Jeff Gieschen has a record that speaks for itself. After a decorated playing career with Maffra, Footscray and Wodonga, Gieschen was forced into premature retirement as a 31-year-old. But it proved to have a silver lining. He quickly established himself as the man with the midas touch in the coaches box which led him to coaching at the elite level. Gieschen caught-up with the Border Mail's BRENT GODDE during the week.
BRENT GODDE: It's a phenomenal effort but you won Maffra's senior best and fairest as a 15-year-old in 1972?
JEFF GIESCHEN: I played in the under-15 competition the previous year and the senior coach invited me to train with the senior team. I guess he saw something in me and gave me a lot of confidence.
BG: You must have developed early for your age?
JG: I was a big kid and from memory was 5'11" by the time I was 15 and didn't grow any taller after that. I was involved in a lot of representative football as a junior and got to hone my skills and was mature enough to play at the higher standard.
BG: You also won the best and fairest the following year and ironically a lot of your teammates on the Maffra side were also your teachers at school?
JG: I think there were five teachers in the side including my english, science and biology teachers. It's funny looking back when I was doing my acceptance speech at the presentation night and seeing some of my teachers in the room.
BG: After winning back-to-back best and fairests you were on the recruiting radar of Footscray?
JG: It would be unheard of these days but Footscray were interested in drafting me so the Bulldogs organised a practice match against Maffra.
BG: That's bizarre when you think about it. How did you perform?
JG: Bob Rose was coach and brought the side to Maffra on a bus. I was playing centre half-forward on Peter Welsh who was the Bulldogs' reigning best and fairest. They had a lot of their stars playing like Gary Dempsey, David Thorpe and Bernie Quinlan. Surprisingly we only got beat by about seven goals.
BG: You must have made a good impression because the Bulldogs invited you to play in the final practice match of their pre-season against Hawthorn?
JG: I spent most of the first three quarters on the bench but came on and played full forward with Kelvin Moore as my opponent. We were trailing at the final quarter but somehow I bobbed up with two goals including the matchwinner.
BG: An impressive effort for a 16-year-old kid?
JG: The following day I bought the Sunday Express and there was a photo of me on the back page kicking the winning goal. It was a big thrill for a teenage kid from Maffra.
BG: Despite being only 16, Footscray were keen to draft you and wanted you to play in the opening round?
JG: The club called my father and wanted me to play the first match of the season against Fitzroy. But dad wouldn't let me play because I was still at school and wanted me to complete that. I was disappointed but looking back I would have been too young to play at that level.
BG: The following year in 1974 you joined Footscray?
JG: I had to wait a year but I have got fond memories of my time at the Whitten Oval where I spent five seasons. I'm proud to have been able to play 24 matches at the highest level.
BG: You return to Maffra in 1979 and win a further five best and fairests in-a-row to take your tally to seven in nine seasons with injury robbing you of the opportunity to make it a clean sweep?
JG: One season I dislocated my shoulder in round three and was out for the remainder of the season. The other season I had appendicitis, then came back and did my ankle and only played a handful of matches.
BG: In 1986 you joined Wodonga as playing coach?
JG: I was playing interleague for Latrobe against the O&M at Bunton Park. I was walking after the match and I was approached by a gentleman who asked me if I would be interested in joining Wodonga. I found out later that it was John Henderson.
BG: How did Henderson persuade you to move to Wodonga?
JG: I gave him my home phone number and he rang the next day and it all went from there. I had been at Maffra for seven seasons and was looking for a new challenge.
BG: You had an instant impact with Wodonga, winning the best and fairest in your first season?
JG: It turned out to be my last season as a player. Unfortunately during the pre-season in 1987 I had to have a knee arthroscopy and developed stress fractures in my back. Being captain-coach I wanted to set an example about being super fit and cooked myself.
BG: What was the transition like from playing coach to non-playing coach?
