A Blue Room Book Review – The Australian Game – edited by Ross Fitzgerald and Ken Spillman

Australias-Game-

I can come clean now, I think, after all these years. After all, it’s been four and a half decades. My father was wrong – ‘Dad, the umpire had it right.’

In days of yore when weekends were not saturated with wall to wall AFL – no bad thing I might add – I, in my callow youth and with my great mate, Neville H Milne, followed the local footy. We travelled the length of the North West Coast in my trusty Fiat, with the suicide doors, so we could cheer on our team, the mighty Burnie Tigers, in good years and bad. Back then winters were pluvial in nature – remember when Yogga Young played the game in his raincoat? – but we were undaunted in our allegiance. I think I started barracking for them largely because my father, Fred, was a supporter of the town’s other side, the Cooee Bulldogs. I loved and admired my dad, but by this point of difference I could step aside from his shadow. When it came to the AFL – back then the VFL – we agreed. Originally we both chivvied on the Saints – St Kilda – it being the home of many Tasmanian champions. On espying an image in the local rag of a scrawny New Norfolk lad about to try his luck across the Strait in the big smoke, my father commented, ‘He’ll never make it over there. He’ll come back with his tail between his legs!’ I disagreed. I had perhaps a better handle on the prospective Hawthorn recruit. I had been following the progress of the mayhem the youth created for the backlines of opposing teams down south, as well as the bags of majors he was kicking each Saturday arvo. When I pointed this out Fred, who prided himself on his ability to spot a future Baldock or Stewart, again made disparaging remarks. It was then we parted company. From that point on my love affair with the brown and gold commenced. The lad in question was the freakish Peter Hudson, who went on to be a legend in the game. Fred Lovell was wrong about him, with my old man being very, very wrong about something else as well.

Nowadays the local footy scene is a mere shell of its former self compared to back in the days when Milney and I were traipsing along the Coast. The island can still produce champions, but in the modern era they are plucked away to Melbourne, whilst still in their teens, by the draft. Back in our time they served an apprenticeship locally before the big boys came calling. In the twilight of their careers ex-Coasters, who made it across the waves, often came back, invariably playing in their original colours. From Smithton to Latrobe, in the necklace of towns facing Bass Strait, there played out a roster for the Union, as the provincial comp was known. Ours was roughly equal in standard to the two other leagues, centred on Launceston and Hobart respectively. Of course it was huge to win the grand final in the Union competition, but the real bragging rights were with a coastal team that could beat the winners of the other two associations for the state premiership.

In 1967, my final year of secondary school, the culminating game for that title was to be between the Wynyard Cats and the North Hobart Demons. These were both led by playing coaches and the known enforcers for their sides – Johnny Coughlan of Wynyard and John Devine for the red and blue. These were the days of single umpires; video reviews were a long way in the future. The hated southerners were playing away at Burnie’s blustery, mud ridden West Park. There was no pampering of players during the Sixties with the flawless playing surfaces of today.

Even though my father and I did not share the same team, we were united when it came to the state-wide final. We were behind the locals as they took on the powerhouse from the south. Never was parochialism more prevalent than when a Hobart team came to our neck of the woods. Down south was where the big money was; down south was where all the rules were made – obviously in their favour – and down south they drank that inferior ale, Cascade. Despite the home ground advantage, all knew it would be tough to knock off North Hobart, with their ‘never-say-die’ reputation. To the crowd’s delight the smaller, but pacier, sons of the soil from the spud farms around the Inglis River had a handy lead at half time, due to a dominant second quarter. In the third stanza the big city boys hit their straps, kicking with the wind, taking a narrow lead. The last quarter saw the potato-diggers sprint away again, but with the wind dropping and the Cats tiring, the South hit back. With a few minutes to go the lead had been whittled to a point when the courageous little Wynyard rover, Doola King, was felled behind play, a cowardly act right in front of the grandstand. The crowd went ballistic. With moments left the ball squirted out of the centre and was kicked down-field onto the barrel-like chest of North Hobart full-forward Dickie Collins, about thirty metres out, directly in front. He took the mark just as the siren sounded, a feeble noise amongst the din made by an incensed, over-excited crowd. It took the umpire a few seconds to realise the game had ended, but he adjudged Collins had taken the grab before that point. At this stage a stunned lull came over the throng in the grandstand. It all came too much for Fred.

Now I have inherited a few salient genes from my dear old dad. One of them is my inability to cope with the tension of a close game, especially if it involves my beloved Hawks. This has reached what my mates consider to be ludicrous proportions these days. I go into stress mode, I pace floors and cannot bring myself to watch. The three grand finals the brown and gold have been involved with in recent times have been excruciating for me and I did anything I could to take my mind off the first two until the final siren. The Hawks are now premiers for 2013, but I ensured I would be immune this time from the actual match itself by arranging to be up in the air for its duration. What a treat it was to watch the game in full a few days later in the knowledge that they had won. Back in 1967, though, I was made of slightly sterner stuff than my father.

