It will be a long, long time before Melbourne wins another premiership

- Norm Smith, December 1967

MELBOURNE Football Club was ahead of the pack but already behind the times.

Demons coach Norm Smith had seen it coming for years, and the volatile redhead wasn't subtle in voicing his increasing frustrations to club management.


Smith felt the success-soaked club had become complacent, particularly in relation to recruiting, and feared a dramatic fall. He was concerned about the Demons' direction under inexperienced president Don Duffy, the long-time club doctor, who lacked the leadership strength of his brilliant predecessor Bert Chadwick.


The catalyst for an explosive bust-up between the master coach and his powerhouse club was Smith's controversial post-match radio interview on 3AW late in the 1964 season. Melbourne had beaten St Kilda but Smith aired a long-held grievance against the men in white, accusing field umpire Don Blew of being "subconsciously biased towards the underdog". (It's important to note that club secretary Jim Cardwell approved the taped interview for broadcast.)

Blew and the umpires' board demanded an apology, but Smith refused. So in March 1965 Blew issued a writ for defamation against Smith and 3AW. Smith wanted the Demons to pay his legal expenses and was told on July 1 that he had the committee's "full moral and wholehearted support" in the matter but that he wouldn't receive its financial support.

Smith, 49, was incensed by what he perceived as disloyalty to someone who'd "given the club 29 years' service (as both player and coach) and helped in 10 premierships". Smith threatened to quit as coach at season's end if he didn't receive the support he sought. (Ultimately, Blew dropped the legal issue.)

Some Demons officials continued to accuse Smith of pushing skipper Ron Barassi (his virtual foster son for a period) to Carlton to protect his own position, a suggestion both master and pupil dismissed as preposterous given Smith had just won his sixth, and greatest, flag in just 10 seasons. (Which remains an equal-record run of success.)

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In mid-1965, relations became so toxic that Smith almost came to blows with committeemen.

Former president Chadwick, who'd had a robust but productive relationship with the coach, tried to soothe the seething Smith but soon gave up, deeming him "impossible".

Rumours swirled that Smith would defect to Richmond, where his older brother Len had retired as coach after suffering his third heart attack. Len had tried to lure Norm to Punt Road but was flatly rejected.

Norm Smith with his much-loved brother and former Fitzroy and Richmond coach Len. Picture: AFL Photos

Infuriatingly for Smith, the off-field disputes began to have an on-field impact. The reigning premiers had won their opening eight games but lost three of their next four.

On Wednesday, July 21 Smith was ordered, at short notice, to attend a committee meeting that night. He suspected he was about to be sacked, so he resolved to resign. However, his brother talked him out of it and persuaded him to calmly accede to the committee's demands.


At the meeting, Smith was ordered to address the players and declare his support of the committee. However, no timeframe was specified for this conciliatory act. Unbeknown to Smith, the committee expected him to do it 24 hours later at Thursday night training. But unbeknown to the committee, Smith, for whom timing was everything, planned to raise it two days later, after their danger game against North Melbourne at muddy Coburg.


At the end of the Thursday session, Smith addressed the players for 15 minutes in the middle of the MCG. As they left the field, secretary Cardwell asked two players whether Smith had expressed support for the committee and they said he hadn't. In fact, one suggested Smith had criticised officials – one of several misinterpretations that would conspire against Smith.

In the rooms, Cardwell chaired a players' meeting to discuss various issues, during which he asked Smith if he'd "like to say something about a certain matter". A confused Smith declined, saying he'd already spoken to the players.

Frank 'Bluey' Adams and Ron Barassi with the 1964 premiership cup. Picture: Lynda Carroll, MFC Collection

When the players left, Smith asked Cardwell what he'd meant, and was told it had been his opportunity to back the committee. Smith protested he'd been unaware of the need for such urgency, adding he'd do it at a more appropriate time.

Despite this, Smith felt the recent tensions had lifted and he was free to go about his business. In reality, his fate had already been sealed.


At a special committee meeting the next evening on Friday, July 23, Cardwell acted upon false assumptions when he informed his colleagues that Smith had not only ignored two opportunities to reaffirm his support for the committee, but he had again criticised officials.

