7 June 2018, Melbourne Cricket Club, MCG, Melbourne, Australia
If you drive through the Tasmanian midlands from Launceston to Hobart, as you pass through a clump of houses called Cleveland, you will see, on the left, Joe Pike’s paddock. This is where my father saw his first games of football as a child in the years immediately following World War 1. My grandfather, a railway ganger who could write no more than his name, was the backbone of the Cleveland Football Club. These were the years before electricity, before radio, and so my father’s earliest football memories were sitting around at night listening to his father and older brothers talk about the difficulty of getting a team because so many of the local lads had died at Gallipoli or on the Western Front. But when Cleveland got a team together, they played in Joe Pike’s paddock. So that’s where it starts for me, what I like to call my footy dreaming.
Cleveland had something else. It had the memory of a champion. George Challis was a mathematics teacher who played football on the wing and was renowned for his speed and accurate passing. Challis had been one of Tasmania’s best at the national carnival of 1911, and one of Carlton’s best in the 1915 grand final when they overcame Collingwood. Within 12 months, Sergeant George Challis was blown to pieces in France. Nothing whatsoever of him remained but a large gravestone stands in his memory in the small churchyard opposite Joe Pike’s paddock. What have I got from football? Memories, lots of them.
In the aftermath of World War 1, a young returned solder who had been gassed and wounded and lost two brothers in the slaughter took up land outside Latrobe on Tasmania’s north west coast. My grandfather Patrick Flanagan followed Latrobe, having lived in the district since he was a boy. The story my grandfather told was that one day the returned soldier turned up at the cattle sales and had a kick with some of the local blokes and was persuaded to have a game with Latrobe. His name was Ivor Warne-Smith. He would later win two Brownlow medals with Melbourne and, as chairman of selectors, be the power behind the throne during the 1950s and ‘60s when Norm Smith’s Melbourne side won five premierships.
My grandfather only went to Hobart once in his life. That was to see Warne Smith lead the North West Football Union against the hated TFL, the Hobart-based association that thought it was the VFL and sought to rule accordingly. Warne Smith was injured early and the Union lost - or that was how the story came down to me 60 years later. That’s a long time for a story to travel, but something about the Australian game, some innate power it possesses, has been able to propel stories with rare power. That is also the reason why the pre-match entertainment before the Dreamtime at the G game may be the most powerful message Aboriginal Australia sends non-Aboriginal Australia this year.
My mother’s family, the Learies, were farmers in the green hills up behind Devonport. They were musical people but they had footy stories, too. Before World War 1, when a 20-year-old member of the clan lay dying from what was then called a leaking heart, his brother went to the grand final between Ulverstone and Devonport with two carrier pigeons, one to send home a score at half-time, the other to send home a score at the end of the game.
My father, who was born in 1914, said that when he was a boy Victorian football results were just a paragraph in the Tasmanian papers. Everyone followed Tasmanian football. The biggest club in his world as a child was Campbell Town, 20 kilometres to Cleveland’s south. All his life Dad followed Tasmanian football. He never went to a single AFL or VFL game. I always said he didn’t barrack for an AFL team but when the Swans surged to that great premiership victory in 2005 I was amazed to find he wanted them to win. Why? Because of Laurie Nash.
Dad left Launceston High School just as the Great Depression hit. He later survived the war-time atrocity remembered as the Burma Railway, but he said that in some ways the Great Depression was worse. In the Great Depression, he said, “you saw whole families go under”. One of the few bright spots in that bleak reality was Laurie Nash. If the word genius can be applied to sport, it could probably be used in relation to Nash. He would open the bowling for Australia and offer to bowl bouncers back at Douglas Jardine’s English team during the Bodyline crisis. In Launceston football, he played for the City club under captain-coach Roy Cazaly. There were State premiers in 1930 and ’32 - in 1933, he joined South Melbourne, playing centre-half back against the wind and centre-half forward with it, and was a member of the Swans’ famous Foreign Legion premiership team of that year.
The City club, now called South Launceston, can trace its heritage back to the 1870s through the Cornwall club. In 2013, the AFL ushered South Launceston from the Statewide league and replaced them with a so-called “franchise” – the franchise folded within two years. In the same year, the AFL foisted a name change upon the North Hobart Football Club which can date its heritage back to 1881. A club which had made a cumulative profit of $300,000 in the preceding 10 years made a loss of $100,000 over the next four years, lost three quarters of its paying members and was headed, like the Tasmanian tiger, for extinction until, last year, when a group of determined North Hobart people won back control of their club. They now have no debt and some of the best juniors in the State. Go North!