JG: It was a refreshing change and you get a whole different perspective watching from the sidelines instead of playing. It just gave me a new lease of life and being able to be a bit smarter tactically really benefited the side.
BG: You retired at a relatively young age at 31?
JG: We had some good young players emerging through the ranks and once I got the taste of being a non-playing coach, I knew that was where my passion was.
BG: In 1987 the Bulldogs won the flag against Lavington by 107 points and one of the biggest margins in league history?
JG: It was an amazing performance and I don't think we could have executed our game plan any better. To kick 28 goals against Lavington was unbelievable considering the amount of talent they had at the time.
BG: The following year in 1988 you missed out playing in the grand final. Was that a let down?
JG: We had a lot of players who either got drafted, switched to a higher level or decided to try their hand at coaching. I can't remember exactly but I think we lost at least 10 players over the summer. Simon Bone went to Collingwood, Mick Garvey to Carlton, Bevan Cox went to Richmond and Darren Harris went to teachers college in Bendigo,to name a few off the top of my head.
BG: Rival sides were fortunate that the group didn't stick together?
JG: I have got no doubt that if we kept that side together it would be scary to think of what they would have achieved over a four or five year period. It was probably good for the competition that we got dismantled.
BG: In 1988 you got beat in the preliminary final before making another grand final in 1989 against Yarrawonga?
JG: We were able to stay a force mainly through the young talent emerging through our thirds and reserves who were starting to mature.
BG: There was less than a goal the difference in the grand final against Yarrawonga at the last change?
JG: The Pigeons were an awesome side who had a lot of travellers from Melbourne and were well coached by Neil Davis. Michael Long's brother, Chris came down from Darwin that year and was hard to match-up on.
BG: The start of the 1990 season marked your fifth season as coach at Wodonga. Do you think the club underachieved having only won one flag during that time?
JG: That's debatable. Part of coaching a country club is the development of your players so that they go on to bigger and better things. At the end of each season we lost a myriad of players to the higher standard but still felt we were good enough to challenge for a flag despite the losses.
BG: During the 1990 pre-season there was a steely resolve amongst the players?
JG: I remember one hot and dusty session up the back of the Wodonga golf course vividly. It was a 400m hill and it was 36 plus degrees. I planned to make the group do 10 sprints to test them both physically and mentally. We stopped after eight as a reward for the gut-busting effort of the group who embraced the challenge. As a coach it was a lightbulb moment that the group was prepared to do anything required in the pursuit of the ultimate success.
BG: There was another particularly mentally tough training session during the season that year?
JG: After one loss, I thought we went away from doing the team orientated things that were crucial to our success. So on the Sunday morning I made the players jump in House Creek and they had to carry items 500m up the creek and back and none of the equipment was allowed to get wet. It was July, it wasn't freezing cold and maybe a bit barbaric but I wanted the players to learn the lesson that to be successful, we had to all share the load.
BG: How did the group react?
JG: It may seem strange but there was a steeliness amongst the group and they saw the message that I was trying to send.
BG: This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Bloodbath grand final. People are still fascinated by the events of that day?
JG: For whatever reason it does still seem to still intrigue a lot of people and is one of the biggest talking points in O&M history.
BG: You were good enough to finish minor premier but Lavington won the second semi-final to take the direct route into the grand final?
JG: Lavington outplayed us and we were lucky to kick a few goals late to get beat by around 18 points from memory. Their on ball brigade of Richard Hamillton, Neville Shaw, Ralph Aalbers and Kerry Bahr was elite. They were powerful on every line with plenty of talls in Brett Wilson, Matt McGuirk and Ray Mack. Don't get me wrong, we were too. But pound for pound, Lavington may have slightly had the better list.
BG: Being forced to play Yarrawonga in the preliminary final was no walk in the park?
JG: Yarrawonga were a dangerous side, it was a hot day at Wangaratta and we were a couple of points down at the main break. But we were good enough to kick eight goals to none in the third quarter to blow them away to set up a rematch with Lavington.
