Barry Cable

Barry Cable

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BARRY Cable is standing in his living room of his South Perth home, detailing the intricacies of the drop kick.

He scurries off to a spare bedroom and reappears with a ceremonial Burley football, his career achievements carefully written on it with black Texta.

Cable, 68, motions to Herald Sun photographer Michael Dodge – “Stand over there” – and proceeds to explain that the art of a good drop kick is to ensure that when the ball is dropped it hits the ground on a 45-degree angle.

“You use the long follow through for the drop kick, the shorter follow through for the stab pass,” he says.

Cable, who is wearing slacks and leather shoes, demonstrates by drilling an eight-metre stab pass at Dodge’s chest. And another. “See?” he asks, repeating the kick half a dozen times.

In the kitchen his devoted wife Helen, whom he met when they were teenagers and married 47 years ago, looks up from a plate of freshly baked cakes and slices, with a facial expression that suggests this is not the first time she has seen this sort of activity in the house.

Another left-foot stab pass slaps into Dodge’s hands. Behind him is a full-length cabinet, its glass doors displaying the family’s best china and wine glasses. Asked later whether she has any reservations about having a football repeatedly propelled in that direction, Helen smiles.

“Not about Barry’s kicking,” she says.

Those who saw Cable play regard the Western Australian rover as one of the most skilful footballers to have laced on a boot. He was like Gary Ablett Jr and Cyril Rioli rolled into one package.

A key player in North Melbourne’s 1975 and 1977 premierships, he was brilliant at finding the ball and even better at using it.

Forwards such as Malcolm Blight and Doug Wade would not have to break stride as Cable delivered his stab passes into their outstretched hands. Even on the muddy suburban grounds of the era.

“The difference between a drop kick and a drop punt is the difference between a telegram and a letter,” Cable laughs.

It was during his time at North that Ron Barassi, a coach Cable greatly admired, instructed him to abandon stab passes.

“He came up to me one day and said ‘Cabes, I think you need to give the drop kicks away’. And I said ‘Why is that?’

”He told me that some of the other players were trying to kick them but kept mucking up, so in effect I was a bad example. He wanted drop punts instead.

“I said ‘Anyone can kick a drop punt, it’s the easiest kick of all time. A six-year-old kid can kick them’.

“I made sure that at training I used to deliberately do a couple when I knew he was watching, just to see him roll his eyes and mutter a few curses.”

Cable is also widely accepted as the game’s finest exponent of the handpass, and takes great pride in having never lost a handballing competition.

The closest anyone came was when Graham “Polly” Farmer and Sam Newman tied scores with him on the World of Sport TV show, but he defeated both in playoffs.

“When I was at North I worked in an office in Coburg and used to set up handball targets down the other end of the hallway,” he says.

“When I was at North I worked in an office in Coburg and used to set up handball targets down the other end of the hallway,” – Barry Cable

He also used to aim at chair legs, visualising they belonged to the socks of a teammate outside a pack of players.

While at North he used to leave a paper cup of water strategically positioned near an unsuspecting teammate – often Wade – and then would arrow a pinpoint handball to send the liquid flying over him.

Cable said he could barely remember a time as a boy when he did not have a football in his hands.

Born and raised in the wheatbelt town of Narrogin, 200km southeast of Perth, he was the youngest of 11 children.

His father, Edward, died when he was six, and he was raised by his mother Dorothy, an Aboriginal woman from whom he inherited his blond hair.

At he age of  11, Cable was reprimanded by the school headmaster for devoting too much time to footy, but by the time he was 15 he was playing for the Narrogin senior team.

Only a two-year stint as a butcher’s apprentice stopped him from heading to the city sooner to try his luck in the Western Australian Football League.

After being brushed off by East Fremantle, who believed he was too small at 168cm, the teenaged Cable signed with Perth, the club that would produce Buddy Franklin four decades later.

Cable quickly established himself, winning a Sandover medal when he was 20 and finishing runner-up in the award by one vote in each of the next three seasons before winning it again in 1968.

