KADE STEVENS has lived and breathed footy for as long as he can remember, from tackling the VFL with the Murray Kangaroos and winning one of the Ovens and Murray's all-time classic grand finals with Lavington to coaching a premiership side at Brocklesby-Burrumbuttock. But one of the most respected figures in the sport locally is now starting a new chapter after standing down as the Saints mentor, so The Border Mail's STEVE TERVET caught up with the man known to all as 'Stevo'.
STEVE TERVET: How does it feel to be sat here in January without the coaching responsibilities you've carried for the past five years?
KADE STEVENS: It's something I've always loved and it's been my passion but to be able to really switch off and enjoy the school holidays, Christmas and New Year, has been great. We've been away for three weeks and I haven't had that footy coaching hat on at all, which has definitely made me a lot more relaxed.
ST: A lot of people have used the phrase 'unfinished business' as their motivation for carrying on coaching or playing this year; how did you know it was time to stop?
KS: I felt that way at the end of 2019 when we lost to Osborne. I was incredibly motivated to get back into 2020 but that didn't happen and 2021 didn't finish as such. I feel like 2019 is now in the past, it's not so raw and fresh and when the decision was made that finals wouldn't happen, I really relaxed and enjoyed the time away from footy. I can't pinpoint exactly what it was, probably the position the club was in and as far as recruiting goes, I'd drawn as many I could with my networks and exhausted all options with phone calls and connections I had. I wasn't going to be able to bring any big names to the club so we needed to get someone in with a whole new network. It was definitely the right time for myself and probably for the club too.
ST: Weren't you a mascot in the Lavington team photos growing up?
KS: Yes. Dad played in some premierships for Lavi and about seven grand finals. Myself, Matty and Guy Pendergast were sons and the mascots at the front of photos. I remember going every single Saturday with my footy gear on. In the middle of winter you were wearing your footy boots, socks, shorts and footy jumper. I see my kids now and you think of how much you need to rug them up but I never felt the cold. When Dad went out and coached in the Hume league, it was the same thing. We used to sit behind the goals when someone was having a shot for goal. I remember the ball landing on the canteen a heap of times we wanted to be the first to climb the ladder and get it off the roof.
ST: Someone told me you would try to eat as many Hubba Bubbas as you could and nearly ended up choking...
KS: We used to get money at the start of the day, for our daily food, and it was probably spent in the first five minutes on pies and drinks. We always got a packet of Hubba Bubba to see if we could fit the whole packet in our mouth. We used to do that every Saturday.
ST: Tell us about the time you spent in the VFL.
KS: I had two years with the Murray Kangaroos and I was fortunate enough to have Shannon Motlop take me under his wing. I lived with him, on and off, for two years and our families have become really good friends. He played in the seniors and that was my 'in' to meeting and becoming relatively close with a lot of the decent names. The experience of training there, I thought standards were high playing where I played all of my junior footy but it's just another level again. To have a sniff of that, without playing at the AFL level, a couple of full pre-seasons, that let you know where you had to be if you wanted to be an elite footballer.
ST: Do you think the habits and behaviours you formed back then have been a factor in the longevity of your career?
KS: Definitely. What I expected of myself after those two years was much higher. Before that, I always thought I was training hard and doing extra but going there, I found out what hard work really looked and felt like.
ST: You only played two games for Lavington in 2001, because you were at the Kangaroos, so how did the experience of winning the premiership that year compare with 2005 when you were a fully-fledged team member?
KS: I was only 19 in 2001. At the time, it was amazing but in 2005, I was at the club full-time and I felt like I'd earned it more. I was very lucky to get that 2001 premiership but 2005 felt like a dream, winning after the siren like that.
ST: Tell us about that 2005 team.
KS: We were so tight, a real brotherhood. Everyone had each other's back. The functions were great in that era, we always had great numbers there and all the wives and girlfriends were so close. I'm currently in a punters group with a large number of players from that era and we have an annual catch-up, so it's carried through.
ST: Who drove that culture?
KS: Tim Sanson was always big on that. The standards he had of being a good person, a good team-mate and doing the hard work, if you weren't a part of that, you just didn't last. We had players come in for pre-season but they didn't last. We put a bit of time into pre-season camps, we used to do value statements and we had Leading Teams a couple of times, building culture and setting standards and values.
