Gary Ayres lounged back in his office chair, surrounded by endless amounts of paperwork, based at the Port Melbourne Football Ground.

The 51-year old swiveled back and forth from his computer to the iPhone, answering calls in what had been the start to the busiest week in his time at Port Melbourne Football Club.

Ayres coached Port Melbourne through to an undefeated season and supplied the oldest club in the VFL with its first premiership since 1982.

Sitting in the confines of the cream tin shed, dubbed the office of Port Melbourne’s senior coach, former AFL great Gary Ayres explains the impact of the Adelaide media and the late Allan Jeans.

The Hawthorn Football Club dominated the 1980’s and it was predominantly due to the fact they were able to snare St Kilda’s only premiership coach Allan Jeans.

Jeans was not only an excellent coach – fundamental in Hawthorn’s 13 successive finals appearances – but a father figure for many he coached. Gary Ayres was one.

Ayres refused an offer from Hawthorn to play in their under 19’s squad, the club approached him shortly after while playing for Warragul in Melbourne’s south east.

“A couple of Hawthorn recruiters had been keeping tabs on what was going on,” Ayres said.

“I went back to play with Warragul being the long weekend and Hawthorn came around to my house and said, ‘we would like to sign Gary up for this year.”

His world then came crashing down in 1980 when he lost his father in a tractor accident. He was only 43.

“That was one of the biggest, shocks, disappointments, loss in my life and it continues to be, even though it’s some 31 years ago,” he said.

“He taught me pretty much everything I needed to be taught.”

Ayres’s father was a local policeman in Moe and was then relocated to Drouin. When he had enough of the police force, the family moved onto a farming establishment in Darnum (an eight minute drive from Warragul).

He shared the farm with his parents and his four siblings until his father died.

“There would be opportunities like fishing, camping, shooting, catching rabbits and doing that sort of stuff that you could do in the country life and it just seemed so simple,” he said.

“I had a loving family, mum and dad would drive us all to our sporting requirements.”

“For them to do that we are all extremely thankful for the opportunities they gave us.”

Ayres says he had a ‘sensational’ upbringing before moving to metropolitan Melbourne for football.

He was considered undeniable as a player and renowned for his cascade mullet that dropped onto his broad shoulders well into his coaching days.

Showered with awards and accolades, Ayres won five premierships and two Norm Smith Medals while playing at the Hawthorn Football Club.

Currently he’s only one of two people to win more than one best on ground (Norm Smith Medal) Grand Final medallion.

Ayres’ football frustration escalated when the only father figure in his life (after his father’s death), Allan Jeans was diagnosed with a brain aneurism. Subsequently he was forced to step down as Hawthorn’s senior coach.

In Jeans’ 1988 return, the Hawks supplied him with a win for his 500th coached game and on one of very few occasions he became emotional.

According to Ayres, it couldn’t have happened to a better person because he had given so much to many of the players he had coached.

“When you’re as great of a person as what Allan Jeans was, I think he got some reward for all the things he had done for us over a long period of time,“ he said.

“He was enormous for me personally.“

Jeans was shortly replaced with an Allen of a different sort. Allen Joyce.

While juggling the rigors of AFL football, Ayres worked in a variety of jobs from selling cars to working with an outdoor pool company.

With his clipboard and pen in hand, Ayres would occasionally travel mid-week to various wineries as a sales representative for Michelton Wines.

“If I was working for the wine company and we’d fly down to Tassie for a meeting for a new distributor that was coming into our portfolio,” he said.

“We had to make sure you organised your flights because you had to come back for training.”

Juggling work and football was hard enough but another dimension was added when Ayres was announced as Hawthorn captain in his final years.

1993 – Ayres’ final year of his AFL playing career – was in his mind an “extremely tough year”.

The relationship between Ayres and Joyce, captain and coach went from bad to worse.

According to Ayres, Joyce didn’t have “enough sympathy and empathy” for those around the club during that time.

Shortly after during matches, Ayres was sidelined at three quarter time and wasn’t allowed to return to the field.

“It became very frustrating and in my mind, I had never had to deal with that before and all I have ever asked in life is to be given a fair deal,” he said.

Following a hard-fought slog against Richmond that year, Joyce had picked up the phone and dialed Ayres’ number. To much of his surprise, Ayres was told ‘well that’s what you’re going to have to put up with’.

Understandably angered by Joyce’s decision but Ayres understood the pressure he was under and offered to play for half of what he was being paid.

Contract negotiations began and Ayres’ offer was declined, presented with a $30,000 deal. At the time players were earning between $100,000 – $250,000 and Ayres felt the payout was a ‘real kick to the stomach’.

“They (Hawthorn) wanted you out”.

Video courtesy of ABC TV.

In fear of having no football involvement, Ayres was on the lookout for an opportunity and eventually landed an assistant coaching role at Geelong Football Club under Malcolm Blight.

