From wide-eyed Essendon youngster to Port premiership star, Gavin Wanganeen reflects on his journey to and in the AFL
AS A YOUNG child growing up in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, Gavin Wanganeen loved watching the Krakouer brothers and Gary Ablett snr on TV.
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For the young Wanganeen, the footy was important and for him it was these players that could really make the football talk. The Kokatha and Narrunga man explains:
We never could afford the new Sherrin footy. It was those brown 50-cent ones from the supermarket. Footy was all we knew. We’d have kicks in the backyard and try and take the big speccy. I’d try and be one of the Krakouer brothers or Gary Ablett snr.
As he worked on the flashy side of his game, the thing that Wanganeen inherently had was his courage and determination. Something he puts down to his family, especially his uncle Gunny Davey:
I remember watching my uncles especially Uncle Alwyn, or ‘Gunny’ (father of Alwyn and Aaron Davey) playing. That’s my earliest memory of football. I thought: ‘That’s what I’d love to do one day.’ Deep down that was my inspiration.
As Wanganeen got older, he became affiliated with the Salisbury North Football club:
I played juniors with the Salisbury North because I lived locally. The Bond brothers and Michael O’Loughlin played there as well. From there I went to the Port Magpies. I got invited to go and train with the under-17s because that was the Port Adelaide zone.
It was here that Wanganeen realised he needed to step up:
It was a shock to the system because I went from training with Salisbury to doing a full pre-season of running, which was unheard of for a 14-year-old. But I was keen as mustard and it gave me more confidence. Playing with better footballers in a competitive environment just made me improve.
By the time he was 16, Wanganeen was playing reserves in the SANFL and selected in the Teal Cup side for South Australia. His first taste of seniors football was a pre-season with Port in a scratch match in 1990 where he played against Geelong and alongside his idol Gary Ablett snr. That year would prove to be an important one for Wanganeen as he played in all the games, eventually winning a premiership.
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Arriving at Essendon’s home ground Windy Hill in 1991, Wanganeen found the football to his liking, and his fearless play belied his youth. He found the transition to Essendon was a good fit for him:
Essendon were excellent. I remember seeing James Hird for the first time as a young blond-haired kid. The competitiveness was intense. It was hard the first year trying to settle in and battle homesickness, but after you get rid of that you got used to it.
Wanganeen also benefited from some Indigenous players who had cemented themselves into the Essendon seniors:
‘Longy’ (Michael Long) took me under his wing. Derek and Dale Kickett were there, as was Willie Dick from WA. It was good and made me feel a lot more at home. Sheeds (coach Kevin Sheedy) was ahead of his time in this respect.
Wanganeen debuted for Essendon in 1991 in round two against Richmond and quickly began to adjust to the demands of playing AFL football. Yet playing deep in attack, Wanganeen would attract a tag that nullified his impact. It was in a game against Sydney at the MCG that Sheedy changed the role of Wanganeen forever:
Moving to the back pocket was the key to my career. Sheeds freed me up. I clearly recall that run down to the backline. It was a major turning point in my career.
The dividends that this paid were immediate, earning Wanganeen All-Australian selection in 1992. Wanganeen’s crazy-brave approach became a distinct feature of his game. It was so thrilling that in 1993 he won the Brownlow Medal, becoming the first Indigenous player to do so. He reflects:
I still get goosebumps thinking about some of the things I attempted in my Brownlow year. I was so young I did not really absorb it. I was enjoying the ride too much.
Despite the great achievements of Indigenous footballers at this time, he did see the negative side of the game that was directed to players of colour:
I’m a light-coloured Aboriginal man but I was still called names. I was shocked but I just tried to ignored it. It came from older players. So that was disappointing. I leaned on ‘Longy’ for support and that helped.
After a successful five years at Essendon, Wanganeen made the tough decision to return to South Australia, becoming the inaugural captain of the Port Adelaide Power in 1997. Leaving Melbourne was not an easy decision:
It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. The opportunity to go back home to Adelaide and play with my old club had a lot of appeal. But it was very hard leaving the Bombers.
If moving back to Adelaide was a chance go home, the demands of being the young Port Adelaide skipper was a challenge:
I was an immature 23-year-old when I became captain. I had all this responsibility thrust on me. I got suspended a couple of times in that first season, which was out of character but I had a strong sense of responsibility for the group.
After four years as Port captain, Wanganeen decided to step down. Frustrated by injuries and spending more time on the sideline, he refocused his energies on getting fit, entering a new productive stage of his career. In 2003, Wanganeen played his most consistent season and won Port Adelaide’s fairest-and-best award. In the following season, Port Adelaide took on Brisbane in the Grand Final and won. At the age of 31, Wanganeen played a pivotal role in securing for Port Adelaide its first premiership as he booted four goals. He reflects:
Not taking anything away from the ’93 flag, but I appreciated the Port Adelaide flag more. With Essendon, I was young and didn’t know how to appreciate it, but I fully understood what the Port flag meant because of the hardships we went through.
Wanganeen went onto play another couple of seasons with Port Adelaide and played his 300th game in 2006 against North Melbourne, becoming the first Indigenous player to reach that milestone. He retired at the end of the 2006 season.
Having such a decorated career, Wanganeen loves watching Buddy Franklin and Shaun Burgoyne. His advice to young players is to take your chances:
When you get to my age now you will kick yourself if you don’t do all you needed too to get to the top. It goes so quickly. Find a mentor to help you achieve your goals. But there is more to life than footy. Education. I wish I had of studied more when I played.
These days Wanganeen has become an artist, balancing his legacy as a footballer to his passion for art and using his networks to capitalise on it. For a player who has a stand named after him at Adelaide Oval, what does being part of the Deadliest mean to Wanganeen?
It makes me feel very proud and be amongst the group. Some of the great champions of the game and some who are the good friends of mine.