BG: There were plenty of rumours circulating in the week of the grand final that Lavington were not going to take any prisoners and there could be fireworks?
JG: I started hearing whispers on the Monday but by game day the jungle drums were beating loudly that Lavington was going to heavily target some of our players.
BG: There's dozens of stories by both sides of what caused the bad blood between Lavington and Wodonga. Interestingly Darren Holmes told The Border Mail this year he found notes during a home game at Lavington written by you that said 'grab their young blokes by the throat, intimidate them.' Fact or fiction?
JG: That's simply not true and I think my players will vouch for that. Yes, I wanted my players to show aggression, courage and put their head over the ball. Never, ever would I tell my players to go out and belt the opposition. You can ask any of my players, wherever I have coached previously and they will tell you the same. My number one rule was when it was your turn to put your head over the ball, inspire your teammates with your attack on the ball. It was never to attack the opposition.
BG: As coach, did you tell your players before the match about the rumours and they could be targeted?
JG: I didn't believe it, and that sort of talk was common in that era with all the hype associated with grand final week. But as the week wore on more and more players were coming to me and saying they were hearing this and that about a potential brawl. But I didn't mention it in the lead up because I thought it was just rumours and I didn't want to spook the younger players.
BG: You didn't agree with the mentality that because it was a grand final, it had to involve a brawl?
JG: For some crazy reason during that era of footy there was a stupid mindset that you have to have a punch on because it's a grand final, which is ludicrous.
BG: How would you describe the relationship between the two sides at the time?
JG: I just thought it was a healthy rivalry and I had a lot of respect for Jeff Cassidy when he was coach and they beat us in 1986 and then we beat them in 1987. I have no doubt when we beat them by 107 points in 1987 that it was a bitter pill to swallow for a proud club like Lavington.
BG: What about the personal relationship between Lavington coach Richard Hamilton and yourself?
JG: I never really knew Richard personally but had enormous respect for his grit and toughness as a player. Richard was a Morris medallist and clearly one of the best players in the competition. I know he applied for the Wodonga coaching job the year I got it in 1986.
BG: Would it be fair to say you were a polarising figure during your time in the O&M and somebody the opposition loved to hate?
JG: I was a highly competitive and professional coach that left no stone unturned. When I first arrived at Wodonga we were called 'struggle town' by the opposition. But as far as what other clubs thought of me personally, I'm not too sure. I was just focussed on what I was doing and making Wodonga the most powerful club possible. We won the club championship five of six years I was coach. We went from being the hunters to the hunted, which I'm proud of.
BG: Match day you organised a bus from Martin Park to Albury Sportsground for yourself and the playing group?
JG: Having played in grand finals previously, it's a huge crowd and I wanted to relieve the players of the hassle of getting to the ground. We got dropped off the gate and walked straight into the ground.
BG: You invited all the players' partners into the rooms as part of your pre-match preparations?
JG: I just thought it would be a fitting gesture to show our appreciation of the support we had received from all the wives and girlfriends during the season. I was a demanding coach and know the sacrifices players made in regards to their family during the year and just wanted to recognise that.
BG: The partners were witness to a confronting scene after Richard Bence is brought into the rooms on a stretcher and convulsing after being knocked out in the reserves?
JG: We didn't see what happened to Richard but it was distressing to see the state he was in at the time. Looking back I think everyone was in a bit of shock and disbelief on just how bad he was.
BG: It must have thrown a cat amongst the pigeons as far as your preparation?
JG: Part of my job was to shield the players from what was happening and not get too emotional about it. We had a job to do but to be honest it was impossible to ignore what had just happened.
BG: The match starts and it doesn't take long for the fireworks to commence?
JG: 29 seconds. I still remember it vividly. Michael Garvey went low and hard in a contest against Paul Lappin which was crude and gave away a free which was totally warranted. But from that moment on the game exploded and we had the situation where there were fights all over the ground which we had no control over.
BG: What are some of your memories of the brawl?
