Writing his memoirs of the five-decades that he played a starring role at Hawthorne, Collingwood and Brisbane, almost got the better of the man known as Lethal Leigh.
“Had I known how time consuming it would be I probably wouldn’t have written it,” Leigh Matthews says of his book called Accept the Challenge. “I’m a 61-year-old grandfather now, mild and mellow. When I looked back at my past for this project, I recalled how driven I was and how callous and brutal and egotistical and selfish I was,” he says. “I don’t particular like my younger self and I have a lot of regrets but I don’t know if I would change anything, because if you change one thing you change everything. If you’ve got a choice between being a rule-bending winner and a squeaky clean loser, I’ll be the rule-bending winner with a guilty conscience every time.” He was named AFL Player of the Century, which all started after kicking a goal on debut for Hawthorne in 1969, and winning the club’s Best First Year Player of the season. By the time he unlaced his boots for the final time, Matthews had won four premierships, a Coleman Medal, was named in the 1972 All Australian Team and inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame. But of the many accolades of which he is proud, his statue outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground standing beside legendary cricketer Don Bradman and famous Olympian Betty Cuthbert stands above the rest. There are incidents he’d rather forget, like the one when he broke an opponent’s jaw and was later criminally charged. “It was bit scary when you’re 16 playing against grown men in suburban footy, especially in those days,” he says recalling playing for Victorian club, Chelsea. “I remember one game we played against Hastings; they were a fairly rough and tough team. I was playing on a guy who was older than me and he kept saying to me throughout the game ‘get another kick and I’m going to knock you out’. From there I developed a plan which I stuck to for the rest of my career and that was if there was going to be a hitter and a hittee, I was always going to be the hitter. I remember walking off the field that day thinking that wasn’t very nice and I made myself a pact that I was never going to be the victim. It’s a distinct memory that I didn’t like being this little kid who was stood over and intimidated.” Matthews made good of the pact and his physical strength and killer instinct made him one of the most feared footballers playing the game. Impressive as his playing career was, hindsight shows that the legend of Leigh Matthews was only beginning. After a brief apprenticeship as assistant coach at Collingwood, Matthews stepped into one of the most sort after jobs in AFL as the Magpies head coach in 1986 and went on to coach 224 games in 10 seasons with the 1990 premiership adding to his previous four titles as a player at Hawthorne. In 1995, the Collingwood hierarchy sacked Matthews but he had the last laugh a few years later when he was lured out of retirement and moved north to coach the Brisbane Lions. Within weeks, Matthews turned the Lions around and in 2001 they defeated Essendon in the grand final and backed it up by defeating Collingwood in consecutive finals in 2002-03. Matthews is to AFL what Bart Cummings is to horse racing and Dick Johnson to car racing – trailblazers who created indelible memories for generations to come. Accept the Challenge published by Random House and available now. RRP$45.