A long-distance love affair
On a sunny winter’s day in 1972 my family drove into the small Queensland town of Oakey, two and a half hours west of Brisbane, on the grain-rich Darling Downs. I was ten years old. Although I had been born further west at Chinchilla, my father’s calling (he was a pastor in the Lutheran church) had taken us south to Victoria, to Wangaratta and then to Shepparton. Dad didn’t mind that. He was back in his home country, having grown up in the Riverina at Burrumbuttock (where Brett Kirk’s father played his footy). Dad had footy in his blood: a delightful affection for the game, a purists’ respect for the man who played the ball, and a great love of Geelong. He followed the Cats closely and that affection was passed onto his four sons.
So we grew up in a Geelong-mad household, read every word written about them, listened to the radio broadcasts, watched the panel shows and replays and World of Sport, and allowed the mood of our life to be governed by Saturday’s result. Just as I was starting to play junior footy as a nine year old in the Under 13s for Shep, Dad announced we were going to live in Queensland, my mother’s home state, again.
I was devastated. In those days distances were far more significant than they are now. So how would we follow Geelong from the backblocks, where they’d never heard of footy?
Oakey was fair dinkum rugby league country. A working class town, its menfolk were employed in the abattoir, the butter factory, by the council and on the farms. The gentry were invisible, their kids off at boarding school and they at the rugby union (which was also invisible) and the polo on the weekends.
My brothers and I did what all boys in Oakey did on Saturdays during the winter: we played rugby league.
But we continued to follow Geelong. That was pretty hard to do. The Toowoomba Chronicle had no footy in it, the Courier Mail had the basics, and so we read The Australian. In those days each state had its own edition of Rupert’s national paper; the Queensland version had the scores but not much else.
We were desperate for footy. Any morsel. Any crumb. We would try to find the ABC broadcast on Radio Australia which was incredibly frustrating. We had an old radiogram; one with the basso profundo sound coming from those sparkly nylon speakers, and all the stations of Australia listed state by state. It had a piece of coaxial cable as an antenna which needed to be twisted together and held between the fingers (my father believed the human body was the best antenna going around). When finally we got some coverage the interference would inevitably roar and eventually the footy would be drowned out by Indonesian music.
We suffered for our footy. And we suffered Geelong’s ‘70s doldrums. But we never wavered (although one of my scrapbooks – the `74 – finishes after a nasty loss to Hawthorn in Round 10.)
We always looked forward to our specially-ordered copy of Monday’s Melbourne Sun which arrived on the four o’clock train on Tuesday afternoon. And later in the 1970s to The Winners on ABC TV which was shown at about midnight on Sundays. They were like letters from home.
Occasionally family holidays would take us south, down the Newell Highway to visit relatives and that would mean a game of footy. I remember a freezing day at the MCG when Melbourne flogged us, and another when Richmond were too good. I never saw Geelong win. It was an unusual feeling to be at the matches; to feel the sense that all of these footy people – the fans, the players, the potato cake vendors – were real, and that this happened every week, and was a matter of ordinary routine for so many.
Footy existed in my imagination, so footy had always been whatever I wanted it to be: glorious, magical, sensational. I had a highly romanticised view of the game. I yearned to be part of it, to be at the VFL, and to play it again myself. Footy had some quality that drew me to it.
There was Australian footy in Oakey. Across the creek from the rest of the town was the Oakey Army Aviation Base. It had a footy team. Made up of diggers from around the country it played in the local Toowoomba competition and sometimes I would ride my bike out there, nod to the sleeping sentinel, and make the crowd for the day, other than girlfriends and mates, a total of one. I’d stand in the three-quarter time huddle and hear the same urging, the same bent-over call from the captain-coach, the same guttural liturgical responses from the blokes as they warmed to the encouragement, that I had heard at Princess Park in Shepparton.
What I didn’t realise at that stage was that there had been footy in Queensland for a long time. It just wasn’t very visible where we were on the Downs. And I wonder now why our parents had never suggested we join a junior team in Toowoomba. They drove us in each Saturday during summer for cricket. Why not footy? I suppose boys in Oakey really did just play rugby league.
By the late `70s Channel 7 in Brisbane started showing the VFL Match of the Day from Melbourne. However to get Channel 7 in Oakey you had to have an antenna that reached miles into the sky. Antennas weren’t my father’s strong suit and we had a little coil one that sat on top of the HMV and did just enough to pick up the signal from the ABC and DDQ 10 the local commercial station which was propped up by ads for seed and chemicals and portable field bins. Every now and then a Richmond-loving parishioner with a big antenna would invite us over to watch and I recall a classic match when the underdog Cats played scintillating footy (we were always capable of that) to flog the Tiges on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
We did get the Grand Final live each year and that was a festival day, so much so that one year when my boss insisted I work on Grand Final day (making burgers at Cecil Café) I said I would resign rather than work. An industrial dispute ensued and mediation meant that a portable tele was installed above the drinks fridge so I could work and watch at the same time. It was Wayne Harmes year. He spelt his name differently and was clearly no relation to the gentle Harms family of which I was part.
