With the AFL men’s  game about to return for the 2020 season – we hope! – we’re proud to present the final instalment of this marvellous four-part series by Greg Cure on the golden age of Tasmanian football.

Grab a pie and stay with us for this delightful footy journey of nostalgia, highlights and history lived large. 

Part 1 – From Whence We Came.

Part 2 – Tasmanian Football – Tall Tales and True.

Part 3 – NWFU football in the 50s & 60’s.


Part 4 – A life in football

Immersion

I arrived in Burnie in 1954 from Strahan where there were few kids to play with; Burnie on the other hand was festooned with kids as the town boomed due to a major factory there employing thousands. It wasn’t long before kids were knocking on our door urging me to come and play football. They came with their Jenkins ‘over the ankles’ football boots slung over their shoulders. We played football in nearby paddocks and often there were enough kids to play “scratch” matches.

At Burnie State School we participated in the ritual end-to-end kicking in the narrow inner-city asphalt school playground. The grade six boys dominated and filched the majority of kicks. In that battleground you had to work hard to get 3-4 kicks at lunchtime. You quickly learnt how to judge when a ball might clear a pack and hence secure an easy kick over the back. You learnt how to mark in front and how to avoid falling onto the unforgiving asphalt, perhaps this is why players parachuted from Rugby League or Union struggled to make it in Australian rules – they often overran the ball. Majak Daw the Sudanese born player was initially doing the same thing, despite huge natural athleticism. He is however a huge talent and I predict ultimately he will be an excellent footballer.

I think we underestimate the advantages of playing football at the earliest age, no matter how rudimentary and of growing up in a football culture. It never leaves you- I am into my seventies in what I the final quarter of my life, in a sense waiting for that final siren! Yet when you walk along the beach and kids are kicking the football you pray one might come over the back and you get to fell that leather and handball it back. I still do imaginary handballs to my wife indoors rather than pass things. I am a bit of a musical snob in that I have firm views on my musical tastes; I shouldn’t like ‘Up there Cazaly’ but whenever I hear it the hairs on the back of my neck bristle.

Soon I got to the more senior classes at Burnie State School and got selected in the school football side. Oh, how proud I was when I got my first blue and gold jumper and I spent long periods in my bedroom looking at myself in the mirror. Our team was poor, and it didn’t help that in our competition former Collingwood champions John Greening and Graeme Sheppard participated. Their rare abilities stood out even then.
culture

Then you start to learn the language of football. It comes with its own vocabulary and like the English language new terms emerge, words are given new meaning and words, or terms become obsolete. A non-football example is ‘raining cats and dogs’, only found now days in quaint textbooks for Asian students trying to learn colloquial English. Consigned to history are terms like mosquito fleets, utility player, flick pass, ruck rover, place drop and stab kick, terms like the ‘hey diddle diddle’ used by commentators like the late Don Closs and Elton Alexander are now considered a little unsophisticated. Specialist positions like back pocket and even rover are on the decline in high level football but linger on in the country.

The crowd bellowing out “ball” however, obdurately persists. My wife who is Chinese and loves Australian rules football asked me to explain why the crowd yelled out ‘ball’ It took some time to explain; but I live in fear that one day I may be asked to explain ‘tickey- touch wood’, which has a higher degree of difficulty!

Dennis Cometti’s reasonably newly minted and brilliant phrase ‘centimetre perfect’, will persist for many an era I believe. Deeds and legends are passed on through generations. I never saw Horrie Gorringe or Ivor Warne Smith or Roy Cazaly play, but I was told about them in reverential terms. I was told and believe the long defunct place kick could go a hundred metres. I remember seeing Jack Dyer on the podium presenting premiership medals; he was well into his seventies I believe. He was a scary sight even then and carried himself with an air of invincibility. One can only imagine what a fearsome sight he was at the height of his powers.

Slightly further afield

Football also produces supplementary memories as well. Mr. C was the father of a neighbourhood friend. He had a green and gold FJ Holden. Few people had cars then. An avid Burnie supporter, he took me and his two sons all along the coast as far afield as Latrobe. He would drive in his coat and scarf. We got to see all the coastal grounds. I can remember the trips to the eastern part of the NW coast. No towns were by passed in that time and the road followed the Coast.

