Some years ago, somewhere in the month of September, the ABC had several sublime hours of spring-time radio.
John Harms and Paul Daffey had the microphones and it was grand final day in country footy leagues around Australia. Harms is a great character – the spirit of geniality and a fine sportswriter in his own right, he is passionate about the idea of footy as an expression of community.
Daffey, a more taciturn character, is to grassroots footy what David Attenborough is to the natural world. His knowledge of it is encyclopaedic. And so, when people from all over Australia rang in with grand final results, they were met by Harms’ infectious pleasure at co-ordinating a festival of footy and Daffey’s unfailing expertise concerning the various clubs and competitions.
For the past 10 years or so, the pair have sought to defy media history – in which the drift is to the visual and the electronic – by producing The Footy Almanac in which every game of the AFL season is written up by a spectator. As an initiative, The Footy Almanac is bold, quixotic and wonderfully egalitarian, but I think Harms and Daffey have struck an even richer vein with their latest production, Footy Town.
Not all AFL games are interesting. Sport, even at the highest level, can be disappointing and even the most talented sportswriters can struggle to bring such occasions bubbling to life. Footy Town proceeds on a different assumption – 50 men and women from around Australia have been invited to dig into the rich loam of their memories and source their love of the game. In two words, what this book has that the general footy media doesn’t possess, despite all its glitzy posturing to the contrary, is humour and characters.
Murray Bird umpired in the Southern Queensland Australian Football Association with a character known simply as The Swine. “The Swine was bare-footed when I met him – at my first night at umpires’ training at Crosby’s Park. We were both struggling along at the back of the pack. I put out my hand to introduce myself. ‘What are you? Desperate for f—ing friends or something. I’m The Swine and no one likes me’.”
What made The Swine special was that he volunteered to umpire the lowest grades of the game – what he called “shit footy”. That was his mission and, in the words of the song, The Swine did it his way. Umpiring a game between the Moorooka Roosters and the Wynnum Vikings, The Swine copped one too many sprays from the Moorooka captain, known as Ivan the Terrible. When The Swine responded with the first 90-metre penalty in the history of the game and Ivan shouted that he would be writing a letter of complaint to the league, The Swine obliged by dictating the letter for him.
The Swine rarely lost control of those he called “the animals”, but once, in a match at Jindalee, a player ran amok, dropping opponents at will. Desperate times call for desperate measures and only the other umpire beheld what actually happened, how, running through the middle, The Swine caught the offender with a left elbow to the jaw which put him down and out.
This book overflows with characters and humour like a good glass of beer overflows with froth. David Enticott, the minister at the Rosanna Baptist Church, was seduced into playing veterans’ footy with the Southern Saints Football Club. For the minister, this meant entering a relationship with the coach, a fearless, wafer-thin defender known as Stripper.
The catch was that the games were on Sundays, as were the Rosanna Baptist Church’s weekly services. After being late for a couple of matches, the minister was pulled aside by the coach. Said Stripper: “Big Dave, love having you in the team, but if you can’t get to the game on time then I’ll have to start you on the bench. Can’t you get Mass to go faster? You’re the priest. Leave out a couple of prayers. No one will ever know.”
The stories flow like grog at the wedding of a publican’s daughter. Vin Maskell charts his relationship with his son through a shared passion for old scoreboards. Barry Dickins recalls the terrible anticipation of a kid waiting to hear the team announced and find out if you’re “in”: “If you were in, you felt immortal like a smile in the kind dark.” Damian Callinan played at Cabarlah in country Queensland. “The ground was rock hard and wore its few tufts of grass like an alopecia sufferer who is past caring.”
Mark Fine, from SEN radio, describes Footy Town brilliantly: “It’s like going to the local footy, chatting to the bloke on the gate and the girls in the canteen, then slipping over on your way to the bar.” This book, easily the best of its kind I’ve encountered, should be required reading for all AFL employees. The roots of the game are not to be found in sports administration degrees or marketing manuals but stories such as these.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.