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Vale Hugh McPherson

Ben Collins  July 25, 2013 9:31 PM

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Hugh McPherson at the unveiling of the statue of Norm Smith at the MCG in 2012

THE MELBOURNE Football Club is mourning the death of Hugh McPherson – the League's first official team runner, and the man who suggested Ron Barassi be tried as an onballer.

McPherson died on Thursday afternoon, surrounded by his family, just weeks short of his 95th birthday.

He played 13 games for Footscray in 1939-40 before making a further 37 appearances for Melbourne from 1941-44.

It was as a longtime runner and confidant of Demons coach Norm Smith – a former teammate – that McPherson had his biggest influence.

Before McPherson came along in the 1950s, clubs were not allowed to relay messages from the coach to the players on the field. This function was instead fulfilled covertly by trainers.

The bespectacled McPherson, a strongly-built butcher who could handle himself both physically and verbally, was ideally suited to this role.

McPherson started as a trainer at Melbourne in 1954 and both he and Smith pushed the boundaries of the rules, and eventually sparked a change.

The catalyst was an incident during a game at Footscray at in round 14, 1955.

Melbourne youngster Fred Webster went down with an ankle injury and McPherson was quickly on the scene.

Bulldogs fans, knowing McPherson was an illegal messenger, began to roar their disapproval. 

Field umpire Geoff Robinson agreed with the Dogs faithful, stopping the game and ordering McPherson off the ground.

McPherson refused, explaining he was merely treating an injured player.

According to McPherson in a 2007 interview, this angry exchange between trainer and umpire continued for about three minutes, at the end of which Robinson quietly pleaded: "For God’s sake, Hughie, will you just go off the ground and come back on after I get the game started up again?"

The situation was only defused when another Melbourne trainer helped McPherson carry Webster from the field.

As a result, the League soon permitted each team an official runner to deliver messages.

But McPherson took little credit for the development, diverting the credit to Smith for his forward-thinking attitude.

"(Smith) was proven correct – runners are a big part of the game now," he told me in an interview for the 2008 biography of Smith, The Red Fox.

"As the runner … I was given a blue armband with white stitching saying 'VFL'. I (later) donated it to the football club for display. We also wore white uniforms in those days, nothing like the fluorescent yellow they wear now."

McPherson's other claim to fame was probably a bigger game-changer. If it wasn't for McPherson, Barassi might never have become such a household name.

Smith had tried the raw teenager in a variety of positions without success and the coach shared his frustration with his runner, who immediately had a fateful solution.

The highlight of McPherson's own unremarkable playing career had been his role as a protector of tall stars like Jack Mueller and Don Cordner as a second ruckman. He suggested that Barassi could play a similar role.

Smith dismissed it at first but soon gave it a trial in the seconds. Barassi starred and soon popularised the position that became known as ruck-rover.

Wheelchair-bound in his latter years, McPherson attended the unveiling of Smith's statue outside the MCG last September.

To the end, he maintained his remarkable memory and his ability to tell a yarn. And he had plenty to tell, many of which are detailed in The Red Fox.
Four-time Melbourne premiership player John Lord gave an insight into the high esteem with which McPherson is held by Demons of the era.

"Hughie was a conduit between players and 'Smithy', and Smithy and the club. And when needed, he was a confidant of (president) Bert Chadwick, (secretary) Jim Cardwell and Smithy," Lord said. "As a runner, he was also as a virtual punching bag for Smithy at times.

"Hughie knew when to cuddle you and when you needed a kick up the bum. He loved the club, he loved the players, and that was reciprocated. But he only loved us maybe half as much as (wife) Gwen and the kids – we were a long way second."

Ben Collins is a reporter for AFL Media. Follow him on Twitter: @AFL_BenCollins