JG: I had great concern for Terry Burgess. The bloke is 60kg and lying motionless on the ground and has never thrown a punch in his career. Ernest Whitehead copped a massive blow to the head and it was distressing to watch as it unfolded. Blokes were coming in to support their teammates and things kept escalating and before we knew it most of our players were bloodied and bruised to varying degrees.
BG: There were some serious injuries?
JG: It has been well documented that we copped eight facial fractures in the first seven minutes of the match.
BG: Do you think the umpires did enough to stop the fights?
JG: I thought the umpires did as much as they could. When teams want to punch on, there is very little umpires can do. I didn't see it but was alerted to the fact the ball was kicked out of the ground by a Lavington player and the umpires couldn't restart play without a football.
BG: With the rumours and how the match started, do you think the fights were premeditated by Lavington?
JG: It's hard to prove but it is very coincidental that in a 30 second period most of our players had been punched to the head. Yes, my players got caught up in trying to protect themselves and their teammates but the violence quickly escalated. 'Bear' Allen for example was targeted from all angles and 'Butch' Greenhill had four blokes punching him at one stage. It's still a minor miracle nobody was hurt more seriously. Was it premeditated? I'm not sure but I know we come off second best in the fights.
BG: It must have been a confronting scene at the quarter-time huddle to see your players who you shared a close bond with so battered and bruised?
JG: I remember talking tactics was the last thing on anybody's mind. It was just a matter of conducting a quick check on everybody and determining who could still play, who needed to come off and shuffling the team around without compromising our structures too much.
BG: You dodged a bullet in the second quarter when Lavington had all the momentum?
JG: We were a rabble in that quarter and it was only Lavington's poor kicking that kept us in the match. They kicked 3.7 and should have been at least six goals in front but luckily for us we were only 17 points down at the main break.
BG: There was talk of calling the match off at half-time?
JG: I got into the rooms and the president Lou Koslik and John Henderson pulled me aside and said 'We are not in great shape obviously. We are not telling you that you have to but don't feel it would be a blight on the club if you want to abandon the match.'
BG: Throwing the towel in wasn't an option for you?
JG: To be honest I didn't think it was up to me to make the call because I didn't have to go out on the ground. I thought it was up to our medical team and players to make the call.
BG: You speak to the doctor and ask Ernie Whitehead and Drew Pevitt to gauge the feeling amongst the playing group?
JG: The doctor told me there are some fractured cheek bones and maybe a fractured skull but he couldn't be sure without x-rays. He believed the players had recovered to some degree compared to the first quarter. The doctor also spoke to each player individually to see if they were happy to keep playing.
BG: The players were united in that they wanted to finish the match?
JG: Ernie spoke to the players as well and came back to me and said 'We would prefer to be carried off on a stretcher than not go back out there. We need to finish the match.'
BG: How did you react to the news?
JG: It was a powerful message and emotions were running high. I reshuffled the side and the big focus was not to get outscored in the third quarter.
BG: You win the third quarter?
JG: It was only by four points but crucially we were within striking distance and only 13 points behind and it was game on.
BG: The players had a lot of self belief at the huddle?
JG: I was making a few changes on the whiteboard and all I could hear was the players roaring at each other and the reserves urging them on. You just got the feeling the players thought Lavington were on the ropes for the first time during the match.
BG: What sparked the turnaround?
JG: 'Butch' Greenhill produced one of the most dominant second half's in a grand final that I have ever witnessed with 20 possessions. We were also moving the ball on at every opportunity and had the momentum in regards to run and work-rate.
BG: When 'Bear' Allen threaded the needle from the boundary line in the final quarter proved to be a decisive moment.
JG: Both sides kicked a lot of points and that was probably the hardest shot of the match and he was good enough to nail it and hand us the momentum.
BG: The final siren sparks scenes of pure jubilation and one of the most famous grand final victories in league history?
