• Book Review - Crezza (From AFL Glory to Prison and the Long Road to Redemption)


    CREZZA (From AFL Glory to Prison and the Long Road to Redemption)
    - This review may contain spoilers

    While the cover features a shot of Daryn Cresswell clutching a footy, and the back cover an onfield photo in action with the Swans, the premise of this book is not exclusively devoted to football and Cressa?s decorated playing career. More often, this part of the story is addressed in a fleeting manner, and at times is almost incidental to the narrative. (I had always known Cressa?s moniker to be spelt with a double ?S?, and although the book suggests it should be spelt otherwise, I?m reluctant to alter my interpretation this deep in. So for the purposes of this review I will stubbornly persevere with my original perception. As we both have a connection through the Manly Warringah Wolves, I trust that no offence will be taken).

    ?Crezza? was written with the assistance of Matthew Webber, who has penned a couple of other football related books, one about the formation of the gold Coast Suns. It appears that Webber is responsible for enabling Cressa?s story to be told in such an engaging manner, and he has some absorbing material to work with. I am invariably ambivalent toward sporting biographies. Often they are poorly written, provide a negligible degree of insight, and have a tendency to present a lazy chronology of already well documented highlights. This is a much stronger work, and quite possibly the finest I have read of its ilk.

    I first became aware of Cressa whilst living in London. Simply a surname that began to appear in best player listings for matches played at the tail end of 1992. Early each Monday morning I would tackle the forty minute walk up to Victoria Station to pick up a copy of TNT - the only publication I knew of that would reliably print the results of AFL matches. The Swans didn?t win a game the entire time I lived in Blighty, so to learn of new players performing well provided a glimmer of mild encouragement. I wouldn?t actually see him compete until the following season - 1993 the season from hell - but he soon became a favourite due to his assiduous blue collar attributes.

    As a player, Cressa brought a fiercely competitive approach to his game, seemingly steeped in a harsh apprenticeship forged in western Tasmanian local leagues. Venues included the notorious gravel-surfaced oval in Queenstown, a ground which claimed the life of a star player who did not recover from a head injury. I may not have picked up on this at the time, but he deployed a wide array of unsavoury tactics to unsettle his direct opponents. Had he played for an opposition club he could so easily have become the type of player I would ordinarily despise. Apparently Paul Kelly was bewildered that Cressa was able to get away with so much, rarely attracting the wrath of umpires. I?d only ever viewed him to be a fearless competitor, capable of setting up his forwards, racking up possessions, and kicking clutch goals.
    He was also a very durable player, amassing 244 games across 12 seasons including a Grand Final appearance and a Best and Fairest Award. This dependability, made him indispensable to the team, and as he states, he would do anything for the team, whatever was required to deliver victory. He had no respect for show ponies or those without a team first approach. Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, he questions Stuart Maxfield?s leadership attributes, and portrays Paul Roos as manipulative, particularly with regard to Rodney Eade?s demise and his own allegedly fast-tracked retirement. He also refutes Matthew Scarlett?s claim that he (Cressa) had been planning a coup to topple Bomber Thomson whilst employed as Geelong?s assistant coach. His career petered out just as the Bloods culture was being embedded and embraced. It would have been interesting to see how Cressa would have adapted to such a culture, and whether he may have benefited from it.

    Behind the veneer of the adrenaline and adulation that comes with playing AFL at the highest level, Cressa has lived a life imbued with tragedy. Throughout his life, and during a relatively short space of time, he has needed to cope with the deaths of many family members, and it is evident that family has been crucial to his sense of place as well as being significantly influential. It appears that Cressa never received any counselling during this period of his life. Whether counselling was never sought, or never offered or recommended, is not clear. Nor is it clear whether he was ever aware of the availability of such services. However upon learning of his suffering and his loss, I felt that I was able to forgive him any transgression.

    Not unlike some of his peers, it seems that during his playing days he was a casual gambler; the full impact of his gambling issues not materialising until well into his retirement. His decision to leave Geelong for an assistant coach?s position with Leigh Matthews? Brisbane Lions, in part to placate his displaced wife, appears to have been critical in Cressa?s decline and fall. Brisbane?s star was on the wane, and it is alleged that Matthews? coaching techniques were becoming outmoded, countenancing his coaching staff with significant levels of presenteeism and a lack of clear structure; unallocated time that Cressa would utilise to bet, often successfully, on horses. His outlays escalated - he speaks of one day losing a quarter of a million dollars only to win it all back again the following day - but ultimately, as is the case with most addictions, things began to turn sour. The losses increased in size and frequency, loans were unable to be serviced, and consequently creditors and banks began to make contact.

