Football farewells a truly loyal servant

Seventeen years ago Peter Knights was coach of Christopher Skase-owned Brisbane Bears who were two-year `veterans' of a 14-team VFL national competition. Mark Mickan was Bears captain and Mark Withers the reigning club champion, while Hawthorn, under coach Alan Joyce and skipper Michael Tuck, were the reigning premiers and Gerard Healy was the reigning Brownlow Medalist.

VFL Games were played at Carrara, Princes Park, Victoria Park, Windy Hill, Western Oval, Kardinia Park, Moorabbin as well as the MCG, SCG and Subiaco. An adult ticket cost $8 and the Adelaide Crows, Port Adelaide Power and Fremantle Dockers had never been heard of.

Clive Dunstan was QAFL president in charge of a league executive which included Murray Cox, Terry Smith, the late Alan Piper and general manager Andrew Ireland, while the QAFL board of directors consisted of Neil Bretz (Coorparoo), Rod Evans (Kedron), Ian Hawke (Mayne), Keith Ledger (Morningside), Kevin Looney (Sandgate), Dr Alan Mackenzie (Southport), Geoff Stephen (Western Districts), Bruce Ford (Wilston-Grange), Peter Tornaros (Windsor-Zillmere), Noel Wallis and Alan Sanders (SQAFA).

Zillmere, coached by Wayne Brittain, had beaten Southport by 32 points in the QAFL grand final, with Andrew Martyn winning the Joe Grant Medal after Eagles teammate and captain Craig Brittain had won the Grogan Medal by 11 votes and Eagles full forward John Blair had topped the League goal-kicking.

Michael Voss was a 13-year-old kid at Beenleigh little more than two years into life as a Queenslander, Nick Riewoldt was a six-year-old playing soccer on the Gold Coast and Courtenay Dempsey was a one-year-old still wearing nappies in Cairns.

And Murray Bird had joined the QAFL.

Yes, it was a long, long time ago that the young boy from Coorparoo, junior teammate of Jason Dunstall and Brendan McMullen before he realized he had a brighter future umpiring football than actually playing it, joined the staff of the game's controlling body in Queensland.

He'd completed his Arts Degree at the University of Queensland but couldn't get a job He didn't see a lot of future in working as a laborer and a `glassie" so he wrote to Andrew Ireland. And for 17 years it seemed like this odd sequence of events would result in a life-time partnership.

So, it was an enormous bombshell for friends and foe alike when Bird announced last Friday (18 November 2005) he was blowing the whistle on AFL Queensland. He did what most thought was impossible - he resigned.

Bird's place in football history can never be erased - he was the first Queenslander to umpire at AFL level and officiated in 43 games from 1990-94. Yet his contribution to the local football scene goes far, far deeper than that or his 177 local games, including four grand finals.

His working life with what started out as the QAFL, became the QSFL and is now AFLQ, had five different chapters. And each was underpinned by a passion for football that is shared by many in Queensland but topped by none.

He was a development officer for four years, an umpiring development officer for 12 months, junior programs co-ordinator for four years, umpiring manager for four years and football operations manager for four years.

He will leave at Christmas but informed colleagues of his imminent departure via an email which started: "Hello and goodbye to all my friends at AFL Queensland. After 17 years of working with a great organisation I have decided to move on. I have had some truly wonderful experiences with all of you and I know I will miss being here. AFL Queensland has been a huge part of my life and it is difficult for me to imagine not working with you. I would like to think I have good friends within AFL Queensland and throughout the wider footy community. I hope that those friendships will continue. We have achieved some unbelievable things over a long period of time because we have excellent people at all levels of the organisation."

The personal and private highlights that followed were highly amusing and offered an insight into his fun-loving personality and his genuine love of the game. If you didn't already know you learned he liked a beer and an occasional flutter on the horses. But they were personal and private reflections and should stay that way.

Still, it would be altogether inappropriate not to allow Bird, so many different things to so many different people in Queensland football, to reflect on his time with head office.

The lowest time? "Going to local schools with Warwick Capper in the first couple of years as a development officer and finding the majority of kids had never heard of the Brisbane Bears," he said.

The best time? "There have been so many ... that's what makes it so satisfying because the game has come so far. There's the Lions three premierships - 17 years ago you never would have thought that was possible - but really the big thing is the credibility of the sport. AFL football is now main stream," he said

Others? "The Auskick explosion, the growth of the independent schools competition .. and I thought the Lions Community Camp in Toowoomba in 2003, with more than 1000 kids on Toowoomba Grammar oval for a clinic, was sensational because it was an indication that football had really arrived," he added.

More? "This year has been tremendous. Local football was on its knees in the late 1990s but the competition this year was pretty good, and we got back to the Gabba for the grand final which was really important. Our State side put up a good showing against WA at Carrara and beat the ACT for the third year in a row, the U21s beat WA Country, and AFL talent scouts are taking a genuine interest in Queensland kids."

So why is he moving on? Perhaps a line in his farewell email said it all. His daughter Hannah was born two weeks after he started at the QAFL ... this week she is at "Schoolies" on the Gold Coast. It's time.

Family reasons are a big part of it ... footy seven days a week makes it pretty tough ... and I've got new things I want to do," said the man who owns a Bachelor of Arts degree, a Masters degree in Sports Management with first-class honors, and a bunch of awards in academic excellence from Griffith University, where he is a part-time tutor.

Bird, also a keen football historian, is a part owner and will work for `Velocity Sports', a recently-formed and soon to be launched Queensland-based sports management company which also involves Lions superstars Michael Voss, Alastair Lynch, Jonathan Brown and ex-Lions Communications Manager Peter Blucher.

I'm really excited about that ... I've always wanted to get into that side of sport and there's a huge opportunity for us to make a real difference. We want to use the experience and knowledge of guys like Vossy, Lynchy and Browny to provide a mentoring program for young footballers which is second to none, and that's the only the beginning. There are so many opportunities for a sports management company up here that does things well," he said.

Murray Bird has done things very well for a very, very long time. As anyone at AFLQ will attest, he has played a pivotal role in the development and expansion of the No.1 football code in Australia.

Said AFLQ chief executive Richard Griffiths: "People won't really realize just what Murray has done for football in Queensland until he's not doing it any more. His passion for the game and the job is extraordinary, his work ethic likewise, and he has a real feel and understanding for all parts of the football family. He should be enormously proud of his contribution and we're certainty indebted to him for all that he has done.


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