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History Lesson – 2015: The legend of Leon Baker


Leon Baker mounts the dais to receive his premiership medal after his starring role in the 1984 grand final. Picture: CHANNEL 7

History Lesson – 2015: The legend of Leon Baker

Only two players have played fewer than 100 games for Essendon yet left an indelible mark on the history of the club.

One, John Coleman, an official Legend of the Game and the man after whom the AFL’s goalkicking award is named, needs no introduction. The other remains a cult figure, much loved by his peers and Bomber fans, yet little-known to most beyond a much-replayed moment of magic.

Leon Baker’s blind turn and goal to put Essendon in front for the first time in the last quarter of the 1984 grand final against Hawthorn is the stuff of September folklore. It will get plenty of airtime again this weekend as the Bombers celebrate the 30th anniversary of back-to-back premierships in 1984-85, the surviving members of those teams present at a gala dinner on Friday night and introduced to the crowd before Essendon’s clash with the Hawks on Sunday at the MCG.

Baker will get a bigger cheer than most. That goal was his fourth of the grand final and his 13th of a stellar finals series, the efficient and clever centreman temporarily turned into a match-winning small forward. He’d already kicked the first of the last term to give his team a sniff after it went to the last change 23 points down.

It’s fair to say he doesn’t dine out on either moment. “When I look at the video, I reckon I blind-turned around no one,” he laughs. “No one’s gone further on two kicks in the last quarter of a grand final. They were meaningful in the context, I guess. But I was buggered. You wouldn’t call it one of the great quarters.”

Good judges beg to differ. Many believe he could easily have won the Norm Smith Medal that famous afternoon rather than another Bomber hero Billy Duckworth. The modesty, though, is typical of the enigmatic character whose low profile during his career became as big a talking point as his talent.

Already 28 when he joined the Bombers, Baker would go on to play a similarly pivotal part in the 1985 triumph, and remained a key player until he retired at the end of 1988, aged 32.

But his is an amazing story even without the September heroics. And one, until now, rarely told.

It is a tale of a footballing nomad whose prodigious talent was surpassed by his love of travel and adventure. It’s a journey that took Baker from the Victorian country town of Avenel, near Seymour, to Bendigo, to Bunbury in south-west Western Australia, to Cairns in the tropical north, back to Bunbury, to Perth, to Melbourne, to Gippsland, then finally to Port Douglas, where’s he remained for the past 22 years.

“My brother says I ought to write a book called ‘The Accidental Footballer’, because that’s basically how it panned out,” he laughs.

Like when after one season with WAFL club Swan Districts in 1981, Baker decided he’d had enough and wanted to see some of the Northern Territory.

“I was already 24 when I went to Swans, but I said: ‘Let’s get serious and give it a go’,” he recalls. “But at the end of that year I thought: ‘This is too hard’, and I gave it away and travelled.

“I was going to go to the Northern Territory. But I got to Port Headland and discovered the road there had been closed for six weeks. I hadn’t even checked. By then, I was out of money and thought: ‘Jeez, I’m going to have to play again’. So I went back to Perth and did … thank God.”

That twist of fate would see him play in four successive premierships, two with Swan Districts under the coaching of John Todd, Baker winning the best and fairest in the second of those seasons, then two VFL flags in his first two seasons at Essendon.

That period is only a small sample of Baker’s football journey. He’d first come to Melbourne’s attention as a skinny teenager, as Avenel was part of the Demons’ old country recruiting zone. Already, they were keen. Baker’s father wasn’t.

“Dad told them they were wasting their time, that I wasn’t ready. Later on, he used to say to me: ‘Just go to them, knock on the door and tell them you want to play’. But I couldn’t have done that with a gun to my head. I didn’t have the confidence of someone like [former Carlton player] Paul Meldrum, just to front up and say: ‘I’m here to play’. And I needed to travel and to grow up a bit.”

First stop was Bendigo, where Baker played for Sandhurst alongside several players who had already or would later play for Carlton, including Tony Southcombe, Bruce Reid and Denis and Michael Lenaghan, under the coaching of country legend Ron Best, “the best country footballer I’ve seen by a mile”.

“I was working as a computer operator, and it was all different sorts of shifts, so I couldn’t train,” he recalls. “I’d just go up there and play without really training. I did OK, but not really enough to get noticed.”

Baker wasn’t interested in moving to a big city like Melbourne. Even a smaller capital like Perth. But Bunbury, a coastal town 180 kilometres south of Perth, had some appeal. “The guy I was travelling with at the time, he wanted to go to the mines for work, so he went north and I went south. I thought: ‘I’ll play there, and see how that pans out’.”

That adventure is the source of one of the most popular tales about Baker, which he’s now happy to announce is apocryphal. Legend has it that Baker, then long-haired and with a carefree attitude to football, ended up playing for South Bunbury after being rejected in no uncertain terms by its fierce rival Bunbury.

“I’ve spoken to people who claim they were there when the president is supposed to have said: ‘F— off, we don’t want your type here’. I was going to explain what happened one night, but people said: ‘No, don’t, it’s a good story’.

“When I got there, I’d just driven up to a game, and Bunbury were playing South Bunbury on a Sunday afternoon. I could see South had Sydney Swans’ colours, red and white, and they were Avenel’s colours. I went into the rooms after the game and asked when training was. The minute I saw the colour of their jumpers, I’d decided.”

Baker chuckles that the feeling, however, wasn’t necessarily mutual. Well, not immediately, anyway. “I wasn’t working, so the first night with nothing else to do I got there early. I was running around with my dog, I had a headband on because I had hair halfway down my back, and I was wearing board shorts. I didn’t really look like a footballer.

