Under the circumstances, it is a little difficult to talk about the abrupt departure of a major Channel Nine star, without being compromised every which way, but let’s do it anyway.
I refer, of course, to the sudden end of Fatty Vautin and The Footy Show, and must, as ever, disclose that I do regular work for Nine myself, as does my wi … oh, wait!
In the world of sports media, it is one of the more significant events of the year, the end of an era, the final burying of a show whose demise has been predicted for the better part of two decades, and …
And right there is one of the problems. For starters, those under 40 will have just about no memory of what Vautin was like as a player.
The answer is, he was a bloody good one, playing for Manly, the Roosters, Queensland and the Kangaroos, even though – and this was part of his charm – he didn’t particular look like one. See, though a player in the era of Wally Lewis and Mal Meninga, he had nothing like the skill of the former, and was perhaps just half the muscle mass of the latter. But he was passionate, enduring and more often than not on the winning side of things, including captain of the 1987 Manly side that won the premiership.
“I had a great run,” Vautin acknowledged to Brendan Jones of WSFM fame, on Wednesday. “Especially for a short, chubby, redhead who played for both Manly and Queensland. That’s not a career, that’s a miracle.”
That is Vautin all over – always the one with the funny quip, the twinkle in his eye and the one right in the middle of the colourful stories. My own favourite goes back to the 1987 Origin series when Wayne Bennett picked a young bloke from Ipswich called Alfie Langer in the Queensland side. In one of the first team meetings, there was open discussion between Bennett and Lewis as to how best to go about covering for Langer’s presumed defensive deficiencies. Should he go in the second line or out wide?
Having listened to the discussion for as long as he could, Vautin could bear it no more.
“Hey, he’s a Queenslander!” he roared. “He won’t let us down. He’ll play where he normally plays.”
(Which Langer did, mowing down anything that moved just on suspicion, and won the man-of-the-match award.)
With a fund of such stories to draw on and an inexhaustible supply of quintessentially n quips, Vautin prospered in the media from the first, and though he started with a bits and pieces role at Channel Seven, it was at Channel Nine from the early 1990s onwards that he truly found his feet.
No, he couldn’t dissect a game like Peter Sterling, or call one like Ray Warren, but he was strong and his passion always shone through. While some thought commentators should be neutral, that was never Vautin’s go and in Origin matches, he would sometimes forget himself and roar, as those from north of the Tweed were getting close to the line, “Go, go, GO!!!”
He also shone with Kerry Anne Kennerley with regular appearances on the Midday Show. He was so good that in the latter months of 1994 he was given his own show to host, The Footy Show where, again, he shone from the first.
The basic idea was that instead of deadly earnest analysis of football, you’d have fun with it and yes, it included lots of embarrassing skits that invariably involved the likes of Vautin and Steve “Blocker” Roach, putting on women’s dresses. It was not to everyone’s taste, but enough people loved it that it became iconic, and though it had many transformations over the years, the one thing that never changed was Vautin, with his twinkle, his head-wobbles, his catchphrases, “Turn it up”, “I’ll get back to you shortly” and “That’ll do me”.
Outside of the studio, he was never particularly hard-working but he was always popular with floor crew, producers, camera, makeup people etc. There were never stories about Fatty behaving badly, because he was off-camera exactly what he was on camera, a really good bloke.
His key love through all those years, beyond his family, was playing golf. He could never quite believe that he had landed such a well-paying gig, just for being himself, and was always open about how lucky he was with everything that had happened to him and how Nine, as he said to me once, “looks after me like a silkworm”.
The fact that The Footy Show is now over for him is, as he would be the first to acknowledge, not bad luck. It is simply the end of era – and one that lasted much longer than he ever thought it would have.
So good on you, Fatty. I am not sure if there is a sports media hall of fame, but if they start one, and I get to be a judge, you and Sterling would be my first two picked from the ranks of rugby league players.
Go well, and I look forward to seeing you around the traps.