The Aussie Rules anthem, Up There Cazaly, could have easily been written for Campbelltown’s own Mr AFL, John McLaughlin. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to come into contact with this great man over the past six decades will easily recognise him in the words of the song written by Michael Brady:
Up there Cazaly
In there and fight
Out there and at ’em
Show ’em your might
Up there Cazaly
Don’t let ’em in
Fly like an angel
You’re out there to win
Right now, John McLaughlin, who is 77, is fighting the biggest battle of his life after he was diagnosed with final stage mesothelioma.
“I’m in the last quarter of life, and I’m in there fighting,’’ says the man who was born in Brunswick, a stone’s throw from Princess Park, for decades the home of his beloved Carlton footy club.
“It’s a terrible disease to have, but I am not complaining – I’ve had a great life,’’ he says.
He’s content because he knows his three boys, Jamie, Matthew, Rod, all played first grade for the Campbelltown AFL club, which he helped establish almost 50 years ago.
And the icing on the cake for John McLaughlin is that his only daughter, Amanda – who is married to a senior NRL official – is manager for a junior AFL team.
John McLaughlin didn’t just start AFL in Campbelltown – he also helped Sydney’s second AFL team, the GWS Giants, get established, and also played a key role in an Aboriginal AFL academy that has helped hundreds of Indigenous kids in Campbelltown and Blacktown.
It’s no wonder so many people have paid tribute to this great man as part of this feature in the South West Voice.
“John’s vision has changed the lives of hundreds of indigenous kids and families in the Campbelltown area,’’ says Allan McKinnon, former manager for community engagement for the AFL in NSW and the ACT.
“His legacy is one for which the AFL and the Campbelltown community can rightfully be grateful and proud.’’
Peter Icklow, CEO of Monarch Investments, 20 years sponsors of Campbelltown AFL club, was also glowing in his tribute:
“John McLaughlin’s extraordinary contribution to the betterment of Campbelltown area has been so significant,’’ he said.
“He has spent his life giving to the area and its people in so many ways.
“The success and vibrancy of Campbelltown is in no small part due to people like John.’’
Geoff Corrigan, former mayor and State MP for Camden, said John Mclaughlin is “a champion bloke, he’s always ready to help anyone and he has always done the right thing for our area.’’
Campbelltown MP Greg Warren said there were quite a few unheralded people who contributed substantially to our community over the years and John McLaughlin was a great example of such efforts.
“John is a person of good nature and kind human spirit who devotes time to help others less fortunate than himself,’’ Mr Warren said.
“The AFL Aboriginal Academy is a good example of that, but his contribution to sport, especially AFL, has had a major impact in helping young local people learn about leadership and responsibility.’’
John McLaughlin left a lot of things behind when he moved from Melbourne to Sydney in 1962. But not his passion for Aussie Rules, the great football code born and bred in Australia, indeed the indigenous footy code. Once he and Jan, the love of his life, settled into the Macarthur region, and their four children started growing up, John McLaughlin was on a mission to establish Aussie Rules in Campbelltown.
“I started AFL in Campbelltown because I wanted my boys to play the game I love,’’ he says.
“That’s all there was to it.’’
So in 1972, along with Terry Rolfe, a Ruse resident, John McLaughlin decided it was time to start Aussie Rules in Campbelltown.
They called the club Campbelltown and Districts Junior Australian Football Club before asking the local council for support.
“I approached City Engineer Ian Moore and he said to me – you are bashing your head against a brick wall trying to start Aussie Rules in this city,’’ says John.
But they persisted and Campbelltown Aussie Rules was born with three junior teams in the first year, and five a year later, from under 9s to under 17.
Next, plans were drawn up to establish a senior club, which was called the Swans, after the emblem of the City of Campbelltown.
The juniors, which were originally called the Demons, were also renamed Swans.
Before long a call came through from the Sydney Football League offering the club a place in the first division if they had a ground which met the criteria.
Because John McLaughlin had many years dealing with the council, he was asked to see what could be done.