People ask me who I barrack for - I barrack for the game. An American who lived in this city for some years once wrote me a letter which began: “You seem an intelligent man. Why do you write so much about football?”. Because it’s the culture I’m from. Footy’s a language I can speak. I also happen to believe Australian football is, by world standards, a great game – that it is, in fact, Australia’s great athletic invention. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Victorian detective Sherlock Holmes, watched the 1920 VFL grand final between Collingwood and Richmond and declared that the Australian game was the most athletic of all the football codes. It is a game of courage and daring, of strength and physical grace. I was enchanted when I discovered it as an 11-year-old growing up in Burnie on Tasmania’s north-west coast. Five of the boys I played with or against went onto to play in the VFL/AFL. Between them, the two Burnie clubs. Burnie and Cooee, easily won the bulk of the premierships in that third of the island. I was therefore shocked to learn earlier this year that, unable to field a team, Burnie had followed Devonport in withdrawing from the Tasmanian Statewide League.
Popular sports like Australian rules football are constantly re-born in the eyes of children – in my case, between the ages of 11 and 13. I was 11 when the game captivated me. I was 12 when I listened – on a plastic transistor held against a steel girder to better the reception – to the classic 1967 grand final between Geelong and Richmond. That same year, I also saw the Tasmanian State final between North Hobart and Wynyard which ended with the goal posts being pulled down by Wynyard supporters to prevent North Hobart full forward Dicky Collins shooting for goal, Wynyard supports having judged that he marked the ball after the siren. When I spoke earlier this year at a function in Hobart celebrating the re-birth of the North Hobart Football Club, Dicky Collins attended and brought the ball – the ball he was holding when the goalposts were pulled down. The umpire, a man with the marvellously symbolic name of Pilgrim, never got to blow his whistle to end the match. The game is still being played, I like to say, out in the football dreamtime....
I have to thank football for the stories it has given me. Hundreds if not thousands of them. Here are a few that come to mind. Liam Jurrah. I say in all seriousness that it is doubtful that ay professional sportsman playing in a major league anywhere in the world vaulted a bigger cultural gap than Liam Jurrah did to play AFL football. He may also come to be seen in the history of the game as Albert Namatjira as seen in the history of Australian art. My second story would be the Israeli-Palestinian AFL Peace Team. What was so moving about the Peace Team was that, through the medium of Australian football, two of the most conflicted groups on earth actually bought into the idea that they were one. The Israeli assault on Gaza in 2014 eventually tore them apart but, even so, one of the Israelis bravely continued the work. And, thirdly, in Tom Wills I found a character who is to me, like Ned Kelly, a figure who straddles a fault-line in the national psyche, who is best understood in the way that earthquakes are understood, the product of vast forces, mostly unseen, that suddenly erupt through an individual who may only be partially aware of what’s going on. Tom Wills, like Ned Kelly, is a big story in the continuing drama of what it means to be Australian. My fourth story is driving from Melbourne to Darwin with Michael Long, crossing this great land of ours from south to north with someone who was known every time he stepped out of the car. My fifth is the Bulldogs coming from nowhere to win in 2016. I could go on....and on....and on...
I knew Tasmanian football in Tasmania was in serious trouble four years ago when I went to Hobart and the sports report on the evening news led with soccer – not EPL or A league but local soccer. Tasmanian soccer had replaced Tasmanian football as the dominant sporting story. This is not unrelated, I believe, to the fact that Tasmania has had only a single draft pick in the past two years. The power of Tasmanian football as a dreaming is much diminished. Four years ago, when I started asking around, I found to my disbelief that the Tasmanian Statewide League had been unable to secure a financial sponsor. Clubs were struggling to get sponsors for individual players. This was at a time when, back here in Melbourne, the AFL was congratulating itself on the fact it had secured a record sum for broadcasting rights to the game. How, I asked, could this be happening at the one time, such extremes of poverty and wealth within the one game, the one culture?
The answer is that the game has evolved into two very different cultures. Those at the top talk in terms of branding and product and market share, the language of corporate culture. The culture at the bottom was best described by Glenorchy Football Club president John McCann when he said two years ago that the ecosystem of Tasmanian football was sick. He was right on two counts - he was right that it was sick, and he was right that the grassroots game, that growth of more than 150 years, is best understood as an eco-system. The AFL and those around them talk about “the industry”. If football is an industry, it is at the most basic level a primary industry, but everywhere I go in Australia, I hear the same – that industry is struggling. And so tonight in moving this toast, can I say to all those who love the game and particularly to those who are responsible for its future – Ignore Grassroots Football At Your Peril.
To the Australian game!