ST: Which memory stands out from the 2005 grand final?
KS: I can clearly remember 'Skillsy' having the shot and almost walking in with him, inside the 50, as he was having the kick. I also remember the horrible feeling in my stomach, because we were up all game, when Myrtleford pegged back and then hit the front. It was our worst nightmare. There was a lot riding on them winning it and I remember a boundary throw-in, right in front of their crowd on the terraced side, with a minute left. Shane Peters was revving their crowd up, gesturing, and in my head, I thought 'you dickhead.' At that moment, it was the worst day ever.
ST: When Darryn McKimmie kicked that goal, you didn't know the siren had gone?
KS: No. He kicked it, I started walking back and saw everyone running on the ground. I couldn't even tell you who it was, probably one of the water boys, saying 'the siren's gone' and it was like 'you are kidding me.'
ST: How did you celebrate?
KS: It was a pretty big week. I was a uni student, it was uni holidays and we had a few big nights. We just did everything together. We didn't go out on the town, we were all together at the club all night Sunday, all day Monday, Monday night, Tuesday I reckon we went to the pub again.
ST: Tim coached that side for 14 years; what made him a good leader?
KS: He did what he asked of others. If we've got our backs against the wall and we needed a lift, he'd be the first to lift and it would be 'wow, he's actually doing it himself.' Never would he ask something of his group that he wasn't prepared to do himself. Even when his body wasn't allowing him to, he'd still give 110 percent. I took a leaf out of his book in terms of doing the extra work. Even at the end of his career, he was having shots on goal before and after training and he'd pull one of the younger blokes aside and ask him to kick some balls into him flat-out so he could work on his grip and hands.
ST: How did he deal with confrontation?
KS: He was very strong-minded and if he felt strongly about something, he'd follow through with it. I definitely got some honest feedback over the years from 'Timba' and there wouldn't be too many that wouldn't have in one way or another. The good thing with him, I never took it personally and I don't think many people would. I was always seeking feedback. I didn't want him telling me what I wanted to hear, I wanted to hear what was going to make me a better player. Most people welcomed it but if you weren't prepared to receive feedback, you didn't last.
ST: Do you think that has changed throughout the years?
KS: I definitely do. I don't think players seek feedback anywhere near as much as we did and I can't put my finger on why. It's a conversation I've had with lots of different people over the years. It didn't stop me giving feedback as a coach. You can tell someone 'I think you can be a good footballer and in the next 12 months, it would be great if you can get to the gym and put on four or five kilos because you're going to be playing on some big, strong bodies' and six months later, nothing's been done about it. Footy's still in a good place but a lot of people these days are giving up footy camps and practice matches to go camping, four-wheel driving or motorbike riding. That's also a difference between the Ovens and Murray and the Hume league. I played 80 percent of my footy in town and I knew, I expected, the environment was a little bit different in the bush.
ST: You won three club best-and-fairests with the Panthers; when did you feel you were at your peak?
KS: I think 2006 and 2007 were my two best years at Lavi. I missed most of 2008 because I did my knee in the last game of '07.
ST: Which was the best team you played against in that era?
KS: It's hard to go past Albury and Yarrawonga in my later years. It was frustrating because in those years, we knocked one or both of them off every year in the home and away. We lost three prelims in a row by a total of five points. We always knew we were thereabouts but in big games, they had big players who stood up.
ST: How big a factor was your Dad's connection to Brocklesby when the time came for you to leave Lavington?
KS: I guess there was no risk for me as far as taking my family to a good family club. I knew the committee, I knew the people there and I knew a lot of the players. It was a safe option for me, knowing what we were getting ourselves into. I had spoken to other clubs, in the Tallangatta league as well as the Hume league, but my sisters were playing netball there and that made it easier as well.
ST: How did you put your stamp on the club?
KS: We spoke about goal-setting and what we wanted to achieve, which had been done before but it was a different voice. It's the same for the club this year. They're going to have the same discussions but it's a new voice (Peter Cook) with new language. I didn't want to jump on the bandwagon and do things the way they'd been done the whole time and the club was looking to stay successful, adapting things that could be done better. They'd just come off a premiership so they weren't looking for someone to come in and crack the whip and change a lot.
