Taking a punt on footy families
Sons of Guns: Inspiring True Stories from Great Footballing Families
By Matt Watson
Michael Joseph, 278pp, $34.99
Reviewed by ROSS FITZGERALD
When Collingwood, the mighty Magpies, won four Victorian Football League premierships in a row in the late 1920s, my father Bill (“Long Tom”) Fitzgerald played more than 100 games for the seconds. Yet he never pulled on a jumper for the firsts.
Even so, what he did instil in me was an abiding love of the club. Also he taught me that — win, lose, or draw — lessons learned in football can serve us well in life, and that the game is never lost until it’s lost.
In ‘Sons of Guns’, Matt Watson examines the deep connection between families and Australian rules football. These true stories from and about footballing dynasties are a delight.
After the VFL introduced the father-son rule during the 1949 season, in 1953 the Melbourne Football Club recruited Ron Barassi, who became a legendary player and coach.
Before joining the army during World War II, Barassi’s father, Ron Sr, had played 58 games for the Demons. Tragically, he became the first VFL footballer to be killed in action, in Tobruk in 1941.
Until the VFL became the Australian Football League in 1990, the father-son rule remained relatively unchanged. Sons were eligible to be selected if their father had played 50 or more games for a particular club.
‘Sons of Guns’ focuses on a number of well-known Aussie rules families, in particular the Shaws, Clokes, Mitchells, Fletchers, Hawkinses, Rices, Cordys, Corneses and McDonalds. These fathers and sons are candid in their interviews with Watson, a former ABC journalist.
A highlight is a brief but penetrating study of North Melbourne-based Donald McDonald and his son Luke, who now plays for the Kangas. Another standout is an in-depth analysis of the mainly Collingwood-based Shaws and Clokes. So as not to spoil the delight of red-hot fans, I won’t divulge details of Watson’s revelations. But I can report that Donald McDonald once told Luke that he wouldn’t make it in the big time.
There are other fascinating father-son combinations. For example, Peter Moore played 249 games with Collingwood and Melbourne, winning two best-and-fairest awards with the Magpies and captaining the club. He also played in five grand finals without a win.
His son Darcy, born in 1996, has a similar tall and slender physique. Drafted for Collingwood in 2014, he was allocated his father’s number 30. Predominantly playing in the backline, but extremely prone to injury, Darcy cannot escape comparison with his dad, who won two Brownlow Medals.
Particularly revealing is the comparison between the Geelong-based Gary Ablett Sr (widely known as God) and Gary Ablett Jr, known as the Son of God. Both boast “an extraordinary ability to alter the course of a game”.
Gary Sr kicked 1034 goals, playing mainly as a forward. His son, who has returned to the Geelong Cats after a stint with the Gold Coast Suns, plays predominantly in the midfield, where multiple possessions remain his hallmark.
My favourite generational comparison concerns the Kennedy family. In the 1950s, John Kennedy played 164 gruelling games for Hawthorn, winning four best and fairest awards. He captained the then poorly performing club four times. As a highly astute coach, he guided the Hawks to their first VFL premiership in 1961, followed by two more in 1971 and 1976.
Born in 1959, John Kennedy Jr grew up to be taller and heavier than his father. Playing 241 games for the Hawks, he amassed four premierships. Under the father-son rule, Hawthorn recruited his son Josh, who in 2008 became the third member of the Kennedy clan to play for Hawthorn.
At the end of the 2009 season he was traded to Sydney, where he became a star. At the time of writing, Josh Kennedy is captain of the Sydney Swans.
Watson fell in love with the North Melbourne Football Club in 1977. This was the year he first played for the Oak Park Football Club. This outer metropolitan team sported the blue and white colours of North Melbourne, who were nicknamed the Kangaroos — and, in reference to the club’s 19th-century abattoir floor origins, alternatively known as the Shinboners.
As it happens, 1977 and North Melbourne are etched in the memory of dyed-in-the-wool Kanga and Collingwood fans. This is because, after playing a drawn grand final on the last Saturday in September, on October 1, 1977, my beloved Pies lost by 27 points to North Melbourne, then coached by Ron Barassi.
Watson notes that what stood out the most as he learned about AFL families wasn’t the accumulation of premierships or of individual awards. It was the injuries, medical rooms, hospitals and multiple operations. As Watson points out, injury is inevitable, and sometimes it ruins or ends careers.
As this book makes clear, even though some of the footballing greats have themselves changed clubs — either for more money or merely to continue playing AFL — being a true supporter means never giving up on one’s team.
Watson suggests that with women’s teams playing at a senior level, the AFL will need to draft a series of mother-daughter, mother-son, father-daughter rules.
Indeed this is the only way for the code to cater for higher echelons of Aussie rules football in the remainder of the 21st-century.
Ross Fitzgerald’s books include ‘Heartfelt Moments in Australian Rules Football.’
The Weekend Australian, August 11-12, 2018, review, BOOKS, p 25.