“In my time at the club, he was terrific.″
Collins, indeed, provided the bookends to Elliott’s time as president. “Collo” and ex-team mate and club powerbroker, the late Wes Lofts recruited Elliott to be president (replacing Ian Rice), in 1983, when Elliott was taking flight as a corporate high-flyer and raider, whose ambition was sufficient to attempt to take over not only BHP, but the Lodge.
Collins would later usurp big Jack as president in late 2002, after the club had been levelled by draft penalties for salary cap rorts – in what Collins and Elliott agreed were grossly unfair – and was in financial strife via a massive debt (largely due to building grandstands at Princes Park) that the club struggled to cover.
Elliott’s Carlton was, like him, brash, bold and willing to say and do pretty much as they pleased – he derided the impecunious Bulldogs for “their tragic history” and made many more intemperate remarks.
They could bend the competition to their will, such as when the Blues refused to sign up to the rules for the new national competition (which Elliott had so promoted) until they were able to get the salaries, at least intially, of incoming champion South Australians Stephen Kernahan, Craig Bradley and Peter Motley outside of the new salary cap.
Ultimately, it was the competition – socialised and equalised, with a powerful central office – that bent the Blues to the AFL’s will. In Collins’ view, they’re only recovering from what he termed “stupid” draft penalties now.
The most naked distillation of Carlton under Elliott came in the late 80s, when he and Collins sought to take over North Melbourne, which had shareholders, by purchasing shares via “the friends of Carlton” – a plan that might have succeeded had it not been blocked by well-heeled and organised North people.
David Parkin had the distinction of being sacked by Elliott’s regime in 1985 – and replaced by Robert Walls, in the famed coach swap (Parkin went to Fitzroy which Walls left) – but, as he left the club, Elliott cautioned him that “you’ll be coaching the club (again) in the future” – a far-fetched notion that Elliott made true late in 1990, when Parkin returned and coached the Blues to the 1995 flag, their last.
Parkin argued with Elliott in 1983, telling him to “raise the money, I’ll coach the club” and found that Elliott duly stuck to that request. “He didn’t knock back one thing or any request for resources,” said Parkin, who saw an unwell Elliott a matter of weeks ago.
“I’m sad that he’s passed. He’s a great loss to his family and to the world.”
Elliott organised a meeting of presidents that plotted a breakaway national competition at Macedon in 1984, a meeting that led, as Garry Linnell’s outstanding book “Football Ltd” chronicled, to the formation of the expanded VFL and then AFL, with teams in all states bar Tasmania.
“John was the crystal ball ideas man,” said Collins, who said the national expansion, from “a smaller confined market in Melbourne” had essentially “evolved from the Macedon meeting.“
The Elliott Blues defied headquarters by investing millions in grandstands at their home, only to lose out to the new Docklands stadium. He broke the rules, as Parkin acknowledged, in what cost the club “down the track.“
Another Carlton great, Mike Fitzpatrick – the premiership captain who served on Elliott’s board, was unable to persuade him to step down and later became AFL chairman – offered this tribute to Elliott:
“Big Jack Elliott was a talented, tough and inspirational Australian businessman who established an international beer conglomerate. He saved BHP when it looked like falling to the corporate raider Holmes a Court. Elders took a blocking stake which proved decisive.
“He was active in the Liberal party, and was a long time president of Carlton, presiding over two flags. He dominated the club for some 20 years.
“Meetings with him were often memorable, he was a big personality, and creative. When told he could not smoke in a meeting with a New York investment bank, he lit up anyway and used a polystyrene coffee cup for an ashtray.
“At the end of the meeting, it was riddled with burn marks, reflecting his mood in the meeting.“
All that John Elliott did at the Carlton Football reflected him, his brilliance and his excesses, his outsized successes and failures in his twilight.
Some clubs, such as Essendon under Kevin Sheedy, reflect the personality of their coach. At Carlton, the very essence of what the club stood for, for better and worse, for 19 storied years, was John Elliott.
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