Over his 18-year career with Perth, North Melbourne and East Perth, Cable would win eight premierships and 23 medals, including three Sandovers and eight club best-and-fairest awards. His record lacks nothing when compared with any footballer in the game’s history.

Like many of the great Western Australian footballers of that time, Cable was reluctant to cross the Nullarbor to play in the Victorian Football League.

His first coach at Perth was Ern Henfry, who had captained Carlton to the 1947 premiership, and he tipped off Blues coach Ken Hands about the gifted young rover.

So in 1964 Carlton invited Cable to Princes Park, signing him on a “Form Four” that ensured it was the only VFL club he could play for over the next two years.

The Blues kept at him to make the switch, even more so after Cable won the Tassie medal for best player at the Australian carnival in Hobart in 1966, and they discovered that “a few other clubs including Richmond were sniffing around”.

Yet Cable said he was not interested in the various overtures until North Melbourne secretary Ron Joseph lobbed on his doorstep in 1969 and made a compelling case to join the Kangaroos.

“It was not about money or anything like that,” Cable said. “Ron just impressed me with his loyalty and his argument that the only way North was going to get better was if the good players came in and helped out.”

Several people warned Cable that North was a basket case, but he lined up with the Roos in 1970. The team would only win four games that season, finishing wooden spooners, but Cable won the club championship and was the Brownlow favourite, finishing fourth behind Swan Peter Bedford.

A clause in his contract, under which North would have to pay $75,000 to Perth to retain Cable in 1971, meant that he headed back west.

However, the Roos were building a team to win their elusive maiden premiership, and Cable was back at Arden Street in 1974, taking his place alongside recruits such as Wade, Barry Davis, Brent Crosswell and John Rantall.

He counts North’s 1975 flag among his career highlights.

“That’s what I went there for in the first place,” he said. “I wanted to help them win that first premiership. All these old supporters coming up to me after the match saying they never thought they’d see the day.”

Cable said he retained a special bond with the North players from that era: “Whenever we see each other it just feels like it was yesterday.”

Although Cable had several chances, through state football, to prove himself against the finest footballers in the land, he relished his five seasons in the VFL because they afforded him the opportunity to cement his standing in the game.

He felt he never lowered his colours to the champion VFL rovers of the time, such as Leigh Matthews, Kevin Bartlett and Rod Ashman.

In fact he regards his game against Matthews in the 1977 preliminary final – when he had 38 disposals including three goals – as one of his finest matches.

It was also an era in which Cable and Carlton’s Syd Jackson were the only two Aboriginal footballers playing regular senior football in the VFL.

“But it was never a major issue for me,” Cable said. “I got called names, like a lot of people did back then, but it never bothered me. I was too focused on what I had to do, I couldn’t be bothered with anything people did to try to put me off my game.”

When North Melbourne won its second flag in 1977, coach Barassi – with his  bristling moustache, wide lapels and royal blue suit – charged on to the MCG to celebrate with his team.

The first player he embraced was Cable, in what would turn out to be the 34-year-old’s final game for the Roos.

The rover returned home to captain-coach East Perth to a flag in 1978, but was soon back at Arden St Oval.

In the middle of July in 1981, Cable had reported for his first day at work with a sports video company in Perth. The phone rang. It was Ron Joseph, sounding him out about coaching North.

Cable, presuming he meant the 1982 season, said he was open to the idea.

“Umm, so when can you get here?” Joseph asked.

It became clear that the offer was effective immediately. In the first year of the post-Barassi era, captain-coach Blight was at the end of his tether and had asked the club to sound out his former teammate about taking the reins.

Cable boarded a flight at midnight and the following day was at North training to address a group of players that included a first-year player called Andrew Demetriou.

That Saturday the struggling Roos had a nine-point win over Footscray, with Blight booting 11 goals.

Within a couple of seasons the new coach had the Roos back at the top of the ladder.

It is fitting that he becomes the first Kangaroos player bestowed legend status in the Australian Football Hall of Fame.

This article was originally published in the Herald Sun