Sometimes, it only takes people to change places. In the space of 12 months, someone changed UHSVU Colts Football Club from laughing stock to VAFA Premiers. That someone was Marcus Butera.
On the 23rd August 2014, UHSVU Colts bowed out of the VAFA with a 19-point loss at home to Williamstown. It was an inglorious end to a difficult campaign that had yield just three wins from 18 starts. Over the previous three years, the club had finished in the bottom two, winning seven out of a possible 52 games in that period. Morale was low, and many players were contemplating leaving the game all together. A coach in the dying embers of his tenure gave what was to be his final address, trying to put a positive spin on the season, talking about the “great strides” the playing group had made. None of it really resonated with the players. They knew he was gone. Finals, let alone a premiership, looked a lifetime away.
Fast-forward three hundred and eight-one days. On a hot, windy day in Cragieburn, Marcus Butera, an out-of-the-blue coach riding a wave of momentum and newfound optimism, and Ezza Ramsey, long-time captain and league best and fairest winner, proudly lift the VAFA Colts Premiership cup aloft. A thumping 71-point win, despite going in as underdogs, completes UHSVU’s utterly incomprehensible turnaround. From laughing stock, they transformed into premiers in one season.
But how did so much change, and so quickly?
The answer lies in a less-than-six-foot, bald headed primary school teacher, barely known to anyone in the side last year. A man who brought an edge to a club that lacked identity. A man who brought a sense of culture to a club where none had stood. A man who inspired 31 blokes to get the best out of themselves, when for ten years most of them had barely given a yelp.
Marcus Butera is an intense man. The eyes give that away. They’re a boxer’s eyes. It becomes very clear early in our interview that he thinks about things in a deeper manner than most had previously realised.
We start with his coaching background. “I first (got into coaching by) helping out a family friend’s basketball team aged 19. It was the worst first session ever. I overtaught the kids; tried to teach them every detail. In the end, I found my feet. One of the dads there, I learned a lot off him.”
Walking into UHSVU, Butera admits he was nervous “within himself”. A flash of nostalgia touches his face, “There were a few faces I’d seen, but some I hadn’t. I wasn’t sure about the group. Where they going to be good enough to have success?”
One of the hardest pre-seasons in club history put paid to some of the doubts. The team jumped on board with Marcus’ intense style of coaching, a clear expression of trust, and by Australia Day, confidence was sky high. “It was impressive that he (Butera) worked the boys so hard, but (they) all still bought in.” adds long-time runner Adrian Legudi, father of Myles and Tyler, two stalwarts of the side.
Myles Legudi – the eventual club Best and Fairest winner – concedes that there was still little optimism about landing that elusive flag. “Probably not until Mazenod (were promoted) after Round 7 (they were seven wins from seven at the time), did I think we were a real shot.” He had noticed an improvement in the mood around the club though, particularly socially. “Yeah, I’d say (there was a closer team bond) this year. Last year was pretty close too, but this year we hung out with more people off the field, more often.” Asked about his initial impressions of Butera, he laughs, “Ahhh…crazy! Very full on. He has a goal in mind, and knows how to get there.” Indeed, Butera had a goal greater than what the team knew at that point.
Pre-season had taught the squad a few things, not least that the adaptation to a new game-style would take time. “The game-plan is based around boxing and basketball strategy. I wanted to trap teams in a corner. To be aggressive in defence with our press, and conservative when we attack (by taking it wide and ‘killing’ the ball).” Butera’s strategy is best summed up in the speech he gave before Round 1, complete with a PowerPoint presentation, explaining to the boys what the game plan was all about. “Either we win, or no one fucking wins.”
A fitter, harder UHSVU strode out in Round 1 to play Williamstown, on a balmy April afternoon on the west coast of Melbourne. Fittingly, the last game of last season had been against the same side, albeit at home. This would be a measure of progress. The Colts ran out 15-point winners, the scoreline reversed from last season by two largely similar sides. The campaign was rolling.
Butera had tempered expectations of the season, despite the hype around the club. “The practice game (before Williamstown), was important, because it gave us an idea of what it would be like. I knew after Williamstown that we at least wouldn’t finish in the bottom two or three. But not (the expectation of) finals yet, I didn’t know the competition.”
Despite close losses to Ivanhoe (“We were robbed” – Butera) and Mazenod, the two favourites for the flag, expectations increased exponentially. The side was playing not yet with swagger, but with a renewed sense of self, of personality. They had style, and it was difficult to beat. Asked whether he was surprised how quickly the team was buying into his philosophy, he admits he was, “but I can understand why. They hadn’t had success and so there was a collective thought of ‘we haven’t got anything to lose, so lets go for it.’” He admits the Mazenod loss was the turning point for his expectations, with the side going down by just 24 points, having been almost in front with ten minutes remaining, and despite two 100-point losses to the same side last year. “Definitely after the Mazenod loss (expectations increased). After the Uni Blues game the next week (an 127-point thumping) I thought finals were pretty much guaranteed. (Backtracking, he then adds, “on the path we were on.”)”
Vice-captain Fraser Allen agrees. “It wasn’t until we lost to Mazenod by three or four goals, knowing that they were last year’s premiers, that I thought we had a good shot at making finals.”
