The Invisible Man - Akermanis Remains on the Outer

The football career of Jason Akermanis is littered with quality career moments; from his Brownlow Medal triumph to his premiership-sealing goal against Collingwood in 2002. With his mismatched blonde hair and dark goatee, “Aker” became a household name, partly due to his sublime skill with the ball, and partly due to his constant engagements with the media. As part of the rampant Brisbane Lions, he had the football world at his feet.

But part of his great appeal was also what brought him undone.

As we are about to embark on the 2018 AFL season, Jason Akermanis is non-entity in the football landscape. One of the most entertaining characters in the last twenty years of footy is nowhere to be seen. As shows like The Footy Show rebooted to appeal to a new audience, someone like Aker would have been an ideal addition. Outspoken, controversial and confident enough in his own views to espouse them rather than parroting others, he should be a star of the football media. However, football and media bigwigs, seemingly, are a little too precious to handle that which they actually desire from their talent – a personality.

Akermanis is honest to a fault. It’s the sort of trait you’d want in a close friend. He’ll tell you the truth irrespective of how it affects him and pay the price for his words if there is one to pay. In the football world, he has been paying a price for years.

When a team is winning, success paints nicely over the cracks.

While the Brisbane Lions were winning premierships, the “out there” antics of Jason Akermanis were embraced at best, and tolerated at worst. It’s easy to smile and nod while you’re winning. The little things don’t seem to matter as much. Aker wants to do a handstand after we win? Sure, we won… who cares? Aker is on radio commenting on the way we played on the weekend? We won though, right? Yeah, then that’s OK.

The true test of tolerance comes when things aren’t going so well. Look at it like a relationship. Early on, all is flowers and exciting dates. Every day is a new adventure, and you’re spending time with someone you want to be with. You’re winning!

Your new partner occasionally leaves opened jars on the bench, but it’s not a big deal – after all, you’re winning! They squeeze the toothpaste from the middle of the tube all the time, or leave the toilet seat up, but neither of those are a big deal, right? You’re winning!

As time ticks by, you find yourself constantly throwing away food that’s been left out, and you always seem to be putting the toilet seat down and adjusting the toothpaste tube… that stuff gets old. If things overall aren’t going as well as they used to, the little things start getting bigger. When the honeymoon period is over, people start looking for faults, and whether it’s at a footy club, or in a relationship, if you’re looking for something wrong, you’ll inevitably find it. When Brisbane weren’t seeing wins, Akermanis’ antics were harder to dismiss.

Aker’s ten years in Brisbane is a period that will, in the end, be looked upon fondly. His exquisite skills and over-the-top personality were a huge part of the Lions team that won three consecutive premierships. There was an air of confidence that bordered on cockiness about the Lions, and plenty of that had to do with Aker. Even those watching him rip their team to shreds had to nod in appreciation when he turned on the jets and broke their hearts.

If any moment summed up the brilliance of Jason Akermanis, it was his two goals in two minutes against Geelong in 2005. On his right foot, and with a soaking wet ball, he kicked across his body from the boundary line. He lifted the crowd to its feet as the ball sailed through. It was the kind of goal you’d commentate to yourself about as you played in the backyard as a kid.

He then upped the difficulty, ran closer to the boundary line, and somehow did it again. In celebration, Aker placed one hand on top of his head and the other over his mouth, in mock surprise. Teammate, Ash McGrath rushed in and lifted him off his feet. McGrath knew what he’d just seen – some of the purest footballing skill you’ll ever see.

Aker did the spectacular in Brisbane, and he did it often, but he was more than just a highlight reel. His 2001 Brownlow is testament to hard work and dedication. The fact that the hard work and commitment was a wrapper for raw natural talent should never lead anyone to discount how he toiled for the team.

As hard as he worked on-field, Aker started to work just as hard off it. TV gigs, radio shows, newspaper columns – people wanted to hear from Aker, and Aker wanted to be heard. It was nice supplementary income, and his honest assessment of not only his own performance or flaws, but of the team and the coaching decisions were a welcome change from the stilted, formulaic responses you read and hear from most players.

Sadly, once the Lions weren’t winning as often, the paint covering the cracks started to chip away. Once the cracks were exposed, it seemed that every word Akermanis uttered made them look less like a crack, and more like an irreparable fracture. The damage expanded further when Aker criticized a man above criticism at Brisbane – Leigh Matthews.

In his regular column in the Courier-Mail in 2006, Aker stated the Lions needed to get better at rotations. He’d just played a game where three opponents had rotated on him throughout the day and he wasn’t being rested, himself. He believed he saw the way football was heading that day, and thought the Lions were a little behind. It was a barely disguised shot at the coach, and Lethal wasn’t pleased.

“I just pushed the wrong button. He took it personally, and he should have. There's nothing wrong with the reaction. I don't have anyone else to blame,” said Akermanis in his 2012 ‘Open Mike’ interview on Fox Footy.

It marked the beginning of the end for Aker in Brisbane.

If that was step one towards the door, completely ignoring the instructions of Michael Voss had him crossing the threshold.

After a loss to Sydney, Voss spoke to the players about being careful in regards to their comments to the press. It was a dicey time for Brisbane, with one win from their past five games. Caution was required. Akermanis went about his media duties during the week without heeding his captain’s wishes. A trust had been broken.

