eyebrows in the board room.
For a start, he wanted every player to have his own football. Footballs are expensive – to have to buy 50 or so put a strain on finances. But Kevin wanted his players to live and sleep with a ball to better know its every quirk and nuance. So the board forked out the money, such that Kevin and his chairman of selectors, Brian Donohue, would joke that at Essendon, the Protestants raised the money and the Catholics spent it. Essendon was well known as a Protestant club.
Donohue, a Catholic, often expressed surprise that he got as many games for the club as he did. Over 27 years, there are many not just unforgettable, but unbelievable moments for Kevin as he proved himself capable of coaching against the best. The two premierships in the 1980s when Hawthorn, under Allan Jeans, was at its most potent rate high among them.
Then the serendipity of recruiting a young boy from Canberra with a famous pedigree, but not much else to recommend him. Kevin often says that there would be very few players in the history of the game who would be drafted, then walk into their new club’s home ground and find a grandstand with their name on it. Allan Hird was both a player and administrator of note at Essendon long before his grandson James became part of the furniture.
James was one of the Baby Bombers who, under captain Mark Thompson, won the 1993 flag. He was then captain himself of the side that won the premiership in 2000, Kevin’s fourth as coach of the club. Ask Kevin for one word to describe James Hird and he says "class". Ask him for a few more and he says "the best player I never coached". Then he adds "but you don't really coach a player like James Hird, you just make sure he gets to the ground at the right time".
Kevin’s contribution to Essendon goes way beyond results on the field. Ron Barassi reckons he is the game’s greatest marketer. Kevin took the club all over Australia. He also took players from all over Australia. He saw the national league, and the national game, while most of Melbourne was still contemplating its navel.
He championed the Swans, just as he came to champion the second team from Sydney in the AFL, Greater Western Sydney. That today, six years after he left, Essendon is one of the AFL's premier brands, with 50,000 members, is in many ways due to the work Kevin did “selling” the club and the game of Australian football everywhere he went.
And after close on six decades in the game, there aren’t many places he hasn’t been.