THERE was a time, not that long ago, when journalists covering AFL merely wrote stories. They were bit players in the game. However, in the era of social media and personal brands, those covering the game possess personalities almost as big as those playing and administering it. Just ask them.
When Mike Sheahan's print career began 40 years ago, football journalists were reporters, not entertainers or media personalities. Yet as one of the most powerful voices in footy, first at The Age and later at News Limited, he clearly played a part in changing the way we scrutinise the game.
Sheahan retired from print last year. Now the veteran journalist is winning kudos for his modest but enlightening weekly series, Open Mike. Although in essence an intimate question-and-answer session with a contemporary football figure, the show has developed a significant following among AFL insiders.
Guests such as Kevin Sheedy, Steven Baker, Robert Walls, Warren Treadrea and Phil Carman have spoken with remarkable candour regarding past sins, feuds with rivals and, in Sheedy's case, whether they stayed in their role too long.
Sheahan pitched the series to Fox Footy five years ago and the station granted him several one-hour specials with polarising figures such as Andrew Demetriou, Chris Judd and Peter Everitt. Successful interviews with Leigh Matthews and Greg Williams in following years helped the show gain traction.
Having decided to depart News Limited, and with Fox indicating it would revive its Footy channel this year, Sheahan raised the idea of a weekly series.
''They were prepared to indulge me because they needed product,'' he says. The show has regenerated his media career:
''I loved newspapers, but the daily grind was weighing heavily on me.''
Sheahan approaches each subject personally, with a phone call requesting their participation. A small handful, including Essendon's Tim and Jobe Watson, declined. Certainly the show's subjects appear to arrive on set disarmed and ready to talk frankly about their football life. This week's edition with Robert Walls was no exception.
''I'm not going to badger people to go on,'' he says. ''They won't canvass their experiences if they are being dragged there.''
With Gerard Healy and Paul Roos, Sheahan also forms the trio behind Fox Footy's On the Couch, which also airs on Mondays.
Sheahan has sat on a couch in a television studio and talked about the game with his peers, beginning with Bruce McAvaney on Channel Seven's defunct Talking Footy, each Monday since 1995. After six years of Talking Footy, he and Healy left Seven and began On the Couch at Fox, where they remain 10 years later.
''You can't change that show that much,'' Sheahan says. ''We are a little more analytical and scientific in our preparation, but we fundamentally do the same thing we always have.''
Still, we have to ask: is it strange nobody at the Herald Sun has filled his old slot as chief footy writer?
''I am either irreplaceable, or I was meaningless, or don't need to be replaced,'' he says, chuckling. ''I enjoyed working with most people there. And I enjoyed the profile. But you get to the point where you've had enough.''
Open Mike and On the Couch air on Mondays on Fox Footy.