Sport AFL Denis Pagan: what it’s really like at a flag reunion

Denis Pagan: what it’s really like at a flag reunion

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It was a week-and-a-half ago and I still can’t get the smile off my face.

North Melbourne’s 20-year premiership reunion was that good.

The official club function was held at the MCG on the night of July 1 and it was great to see highlights of the 1996 Grand Final as Craig Willis asked some of the players questions.

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I hadn’t really watched the 1996 decider. The week after you win a grand final, you’re in another zone, relaxed and enjoying the company of the players.

It’s one of the few times a coach can be on the same level as the playing group and really enjoy having a drink with them. Then you just focus on the next year.

I was lucky enough to make a speech about Anthony Stevens, who was inducted as a legend into North Melbourne’s Hall of Fame on the night of the reunion. That was a massive thrill.

One of my favourite stories about Anthony – which I told – played out before the 1999 Grand Final when he had wrecked his ankle. Not many would have played.

I had this test – if a player wanted to play with a bad ankle, they had to be able to hop up and down on the Tuesday and then from side to side on the Thursday.

Anthony could hardly walk on Tuesday and by Thursday he came in to my office to hop up and down. He fell over.

We still got him up to play and he made a contribution until tearing a pectoral muscle, but he continued to play with that for a couple of quarters. He was so tough.

Wayne Carey and Anthony Stevens celebrate the 1996 win. Photo: Getty
Wayne Carey and Anthony Stevens during Grand Final celebrations. Photo: Getty

At the reunion, there was a real feeling of warmth and unity in the room.

The next day we had an unofficial gathering at the Royal Mail Hotel in West Melbourne and that was even better.

It was just for the playing group, the staff and those involved in 1996.

Wayne Carey, who had TV commitments on the Friday, was there and I’m happy to say there was no awkwardness.

Wayne’s apology (Ed: about the affair he had with Anthony Stevens’ now ex-wife) has been well-documented, but I can say it was received really well. He thanked ‘Stevo’ for accepting things.

It just goes to show you the quality of person that Anthony is. He didn’t want anyone, in any way, to feel uncomfortable at any of these functions.

And as much as you don’t want to say it, in the past I have always been concerned that if you talk to Wayne, Anthony doesn’t feel comfortable – and vice versa.

You don’t want to pick sides in these things. They are very personal issues.

The 1996 team celebrate their grand final win. Photo: Getty
The 1996 team celebrate their grand final win. Photo: Getty

We had drinks with everyone and a late lunch as David King spoke about each individual and got them up for a chat.

As everyone else spoke, I just sat there with an inner glow.

It got a little embarrassing at times because so many players said they had learned so many life lessons from me. That was quite humbling.

When I was in charge, all the players said I was too hard. But my philosophy as a coach was to give tough love.

I had a two-drink policy when I was coaching.

I didn’t want to see the players drink too much and I didn’t want them to see me drink too much. But I really enjoyed the Shiraz on that Saturday.

Watch highlights from the 1996 decider below:

So many of the 1996 premiership team I was lucky enough to coach, were also under me in the Under-19s at North Melbourne – I’m talking about Stevens, Carey, Glenn Archer, Anthony Rock, Mick Martyn, Wayne Schwass, Corey McKernan, Darren Crocker and Craig Sholl.

To see them all together, happy and reminiscing, I just felt so proud.

We’ve all gone on in our lives, but I think the greatest result of that premiership was that so many people have gone on to have success in their life – be it in football or out of football.

They are a great group. And it was a great weekend. I’ve never been to a better football function.

Denis Pagan coached 344 games of AFL football with North Melbourne and Carlton, winning two premierships with the Kangaroos in 1996 and 1999. Click here for more of his columns.

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