Chris Fagan walked into his first Brisbane Lions media conference joking that perhaps he should stumble in on a walking stick.
It was 4 October 2016 and the then 55-year-old, a humble gentleman of football finally given the opportunity he had dreamed of for more than 30 years, was having a light-hearted poke at himself.
“I’m a bit like a mature-age recruit …. Hopefully I’m a trail-blazer for other 55-year-olds,” he quipped.
It was a throwaway line which at the time didn’t get any real traction, but two and a half years on it is fair to say it should have.
In fact, Fagan should have confidently walked in, standing tall, chest out, and proudly struck a blow for the long coaching apprenticeship and the belief that, eventually, good things will come to good people.
Why? Because a search through the all-time list of AFL coaches confirms the day of Fagan’s appointment to the Lions coaching job was in fact a significant moment in football history.
As he prepares this weekend to become the 164th 50-game coach in AFL history, Fagan has been found to have been the oldest first-time coach in this illustrious group.
He was aged 55 years 275days at the time of his first AFL game as coach in Round 1 2017.
He was more than four years older than the coach who ranks second on this list - the Western Bulldogs’ Brendan McCartney in 2012 – and more than seven years older than the next two on the list – St.Kilda’s Darrel Baldock and Adelaide’s Neil Craig.
Interestingly, only 31 of the 164 50-game coaches in AFL history began beyond their 40th birthday, but eight of the 31 are current AFL coaches.
The full list of 50-game coaches is:-
OLDEST FIRST-TIME AFL COACHES (min 50 games)
Fagan is the senior statesman among the 2019 AFL coaching line-up, ahead of Alan Richardson (53), Ken Hinkley (52), Ross Lyon (52), Don Pyke (50), Alastair Clarkson (59), John Worsfold (50), John Longmire (48), Luke Beveridge (48), Nathan Buckley (46), Damien Hardwick (46), Leon Cameron (46), Adam Simpson (43), Simon Goodwin and Chris and Brad Scott (42), Brendon Bolton (41) and Stuart Dew (39).
He will be 57 years 309 days when he coaches his 50th game against Gold Coast on Saturday.
Among 40 200-game coaches in AFL history he will be older than 23 of them when they finished.
By the end of his current contract, extended last year through until the end of 2021, he will be 60 years 130 days. And by then only five of the 200-game coaches will be head of him in age in their last game at the helm.
He will still be 11 years younger than the oldest AFL coach, Frank ‘Checker’ Hughes, who is a statistical anomaly. Coach at Richmond from 1927-32 and Melbourne from 1933-41 and 1945-48, Hughes was 54 years 226 days when he coached his 377th game in the 1948 grand final replay. But after 17 years in retirement he made a one-game comeback to deputise for Norm Smith at Melbourne in Round 13 1965 aged 71 years 148 days.
The other four are legends of the coaching ranks. Ranked 1-2-3-12 on the all-time list of games coached, with 2521 games and 17 premierships between them, they are Mick Malthouse, Jock McHale, Kevin Sheedy and John Kennedy.
Of these, McHale was oldest in his last game at 66 years 265 days, followed by Sheedy at 65 years 251 days, Malthouse at 61 years 278 days, and Kennedy at 60 years 246 days.
Significantly, too, Phillip Walsh, inaugural winner of the Brisbane Bears club champion award in 1987, was 55 years 21 days old when he took charge of the Adelaide Crows in Round 1 2015. Tragically, he coached only 15 games before losing his life in a domestic incident.
By the end of 2021 Fagan will have just gone past the only other person to have coached at AFL level beyond his 60th birthday - John Worrall. A five-time premiership coach at Carlton and Essendon from 1902-20, he was 60 years 40 days in his 279th and last game.
It is a remarkable story of a man who has lived and loved football since he was born on 23 June 1961 in Queenstown on the west coast of Tasmania.
A rover/forward pocket, he represented Tasmania in the 1978 Teal Cup national U17 carnival in Adelaide aged 16 and was invited to trial with Essendon.
He didn’t quite cut it with the Bombers so he did the next best thing. He went home and played 263 senior games with Hobart, Sandy Bay and Devonport, winning flags with Hobart in 1980 and Devonport in 1988, and representing Tasmania 12 times.
A qualified teacher, he only moved north from Hobart after a teaching posting to Sheffield, not far from Devonport.
Later, having hung up the boots, he was assistant-coach at North Hobart under Mark Yeates when they won a premiership in 1991-92 and took over as senior coach at Sandy Bay in 1993-94 before becoming the inaugural coach of the Tassie Mariners side that played in the then TAC Cup from 1995-97.
Among 10 Tasmanians drafted from the Fagan era were 228-game Melbourne high-flyer Russell Robertson and 155-game Fremantle/Collingwood utility Brodie Holland.
During his final season with the Mariners Fagan sent his resume to every AFL club in the hope of securing an opportunity in development. New Melbourne coach Neale Daniher gave him the job as the Demons’ Reserves coach.
He did that until the AFL Reserves competition was disbanded at the end of 1999, and then had five years as assistant-coach to Daniher at the Demons during an era in which they played in the 2000 grand final.
During his time at Melbourne he met and established a close friendship with Clarkson, who played 41 games with the club in 1996-97 after 93 games at North Melbourne from 1987-95.
When Clarkson was appointed senior coach at Hawthorn in 2005 he asked Fagan to take charge of the Hawks’ football department. Fagan declined, explaining he would not leave Daniher, who had given him his big break in football.
But when Daniher was sacked by Melbourne in mid-2007 Fagan’s link to the Demons was cut and in 2008 he joined Hawthorn as Director of Coaching and Development.
He took with him membership of the Tasmanian Football Hall of Fame, having been inducted as the 181st member in 2007 for his “overall contribution” to the game in the Apple Isle.
His role at Hawthorn saw him responsible for the appointment and training of many assistant-coaches who have gone on to be successful AFL senior coaches, including Hardwick, Simpson, Beveridge, Bolton and Cameron, plus caretaker AFL coaches John Barker and Todd VIney.
He gained a reputation as one of the foremost developmental minds in the game.
After temporarily serving as Hawthorn GM of Football in mid-2013 Fagan was appointed to the role full-time at the end of that season, finally taking on the role that Clarkson had offered him eight years earlier.
Understated but hugely respected, he was the man behind the scenes in the Hawks’ 2013-14-15 premiership hat-trick.
But as happy as he was at Hawthorn he still harboured coaching ambitions of his own, and when Justin Leppitsch was moved on from the Lions at the end of 2016 Fagan finally got his wish. And his own team.
Ironically, his first game as an AFL coach in Round 1 2017 was against the Gold Coast Suns, where Mark Evans, a long-time colleague at Hawthorn and former AFL football chief had just been appointed CEO.
At the time Rodney Eade was going into his third and ultimately final year as Suns coach, and had Fagan not been locked away at the Gabba there are many in football who believe Evans would have turned to Fagan to take charge on the Gold Coast.
It is almost fitting, then, that after he begun his AFL coaching career against the Suns, Fagan’s 50th AFL game at the helm of the Lions will also be against the Suns in Q-Clash #17.