Nick Dunstan speaks with Christi Malthouse, daughter of a football giant.
According to AFL legend Ron Barassi, the mark of a true champion is consistency. So in the extensive annals of the sport, and by that definition, newly appointed coach of Carlton Football Club, Mick Malthouse, qualifies. And it isn’t just his 838 combined played and coached VFL/AFL games, or his four premierships as player and coach that make him so.
Adding to his sporting achievements are his more personal responsibilities—mentor, father and husband—often overshadowed by his highly public coaching career.
They’re things you learn about in his biography, Malthouse: A Football Life, released last year. It contains insights into Malthouse’s personal life from a true insider. Together, Mick and his eldest daughter, Christi, came up with an idea to create an account of his life through the eyes of Christi, along with siblings Cain, Troy, Danielle, and wife, Nanette.
“Rather than just a straight-forward biography, [we thought] it would be nice and also unique to show the other side of football—the private side, the family side,” says Christi, speaking to me by phone from a supermarket in Melbourne, when I asked about the rationale for the joint venture.
The book reveals this “unseen” softer, family side of Malthouse. It is soon obvious from our discussion what value he holds most central in his life: “Definitely family—first and foremost,” says an emphatic Christi.
Despite this, he felt guilt over not having spent enough time with his family through the busy years. But, Christi says, if you were to ask any of her siblings, their response would contradict this.
“I can say that none of us kids ever said Dad didn’t spend enough time with us because the time he spent was quality time—he made sure he always came to school concerts, he would always watch us perform in our [sports] finals, he would read stories to us at bedtime and get down on the floor and play with us. It was that quality time . . . he made sure that he was at home, that he was very present and very fun.”
To the public, Malthouse often comes across as serious and stern, a man of few words—win or lose. But as Christi explains, the Malthouse the public see is when he is “at work.”
“You get stressed, you’re concentrating, you are not your fun, jovial self like when you’re with friends or family,” she says.
“Mick Malthouse, the coach, wasn’t the same person as Michael our father, and we were happy for them to be two different people. Away from the footy field, Mick is a big softy. . . . Rarely did other people get to see the father who made us laugh at the kitchen table, or the man who played practical jokes on his players.”
To many coaches, a premiership would bring the most joy. However, to Malthouse, it was seeing his players “grow into upstanding, well-balanced men, as well as successful footballers. He did this by listening, advising and caring,” says Christi.
And one could postulate that it was such a sense of fatherly care demonstrated in the masculine arena of football that gave his players that one per cent winning edge.
“He was never just a footy coach. He carried the role of mentor, teacher and father figure to so many of his players, because he genuinely cared for their welfare,” says Christi. “To develop into well-rounded human beings, many of those young men needed further support and education in other areas of their lives, and Mick was more than happy to provide it.”
And when asked on Perth radio show ABC Mornings how he would like to be remembered, Malthouse confirmed her view, stating: “[having] made boys into men, good successful men.” To do this goes beyond decisions and actions in training and on the field.
As Christi puts it, “He was a role model . . . he [took] on a father figure to probably all the football players he has coached, whether it was intentional or unintentionally, but he certainly wanted to mould them into good people off the football field as well.”
Fight And Defend
When your dad is a head coach of a famous football team, there are associated and inevitable negatives that go with it. Christi recalls her time in high school when “every single week they’d find something to tease us about. When it’s your Dad—someone who you love very much—that they’re teasing you about, it hits you harder. We wouldn’t dare say something about their mum or dad—someone they love. But because Dad was a public figure, they thought they could.”
This was something Malthouse was not aware of at the time, stating in a radio interview, “I was mindful of the repercussions of winning and losing games, but I didn’t know the extent to which it affected my kids.”
Christi writes about dealing with such tough times, saying that it ultimately brought the family closer. “When the waves are crashing and the boat is rocking, you huddle together for safety and protection. When one of your own is under attack, you fight and defend.”
And to Malthouse, it was family who provided the outlet he needed. “Seeing us laugh and, even better, making us laugh, was one of his life’s greatest joys. Gruelling training sessions, frustrating injuries and disappointing losses were all easier to deal with when his children were laughing,” Christi says.
And when decisions on his future needed to be taken, such as accepting the role of coach for the struggling Carlton Football Club after many successful years with Collingwood, they weren’t made by himself alone or even with wife Nanette, but with input from the whole family. According to Christi, if the family had voiced concern or were adamant that he not go, then he probably wouldn’t have.
From a young age Malthouse saw the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption—although not within his own family—from around his hometown of Ballarat, Victoria.
“Mick didn’t want any part of it, especially if it got in the way of his football dream, as he believed it might. Plus, he just didn’t like the taste of it.”
It’s an issue about which Malthouse has always held strong convictions. As a consequence, he would put drinking limitations in place in every team he coached. Malthouse neither gambles nor smokes, and taking drugs was never even considered. And at home, things weren’t too different, although, as Christi recalls, “He and Mum, they set the boundaries and they wanted us to stay within them; from a young age, we knew there would be consequences if we didn’t stay within the boundaries. But as we grew older, they wanted us to be independent and make those decisions for ourselves. . . . I think it was good parenting on their behalf. I think myself and my siblings are all pretty good citizens.”
To this day, a healthy lifestyle is important to him and, as a 60-year-old, Malthouse continues to cycle or walk daily and can punch out 100 sit-ups or push-ups in a session.
In life, Malthouse is a firm believer in looking toward the future. “I’m always looking forward; I hate rear-view mirrors,” he says. “I’m not one to revisit old haunts. The past to me is this: Never forget it, don’t wear it as a millstone and certainly don’t polish it. Learn from it but keep going forward.”
When asked which of Malthouse’s clubs the family barrack for—West Coast or Collingwood, or perhaps his first premiership team, Richmond, the answer is as diplomatic as it is logical: “We barrack for Dad!” says Christi. “He’s our team, and we are his.”
A simple answer and, in essence, a metaphor of the Malthouse family that we would do well to apply to our own.
Additional sources: 720 Mornings ABC; www.michaelmalthouse.com.au
Malthouse: A Football Life, by Christi Malthouse, is published by Allen & Unwin (2012).