Footy. A rough meditation between the first bounce and the final siren

A small band of long-suffering nominated fathers drove around our little district on rainy Saturday mornings through autumn and winter, picking up kids wearing footy jumpers and carrying a variety of home-sewed carryalls that could be called, loosely, training bags.

It was game day for the under-12s in a town up the road.

Kicking goals: a match at Bannockburn Primary in Geelong, 2005.Credit:Simon O’Dwyer

We crowded into Holdens and Falcons, chattering about our chances and comparing scabbed knees from last week’s outing.

We were what was called “enthusiastic”, meaning lacking in the talent department, and we didn’t trouble our young hearts too much with hopes of a premiership.

But it was Saturday morning and in the swampy centre of undrained grounds there awaited glorious mud to be rolled in, the better for camouflaging our fumbles with the ball when the pressure was on.

There was the eager sound of car horns should a goal be kicked and the occasional encouraging bellow or dismayed cursing from one of the nominated fathers.

Afterwards, with most of the mud scrubbed off in lukewarm showers and all of us changed into fresh clothes packed by our mums in those hand-sewn training bags.

The trip home involved self-conscious analysis of marks taken and condemnation of the filthy play of opponents, the nominated father puffing a Craven A, his window wound up lest fresh air interfere with his smoking pleasure.


It’s a magical word for those of us raised in Victoria.

Yes, yes: also in South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, if we are to be accurate and equitable.

And these days, in parts of Queensland, NSW and the ACT, too, though you wouldn’t want to mention it loudly around those whose body types don’t include a neck and who imagine rugby league is the only game played north of the Murray.

But my mates and I weren’t raised in any of those places, so fairness can take a place in the queue behind parochialism on a weekend like this.

The footy’s back.

It’s best here to ignore the existence of rugby union, imported from the Great Public Schools system of England, and the endless hot debate about football being the proper name for soccer.

Footy means Australian Rules football for those of us who rolled around as under-12s in Victoria’s winter mud and rewarded ourselves with a restorative pie and sauce afterwards.

A young supporter in 1963.Credit:Age archive

Truth to tell, lacking both the physical aptitude and the desire to train when alternative pleasures beckoned, I never advanced much from the under-12s and the roughhouse of kick-to-kick in the schoolyard.

But footy never lost its ability to weave a spell over autumn and winter weekends, even if it meant standing on the sidelines and cheering on a local or school team, or sprawled in front of a TV, offering impolite advice to the screen.

These thoughts occurred over the last few days while chatting with Pat Dodson, now a splendidly bewhiskered senator, who a long time ago was the captain of our country school’s First XVIII.

We yarned about a few of the names we remembered, footy stripping away the years, and I was visited by the image of a stab pass from the young Dodson, whistling like a missile and with the power to strip the wind clean out of the poor sod required to receive it.

Dodson’s team, and a few that followed, were all but unbeatable. Lou Richards once came down from the smoke accompanied by a photographer and produced a double-page spread in the old Sun News-Pictorial that referred to our school as “the football factory”.

Tony Wright (left) shares memories of footy games at Monivae College in Hamilton with Senator Pat Dodson.Credit:Murray McLaughlin

It wasn’t far wrong, for in the late 1960s it was populated by a Cranage, an early Rioli, a Grinter, the Delahuntys and a bit later, a Billy Picken, to name a few who went on to thrill millions and create footy dynasties.

On Friday this week, the ability of footy to transport memories across a lifetime was further confirmed when I accompanied a few old boys to a St Patrick’s Day lunch.

Among the gathering was the priest who long ago coached those school teams, a big bloke named Paul Castley. We called him Mad Dog, for we feared his temperament while admiring the furious tenacity of spirit that turned the First XVIII into a winning machine.

He is an erudite, gentler man of good humour in his late 80s these days, but it remains difficult not to think of him raging up and down wintry boundaries all those decades ago, roaring commands that thrilled those of us barracking, for it was the sound of another approaching victory, which was as much ours on the sidelines as that of the players.

And there, perhaps, lies the magic of footy, which happily these days includes women.

It transfixes those of us who watch, binding us to our champions, drawing us into a sort of rough meditation that sets aside all that bothers us outside the two-and-a-half hours between the first bounce and the final siren.

No thought of mortgage or inflation may intrude, no threat imagined or real from across the sea, no bluster from a demanding boss.

It is just footy.

And perhaps a hot pie with sauce. For the memories.

A pie with sauce at the footy, 2002.Credit:Angela Wylie

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