JG: I think that is a fair comment. I was just rapt to see the players get the ultimate reward for all their work and sacrifices during the season. The emotion from the players, partners, supporters, committee and staff after that final siren was a special 30 minutes that you wish you could bottle and hold on to forever.
BG: Any regrets in the aftermath?
JG: A few. I gave the Lavington bench a fist pump and looking back I regret it. It was silly and immature but I was very emotional and learnt a lesson from it and haven't done anything similar since.
BG: You also regret a comment to The Border Mail?
JG: I was still fairly wound up and emotional when I was being interviewed and said something like 'we won the game and we won the fights.' It was an immature comment because we certainly didn't win the fights. It added to the furore that both sides wanted to fight each other on the day. I'm not sure that's the case, we certainly didn't want to fight but my comments probably added to the perception that we did.
BG: Have you got any lingering animosity towards Lavington?
JG: None whatsoever. Looking back I think there were two proud clubs hellbent on giving everything they had. You can't help but respect that.
BG: You cherish the reunions that have been held so far?
JG: It was a remarkable victory and what those 20 players achieved that day was significant and very special. We formed an unbreakable bond and it's priceless to be able to catch up as a team when we can.
BG: You must be dejected to see the lack of success at Wodonga over the past decade?
JG: Wodonga is a proud club and it does burn. I still believe they are a sleeping giant and with the right people, energy and leadership can return to being a powerhouse of the competition. I feel sorry for Zac Fulford who is a terrific leader but was left a sitting duck due to circumstances outside his control.
BG: You head over to Western Australia in 1992 and coach West Perth for three years including a grand final appearance in 1993.
JG: It was a brilliant experience. Robbie West got drafted to West Coast from Wodonga and was instrumental in recommending me to West Perth which led to me getting the job.
BG: You enhanced your coaching record in Perth which led you to being appointed assistant coach at Geelong under Gary Ayers in 1995-96?
JG: Geelong recruiter Stephen Wells did some homework on me and one thing led to another and I was offered the opportunity at Geelong which I jumped at.
BG: Geelong made the grand final in 1995. Have you got any favourite Gary Ablett Snr stories?
JG: Gary lived around the corner from me. Because Ford was Geelong's major sponsor, Gary would always be driving around in the latest model but had a bit of a lead foot and lost his licence. So I used to drop him home from training quite often and we became quite close. Gary Jnr and my son Nick played for the Victorian school boys together and were good mates. So I used to pick up young Gazza and take him to all the school boy matches.
BG: Gary Snr was very religious?
JG: I have got memories of having tea with Gary at his house and after tea he would read the kids a story from the Bible before they went to bed. But it was a wonderful opportunity to be able to coach him because I was a forward coach at Geelong. It was a bit surreal to be talking to Ablett about leading patterns when he is considered one of the greatest players ever. We still have a good relationship to this day.
BG: In 1997 you joined Richmond as reserves coach and took the Tigers from the wooden spoon to the flag. This led to you replacing Robert Walls as interim coach late in the 1997 season?
JG: Walls got sacked after Richmond got beat by over 100 points against Adelaide and I was thrust into the role of senior coach. It wasn't great circumstances and you never like to see a senior coach get sacked at any club. Walls boasts a great record as a coach and just because Richmond were struggling doesn't mean he couldn't coach.
BG: You coached Richmond from 1997 to 1999 before becoming the boss of the umpires for 14-years?
JG: AFL boss Wayne Jackson approached me about the umpire's role. Initially the role was for two years but lasted for 14.
BG: You were passionate about the role?
JG: It was a tough gig. The abuse towards umpires at the time was at an all time high with umpires being labelled 'white maggots'. Another thing that was creeping into the game was contact to umpires with the players neglecting their duty of care.
BG: What were some of your lasting legacies in the role?
JG: I instigated the change to coloured uniforms to help stamp the 'white maggot' abuse out of the game. I also introduced penalties for making contact with umpires and put the duty of care back on the players. It was a real challenge but one I enjoyed and was passionate about.