“South Bunbury was a pretty formal club, and I reckon a few people when they saw me running around were going: ‘Hang on, do we want this sort of stuff?’. Once I started playing for them it became: ‘Well, maybe we do’.”

Baker made such an impression at South Bunbury he was snapped up by WAFL club Swan Districts. Even then, he managed to largely fly under the radar until fate once again intervened.

Baker had been childhood friends with Brad Willis, whose father Alan, was his godfather. Willis also ran a horse agistment business where resided a nag owned by Essendon recruiting manager Noel Judkins and football manager Kevin Egan. “Alan told them: ‘You ought to get on to this kid, he’s killing them over in WA’.”

Essendon did their research, kept tabs on Baker and were impressed enough to fly him to Melbourne as a guest to watch the 1982 grand final between Carlton and Richmond. “That lit a bit of a fuse,” he recalls. “I knew I was getting on, but if I played well over the next bit the possibilities were there.”

Even then there were complications. The WAFL, sick of losing its best talent to the VFL, introduced a new system where potential departures had to tick two of three boxes of being 24 or older, 100-gamers, or having played with a WAFL club for five years. “I only had the age bit covered,” Baker laughs. “They were talking at one stage about getting [former Prime Minister] Bob Hawke to adjudicate. But in the end, because I’d played in a senior competition in Victoria, they ruled that I was a local, and that got me over the line.”

Baker in action for the Bombers in 1988. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Baker was an instant hit in a side that had been humiliated by Hawthorn in the 1983 grand final. He regularly picked up 20-plus possessions, and his vision and precise disposal, all executed with minimum fuss, soon made him a favourite.

He maintained a good relationship with coach Kevin Sheedy, despite the fact their priorities were a little different. “He was bit too intense about football for me,” Baker chuckles. “There’s life, then there’s football. He had it the other way round, I think.”

Baker’s teammates, though, swore by him. No less an authority than Bomber great Tim Watson calls him “one of the best couple of footballers I ever played with”. “He was just so gifted, and a real big-game player,” Watson says. “He wasn’t quick, but he had great evasion. He was skilful, courageous, he just dripped with all those attributes that characterise the really great players.”

Essendon fans were no less adoring. But they’d seldom get to hear about his exploits firsthand. Because Baker’s media reticence would become another part of the legend.

Interviewed by Channel Seven’s Peter Landy upon his arrival early in 1984, he didn’t do another in his entire Essendon career. And barely since, for that matter. Even that, though, wasn’t about a Bruce Doull-type shyness.

“I had a job working on a building site, and one day a newspaper reporter just turned up to talk to me. The people who hired me weren’t really into footy, and I thought: ‘I can’t have this’. So I just said to [football manager] Kevin Egan: ‘Look, if people ask, just say ‘no’. Then I started going all right, and he’d get more requests and he’d just say no, and I didn’t even know about half of them. It just sort of grew.

“Look, I did get annoyed a few times. I remember once sitting in a cafe in South Melbourne reading that I was on a kibbutz in Israel. Another time, I was doing stretches at training and grimacing, and they took a photo and ran it saying something like: ‘Leon Baker tight-lipped again’. But it wasn’t a big deal to me. ”

Along the way, anecdotes added to the mystique. Like in the aftermath of the 1985 grand final win, when Baker and his wife didn’t stay around for the traditional days and weeks of post-triumph celebrations. Instead, they jetted out at 7am the following morning on a three-month expedition to Sri Lanka, India and the Maldives.

“The seasons changed, and it would have cost us a couple of grand more if we’d stayed another day. And the year before, I’d found it all a bit of pressure, so we said let’s just go the next morning. “It was a great trip, and I came back in pretty good shape, so there were no questions asked. It was three months away from it all, and it really made you realise how lucky you were. You go to those sorts of places and look around you, and football fairly well pales into insignificance.”

Through all Baker’s travels, “Spider” has been by his side. The nickname is universal. It was on the couple’s wedding invitations, everything, laughs Baker, except tax documents. And its origins?

“When she was very young, she was burnt, and was wrapped up in bandages, crawling around the floor. Someone said: ‘She looks like a little spider’.” It stuck. The pair have been inseparable. They travelled the world for a year after Baker’s VFL retirement at the end of 1988, and “Spider” played a big part in them ending up in Port Douglas after Baker had spent some time captain-coaching Maffra in Gippsland.

“I used to work at the gas plant at Longford. I was riding a motorbike then, and it was freezing cold down there, and I used to walk in each night just white with cold,” he remembers.

“One night, I came home and ‘Spider’ had cut out an ad from Inside Football and stuck it on the fridge. They were advertising for a coach in Port Douglas. I looked at her and said: ‘Let’s check it out, because this cold is killing me’.”

That was 1993, and at its conclusion, Baker would retire as a player. Port Douglas is where the couple remain 22 years on. “Where do you go from here?” he laughs. “Every day is like a weekend. There’s a real hum, and people are happy and vibrant. You don’t normally get that. It’s just a completely different vibe.”

One to which he and “Spider” will quickly return after this weekend’s festivities. Not that Baker is a recluse. Teammate Kevin Walsh caught up with him in Port Douglas recently. He’s played golf with Duckworth. And he always looks forward to sitting down with other former Bombers such as Glenn Hawker, Paul Vander Haar, Terry Daniher and Garry Foulds.

“They’re the boys that like a beer and a chat,” he laughs. “Friday night will be great for the supporters and the club. But I think I’ll prefer the next day when we go for lunch somewhere and see how we’re all getting on.”

At 58, Baker is getting on fine. Happy, still looking fit, and living life to the full. The game and the club upon which he left such a profound impression was only ever one part of that. But while he might have been the “accidental footballer”, Baker was an accident for which the game and the Essendon Football Club are eternally grateful.