Baker – the man, the myth, the Finals legend!
OK, so it’s Finals time for the Bombers and yep, we’re all excited. When I think about Finals footy, one name immediately comes to the fore – Leon Baker! If you’ve read any of my earlier retro posts, you will note that I do like to recall those grand old days of the 70’s & 80’s. Yes it is true – I’m an old bastard who enjoys thinking back to when I was a kid and how much I loved footy, it was all that I lived for.
For those less familiar with the great No.4 (yes long before Jobe) from the mid 80’s, let me tell the story. Baker came to Essendon (aged 27) in the pre-season of 1984 from Swan Districts, where he had helped them to 2 premierships in 3 years, playing in the guts and up forward. Many aren’t aware that he is originally from country Victoria, having played his earlier footy in and around Seymour (his family home was in the small town of Avenel), before heading to the West and pulling on the boots for Bunbury prior to joining Swan Districts.
There are many stories of legend surrounding Baker: how he’d first come to Melbourne’s attention as a skinny teenager, as Avenel was part of the Demons’ old country recruiting zone. Already, they were keen but Baker’s father wasn’t. His Dad told them they were wasting their time and that he wasn’t ready for league footy. Ever one to chase adventure, travel and keen to avoid the big smoke, he and a mate headed to WA, with Baker heading to Bunbury. The stories from Bunbury are of a bloke in board shorts, with hair down to his arse, just rocking up with his dog and asking when training was on. The club wasn’t sure about him… and then they saw him play.
On arrival at Essendon he took the no 4 jumper from Rotten Ronnie Andrews, one of the hard men of Essendon who had been off-loaded to the Pies, an unfortunate end for a great Essendon person. Baker joined a team that was still smarting after a horrid Grand Final thrashing in 1983 at the hands of Hawthorn, and he was recruited to add some extra class and skill, to which he delivered in spades!
He played 24 games in 1984, kicking 13 goals in the home and away season, playing out of the center and across half forward. But it was the next few games (the Finals) where the legend was made. In a brutal First Semi against the Hawks he kicked 3 goals, in a game the Bombers lost by 8 points. Clearly motivated by the pain of ’83, the Bombers took on the Pies in the Prelim Final and Baker starred kicking 6 goals in a BOG performance, as the Bombers flogged the black and white flogs by 133 points. Oh what a great day that was! Ironically, Ronnie Andrews played at half forward for the Pies and kicked 3 of their 5 goals. So onto the Grand Final we marched in a re-match with the Hawks, and the Bombers were on a mission.
We all know what happened next as the Bombers poured on 9 goals in a final quarter blitz, turning a 23 point 3 quarter time deficit into premiership glory by 24 points. Baker starring again with 4 goals, one on the back of the now famous sublime blind turn (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1fjehnB6uA). Fortunately, I was sitting in the forward pocket at the Punt Road end with my old man for the 1984 Grand Final, a front row seat if you will for that last quarter, not a bad way to spend your 16th birthday!
In the 1984 Finals series, Baker kicked 13 goals in 3 games – Mr Finals had well & truly arrived. As stated earlier, Baker was a traveler and it was either on the Sunday or Monday after the GF win that he was on a plane for India, or perhaps it was Bhutan. Sheedy, a maverick himself understood not all players are the same, so a bit like Vander, Sheeds let Baker do his own thing.
Baker played 23 more games in the 1985 premiership season, another brilliant year, where he was also runner up in the club B&F (as he had been in 1984). To be considered the second best in Premiership years playing with greats such as Madden, Watson, and Neagle shows just how good he was. He played 20 games in his 3rd season, only managing 19 games in his final 2 seasons as he battled with injuries (ankles). So an Essendon career that spanned only 5 seasons and 86 games came to a close. There are only 2 Essendon players with less than 100 games that are spoken of as great sons of Essendon, one is the immortal John Coleman, and the other is – you guessed it – Leon Baker.
So when your next in FNQ, look out for a sprightly 60yo bloke cruising around Port Douglas, having a couple of pots at the Court House Hotel perhaps… what a legend he was, and is.