Football for me had been a lonely affair, which is unlikely given that it is, for most people, such a communal activity, whether as a team member or as a supporter. Apart from conversations with my family I didn’t talk footy; I didn’t speculate and anticipate, I didn’t review on Mondays.
That changed when I went to study in Brisbane. I signed up for the University of Queensland side, the mighty Red Lions, a motley collection of footballers, some new to the game, some returning to the game, some from footy country who’d come north to study. We played in the SQAFA mainly against blokes who wanted to kill any long-haired, pinko, Commie poofter bastard (like me). My idealised sense of footy went out the window in a matter of minutes when I realised that in the SQAFA it was, first and foremost, a game of physical prowess and violence. Skills were incidental. I remember beating Strathpine by a point one afternoon and deciding it was better to leave the venue unshowered, so we threw the gear in our bags and took off.
I retired young – to watch Match of the Day on Channel 7 in the days when it was hosted by Ken Hose and Bruce Burgoyne. What a treat to sit back in the comfort of a Union College armchair and be taken to one of Melbourne’s great venues – Princes Park or Arden Street or Windy Hill – to see footy live and direct. After all those years of struggle.
What I also learned was that footy was, and had always been, quite strong in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast. I also learned from being part of the broader Brisbane sports fraternity (I also played club cricket and golf) that footy had a long history in the area and that there were pockets in Brisbane where it was strong: in and around Windsor and Wilston, and around Morningside and Coorparoo, places where primary schools had teams and many boys played footy by choice, or played both codes. I met Col Hoy, the Test umpire, who surprised me when he said he had had a footy column in the Telegraph during the 1960s, and that he used to call the final quarter of matches on one of the commercial radio stations.
The QAFL competition was pretty strong and included imports including some big names like Jezza, Billy Ryan from Geelong, Gary Dempsey, and Kevin O’Keefe as well as a stack of well-credentialed country footballers playing for a roof and a few beers and a job in the president’s enterprise. What fun they had in the sunshine state! We used to go and watch Wests at Chelmer, have a few beers in the winter sunshine and listen to Ronnie Wearmouth give his three quarter time address. I learnt more about rhetoric from Ronnie than from any text book on Aristotle.
I read about footy in Queensland and was surprised to learn that at different times Australian footy had been the dominant code. Indeed when the Brisbane Football Club was formed in 1866 the first thing for the members was to decide by which rules the game should be played. They chose the Victorian rules and so footy took hold in Brisbane. It was the code played at Brisbane Grammar and some of the other schools and there is a story of Brisbane Grammar playing Ipswich Grammar and Toowoomba Grammar at Ipswich in 1870. Rugby union eventually took over in the private schools. Rugby league became the most popular code after World War I.
But there had always been a culture of footy in Brisbane. Which is why it was a mistake to set up the Brisbane Bears at Carrara. Once the Bears went to the Gabba, a significant site for Queenslanders, they became a team which represented the footy community, and broader community, of Brisbane.
While it was fun to drive my old bomb to Carrara, and to see the great teams of the VFL live, it was much better to have footy around the corner. Footy had come to us. And the Lions played an entertaining brand of it. I remember those days when the centre square was Doc Clarke, Vossy, Piggy Fletcher and Craig Lambert and in the warm, dry conditions the Bears could turn it on.
After the amalgamation with Fitzroy the Lions played some terrific footy and of course when Leigh Matthews came along he led them to three successive flags.
Technology has made it so much easier to follow the Lions in what remains a rugby league state: the internet of course, but the coverage available through ABC radio options and Foxtel. When the Lions are doing well they have broad support among parochial Queenslanders who can be ecumenical in their football taste. But AFLQ have also established strong junior programs and have developed the foundation for a strong footy culture. The local senior competition now has five divisions.
That day in 1972 seems a long way away. Although towns like Oakey may never embrace footy (nor have the personnel to field a side) it is interesting to see places like Goondiwindi (Carn the Hawks) and the Lockyer Valley have teams.
The strength in footy has always been the game itself, and that there is something in it that gets hold of you. Certainly that’s what happened to me, and I was never going to lose that passion. No matter where I was.