ST: How important was it getting to know your players as people and what was going on in their lives?
KS: Empathy is definitely one thing I've learnt a lot about as coach and that's a little bit of my school teacher side coming in, understanding that everyone's living different lives. I'm in a classroom with an air conditioner, working with kids throughout the day but some are coming to training having been on a roof for six hours on a 40-degree day so if I turn up chirpy and fresh at training, I can understand why some are a bit flat or cooked.
ST: I believe there was an incident during the 2018 season when Aidan Johnson went to Melbourne one Friday night, got on the drink and called you to say he couldn't play the following day. How did that play out?
KS: It was interesting because he was one of our better players and there was a bit of noise around that he should be dropped the following week. I'd been in a similar situation with a different player at Lavi years earlier and I clearly remember the point being made that if we drop him, everyone's punished. He was expecting to get dropped but he had to face the group and explain what he'd done and apologise. He had to pull the trailer around for the next four weeks so he had to be the first at training and the last to leave. The way he responded to that was phenomenal. He was very emotional, having to face the group on Monday at training and tell them what he'd done, to stop all the innuendo. He worked harder that next four weeks than he had all year and, as a result, had an amazing finals series and played a massive part in us winning the premiership.
ST: What did it mean to celebrate that one with your wife and children?
KS: To have them as part of it was awesome. Millie knows how much time is invested into making those phone calls and she was with me in 2005 but to have the kids and seeing them running around on the morning of the grand final in all their Saints gear, it was special.
ST: Is it more satisfying to win a flag as coach?
KS: Yes. In 2001, I thought they were going to happen heaps and in 2005 I was still only 23 so you're thinking 'I'll do this every two or three years, this is pretty cool' but you never know when you're going to win your next one. For those four or five years that we didn't make it, you never know when you're going to play in one again. It was definitely very rewarding and one of the highlights of my career.
ST: Who is the toughest opponent you've played on?
KS: Jon McCormick when he was at Wang Maggies. I played with him in the VFL for a couple of years and at Bushies for a year so I played a lot of footy with him and I'm still good mates with him. He's just relentless; fit, good in the air, good below his knees, could take a really good pack mark but then he was on the bottom of a pack. He was quick, hard to tackle, just a really good all-rounder. I can't think of many players around at the moment who are similar to him.
ST: There's a set shot, 30 metres out, dead in front and your life depends on it going through. Who do you want with the ball in hand?
KS: Darryn McKimmie. It's hard to go past 'Skillsy' after that pressure-cooker situation in 2005. He was a natural. He could pick up a golf club, pick up a table tennis bat and if you had a paper plane contest, I've got no doubt he'd win that. That's not to say he didn't work on his deficiences but there was definitely an element of natural ability. Plus, he was cool as ice.
ST: Which player has made you laugh the most over the years?
KS: Matt Pendergast, with his wit and one-liners. He's just a funny bloke.
ALSO IN SPORT:
ST: If you could go back and play one game again, which would it be?
KS: The 2005 grand final. I don't have any regrets so I wouldn't change anything that happened in my career.
ST: What's the biggest change you've seen in country footy?
KS: How money is discussed. The way money is a large part of people coming and going between clubs is more relevant now than it was 20 or 30 years ago.
ST: Do players have more power because of that?
KS: I think so. The points system and the caps have helped but I'd love to see the spreadsheets from the 10 years I played at Lavi. I missed out on a lot of players coming to Brock because the money wasn't right. I always led interviews by leaving that part out and if it came up, it was like 'we don't want you.'
ST: Were there times you were tempted to make an exception?
KS: Steve Koschitzke thinks very much the same way as me. We've had many chats before, me talking to the player and saying 'I'll get back to you' and then talking to Steve and us saying 'maybe we could give him another $100' but then we'd say 'no, let him go.' Fortunately, we've still been able to bring good players to the club.
ST: Now that you've got more time with the family, how do you like to spend that time away from football?
KS: I've got some long service leave and recently purchased a caravan so we want to travel around Australia, really slowing down. Whether it's little trips or one big trip, we're undecided at the moment but there's definitely an itch to scratch over the next three or four years.
ST: Bearing that in mind, how likely are you to play again?
KS: Unlikely at this stage. But never say never.
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content:
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.