Even now, more than 15 years since he retired, Ashley Gordon wonders what might have been.
“In hindsight, I look back and I don’t think I took all of my opportunities,” the former Newcastle Knights flyer told NRL.com ahead of Friday week’s City-Country clash in Albury.
“As a player, you’ve got to back yourself in representative circles rather than just being glad to have been there and thinking that’s your achievement.
“I played two games for Country but I only played okay in those two games. I didn’t go in super confident, like I did in club footy – probably because I was in awe of the representative players around me. You’ve got to respect them but you shouldn’t be in awe of them.”
‘The Flash’, as he was known during his playing days, Gordon played 71 games for Newcastle between 1988 and 1995 (with a season at Penrith in 1993) and represented Country Origin twice (in 1991 and 1995), but having retired in his mid-20s to purse a teaching career he is quick to admit he didn’t achieve all he could have achieved.
“I was your typical Aboriginal player I believe – I played instinctively and off the top of my head and maybe that was my undoing,” he explained. “We started to become professional and more structured but I took the game as a game, not as a job. I didn’t take it as serious as I should have.
“It came easy to me. I played Australian Schoolboys, I was playing first grade locally when I was in high school. I thought ‘How easy is this? How much fun is this?’ Then it got to the stage where it started to become a job and more committed and I wasn’t prepared for that. It affected me and my attitude to the game.”
The great irony is that Gordon’s experiences as a gifted footballer struggling against professionalism have led him to where he is today – helping youngsters overcome the perils of drugs, alcohol and gambling.
Although his primary role is as manager of the NSW Aboriginal Safe Gambling program, he remains heavily involved in rugby league and is regularly called upon by both the NRL and individual clubs to help players in need.
“A lot of our kids come through their education without taking the education side of things seriously. Football is everything for them,” Gordon said.
“They get given all of this money and all of this free time. Girls obviously enjoy going out with footballers, so you throw all of that into the mix, you throw in alcohol and it’s a bad mix. It’s going to cause problems and anyone that thinks otherwise has got rocks in their heads.
“We’re the ones that put them on a pedestal and tell them how wonderful they are so in a way we cause it, the media supports it and these kids are all going to have egos that are too large.
“I’ve been to the rookie camps and a lot of them walk around like they’re bullet proof – which is totally wrong.
“I didn’t really have anyone to pull me aside when I was playing and the personal development side of the game is something I feel very strongly about – you need people in your ear. Plenty of people know the game of rugby league but there aren’t many that know the psychology of a footballer and the influences outside of the game.
“So for me, being a teacher, then a counsellor, then a researcher and working with drug-and-alcohol in particular gives me the knowledge to support players away from the game.
“That’s what I like doing the most.”
Having worked closely with the Knights, Canterbury and South Sydney in recent years, Gordon believes it is crucial to educate youngsters before they become dazzled by the bright lights of fame.
And he knows all too well how difficult it can be to get the message across. In his work promoting safe gambling to Aboriginal communities across NSW he often comes across people that are reluctant to admit they need help.
“Because it’s such a sensitive issue, it’s also very raw so you’ve got to be very careful,” he explained. “It’s often not being addressed and not being discussed in communities so in that way it is quite rewarding because I do want to raise the issue and bring it to the surface. At the moment it’s not and nothing is happening. It’s very important.”
Gordon is often the first point of call these days when an NRL star seeks help from his club – be it for gambling problems or any other social issues – and, coming from the fanatical rugby league town of Newcastle, he understands how difficult such problems can be for players to cope with.
“I was probably lucky that it wasn’t too bad in the early days in Newcastle – the media wasn’t as big back then – but I played with Andrew Johns in 1995 and saw a young boy come through with the world at his feet,” Gordon said.
“It’s a tough place to grow up in, it is like a fishbowl and Joey experienced that. The community knows you very well and the spotlight is always on you.
“That’s why I’m keeping a close eye on Greg Inglis now that he is in Sydney because the spotlight is going to be very different to what it was in Melbourne.”
As for his interest in the game nowadays, Gordon is still a passionate Knights supporter; he regularly attends games with sons Joseph and Tom and admits to being a huge fan of Akuila Uate who is tipped to follow in Gordon’s footsteps by being named to debut for Country Origin next week.
“I love watching him play – he is a perfect example of a player who shouldn’t be pulled into line,” Gordon said. “I was the same and I didn’t really cope well with how structured the game became when it turned professional. The thing about Uate is that he plays what he sees, he backs himself and he does it 100 per cent. He scores tries that nobody else can score. His turn of speed is second to none.
“And those guys are like dinosaurs these days, the guys that are unpredictable. You want your Matty Bowens and Johnathan Thurstons and even your Darren Lockyers that play off what they see.
“You can’t put defence on guys that play what they see and go against the structure. It’s great to watch.”