It was a matter of right place at the right time when Ayres then took over Blight’s position at the end of 1994 at just 34.

“It was amazing really, when you think about being only a year older than some of those guys that were at Geelong at the time.”

Ayres’ dream was coming to life when he had taken Geelong to the 1995 Grand Final against Carlton in his first year as senior coach.

Carlton had lost just the two games that season and belted Geelong by ten goals and Ayres’ took the loss personally.

“(I learnt) not to feel that you’re solely responsible for a Grand Final loss because I must admit it hit me extremely hard,” he said.

“Certainly months, at least afterwards, I was just challenging myself and beating myself up pretty badly.”

Really, what could have I done?“

“Knowing later on with experience and looking at the situation we just got beaten by an unbelievably good side.“

Many changes occurred at Geelong in the later part of the 90’s and the Adelaide Football Club contacted Ayres to discuss his thoughts and philosophies on football.

They were being ‘due diligent’ Ayres points out, after Malcolm Blight had left Adelaide mid-season. Geelong was in financial turmoil with debts over a million dollars and looked like the collapse similar to the Fitzroy Football Club.

Ayres approached the club’s CEO Brian Cook and said he was prepared to see his contract through despite the rise of financial issues.

Cook wasn’t as welcoming to the idea as Ayres would’ve hoped.

In the second last round of the season Adelaide offered him the top job on a three-year contract earning one and half times more than what he was currently earning.

“It was a no brainer to say this (Adelaide contract) is what you’re looking for,” he said.

“We all know there is no security in football as a coach and very little as a player.”

It seemed like a match made in heaven when Gary Ayres arrived at Adelaide in 2000 but it certainly didn’t end that way.

Having coached and played most of his football in Melbourne, Ayres was given a rude awakening on what it feels like to be one of only two clubs in the state.

Media focus was intense and following his departure from the club, an entire chapter was dedicated to him in Andrew McLeod’s book ‘Black Crow’.

It was by no means a glowing reflection of Ayres’ time in Adelaide

The former Crow described their relationship as “ultimately thorny” and all his performances were in spite of Ayres because of his style of communication.

According to McLeod, he’d humiliate players to motivate them, suggesting it was as a result of growing up with a policemen for a father.

“I don’t think he realised what he was doing,” McLeod said.

Ayres was shattered with McLeod’s summary and says, “some people have short memories”, when he allowed McLeod to travel to Melbourne and support Australian tennis player Lleyton Hewitt.

During Hewitt’s Australian Open campaign, He and McLeod requested John Fitzgerald (Australian Davis Cup captain) to seek Ayres’ approval.

Instantly Ayres agreed to help out and set up training sessions, wanting ‘to do the right thing by your country’.

“Yet they want to make the book sell so let’s not put the positive things in,” Ayres said.

Even the fans got in on the action when Ayres walked across the ground; he recollects ‘the back of the stands was quite filthy at times’.

“They would question your parentage, they’d question your sexuality, they’d question everything.”

“You’ve got to be pretty thick skinned to be a coach.”

In his eyes, he walked out of Adelaide a winner because the last game he coached, the side won against the Western Bulldogs by six goals.

Ayres was shortly after appointed as an assistant coach at Essendon under Kevin Sheedy before accepting the top job at VFL stand-alone club Port Melbourne.

It was certainly considered unthinkable for a stand-alone club in the VFL to become highly successful, let alone win the VFL Grand Final.

Ayres looks upon his players as fondly as his own children. He has been able to develop a core group of players and create a winning formula that will never be the same again.

Port Melbourne captain John Baird said Ayres is the best coach he’s ever had and quite the contrary to McLeod’s opinions.

“He has taught me a lot and I have learnt a lot from him,” Baird said.

“Whether it’s the youngest person on the list and the least experience or the oldest with the most experience he treats everyone with respect.”

“I think he creates an atmosphere and an environment that everyone can enjoy their football.”

Ayres has sparked interest within the AFL fraternity after coaching an undefeated Port Melbourne side through to the 2011 VFL Grand Final.

Long-time Borough fan, James Hickerson said it would be a ‘tragedy’ for the club if Ayres stepped into the AFL again.

“Ayresy has been great for our club coaching us to our first premiership since the 80’s,” Hickerson said.

“I would hate to see him go since we have finally experienced the ultimate success.”

Many have questioned his improvement as a coach and the possibility of taking the top job at an AFL club again, particularly following the demise of five AFL coaches this season.

“All you can be is confident in your own ability and I certainly feel that if there was an opportunity and a football club wanted to sit down and talk that I could do the job,” Ayres said.

  1. Justin Cooper says:

    An outstanding article Brittany – well done! I was the Media Manager at Port Melbourne in 2007 & 2008 so I found this of great interest. Your blog is fantastic, definitely keep going with it. Putting your work out in the public eye through blogs is a great platform to utilise. I’ll be following your blog closely.

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