In the midst of the lull, as the umpire arranged for Dickie to take his kick, my father stood up and started to wildly gesticulate his arms around. It took a nano-second for me to realise what was going on, but suddenly he was yelling, exhorting those in the grandstand to ‘Get out on the ground! Get on the ground! That mark was after the siren! Get on the ground! Stop him! Stop him kicking the ball!’ With that he charged down off the bleachers, arms still going akimbo, with, to my surprise, a few hotheads following. Gradually the few became dozens, then a horde – and by then I thought I had better go down too to prevent my father getting himself into more mischief, possibly amounting to trouble. By the time I arrived on the muddy green sward of West Park, hundreds, possibly thousands had made a similar decision. By the stage I arrived there was no way any kick could be taken. Dickie was surrounded by a multitude – he’d had the forethought, though, to tuck the ball up under his guernsey.

Gradually the mood settled as the over-heated disciples of the game stood their ground to see what would happen. The umpires were in consultation with the constabulary, deciding to clear a pathway through the thong so the bemused full-forward could take his kick. I was still looking for my father, who must have woken up to what was afoot. I heard a voice rise up above the murmurs of the assembled, ‘The goalposts! The goalposts! Bring down the goalposts! Stop him having his kick! Bring down the goalposts!’ I could now place where my father was. The king of the hotheads stood and watched as his acolytes did exactly what he demanded of them. They came crashing down, one just missing me by millimetres. Soon the officials decided the exercise was pointless and called off the game. As for the goalposts, they reportedly ended up on a train headed for Hobart.

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Sadly, my father is no longer with us and I do need to put the record right:-
‘Dear old Dad – you were wrong. I knew that back then just as I know now. Dickie Collins took that grab on the siren, not after. He was entitled to take his kick. He deserved to take his place in history for kicking the winning goal – a place you denied him. But then, my beloved father – without you this saga; this fabulous story that has been dined out on for decades on our footy mad island, would not have occurred. Your input saw this one game become a great yarn!’

Yes, I know – every islander my age or thereabouts would no doubt claim to have been at West Park that infamous day. Every one of them will tell you they know the true story. But this, I believe, beyond a shadow of doubt – it was Freddy Lovell alone who instigated the riot on that windswept oval that day!

So, Martin Flanagan, you now know the truth; you know who caused the goalposts to be moved – uprooted indeed – and it was not ‘some intemperate behaviour’ by your mate, poet Pete Hay. In my view, Flanagan is the best football writer going around in any code – but he is just one of many notable contributors to ‘The Australian Game’. In ‘Tomorrow We Are Playing Away’ Martin F writes lovingly of Aussie rules in this state during its glory years. Why, we even once beat the Vics at their own game. No account of the sport in Tasmania would be complete, though, without a mention of Queenstown’s famous gravel field of play. That duly occurs in Paul Daffey’s sublime piece, ‘Home and Away’.

The book is indeed an update of a collection that first saw the light of day twenty-five years ago. Fresh contributions have been added, but many classic yarns remain. Geoffrey Blainey, for instance, recalls the smell of eucalyptus and the bevy of gladstone bags that once marked Geelong’s games at its former oval, Corio. One of my best mates is an Essendon tragic. No, not Neville H Milne – he lamentably is a devoted and deluded follower of Collingwood. Steph would love the Peter Corris piece ‘Barracking for the Bombers’ where he pontificates on the ridiculousness of grid iron and the twin marvels of Coleman and Hird. Let us just hope that the latter’s reputation is not too sullied by that club’s annus horribilis. Dinny O’Hearn, on the tribal nature of the game, is a delight. The potted history of the Sherrin is wonderfully and wistfully bought to life by Vin Maskell. Along with Bill Cannon, we were all in awe of and pretended to be Darrel Baldock once upon a time. He recounts a rollicking time as ‘The One-gamer’. I adored reading Max Piggot’s ‘Swansong’ – a homage to the Bloods and ‘Up There Cazaly’. As well, it is a lament for how it has all changed now in the modern era.

These are my favourites amidst a plethora of quality writing from quality wordsmiths, but each will has his/her own. The tome is a must for all lovers of the world’s best sporting attraction; for all those hopelessly bewitched by the game, as Fred was and I shall forever be.

1 thought on “A Blue Room Book Review – The Australian Game – edited by Ross Fitzgerald and Ken Spillman

  1. I may need to borrow this one from you, dad. And loving hearing more anecdotes about my adored grandfather. I know he’s here, watching his tiny Tiger. There’s more than a fair bit of him in her. Your writing just keeps getting better. K x

    Like

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