27 May 2017, Melbourne, Australia
Rob, Robbo, Rajah, Bobsy, Biff, Biff Simpson, Ticka, Robshalabim, David’s brother…
My earliest memories of Rob are of sharing an idyllic country up-bringing – back yard bat tennis and cricket in Nhill, rolling our own cricket pitch, getting our first Sherrin, our sports shed, the smell of scanlan’s gum and footy cards - and like many of us in this room our formative experiences were largely rooted in sport
I think Rob’s relationship to sport is probably the best lens to examine the first 50 years of his life through – and I’ve identified 6 clear phases of personal development Rob has transitioned through to make him the person he is today
So, Rob Denton – this is your Sporting Life..
Phase 1 – the phase of worship and idolatry...
Although Mum made an aborted attempt to enrol Rob and I in Sunday school in Nhill, we were not brought up in a religious household – however Rob did have his own Gods
Our older brother Stephen was probably the first formative influence on the young sporting Rob, indeed Rob bats left handed due to Steve’s influence – although Rob would have been better off copying Steve’s bowling action - Steve famously took 10 for 9 in junior cricket in Wangaratta and he probably did the same in the back yard at Nhill on numerous occasions.
The die was cast early, we lived on a double block at 166 Nelson St Nhill, and our back yard was our MCG. By the time we were in primary school we had curated multiple cricket pitches, wherever there was a flat patch of ground without trees. Rob had a glorious hook shot as a child, and on one occasion we were playing on pitch 2 – a dusty crumbling subcontinent pitch more suited to spin, situated adjacent to the house. I dragged an attempted topspinner horribly short, Rob’s eyes lit up and he clipped it off his nose cleanly only to send it crashing through the dining room window.
Unfortunately, our older sister Tracy was studying for her HSC at the time, at that sunny window. She was mildly angry…Rob was sent to his room in disgrace. He was pissed off with me all afternoon, not because he had been sent to his room – but because he was obviously out, for hitting the house on the full, off a rank long hop. We never played on that pitch again, and Rob was never comfortable facing spin.
When we weren’t playing sport we were sleeping and our weekends were spent watching footy or cricket at Davis Park in Nhill
Country sporting legends hold a strong place in Rob’s heart and I think if pressed he could still recall Don Frisch’s figures during a lightening quick downwind spell from the swimming pool end in 1975, or the type of footy boots local legend Grattan Pohlner wore while carving up Davis Park in 1977 (probably Adidas La Plata). In fact, he’s probably got one of Grattan’s Jumpers in his collection.
This phase of Rob’s life obviously left an indelible mark and if you’ve read Rob’s blogs you’ll agree that part of Rob is still in Nhill.
By the time we’d moved to Castlemaine, via Colac, in 1980 Rob had progressed onto the next phase of his sporting personal development journey:
Phase 2 – the Shallow, Materialistic phase
During his early to mid-teenage years Rob’s sporting horizons grew quickly to take on a global dimension and he began to worship the God of retail sport. His eye for the aesthetics of the athletic was born and he developed a keen and critical appreciation for design – he had his finger firmly on the pulse of the sporting zeitgeist
Over his teenage years he codified these ideas into a set of personal guidelines and beliefs around the fashion and function of sporting goods and clothing, most of which I think still stand the test of Time:
1. Thou shalt not wear a full tracksuit (otherwise known as a fullby)
2. Thou shalt not wear substandard sporting footwear
3. Thou shalt not lay false claim to be able to swing a compo cricket ball
4. Thou shall exalt the latest Gunn and Moore cricket bat as the acme of modern design
5. The Ross Faulkner is a vastly superior ball for kicking torpedoes
It was during this phase that Rob also discovered mass media – of many forms I might add, and this broadened his outlook greatly. He spent a large proportion of his pocket money at Ian Potter’s news agency buying sporting magazines and was a devotee of Inside Football and Cricketer Magazine among others. Rob’s room was plastered with posters of Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes and David Hookes. I think there’s a poster upstairs of the centenary test that was on his wall in 1977.
He also managed to put together another collection of literature from Potter’s Newsagency, although he neither paid for these, or displayed them as openly…His stash of stolen porn was deviously hidden in overgrown bushes in the grounds of the neighbouring convent, where no one would suspect such debauchery lurked...
Unfortunately for Rob (and I – as I had sprung him with his stash) – Mum had taken up golf and would occasionally practice in the back yard at Templeton St. I feel reasonably qualified to say that for Mum to launch a practice ball over the 15-foot fence into the convent was biomechanically implausible – but she struck one 7 iron particularly sweetly and over it sailed.
In search of the wayward golf ball in the convent grounds, you can only imagine her surprise when she happened upon Biff’s Bawdy Bible’s. She quickly confronted Rob, who just as quickly denied any knowledge of the stash – and cleverly suggested they were the property of local neighbourhood rogue Wayne Webster, Mum bought the story and they quickly became known as Websters Dictionaries...