I recall landmarks like it was yesterday. Mr C always took care when we rounded a notorious bend near Blyth Heads, known as McKenna’s corner, as it was responsible for many road deaths. Past the Titan pigment factory, an industrial revolution eyesore and long since demolished. We drove past the beautiful pre-Cambrian rock formed Three Sisters Islands. We might stop at Ulverstone at Uncle Tom’s Cabin where Mr C would buy as bottles of Te-Up cordial. When we arrived back in Burnie, he joined some other Burnie supporters at the Central Hotel while we waited in the car, but he was never away more than 20 minutes. He also took us to school footy matches as his eldest son and I were in the same High School footy team, usually to Wynyard.

Naturally enough although we were cocooned in a football bubble on the NW coast, we got to see intrastate games and if they were away from Burnie; Mr C took us there in the green and gold Holden. Some stories about Hobart football did leak out and may be fabrications, many around a legendary player called Max Griffiths, who is reputed to have made the also legendary gossip sheet at the Melbourne Truth over a drinking-related exploit.

There is another story which is about a Tasmanian team being beaten in a practice match by a combined Midlands team. Apparently, a couple of Campbell Town lads John Leedham and Lance Croswell played some inspired football. I never saw Leedham play but many that did speak of him in revered tones. It is said he was the best Tasmanian player never to have played in Melbourne.

A simple game

The beauty of Australian rules for many years was its simplicity with only a handful of major rules. In essence, it revolves around the rules for depriving an opposition player of the ball when he/she is in possession. A tackle must made in a prescribed manner and the tackled player must dispose of the ball when tackled in a prescribed manner. It is around these areas that most dissent from umpiring decisions occurs.

Australian rules carried on for many decades with few rule changes. Ways of doing things went out of fashion more than rule changes so the players abandoned the place kick rather than the rules outlawed it. Most of the exotic kicks were just banned by coaches as being too prone to error. The flick pass though was officially banned in the 1960’s.

The great Richmond sides were the first to revolutionise football; scorning convention they went for a tall, but still pacey, centreline. The centreline of Dick Clay, Francis Bourke and Bill Barrot switched all focus to attack. Defence was ignored somewhat and with a champion centre half forward in Tasmanian Royce Hart, Richmond opined they would simply kick more goals than their opponents.

Augmented by a champion goal-scoring rover in Kevin Bartlett they were a potent force and took flags in 1967 and 1969. Bartlett exploited the holding the man/ball rule to its fullest extent by bouncing the ball when tackled and receiving a free kick. Richmond continued its success into the early seventies but by 1990 were close to bankruptcy; I can well recall throwing $5 into a blanket carried around the MCG as part of the ‘save our skins’ campaign.

The 1970s saw the emergence of handball principally under Ron Barassi, but one must acknowledge the role of Polly Farmer here too, as a weapon to create fast free flowing play to catch oppositions off guard. The game had got faster. This would be the era that saw the last of the ultra-violent era of AFL football. The behind-the-play felling of Collingwood champ John Greening saw a harder line on felling opponents, also the VFL was conscious of rival codes, such as soccer, being a less-violent choice for parents into which to stream their kids. It was an era where misogyny and sexism were rife. The very show that semi-condoned that culture was the vehicle which paradoxically helped largely stamp it out, because those values didn’t travel too well through time and ultimately viewers elected in droves to stop watching it.

As football got more professional, coaches experimented with all sorts of exotic tactics. Some were to the detriment of the game like flooding. Huddles, taggers, Pagan’s paddock which saw the whole North Melbourne line forward of centre with just Wayne Carey and his direct opponent in that huge space were some of the innovations. North Melbourne also used the uncanny indigenous abilities, telepathic almost, in bringing the Krakouer brothers from WA to the Shinboners, who for a time lit up AFL football. The latest innovation is the Richmond style of play where frantic forward momentum at speed at all costs is leaving opponents flat footed. This rolling momentum style of play has seen Richmond win two recent grand finals.

Many stupid rule changes were invoked to make it a better spectacle for TV, often to the detriment of the game. The naming of a ruckman at boundary throw ins or around the ground ball ups is form of madness that turns umpires in choreographers. Hysterical reaction to what is left of physical contact in our games has robbed it of its vigour, the shirt front has been virtually eliminated and hip and shoulder bumps, now rigorously scrutinised, will surely be the next to go.