Just 48 hours earlier, the Demons committee had passed a motion that Smith would never be sacked until he was first given an opportunity to resign. But now the committee breached its own resolution, voting 9-3 to sack the greatest figure in the club's history.

Norm Smith runs through the banner during his playing days for Melbourne. Picture: Supplied

Shamefully, at Duffy's direction, the committee informed their 14-year, six-time premiership coach of his axing by telegram.

A female courier delivered the telegram to the Smith residence in Bell Street, Pascoe Vale.

As usual on game eve, Smith and his ever-supportive wife Marj were hosting ruckman Graham Wise, who worked on a distant farm. About 8pm Smith was discussing tactics on the phone with skipper Hassa Mann when the doorbell rang.


The courier handed Smith the MFC-stamped envelope containing his dismissal notice. Written by Cardwell on behalf of the committee, it said in part:

Obviously you do not intend to honour your word and the committee is not prepared to allow your disruptive tactics to continue, and your appointment as coach is cancelled as from this day.

A choked-up Smith called Mann back with the bad news. Mann initially thought it was a drunken prank caller.


The bombshell was met with widespread outrage and utter disbelief, along with saturation coverage in the newspapers befitting what remains arguably the biggest story in the game's history.

Melbourne hastily handed the coaching duties to 71-year-old Checker Hughes, the legendary five-time premiership coach who'd retired 17 years earlier. (Hughes remains the oldest coach in League history.)

The shellshocked players received cross-purpose phone calls from secretary Cardwell and captain Mann. Cardwell warned against speaking to reporters and demanded they attend a meeting at the MCG on Saturday morning; while Mann insisted they would publicly support Smith but that first they needed to attend a players' meeting.

'The Red Fox' Norm Smith and assistants watching Melbourne play. Picture: Supplied

President Duffy's anti-Smith statements at the MCG crisis meeting provoked the players to briefly consider boycotting the game that afternoon, and they had to be talked out of striking.

Not surprisingly, the distracted Demons lost to the lowly Kangaroos for the first time in 12 years, toppling from third to sixth. Post-match, Melbourne officials ordered players and staff not to visit Smith's nearby home, and to instead attend a compulsory function at the MCG. Many rebelled, joining Smith allies from other clubs at a sombre "wake".


On the Sunday morning, Smith made an extraordinary appearance on Tony Charlton's Football Show on Channel Nine. Although admitting he wasn't blameless, Smith slammed the committee of "12 guilty men" as jealous, petty, dishonest and weak.

Mann and some teammates also leapt to Smith's defence on the show, as did Barassi, then coach of Carlton. A wild Barassi also drove to Cardwell's house and let his feelings be known.

Almost as remarkably, Smith was reinstated as coach late on the Tuesday night – just 100 hours after being sacked. The reconciliation had been instigated by some influential Melbourne supporters led by County Court judge Trevor Rapke.

Regardless, the saga had caused irreparable damage. Smith and the committee remained estranged, and the Demons missed the finals for the first time in 12 years.

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Smith coached Melbourne for another two fruitless seasons, the last of which was marred by even greater heartache.

On July 23, 1967, Smith was devastated by the death of his brother Len after another heart attack at just 55, and just weeks later Smith himself experienced heart issues that ended his coaching career at Melbourne.

He wanted to remain at Melbourne and serve the club as a committeeman and recruiter, but he wasn't elected after an alliance of four committeemen actively campaigned against him. This personal attack hurt Smith more than his infamous sacking, and he never returned to Demonland.

Norm Smith during his time as South Melbourne coach in the 1970s. Picture: AFL Photos

Privately, Smith foretold the Demon despair ahead: "It will be many, many years before Melbourne will play in the finals again, let alone become a force. And it will be a long, long time before Melbourne wins another premiership."

And so began the so-called 'curse of Norm Smith'.

Ben Collins is the author of  The Red Fox: The Biography of Norm Smith, Legendary Melbourne Coach, published in 2008 by Slattery Media Group.