But enough of culture, back to sport
By the time Rob was 15 his sporting horizons were full of possibility and he was entering the next phase of his journey
Phase 3 – peak performance
Like Tracy Austin before him and Anthony Banik after him, Rob peaked early as a sportsman. His career trajectory as a footballer probably reached its zenith as a full forward for Chewton under 16’s – he was kicking bags of goals under the masterful tutelage of Dougie Doran, although it should be said even Chas Bishop could get a kick in that team. Fast forward five years and Chewton Football Club had folded and Rob’s dream of pushing Paul Salmon to the forward pocket at Essendon lay in tatters. Chewton had fallen foul of the blight of many country teams – a lack of players and support. A series of factors had conspired against Rob too, the most notable being his lack of pace, skill and competitiveness.
His cricket career has been more enduring, although it too had its giddiest moments in his teenage years. His cricketing ability was no doubt honed by hours of backyard cricket, but the real work was done on the Castlemaine High School tennis court. This was a brutal proving ground where a boys social standing was based on a complex formula in which his cricket ability was multiplied by the quality of his sports shoe.
By 14 Rob was wearing Adidas TRX 10’s and batting through recess – his star was on the rise. Although it perhaps didn’t burn as brightly as that of Jamie Allan who found himself 90 not out at the cessation of play one day - at the resumption of play the following day his Dad Don turned up to watch Jamie bring up his ton. In today’s terms, this humble school tennis court was a talent hotspot.
Rob was spotted by local talent agent Mark Wade and persuaded to join the Maldon C Grade team. By 15 Allen Wade had ironed out his inclination to leave balls on middle stump and he was developing as a handy top order batsman. He worked his way into the A grade team and on one glorious summer’s day in 1984 he achieved his pinnacle as a sportsman – making a century on the Bill Woodfull recreation reserve at Maldon.
I was there that day, watching with Moogs McGrath from the vantage point of Bob Evans’s XU-1 Torana, (complete with 8 ball gearstick) and I can remember it clearly – the hundred was brought up by a slightly chancy top edged hook to the short boundary. I was so proud of my older brother – making a ton in A grade was a special achievement. I can recall getting a tear in my eye, although I may be getting that confused with the time Moogs tested out the Torana’s cigarette lighter on my thigh..it worked.
Rob had a deal with Dad that he would but him a new bat if he made a ton – so Rob promptly took delivery of brand spanking Gray Nichols scoop and never made a run again..I’m perhaps gilding the lily a bit, but over the course of the next few years Rob’s once powerful hook shot turned into a weak waft at the ball, his shot selection deserted him and he transitioned from a top order bat, into an all-rounder before finally finding his niche as a crafty first change into the wind swing bowler.
By this time Rob left school he had worked out his place in the sporting landscape and had firmly entered his next phase:
Phase 4 – The Phase of Affiliation and Cultural Immersion
The teenage Rob left school to work in the local bank to fill in the time between sporting engagements. Around this time Rob got his license somehow, as he’s never been the most practical of people. I still recall hopping in the car with a couple of the boys on the first day he got his license, at the roundabout outside the commercial hotel in the middle of town, Rob looked to left, looked to the right, hesitated and asked “what’s the go here boys?”
He took a short sojourn with a bank transfer to Swan Hill before returning to Castlemaine in his early 20’s. I had also returned to Castlemaine after a brief period in Melbourne and the next few years would be a golden period for the Denton boys – perhaps not in career terms, but geez we had fun, and those years no doubt shaped the people we are today significantly.
During this period Rob played a pivotal role in bringing our social group together, loosely based on sporting pursuits. The story of the Top Woolmen is one for another day, but this social group, which began as an indoor cricket side, grew into the glue that held together a very tight group of mates – at its peak there were probably about 15-20 of us. We all had business cards and personalised pots at the railway hotel and we thought we ruled the world.
Most of the Top Woolmen were playing footy with Castlemaine, Rob scraped together the odd senior game but it was probably about this time that he worked out that his role in the social and sporting landscape was going to be more influential off the field than on it, mind you if the coaches were keeping a KPI on bum patting of team mates, Rob won it hands down. Indeed, at one stage I think the powers that be considered renaming the Castlemaine Football Club best clubman award the Rob Denton Perpetual Trophy.
He threw himself into roles with the social committee of the football club and began publishing his own version of the football record, titled “bloody old football”, containing player profiles, interviews and social news. “Bloody Old Football” grew its own cult following and was eagerly awaited each home game at the Camp Reserve. This was probably not Rob’s first attempt at sports journalism but the ethos of celebrating the culture of country sporting clubs that lives on today in his “sportingnation” blogs was no doubt born in bloody old football.
BOF wasn’t all light-hearted banter, there was some serious football brain food for the sharp-minded reader – indeed Rob likes to claim some credit for “Clarko’s Cluster” pointing out some clear similarities to the “flying wedge” strategy outlined in his interview with legendary bush coach Barry Turtlebottom.
By the mid 90’s both Rob and I had slowly realised that we couldn’t make a career out of our devotion to the Top Woolmen and both left that chapter of our life behind. For Rob, the move to the city would be a tumultuous one because for him the words “country” and “sport” were inseparable
This would ultimately lead to the next phase in Rob’s sporting journey.