“The City Engineer, Ian Moore, offered us a farm at Macquarie Fields with a small farmhouse and broken down sheds and a dam in the middle of the property,’’ says John McLaughlin.
He worked with Gavin Andrews, the council officer that supervised the work to turn a broken down farm into a great AFL showpiece now called Bob Prenter Reserve.
Gavin Andrews, who would go on to become the first Aboriginal architect, helped John McLaughlin design the ground along the lines of VFL Park in Melbourne.
The ground was ready in 1982, but the club still needed a sponsor to compete in the Sydney AFL premier league.
They put in a call to Dr Geoffrey Edelsten at the Hammondville Medical Practice, who said South Melbourne Swans were moving to Sydney and “we can’t have two teams called the Swans’’.
“He said if the club changed from the Swans to the Blues and play in the Carlton jumper that he would sponsor the club,’’ says John.
“He did and we became the mighty Blues.’’
Campbelltown finished third in 1984 under the coaching of Russell Matheson, a future Campbelltown mayor and federal member for Macarthur.
The next year Campbelltown were undefeated until the grand final, but lost the decider to North Shore.
In 1986 they made up for the loss by smashing North Shore in the grand final with a young “lion”, as described by Matheson when he awarded Jamie McLaughlin, aged 17, the best player of the game honour, pictured here.
The Campbelltown Blues went on to win four premierships in a row under Russell Matheson, 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1989.
The next important job for John McLaughlin was to find a new sponsor for the Campbelltown Blues AFL club.
Monarch Investments were the company behind the incredibly popular golf course estate Macquarie Links.
He met with the chief executive officer, Peter Icklow, the two men hit it off straight away and Monarch sponsored the Blues for 20 years, five more than the 15 years they shook hands on.
“Peter and I remain good friends today,’’ says John McLaughlin.
When the AFL decided to have a second team in Sydney at the turn of the century and needed someone with the right connections to help make it happen, they called John McLaughlin.
“The Sydney CEO Dale Holmes and his assistant manager of projects Alan McKinnon contacted me,’’ says John.
“Alan knew I had contacts in the NSW Government and asked me to help with getting a second Sydney side up and running as they were having difficulties securing funding to reconfigure Sydney Showground as an AFL facility,’’ says John.
“I was able to use my contacts in the State Government, including the Premier at the time, Nathan Rees.
“After a lot of meetings, I was able to assist the AFL secure funding for the Sydney Showground for the new Sydney team.’’
When Kevin Sheedy was named as coach of the new franchise, he wanted to come out and have a look around Western Sydney and meet some of the locals.
Again it was John McLaughlin who was asked to help out.
He organised the use of Peter Icklow’s company helicopter to show the legendary AFL coach around.
“Sheedy was most impressed,’’ says John.
“He told me he was no stranger to this part of Sydney as he had completed his national service training at the Ingleburn Army Camp.’’
McLaughlin also organised a fabulous dinner at an Ingleburn restaurant to introduce Sheedy to some high profile locals, including a certain journalist.
A few years later, around 2007, with government funding, the AFL began a program to encourage Indigenous students to remain in high school.
Once again the go to man was Campbelltown’s Mr AFL, John McLaughlin.
“They asked me to help as the community representative,’’ John says.
The program, which is through high schools in Campbelltown and Blacktown, has been a great success and is still running.
John McLaughlin has never sought success for the sake of it. All his life he has just wanted to make a contribution towards the betterment of the people in his community out here in South Western Sydney.
And just as those closest to John have rallied round him as he faces his toughest challenge, he knows that in the end the family is more important than anything else.
“I have always loved Campbelltown and the community, and my wife I are proud to have raised our four fabulous children in this great city,’’ he says.
“I would not have chosen anywhere else to raise our family.
“All four have made a great success in life and have rewarded us with the best eight grandchildren in the world.’’
Author’s note: As a local journalist of many years standing I have met John McLaughlin numerous times. Over the past decade we have become very good friends, which makes me a very fortunate person because John McLaughlin is one of the best human beings I have ever met.