How Bob Fulton put the Manly Sea Eagles back together again
by Andrew Webster
It's the late 1990s and a wide-eyed Trent Barrett is standing in the lounge room of Manly coach Bob Fulton.
Barrett, a tall and talented five-eighth who burst on to the scene for the Illawarra Steelers in the post-apocalyptic haze of the Super League war, is coming off contract.
The merger between Illawarra and St George is imminent. There's a bloke called Anthony Mundine filling out the No.6 jersey for the Dragons. Nobody is quite sure how the jigsaw is going to come together and if Barrett is the piece that misses out.
"Bozo" has put the hard sell on Barrett, as he can do. In his two stints as Manly coach, there's barely been a player he hasn't convinced to come play for him.
"But he was one of the few I missed out on," recalls Fulton. "But I got him in the end."
Barrett laughs when you mention this anecdote to him.
"I remember that," says Barrett, who Fulton last year secured as Manly's new coach. "I was 19 or 20 years old. The big city frightened me a bit back then. It took 20 years but I eventually got here."
Last year, the Penn family, which owns the club, desperately parachuted Fulton into Brookvale.
His title is "consultant" but it's better to compare him to Mr Wolfe, the character played by Harvey Keitel in the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction.
Mr Wolfe is a fixer who is rushed in to calmly help Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) clean up a car they splattered with a young man's brains after accidentally shooting him in the head.
It all works out in the end thanks to the professionalism of Mr Wolfe.
Last year, Manly was the car splattered with tiny pieces of brain. Fulton was ushered in to clean up the mess.
He is conscious about talking about what's happened at Manly in the past few years. He wasn't responsible for the departure of favourite son Geoff Toovey. The decision to terminate the coach's contract was made by the board, not Fulton.
All he will say of the Sea Eagles' predicament is this: "They were on the precipice."
Fulton is also streetwise enough to know the rebuild that's happened on the northern peninsula counts for little right now. Nothing's been achieved, no games have been won or lost, no heads have had to roll.
But ask the Immortal, who has won premierships at Manly as a coach and player, if he's relished the return to the cut and thrust of footy, and he takes a big pause and blurts out the answer.
"Yeah. I have."
And then he roars with laughter.
"I was never out of it. I work two days on the radio [for 2GB], I've been involved with Origin. I got out of coaching when I was 50. I got out of it at a young age. The reason Gus [Phil Gould] and I got out was that the Super League war went for three years, and it was unbelievably draining. I said to my wife at one stage I had to get out of it.
"So I have enjoyed it. If I had been out of the game totally, it would've been hard to come back and help the club that I love to get back where I think it should be."
Let's count the ways how Bozo has helped Manly get its groove back …
"Manly has only gone outside the system when they haven't had anyone that was ready to take over," Fulton says. "That has worked with a lot of clubs, but there has always been someone coming through the system at Manly. Because the system has changed to some extent, that opportunity is not there.
"When the owners decided that Geoff wasn't going to be there this year – and that was their decision, I had nothing to do with it – and when there was nobody from within, you have to look outside."
On the advice of Gould, Fulton honed in on Barrett. It took one meeting between the pair for Fulton to know he was the right man for the job.
Ask Barrett how often he speaks to Fulton and he says: "Probably 10 times a day. He's got some energy for an old fella. He's been good. He doesn't interfere with the footy. He's not backward in coming forward, but that's the way our relationship is. It's black and white. The conversations are short and to the point and that's the way I like it and the way he likes it. I'm lucky to have someone there like him with so much experience."
Last year, Manly faced the unfathomable prospect of losing both premiership-winning halves in Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran at the same time.
"It was bad management by the previous administration to have two players of that calibre coming off contract at once," Fulton says. "That was the mistake of the previous administration. They stuffed it up. You look at the good recruitment teams: you don't have two of your top players coming off at the same time."
It's not worth trawling through the past when it comes to Cherry-Evans. What's fundamental to him back-flipping out of his Titans deal was reassurance from Fulton about the club's future.
"It took some massaging and telling him what we were going to do," Fulton says. "We told him we were bringing our facilities up to speed, what we were doing with recruitment. He's a very intelligent and articulate young man – and he can play football like all hell. There were things going on in his mind that we needed to put at ease."
Then Foran became shaky about his deal at Parramatta. How close were Manly to keeping him, too?
"Very," Fulton says. "We were as close as it gets."
They lost Foran but gained Dylan Walker from South Sydney, a player they had earmarked for 2017.
"Since 1908, a huge amount of things have changed in the game but some have stayed the same," Fulton says. "If you don't win the ruck, you don't win the game: it's as simple as that. If you don't dominate up front, you can't win and that's what happened to Manly last year."
In 1987, Fulton was coach and Manly had a pack that featured Ronnie Gibbs, Noel Cleal and Paul Vautin – but he needed another prop.
Club boss Ken Arthurson signed Kevin Ward from Castleford, and then flew him back for the grand final against Canberra. He was the man of the match.
In the '90s, Fulton was coach again and he needed some hard heads to play alongside Steven Menzies and Nik Kosef. They signed David Gillespie, Ian Roberts and Mark Carroll and they won 1996 premiership.
"Every decade we've had to rebuild," Fulton says, "and it's always related to not having the grunt up front. We've got to make sure we're competitive at the ruck in every game this year, and if we are we've got a backline that can win games for us."
In comes Nate Myles, Martin Taupau, Lewis Brown, Apisai Koroisau, Darcy Lussick, Matt Parcell and Nathan Green.
The recruitment blitz has prompted critics to question Manly's salary cap, which has become a complex house of cards since Fulton coached in the mid '90s.
Ask him if it's been tricky to deal with, he says: "Yes, it has. But Manly has spent the same this season as they did last year, no more. The third parties are probably a bit better, that's all. The game has changed enormously. The power base has gone to the managers. They could form their own club."
The question now, with the fortress rebuilt, is how long will he stick around for.
"That's a pretty good question," he says. "Every year, something will surface. I'll be around as long as they want me."
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/rugby-league/...ther-again-20160303-gn9bwv.html#ixzz41puNJrKE
Follow us: @smh on Twitter | sydneymorningherald on Facebook