Pushed to the limit and beyond

Robert Walls coaches Fitzroy. Robert Walls coaches Fitzroy in 1981.

On the cold open tundra of Waverley Park, nearly 30 years ago, Robert Walls was as hostile as I’d ever seen. The Fitzroy coach’s usual demeanour was so grim that a scowl construed a positive comment.

Savage outbursts were not uncommon, yet Walls had raised the bar with this new level of seething hostility. He wrenched his hands open and shut, pacing in front of the race entrance, looking, it seemed, for someone to throttle. As players came onto the ground in dribs and drabs, they quickly averted their eyes and skittered away into their warm-up lap.

Fitzroy in the early-to-mid 1980s was a good team, with Roos, Pert and Osborne emerging, alongside old champions in Quinlan and Garry Wilson. The previous Saturday this team had put in a ”soft pissweak performance” and was easily beaten. Add to that it was against Walls’ old club, Carlton, and you start to understand Walls’ ignominy.

Yet what tipped Walls over the edge was finding a large number of players in the medical rooms, in high spirits, awaiting treatment for various injuries, real or feigned. Walls’ lividity at not having all the culprits from his team available for the torturous Tuesday evening training session he had so meticulously planned, was quietly terrifying.

As we gathered in front of Walls on this wintry eve, awaiting retribution, I realised this was the likely fulfilment of the nightmarish potential I had detected two years earlier.

My first clear memory of meeting Walls was arriving at Bulleen Park in January 1983 for my debut pre-season training session. He was wearing short running shorts and a singlet and was bellowing instructions at 60-odd Fitzroy hopefuls, all similarly garbed.

Sweat dominated, dripping off hair-matted foreheads, rolling from under bushy armpits, glistening hairy chests, and staining those short shorts. I was late, lithe, and to be honest, a little scared. When he spotted me, and scowled, I knew then I should run, to get away from this dreadful man.

But no, I naively put on short shorts, a singlet, and joined in what was a hard and torturous pre-season training campaign. For months I slept, ached, ate and trained, which allowed me to survive the near on three hours while Robert Walls extracted his pound of flesh.

He hounded and exhorted us into exhaustion, using all the contested training drills he could come up with, including corridor football with full-on shepherding, tackling, bumping and, of course, one-on-one contested drills.

During a contested man-on-man drill something remarkable happened. You know the drill, where the coach would roll, flick, kick, handball, throw the ball out in any direction he chose and two players at a time would battle each other to give it back to him – only to see the ball slapped away again, and the battle resumed, and so on until the coach thought you’d battled manfully enough and looked thoroughly exhausted and then you rested while two others went through the same thing.

If your kick or handball back to Walls was inaccurate, he would just let it sail past, rumble ”not good enough” and make you battle it out all over again. If he thought you were waxing with your opponent, or were one of the particularly poor players on the previous Saturday, or were faking exhaustion, then he kept you going until you could barely get off the ground, just to make sure.

Sometimes when you won a clear ball, the desire was to run right up to Walls and slam it into that soft paunch of his. And, as he bent over, to drive him into the ground, such was the frustration of this training night. But of course this never happened.

What did happen, which seemed remarkable, was that the lights went out. The dark descended like a loving cloak, leaving only a small pool of light illuminating the ground near the players’ race. Walls’ curses echoed off the stands, rolling off into the distance, but the lights remained off.

Eventually, Walls went to find out the problem while players jogged a slow warm-down lap thinking training had finished. I wondered who had the temerity to switch the main light towers off? And would they be found out?

When Walls re-emerged from the race, preceded, I swear, by the silhouette of a large grizzly bear, and followed by all the ”injured” players from the medical room, I had an answer.

Relief immediately turned to apprehension. Walls arranged all players in a large circle with arms outstretched, crucifixion style, and asked us to think about our game and whether we wanted to be a part of this club. I thought about a warm shower, mostly, and about how hungry I was, and about my first game under Walls.

Fitzroy had lost the first four or five games of the ’84 season and Walls was at his wits’ end. He dropped a couple of senior players and picked a couple of kids. I came on in the second quarter and was put in the forward pocket, with the message to change on ball with Garry Wilson. All quarter I waited to get a signal from Wilson to change, but it never came.

Walls asked pointedly at half-time why I hadn’t given Wilson a rest. I replied he hadn’t asked for one. ”Well make sure you change this quarter. You signal him, OK?”

The third quarter passed while I tried to get Wilson to change, but he wasn’t about to change with a kid from the country. I told Walls at three-quarter-time I had tried but Wilson didn’t want to change. Scores were close and he gave me his scowl and said if I didn’t change this last quarter then I was off. Five minutes into the last quarter I signalled Wilson to change and didn’t get a response so went on the ball as well. Then the runner comes out and says, ”The coach wants to know why you’re both on the ball?”

Unbeknown to me, the coach was gauging my mettle. Wilson was renowned for not changing off the ball; he was a fitness freak and could manage it. Walls was just seeing what I’d do. I kicked two goals and we won the game and I’m sure I saw a glimpse of a rare smile. A feast for a frustrated young kid.

But this night was no feast, at least not for the players. Arms were trembling with fatigue. Backs were beginning to bend to ease our shoulders, not to mention the weather closing in. Walls had gone up the race and was most likely trying to find out who switched off the lights, or was watching us from the darkness of the stands. We didn’t know which. The urge to drop my arms for just a second was strong, but I wasn’t going to be the first. So we stood arms forced out horizontally, in a bedraggled Monty Python portrayal of pilgrims re-enacting a Biblical scene.

When Walls came back he said, ”Keep your arms up Micky”. To which Conlan replied, ”You’d struggle too Wallsy if you had arms this big”. Walls glared a minute before saying that as soon as the first person dropped their arms we could all go and have a warm shower, just be sure to let him know who that player was. Rain fell, lightning flashed, thunder rolled, as Walls disappeared up the race. Nobody dropped their arms.

It may seem strange to hear that this article is a tribute to Robert Walls.

Yes, Walls gave many players the opportunity to push far beyond preconceived mental limits. And gave many players the chance to become far better than they were through sustained hard work and perseverance. Cheers Robert Walls.

Tim Pekin played 219 games with Fitzroy (1984-89, under Robert Walls in 1984-85) and St Kilda (1990-95).

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