One can only hope they don’t have a send-off rule, I would hate to see a grand final decided because a player was sent off. Yet my money is on a send-off rule in the next twenty years. In addition, changes to the out-of-bounds rules where an umpire deems it to be deliberate is very subjectively applied and the direction of the game is making life very difficult for defenders. Also, with my naysayers hat firmly on, I am going to state AFLX is the most ridiculous game ever invented.

I fear the AFL will have a team in Shanghai before it has one in Hobart. I am inclined to have the odd wager myself but the AFL’s relationship with sports betting companies concerns me and is a disaster waiting to happen. The major problem is not so much betting on the overall result but so called in-play betting.

Of course, not all changes made by the AFL have been to the detriment of the gam:e concussion protocols are a sensible augmentation of our great game, while interchange benches have allowed players to adjust to the high speed of today’s game. In general terms its inclusion policy has been a great innovation.

Writer’s bias: Genesis of my 50 -year Shinboners journey

Barry Cable played over 400 senior WAFL and VFL games.

Football followers are biased, so it follows I am. I am a North Melbourne supporter.

It was only in 1967 that working for Vic Rail at North Melbourne Station when asked for my VFL side I said North Melbourne as sort of after-thought and perhaps because I knew champion rover Barry Cable was at the club. It began, however, a lifelong support for that club even though when I first proffered my support for these easy beats it was met with mirth.

North Melbourne also affords a chance to show how much football changed from the 1950’s. An erudite young dentist Dr Allen Aylett OBE joined strongly working-class North Melbourne in 1952 and was to become a champion footballer and later administrator. He recalls the shock of changing for training and encountering teammates, possibly painters and dockers, who were carrying revolvers!

Here too hangs the dilemma of older footy fans like me, namely where would my loyalties lie if a Tasmanian team entered the AFL? The answer to that question thirty years ago would have been clear-cut and simple: the Tasmanian team. Right now I genuinely am not sure.

Tip of the iceberg

AFL is like an iceberg. A slender percentage is above water; that represents the home and away games of the AFL. Football at its highest level. Yet below the surface is where football really exists. AFL football is only a slender percentage of the games played around Australia each weekend in junior and senior ranks.

In southern towns of southern states, we find the old trainers, the pie nights, the selection committees, the raffles, the jersey and socks washers, the countless volunteers and loyalists who do it for fun, for the love of the game. It has practice nights in howling gales and driving winds. For them, the AFL is aspirational, the elite, but without this submerged ninety percent of the iceberg, the AFL cannot exist.

In country football you have still to play at civilised times like 2pm on Saturday, have an early lunch and go play footy; no need to dance to the tune of the TV stations and play games starting after 4PM. You won’t be ejected for calling umpires ‘maggots’, everyone will get over it and no need to eat the inedible food from major AFL stadia because of binding contracts with food and beverage companies.

As many spectacular high marks will be attempted in the country as in the AFL – this great feature of our game, touch wood, has not been tampered with by the AFL powers that be. Most country towns have stories of locals who went onto play football at the highest level from towns like Koroit, Scottsdale, Bairnsdale, Wagga, Mt Barker and Longford who reached the tip of the iceberg. North Melbourne midfielder Ben Cunnington from a dairy farm in country Victoria was described by teammates and the media as a ‘real country footballer’, in many ways the ultimate accolade and evidence of this two-way phenomenon.

The enduring game

As I drive home on weekends to Hobart from northern Tasmania I often pass country football grounds and smile inwardly as you see the cars parked in the football ground, hear the toot of the horns as a goal is kicked and you know the baton will continue to be passed and this grand game will somehow endure.

Colourful former ABC football commentator ‘Nunkey’ Ayres said it best, all in one sweeping breath, and I paraphrase slightly.

‘{He} was taking marks and getting kicks all around the ground and I bet he thought to himself, as he was getting those marks and kicks, what a great game, this game of football is!’


This series of articles was written in memory of my late father. A blue-collar worker who put a tie on to go to the football. Rest easy you old Tiger!