Phase 5 – the Phase of Disaffection
For a few years Rob was swallowed by Melbourne life and turned his back on his sporting roots. He’d injured his back which caused him a fair bit of grief, particularly when he realised he’d lost control of his outswinger – and had largely removed himself from playing sport. He tried the odd game of golf – but soon realised that this was not a good idea, not because it hurt his back but just because he was shit at golf.
He grew increasingly cynical about football – Castlemaine was no longer the club he knew and loved and he had no local club culture in which to embed himself in Moonee Ponds. AFL football hadn’t interested him greatly since it stopped being the VFL - everything that was right about country football was wrong about big league footy.
In essence, Rob quit sport..and took up photography - you can imagine how this went down with the Woolmen..
These were dark days for Rob, it seemed he may be lost to sport forever…
But, fortunately for our hero this phase would be short lived – he would be saved by love.
To borrow a phrase from Kev’s wonderfully written and competently delivered best man’s speech, “Given Rob’s lifelong obsession with sporting brands it was no surprise he picked up a well-made Wilson frame”
Although if truth be told it’s more accurate to say Sonia picked Rob up, off the metaphorical sporting mat. This would be the beginning of the most recent and remarkable phase:
Phase 6 – The Renaissance.
Sonia quickly used her burgeoning diagnostic skills to identify Rob as suffering from a non-specific STD – Sporting Transition Disorder. Under Sonia’s care Rob has undergone a remarkable sporting rehabilitation.
She quickly initiated a series of actions to remedy this crippling disease as she knew that without prompt re-exposure Rob may be lost to sport forever
She first encouraged Rob to dip his toe back into sport by a process of rapid de-sensitisation – she introduced him to her father Graham, who can tell you how many games the unknown soldier played for Brunswick.
She also tried a range of subtler attempts to bring him back to the sporting fold
- She arranged to have their wedding reception on a tennis court,
- She very quickly moved him into the family house close to the MCG – in the faint hope that the distant sound of the siren in September or the roar of the crowd on boxing day would trigger a subliminal reconnection.
- She took him on a holiday to Bathurst Island, under the guise of a photo opportunity - feigning surprise that the local indigenous football grand final was on.
- On more than one occasion she deliberately lost Rob’s digital SLR or Carl Zeiss lens, in the hope that he’d forget photography and rediscover his love for sport.
And then she had a revelation, she realized that the way to cure Rob, was to re-introduce him to his childhood self – so in perhaps her most selfless moment Sonia produced Rob – mark II, Rory Denton, and after a suitable batting-in period Campbell and Grace.
This was a masterstroke, Rob has reconnected to sport through his kids – Rory right now is firmly in Phase 2 of his own Sporting Personal Development Journey, the Shallow, Materialistic Phase, and it’s safe to say he could have no better mentor to guide him through this phase of life.
My early observation is that the added Wilson sporting genes have produced 3 higher, faster, stronger and more skilful versions of Rob – so I’m predicting Stage 3 – Peak Performance may be more accomplished than in the case of Rob’s shooting star.
Rob has been helping shape the kids sporting journey at their junior footy club and I’m told he enforces strict dress standards, particularly regarding the wearing of tracksuits, and insists the kids are exposed to both Sherrin and Ross Faulkner footballs.
He’s returned to cricket, with some success – he tells me he’s rediscovered his outswinger, although the scything rapier like flashing blade that was his hook shot is a distant memory. His love is of sporting design has been re-invigorated, although he firmly of the belief that cricket bat design reached its high point with the Gunn & Moore Ravi Shastri used in 1992 and has a museum collection to prove it.
Sadly, his golf has not improved.
Rob has more recently found a way to combine his twin passions of sport and culture in his Fabric of Football pieces and wider Sporting Nation musings– he’s definitely become a Renaissance Sporting man. His work portrays our sporting culture in a unique way that speaks of time and place and resonates with anyone that grew up in a country town in the 70’s and 80’s – there’s definitely a part of Nihill wedged deep in Rob’s Psych.
I like to think of Rob as Castlemaine’s cultural counterbalance to the flood of Northcote residents who have trekked the Calder in their Birkenstocks and enriched the goldfields community this century.
I think in taking his message to the masses Rob reminds us of the true place of sport in our life, and in doing so – hopefully put’s some real life into our sport.
I think I’ve extracted every last ounce out of this sporting metaphor Biff.
In closing I’d like to reference Rabbit Comte, a Top Woolman – who posts increasingly philosophical content on his facebook page from a rubber plantation in Thailand –
“Life is an echo – what you send out comes back”
Today’s gathering is a reminder that what you’ve sent out over the first 50 years is pretty special Biff – in the words of the Woolmen, you’re a snidger bloke.
When I looked to you as a 10-year-old I saw the person I wanted to be, when I look to you now I realise I only got some of it right.
You probably don’t realise what a profound influence on you’ve been on me – I still refuse to wear the full Hawthorn tracksuit.
You’ve been like a brother to me.
The innings is only half over, but we’ll permit a modest raise of the bat