If you were to summarise the career of Phil Carman, the word ‘eventful’ would likely cover most bases.
Immensely talented, exceptionally fit in a time where some players got by on talent alone, and with a penchant for elevating his game on the big stage, Carman was an attraction in both the SANFL and VFL for years. He was a lightning rod for controversy, at one point sitting out of the game for two years due to a contractual wrangle between Collingwood and Norwood. He was suspended in the 1977 second semi-final against Hawthorn. It cost him the chance to play in the ‘77 drawn Grand Final, and the replay.
Would there have even been a replay had Carman been available for the first game? He was coming off four goals and 17 touches against the Hawks.
Whatever the perception of Carman up until 1980 – brilliant or brute – it all changed the day he headbutted boundary umpire, Graham Carbery.
At that point, the rollercoaster of Carman’s career took a drastic dip for the worst and it never really peaked again.
We’ll get into that particular day a little more, but this isn’t just about knocking Carman for that one incident. He was obviously no angel, as outlined above. However, he was a champion of the game, and prior to this game against St Kilda in the 1980 season, he was playing some excellent footy at Essendon.
The incident occurred in Round Four against the Saints. In the three weeks prior, Carman was averaging 20 disposals and two goals per game. If you need to know why those numbers are so good, have a gander at how many players have combined those two averages in a season over the last ten years.
None, that’s how many.
Carman’s suspension for headbutting Carbery and an earlier clip he gave the Saints’ Gary Sidebottom earned him 20 weeks on the sidelines, and in many ways, ended his reign as one of the more potent players in the game.
In the years prior to that incident, Carman had never averaged under 14 touches per game. Upon returning to the Bombers following his suspension , he averaged just 7.50 in six games for the 1981 season. In 1982, he moved out of Windy Hill and moved back up to 10.23 as he ran around for North Melbourne. He did manage two bags of four goals for the Kangaroos, but after so long on the sidelines, the magic seemed to dissipate and after that year, he was gone.
On that fateful day in Moorabbin, it is difficult to find anything else that could have set Carman off, other than Carbery being too eager to get in his face. In that regard, I can understand why Carman reacted poorly. I’m trying not to victim blame, and I cannot justify headbutting an umpire, or the subsequent backhander that was barely disguised as a gesture to indicate he was trying to shepherd or something of that nature, but Carbery had no business running up and screaming in Carman’s face.
It escalated so quickly that I convinced myself there had to be something else that set Carman off earlier in the game.
However, a quarter and a half into this clash, there was nothing that stood out. The Saints got the jump with the wind, but inaccuracy kept the Bombers close. Carman was relatively busy without being dominant, and worked both up forward and through the guts, even making the occasional appearance in defence. Nothing seemed too out of the ordinary.
Until Carbery got in his face and Carman headbutted him, of course.
In watching the entire match, it is incredible to watch Carman play the game out. This incident occurs before halftime, and we see Carman, who obviously knows he is in huge trouble, play footy like a man oscillating between trying to prove he is out there just to play the game, and one who looks set to explode and add to his impending suspension.
He gets no love from the umps from that point, as you’d expect, and there are moments where you kind of expect him to get to his feet and take out his frustrations on an opponent. These instances were particularly evident in the tense final quarter, as the Bombers pressed hard to close the gap on the Saints, and looked as though they may pinch the game. Carman was caught holding the ball after trying to break through a tackle early in the last quarter. St Kilda captain/coach, Alex Jesaulenko, nailed Carman with a strong tackle at half forward and the ball spilled to Mordecai Bromberg (I kid you not – what a bloody ripper of a name!) who slotted a goal.
Five minutes later, he dropped an uncontested grab in the forward line that would have given him an easy shot at goal.
With around five or six minutes remaining in the game, Carman took what looked like a strong contested mark at half-forward, takinh contact and bringing the ball to ground. However, there was no whistle and he was not paid.
A few minutes later, Robbie Muir collected Carman in a marking contest. It was completely clean, which, if you go on reputation, was not what you’d expect from Muir, but he spoiled the footy and collided with Carman, leaving the soon-to-be-suspended Bomber shaken on the ground with a trainer helping him to his feet..
Back to the incident.
Umpire John Morgan reported Carman immediately after he dropped Sidebottom off-camera.
“I thought fair enough, dickhead. He obviously saw it.” – Carman.
Carbery believed he saw it too, and ran onto the ground to make a report as well. Carman didn’t appreciate the extra attention, poked a finger into Carbery’s chest and yelled “You didn’t see a fucking thing, you f*cking mongrel c*nt.”
How’s that for dissent! Maybe he meant Mongrel Punt? I’d like to think Phil would be nice to us…
Carbery yelled back at Carman and went chest-to-chest with him. Many over the journey have speculated that Carbery got too close to Carman, moving to within centimetres of the volatile forward’s face..
“In frustration I put my head down to get him out of the way. It wasn’t a real severe head-butt.” – Carman.
Carman said that Carbery had put on an act.
“Then I stood in front of him again and I said I am reporting you for striking me.” – Carbery.
Carman then told Carbery to “f*ck off” before throwing his arm out and hitting Carbery with a backhander.
“I just went f*cking wang and threw my left arm back. I really hit him again.” – Carman
Amazingly, Carman was not suspended for that, which looked every bit as blatant as the headbutt.
Carbery’s actions were the source of much debate from players both respected and maligned.
“If you look at the footage, Carbery is right in his face. An umpire wouldn’t do it now. Chesting him, in his face, yelling at him.” – Simon Madden
“Phil Carman should have an apology by the AFL for what happened there. He got in Phil’s face. Phil was a person that you didn’t get into his face.” – Crackers Keenan.
In a fiery hearing, Carman was suspended for a total of 20 weeks – four for the strike on Sidebottom, and 16 for the head-butt on Carbery. Four games into 1980, Carman’s season was over. And so was his time as a top tier player.
Graham Carbery passed away in 2017 following complications after major heart surgery, having never taken Carman up on the chance to discuss the incident and receive an apology. Up until Matt Watson wrote a book on Carman, he had not granted an interview to discuss it. The incident seemed as though it was such a small part in a bigger life for him.
“He didn’t want to meet me. He wanted to leave it where it was“ – Carman.
It remains the highest-profile case of an altercation between a player and umpire at the highest level and really derailed the career of Carman, although there are plenty that will argue that it was Carman who derailed his own career several times before that moment.
Have a look at the footage below. Where do you sit on this? Was Carbery at least partially to blame for the escalation of the incident?
And here’s the full game, which is a rarity for this period. You can count the available number of full games from 1980 on one hand. Massive thanks to whoever uploaded the whole thing to youtube.
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