In May 1988, a diminutive blonde halfback picked up a Great Britain international prop twice his size and drove him backwards in a tackle.
It was a midweek game between Manly and the Great Britain touring side at Brookvale Oval, and Geoff Toovey had arrived. He was named man of the match in the Sea Eagles’ 30-0 win that night, and it launched a 28-year career at Manly as player, captain, administrator and coach.
That Toovey is a club legend cannot be disputed. Three grand finals in a row as captain, a further one as a coach, an unbroken playing record from 1988 to 2002, a role in club administration, all indicate a man with a deep and abiding loyalty to the Sea Eagles, who have a habit of keeping their most loyal figures involved in the club for life.
Which is why the manner of Toovey’s deposing as coach in 2015 was so distasteful to the majority of Manly fans. This was a club that had almost gone out of existence in 2002, had reinvented itself after the heady 70s and 80s under the administration of Ken Arthurson and the stewardship of Bob Fulton, as first player and then later coach.
The Manly of the 2000s was one of the poorest clubs in the NRL but they sold loyalty in high doses, they promoted a northern beaches lifestyle to encourage players to stay with the club, even if those players could probably have earned better money elsewhere. Players such as Jamie Lyon, the Stewart brothers, Matt Ballin and Steve Matai have spent the best part of a decade in maroon and white and have formed the basis of a formidable unit that that did not miss a finals series for 10 consecutive seasons.
The club’s 40-0 Grand Final win in 2008 over a Melbourne Storm side, who were later have found to be systematically rorting the salary cap, was as brilliant a performance as any in the Sea Eagles 68-year history. Geoff Toovey was assistant coach that night to Des Hasler, the man he would replace in 2012 when Hasler left in controversial circumstances.
A disastrous start to 2015 seemed to hasten a panicked re-think of Toovey’s coaching credentials, despite the fact he had one of the best winning percentages of any coach in the NRL and had already taken the club to a grand final in his second season as head coach. The soap opera of the Keiran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans drawn out contract negotiations, which in turn led to rumours of player resentment from those who had turned down bigger money to stay at the club in the past, would have rocked the foundations of any club. As it was, Manly gave the rest of the league a virtual 50 metre head start in a 100 metre race and almost caught the field by the end of the season. But Toovey’s fate had been sealed months before then.
Enter club legend Bob Fulton.
Arguably the greatest player of all time, Fulton was brought in as a consultant and the upshot of this was the appointment of Trent Barrett as 2016 head coach. Fulton, the man who made Toovey club captain back in 1993 when he was Sea Eagles coach, seems to have been instrumental in ending Toovey’s long association with the club. Fulton has been a successful coaching mentor in the past. Des Hasler is a former student who learned under the Fulton tree of knowledge. So perhaps Fulton sees great potential in Barrett, who has coached exactly zero games in the NRL.
This new ruthlessness comes with an aggressive recruitment that seems designed to blow cobwebs from dark corners and add fire to the forward pack. Fourteen new players come into the Brookvale fold for 2016, most notable among them Dylan Walker, Marty Taupau, Nate Myles and a returning Darcy Lussick. It is Manly’s biggest recruitment drive in years but comes at the expense of such notable players as Matt Ballin, Kieran Foran, Peta Hiku and David Williams.
It is a radical departure for the Sea Eagles.
Only twice have they looked “outside the fold” for a coach, when the club appointed Kiwi Graham Lowe in 1990, and when Peter Shaarp got the nod in 1999. Apart fron that they have always promoted from within, with Fulton, Hasler and Toovey forming an near unbroken chain of coaching succession. For fans, it is a ruthlessness that Toovey simply did not deserve, tempered by the fact that Fulton has guru status at the Sea Eagles, and in the eyes of many, can do no wrong.
Andrew Prentice is a writer, author, coach and a former professional athlete. He tweets at @apaway501