The side, buoyed by the confidence of being competitive again, made a statement, winning the next seven games after Mazenod before slipping up by four points at home to St. Bernards, who were emerging as a genuine premiership threat, along with Ivanhoe. “St. Bernards was the loss we had to have,” Butera admits, “but we couldn’t have lost it under better circumstances. It showed that if we improved a few things, we could beat anyone.”
It meant that Daniel Carcour, long-time trustee of Butera, was brought down to the club. “We weren’t clear how to score on the turnover.” Butera reasons as to why Carcour suddenly appeared from nowhere. But indeed, suddenly, the press, the embodiment of the UHSVU style, became a whole lot more dangerous. Full-forward Matt Mallia got his swagger back, and Spencer Haren, a crossover from soccer in 2015, feasted on what Mallia couldn’t get. A firing forward line could now combine with a midfield full of grunt and class, and a defence that had conceded the least points all year. Butera’s puzzle was falling into place.
However, it was the win against Ivanhoe the following week that entrenched UHSVU as the premiership favourites. As Butera put it at the time, “We’ve gone from optimism, to expectation, now it becomes domination.” A rampant second half was enough for a 16-point victory, entrenching the Colts in the top two.
UHSVU had emerged as unlikely favourites, an extremely diverse group full of people of different races, religion, and wealth. Yet footy brought them together, in a way only team sport can do. Although Butera admits being worried about “splinter groups” when he first met the group, Allen believes it helped, not least the large African presence in the side. “It gave us a bit of flair.” Fittingly, Mohamed “Fish” Mohamed, only a 50-50 chance to play for the Colts in pre-season, won Best on Ground in the Grand Final.
There was still one more challenge to get through, before finals. As many AFL coaches say, a team is measured for its premiership credentials on its ability to win despite adversity. UHSVU encountered Point Cook, away from home, on the 4th July at 2pm. Down to 22 fit players, with 3 of those players playing severely injured, with the loss of a rotation after quarter time, and with several of the Muslim contingent playing without food or water because of Ramadan, UHSVU pulled off an astonishing two-point win.
“I was worried about Point Cook,” admits Butera, “But that win showed me this team had guts. If a game was on the line, we would win.” Confident and now dominant, the Colts didn’t lose for the rest of the home and away season.
Beginning their first finals campaign for five seasons, UHSVU were rocked by a virus that affected almost half the squad. The side went down by 20 points to Ivanhoe that day. Butera had to find a way to motivate his players.
It came in what Allen described as the best speech Butera gave all season. “He told us that the statistics didn’t show what we deserved, that we had battled our way to a point where we could nearly win.” It was a game UHSVU had no right to win, and didn’t. The result may have put Ivanhoe into the Grand Final, but the game it set the tone for UHSVU’s final series.
An eight-day break followed, with the Preliminary Final against LaTrobe, who had upset an inaccurate St. Bernards in the Elimination Final. It was here Butera faced arguably his biggest challenge as coach. At quarter-time, UHSVU were down 2.3 to 0.4. Latrobe looked good, and the Colts jittery. Butera knew how to stop the rot though.
“The message was overall very positive. I implored the midfield group to stand up, because we were losing the clearance count. I doubted (if we could win the flag from there a little bit), (especially) after the Ivanhoe loss, but sometimes when you lose, you really win.” UHSVU went on to kick 16 of the next 17 goals, and romped into a Grand Final.
Underdogs, UHSVU started the Grand Final shakily, yet so did Ivanhoe, who only led 2.6 to 1.0 despite being helped by a strong wind. A 6.9 to 0.0 second quarter settled Colts’ nerves, and the flag was theirs to lose. Allen says he was sure of it “by the first goal of the last quarter.” It came off the back of a three-quarter time speech Butera rates as the “best I gave all year. A couple of the senior boys said they wanted to pull the jumper on after that one.” In a testament to his coaching, despite a 28-point lead, he didn’t want to be defensive. “Just fucking kill them!” still echoes in many minds, more than a month after the game. A six goal to none last quarter settled the game itself. A journey, an astonishing one, was complete. Indeed, several VAFA journalists, who had made some none-too-kind predictions at the beginning of the year, and even throughout, were left red-faced.
Like every feel-good story, however, there is an equal hard-luck one, and it came in the players who missed out. Butera admits that the first thought upon winning the flag was “Sadness, for the all guys that missed out.” Asked if there’s anyone in particular, he cites Toby Kruisheer, cruelled by injury just before finals, and Milton Morise, an unlucky victim of a tactical alteration. “I felt sorry for them, because they didn’t do anything wrong.” Overall, however, he feels proud, “It’s a different feeling to being a player.”
It takes a lot to win a flag, no matter what level you play at. For 11 months, every player had to buy into a club, a style, a coach, and a culture. “I thought about football everyday,” both Butera and Allen admit. Premierships are tough. But they don’t come much tougher than Marcus Butera. As he sips his beer and prepares to head home, there is a quiet satisfaction about him. But, as we begin to talk about what’s ahead for next season, the personality that makes him such a successful coach is revealed. I ask him straight out, “can UHSVU go back-to-back next season?”
He doesn’t hesitate.