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Writing for the love of the game

26 March 2016 128 views No Comment

Heartfelt Moments in Australian Rules Football
Edited by Ross Fitzgerald
Connor Court, 251pp, $29.95

This book and its 37 essays reflect the nation’s enthusiasm for football and the incessant talk about it. All prime ministers and almost every child, it seems, have to support an AFL team, even if they scarcely know how the game is played.

We learn that in 1975, not long before he became prime minister, Malcolm Fraser was informed by John Elliott, a Liberal powerbroker, that he must publicly support a team: “I said, ‘It is simple Malcolm, you should barrack for Carlton.’

Elliott then invited Fraser to his corporate box to watch Carlton play at the big Waverley ground; and lo and behold, “Malcolm rang me a few days later to tell me he would barrack for Carlton. Six years flew by, Carlton won the flag, and Fraser invited the team to the Lodge in Canberra, where, according to Josh Frydenberg’s essay in this book, some players helped themselves to cutlery.

One Carlton champion confessed that when he was leaving the Lodge, “his top pocket was shaking like a cutlery cupboard. Fraser invited them again the following year, after the pepper shakers and missing spoons were returned. It is surprising that the former prime minister did not previously barrack publicly for a team — he was, after all, a Victorian.

Former politician Amanda Vanstone as a girl did not have a team. “My father died when I was quite young, she writes. Her only brother was a car fanatic, not a football fan. Much later, presumably a federal minister by then, Vanstone became a Port Adelaide fan, was invited to join the board, and now knows a lot about football.

In the same city Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had once gone as a schoolgirl to the local football with her dad, but after moving to Perth as a high-flying lawyer, she became a serious barracker for the West Coast Eagles. In her short essay, she recalls personally giving US President Barack Obama an Eagles jumper. In western Sydney another prominent politician, Chris Bowen, resolves to follow that region’s new team. “My daughter Grace and I are ­Giants tragics, he writes.

Cardinal George Pell loved football when young and still goes to grand finals. A student at St Patrick’s College, Ballarat, a school memorable for its teams, Pell is photographed standing handsome and tall in his striped football uniform. He was skilled enough to be signed up by Richmond in 1959 but chose priesthood instead. He describes the following years, spent in a Catholic seminary and cut off from newspapers, television and football broadcasts: “Speaking was forbidden from 9pm until after breakfast, which, like nearly all other meals, was taken in silence. One of his confessions is that he and his mother hated Collingwood.

Who can remember — we rememberers must all be over 70 — that sensation in 1951 when the leaping forward John Coleman was suspended on the eve of the finals? Gerard Henderson writes vividly of that episode, which was faith-shattering in suburban Essendon and far beyond. Brian Dixon, once a Melbourne star, recalls in a refreshing way his masterly 1950s coach, Norm Smith, who sternly disciplined his players.

Loyalty rides high on some pages. You have to admire the girlish barracker who, in the 30s, went to a Fitzroy hardware store just to catch an adoring glimpse of its celebrated employee, the rover Haydn Bunton. Six decades later, writes Les Everett, she crossed the continent to Fremantle’s home ground to see the last match played by Fitzroy before it was exiled to Brisbane. A footnote advises us that Everett and a friend run a website showing photographs of footy scoreboards.

Barry Dickins, an exemplar of the humorous story, recreates a visit with his pie-eating father in 1954 to the noisy Fitzroy oval with its mayhem of great grandchildren of convicts, shrieking red-faced barrackers and rock-jawed Collingwood players with their razor-sharp sideboards. In that crowd, he writes, even infants blaspheme I was surprised to see and hear.

This book will stoke debates about such long-lasting players as Ron Barassi and Leigh Matthews and such nimble Aboriginal stars as Nicky Winmar and Doug Nicholls. I saw Doug play in the late 30s against Geelong, on the Corio Oval, which has completely vanished from the map. He was lightning fast, though past his peak, and small even for a wingman.

Hero-worship sprinkles the pages. Darren Millane was a dashing, slightly lawless Collingwood champion, killed in a car crash when his blood-alcohol score was spectacular. Now drugs more than alcohol threaten spectator sport. Jeff Kennett, a former Victorian premier who became president of Hawthorn Football Club, offers his forceful opinion that “the AFL administration paved the way for the drug debacle at Essendon.

Many readers will enjoy this collection of essays and argue about them. More than stories of “heartfelt moments, they are a short mosaic of a long period of football history.

Geoffrey Blainey has written a football history, ‘A Game of Our Own’, and in 1951-53 he played for Smelters FC in western Tasmania.

The Weekend Australian, March 26-27, review, Books p 19.

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