1947- | VIC | Sports journalist
Sheahan was the most successful and influential Australian football journalist for several decades. He was chief football writer for more than 20 years at The Herald, Sunday Age and Herald Sun, and extended his reach through radio on ABC and 3AW; television with the Seven, Nine and Fox Sports networks, as well as with two books. On the strength of his innovative Top 50 AFL player rankings, the AFL commissioned him in 2008 to compile a list of the game's Greatest 50 of all time to help celebrate its 150th anniversary, and in the same year announced the naming of the new AFL Media Centre in his honour.
The name Mike Sheahan is as familiar to fans of Australia’s national football code as the names of some of its most famous players.
Just as names like Barassi, Sheedy, Matthews, Carey, Hird, Ablett and Hudson are etched in fans’ memories, so their skills, performances and reputations have in some way been shaped and measured by a unique football journalist.
Just as the game has evolved nationally and internationally, with its audience, influence, challenges and economics transformed, so he has been at the forefront of telling, and shaping, those stories, and reshaping the way we engage with, and think about, our game.
Mike Sheahan reported, analysed, explained, rated, and showcased the whole fabric of football for nearly 50 years, including 20 years as chief football writer for The Herald, The Sunday Age and Herald Sun; and also on ABC and 3AW radio; on the Seven, Nine and Fox Sports networks; and through two books.
Just as the game has grown from its beginnings as winter exercise for cricketers and pick-up matches in paddocks to the biggest game in the nation, Sheahan transformed himself from an innocent cub reporter on the Werribee Banner – fresh out of Werribee High School in 1964 after three years at Christian Brothers College, North Melbourne – to become the most successful and influential Australian football journalist.
He pursued his twin interests in journalism and football from his earliest days in Werribee, the short-lived Newsday and then at the Hobart Mercury. In his early days Mike was juggling the demands of general reporting shifts, extra shifts to gain football experience at weekends, plus training and playing for the Werribee Tigers in the VFA and North Hobart Demons in the TFL, where then coach John Devine, who later coached Geelong, described the left-footer as one of the most courageous players he coached.
Reluctantly accepting he perhaps didn’t have the speed or size to make it at the highest level, Mike put his focus into covering the game he had loved since he was a boy. He returned from Tasmania to join Inside Football in Melbourne, then The Age from 1974 before moving to The Herald in 1979 to succeed Alf Brown as the paper’s chief football writer.
After six years he changed pockets and became the AFL’s media director in 1985, before returning to his natural game as chief football writer for the launch of The Sunday Age in 1989. He was then seduced by the Herald Sun in 1993, where he remained #1 football writer until he “retired” from full-time work at the paper in 2011.
However his platform and influence remained strong: his innovative annual Top 50 player rankings continued in the Herald Sun, he remained a pivotal part of the Fox Footy network, which he has been part of since its inception, principally with the “On The Couch” television program, and also host of his own concept of an Andrew Denton-type format for football, “Open Mike”, which grew in popularity and led to his second well-regarded book, the first being Lethal, a biography of Leigh Matthews published in 1986.
Amid all the egos, opinions, competition and complexities of modern football, Sheahan has remained true to himself: someone with a boyish love of the game and all its participants, the work ethic to do the homework, the courage to ask the awkward question and give his sometimes controversial views, and a capacity to tell a story as he sees it without fear nor favour.
This ability to gain and keep the respect of the game’s players, coaches and clubs, despite the inevitable occasional error or lapse in judgment, ensured that for the most pivotal decades of the game’s development he was the likely person to break the news, get the interview, reveal the inside workings, and have the most meaningful analysis and comment.
His spectacles, grey hair and friendly Irish-Catholic nature and manner made him easy fodder for comics and rivals: he was somewhat slow to accept his rising profile, and all that comes with being a recognised leader of the pack, but it was because that’s what he was.
This was underscored by the number of young journalists who would begin their own careers with an ambition “to be the next Mike Sheahan”.
The game itself also liked to play with their #1 fan. Famous characters had the respect and trust in him to reveal more secrets, emotion and thinking than to any other media person. The AFL asked him to rate the top 50 players of all time for its 150th anniversary in 2008, and the same year named its new media centre in his honour. In 2011 he was made a life member of the AFL. And he would win nearly 20 major awards across print and television, including the prestigious Alf Brown award and the AFL Players Association’s Grant Hattam award, two Quills, an ASTRA for Most Outstanding Sports Entertainment Program on pay television and be twice named News Sports Journalist of the Year.
The increasingly national development of the game challenged Sheahan’s well- known disenchantment with plane travel, and the increasingly 24/7 media cycle, with its predilection for conflict, celebrity and commodity, challenged his preference for homework, diligence and reflection, and ensuring the story, not the author, was the story.
But he stayed on top of his game, and on top of the game he loved. Such that about 120 of the most influential media and sport people attended his retirement from full-time work at the Herald Sun in 2011, where his career and impact was applauded at the MCG, the home of football, by names like Barassi, Matthews, Carey, Flower and Clarkson.
Speakers alluded to Mike’s retained love of the game and its players, champions and battlers alike; a retained respect of peers and players, administrators and fans; and a retained love of kicking a Sherrin around, smacking tennis and golf balls, and racing horses; a retained sense of humour; and a retained sense of place.
Former AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou gave a career match report of the teenager who initially took a two-week summer relief role at The Werribee Banner and transformed himself journalistically, but not personally, in a remarkable career :
“Mike has retained a curiosity and commitment to the game that he reports, never indulging in cynicism, never attempting to put himself above the game, its players and most importantly its supporters, and never losing hold of a boyish love of the game and the champions that have taken it from generation to generation.”
Mike truly played his game at the highest level.
Steve Harris was Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Age 1997-2001, Editor-in-Chief of the Herald Sun 1992-1997, and Founding Editor of The Sunday Age 1989-1992. He is a life member of the Melbourne Press Club.
Courtesy of News Limited/Newspix.
Lethal, Leigh Matthews with Mike Sheahan, Hawthorn Football Club, 1986.
Open Mike, interview series on FoxFooty.