    This all led to a succession of lies and cover-ups; those closest to him being completely in the dark regarding the extent of his gambling issues. Cressa was ultimately arrested on fraud charges. It was an act of desperation; however it was not an offence that he committed knowingly. He was manipulated by a fellow problem gambler that owed him large sums of money. Still his incarceration was the result of having benefitted from the actions of his offence.
    The book also provides a somewhat disturbing insight into the prison system, in particular the maximum security prison (Brisbane Correctional Centre) in which he initially served his term. It?s unfathomable that non-violent criminals are still assigned to such institutions. The cost to society y is burdensome, and rehabilitative outcomes are dubious. The meek, the young and the vulnerable are manipulated, coerced and abused by hardened predators; actions condoned by prison staff. An undercurrent of violence is ever-present. Cressa was able to manage this prison better than others perhaps, as he was fit, and in a position to defend himself if required. His anecdote regarding how he spent Christmas Day is decidedly sobering.

    Much scorn is directed at the Channel Seven current affairs story that Cressa foolishly agreed to interview for following his release. Providing viewers with a very selective version of events (a formulaic and predictable approach for such programs), Cressa was painted as a prince of evil. Leaving prison with only twenty dollars left in his pocket, he saw this opportunity as a way of transitioning his transition back into mainstream society. Channel Seven only saw the potential for increased ratings through its dramatic and disingenuous portrayal.

    For now his life is experiencing incremental change for the better, but he acknowledges that it will be a slow, diligent and cautious process. At last report he was self-employed in a landscaping / lawn mowing business on the Gold Coast, and coaching the Palm Beach / Currumbin side, something that is bringing him much joy. The book closes with an articulate and thoughtful afterword from his current wife Jo Foster who discusses the strength of their relationship and the difficulties that they endured, before, during and subsequent to his imprisonment.

    For me there remain a few gaps in Cressa?s tale. I was left with a feeling of being rather troubled by his totally ruthless approach as a player. It would have been helpful to get a better sense of why he believed that his game and his on-field personality had developed in this manner. I understand that it may have been predicated by his tough Western Tasmanian upbringing, but there are a few examples of his take-no-prisoners style that were kind of unnerving. It was also unclear as to whether the differences that he had had with his former wife (the mother of his children) have since been resolved. The love that he has for his kids was a salient theme, so one would hope that they have since been able to arrive at an amicable arrangement.

    I also recall during his playing days that he would on occasion cross his heart during close games in religious acknowledgement. I wasn?t the only follower that noticed this. A bloke that used to sit nearby in the Noble Stand would often yell out, ?Go the pope? when Cressa touched the ball. There are no religious references at all within the book. It could have made for interesting insight I felt, particularly the reconciling of his playing style with his religious beliefs, assuming that these perceived beliefs did indeed exist.

    The book left me with an enormous level of respect for Cressa. I found no reason to doubt the veracity of his account. There was no reason to believe that this wasn?t an accurate recollection of events. The honesty and candidness of his disclosures is often striking. He expresses contrition throughout the book and acknowledges that he has let a lot of people down, often people that had been very dear to him. The unravelling of his life led to the loss of his marriage, trust, friendships, a significant property portfolio, and left him with a criminal record. He mentions his flirtation with suicide, but his familial bonds thankfully dissuaded him from pursuing this outcome.

    It also left me with a sense of the potential social destruction that problem gambling can engender. The ubiquitous nature and the variety of gambling platforms. The need for society to view addiction as an illness that often impacts the vulnerable, and for Governments to legislate accordingly.

    It may not happen, and at this point it would appear unlikely, but hopefully when trust is rebuilt and friendships and connections are restored, it would be a positive development to see Cressa once again assume an assistant coach role with an AFL club. Ideally with the Swans, the club to whom he gave so much.

    David Miller has been a hardcore Swans fan since the 1980s and has written sporadically for RWO across the past decade and a bit.

    His debut novel ?Ever Diminishing Circles? is a coming of age story that follows the life of a young VFL fan growing up in 1970s Melbourne, whose world is upended by a series of crimes. Ever Diminishing Circles is available at www.lulu.com or as an ebook at ibooks.
    RWO has hard copies to give away to the first two lucky readers that send Snajik a PM.
    Comments 3 Comments
    1. Xie Shan's Avatar
      Xie Shan -
      Thanks for this, a good read. Sometimes things aren't always black and white and your review highlights the complexities in Cressa's story. I read your columns on the 'old' RWO a number of years ago when I was just getting into AFL and the Swans and enjoyed them, congrats on the novel. Cheers Sam
    1. snajik's Avatar
      snajik -
      Hi Sam. Thanks for the kind words. Yes Cressa's life story has certainly been a struggle for the most part. Hopefully he is in a better space now.
      Writing those columns seems like a lifetime ago now. It was pre-kids, so I had a lot more time back then. It was a fun thing to do as I'd always loved both writing and footy and this managed to bring the two together. I think my writing is better now but there seems to be less time for it.
      Thanks again and let's hope round one's result was an aberration.
    1. bodgie's Avatar
      bodgie -
      Thanks for the review and insights into Cressa's career's.
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