With his side-parted, short, black hair and broad-rimmed spectacles, there’s more than a touch of the Clark Kents about Zane Littlejohn.
But even Superman eventually ran out of sequels in which to save the day.
After two State League flags, the superpowers finally ran out in a third straight grand final, but Littlejohn flies off into the Queensland sunset with both a proud record and universal respect.
Like another diminutive North Launceston thinker, Brendon Bolton, Littlejohn leaves the venue formerly known as York Park for the AFL with modest playing credentials but a coaching style deserving of a higher stage.To watch the 30-year-old coach his beloved Bombers for the last time was as enthralling as anything going on the other side of the boundary line.
In contrast to the stereotypical image of an excitable leader alternating between raising fists in celebration and smashing them through walls in frustration, Littlejohn prefers observation over obscenity. Even as the contest swung towards Glenorchy with the premiership quarter living up to its name, he remained passive, quietly dispatching instructions to runners and sharing ideas with assistants. Inside must have been a washing machine of emotions but outside was a picture of composure.
When the three-quarter time siren sounded, North were 20 points down and the three-peat looking as likely as the AFL’s Four-thorn.
Coaches’ on-field addresses are usually considered off limits for newspaper reports but I figured as this was Littlejohn’s last it would not betray any confidence.
His teaching background was instantly apparent. Not only did he speak comfortably to a gathering but they hung on his every word.
This must be what it’s like to be taught by Mr Littlejohn.
Again, unlike so many in the coaching game, there was a lack of either swearing or volume.
“Do what you do best,” he implored his players. “Don’t hope for it to happen, make it happen.”
It had more than a few shades of Hawthorn coach John Kennedy’s infamous motivational address: “Don’t think, do”, but it was similarly inspiring.
“Don’t wait for Taylor Whitford, don’t wait for Daniel Roozendaal, youmake it happen.”
With his most trusted lieutenants like Roozendaal, Whitford and Brad Cox-Goodyer front and centre, Littlejohn reminded his men that their shared six-year journey was not over yet.
And it was entirely appropriate that a teacher should make a literary reference to conclude his final address.
“Continue to write the chapter how you want,” he added.
Ultimately, neither side won the final quarter. The teams went goal for goal, point for point, to maintain the same 20-point margin between them at the final siren.
If the mark of a man is not how he deals with triumph, but adversity, then Littlejohn passed that test.
As the visiting bench exploded in joyous celebration, the home side’s coach continued to take in the scene before strolling out to console his players.
His only departure was to break into a run to make sure he reached Aaron Cornelius for a congratulatory handshake before his opposite number was swallowed up in a whirlpool of black and white celebrations.
Gathering his shattered players, their faces dampened by tears as well as sweat, Littlejohn implored them to: “Carry ourselves in the professional way we have developed over six years.”
That they did, Whitford particularly impressive as he paused during an emotional losing captain’s address to encourage his opponents to enjoy what he said would be the best time of their lives.
The rest of the day had hit a similarly appropriate tone, witnessing, as it did, the best and worst aspects of what remains arguably Tasmanian sport’s most iconic annual event.
A well-attended pre-match function played host to some impeccable timing as Premier Will Hodgman and treasurer Peter Gutwein walked in on Robert Auld’s address just as the new AFL Tasmania CEO was praising the sport’s state government support.
However, it also served to help demonstrate the outdated folly of retaining the state’s highest individual footy honour as part of a distracted luncheon.
If ever there was a conclusive argument for giving the Alastair Lynch Medal it’s own Brownlow-style occasion, it was perennial front-runner Jaye Bowden not only being otherwise occupied when announced as winner before the game but also collecting the accolade afterwards only to admit, with commendable honesty, that the medal he truly coveted was the premiership one to follow.
Expect this year to be the last for the award’s current format.
Auld’s address continued the new AFL Tasmania theme of openness and consultation but reluctance to simply avoid rocking the boat. He concluded: “I don’t want for us to take the path of least resistance because if we do the destination will be mediocrity.”
It was a suitably profound statement on a day when 6128 supporters farewelled the state’s latest AFL aspirant.
Littlejohn leaves North Launceston and Tasmanian football healthier for his involvement.
He’d make an ideal first coach for a Tasmanian AFL team. But that’s about as likely as the rest of Superman’s comic book storylines.