Though he is now a life member, and entrenched in the Brisbane Hall of Fame, in 2006, he became ‘persona non grata’ at the Lions. Moving to another club seemed his only option.

The Western Bulldogs were a seemingly nice fit for Akermanis, but his four years there failed to elevate them. It was unfair to place that burden on Aker. The Bulldogs also recruited Barry Hall to prop their team up for a tilt at the premiership, and while they made the preliminary final in 2008, 2009 and 2010, they were unable to get over the hump and into a Grand Final.

Akermanis claims he did what he could to fit in, including taking a pay cut and trying to adhere to the team philosophies. People on the other side state quite the opposite.

By 2010, his presence at the Whitten Oval had become divisive. Whether this was or wasn’t entirely Akermanis’ fault, we’ll never really know. According to him, their leadership was nothing like the strong unit at Brisbane, and would become hysterical over small things. Bob Murphy in particular was sand in Acker’s Vaseline.

In his 2010 book, Open Season, Akermanis claims that Murphy was “always nice as pie to my face but, as soon as I turned away, it was a different story”.

When later asked about Murphy, Akermanis doubled down.

''I got enough feedback via other teammates to know he was often very critical of me and would accuse me of being selfish. He was always very tight with Ben Hudson, Shaun Higgins and Daniel Giansiracusa. I always felt that whenever the focus was on me, those four would take every chance they could to criticise me - but only within the safety of big group sessions.”

The book prompted an extraordinarily embarrassing article in The Age, from current Bulldogs president, Peter Gordon, under the guise of a book review.

“Western Bulldogs chief executive Campbell Rose asked me to look at the Jason Akermanis book and give some legal advice to various people around the club who had been the subject of sportsmen's night abuse, courtesy of Akermanis. I had the dubious privilege of reading it over the weekend, an unpleasant task more than rewarded by the team's gutsy fightback win on Saturday night.
I'm going to tell them all not to bother … either reading it or responding to it. The book is just a tantrum in paperback. It's a grown man sitting in a giant cot and clanging his keyboard against the sides demanding attention.”

Gordon’s ‘review’ had no finesse and was not befitting someone of his stature in the AFL world. It reflected badly on Akermanis, but in the end it’s also a blight on Gordon and his beloved Bulldogs. If Akermanis’ book was a tantrum in paperback”, Gordon’s effort in print wasn’t much better. One dummy-spit warranted another.

Full article from Gordon here.

One wonders how much it must irk Aker now, watching Bob Murphy fully entrenched in the football media, as Akermanis goes from coaching country footy to selling cyber-security options.

Akermanis had his radio career on the Sunshine Coast cut short after he made the mistake of speaking about Jim Stynes in less than glowing terms.

“He was a nasty man in his day,” said Akermanis, indicating that Stynes didn’t take a backward step on the footy field. He also questioned whether Stynes should’ve received a state funeral. “Do all players get a state funeral? There’s something about it all that just makes me feel uncomfortable. Jim’s good, but is he that good?”

Several players responded on Twitter, with comments ranging from “Show some respect” from former Demons captain, Brad Green, to “I think Aker may have finally done his dash. #low” from former Tiger great, Matthew Richardson.

The inhabitants of the footballing world are usually a forgiving bunch. Enough time in footy purgatory is considered atonement for a player’s misdeeds. Eventually they are invited back into the fold. Wayne Carey now sits comfortably in the Channel 7 commentary team despite his friendship and team-destroying indiscretions. Ben Cousins works part time at the West Coast Eagles after being a renowned drug user and a stint in jail. Even Barry Hall had a regular gig on Fox Footy despite his thugishness. Right now, Jason Akermanis is not part of the footballing fraternity at all. You’ve got to ask – why?

Is it because people in high places do not want him reaping rewards from a game they believe he abused? If Peter Gordon’s book review in The Age is any indication, he has no love at all for Aker. If Gordon doesn’t have time for him, would any of his well-placed, influencial friends? Akermanis spoke publically about former AFL CEO, Andrew Demetriou’s reluctance to speak to him, take his calls or answer the question why he can’t get work with the AFL.

Is it because burning bridges at one club is acceptable in the world of the AFL, but burning them at two is definitely taboo?  Or were the careless comments about a recently-passed hero the straw that broke the camel’s back? As a football great, if you toe the line for the AFL, is there any transgression that is too much to come back from? Apparently not, unless you're Akermanis.

Is it because the media is risk-averse, and don’t want people who will swim against the current and openly say what they think? Is it a better idea to hire the Luke Darcys or Cameron Lings of the world to repetitively tell us what is “breeyant” and what isn’t.

Or could it be that those who have accused Akermanis of being difficult to work with actually have a point? How can he have possibly been misunderstood by all of them?

 “I could never work out whether the series of conflicts that arose with Aker were just random or cleverly planned. He was already contracted (to Brisbane) for the 2007 season, but I think he saw himself as the next Sam Newman and just maybe wanted to get to Melbourne to pursue the greater AFL media opportunities down south.” – Leigh Matthews.

If Aker did have an ulterior motive in leaving Brisbane to capitalise on opportunities available in Melbourne, it certainly hasn’t panned out the way he intended. He is a man without a face in the AFL media landscape; a landscape that is often full of uncharismatic yes-men and those too frightened to express a real opinion. Akermanis would spice it up, at the very least.

It’s a shame he is no longer part of our football experience.