Stralian Stories: Footy’s Glory Days
by Neil Boyack
Those days still have an effect on me. I look back at them thanking various life forces, including my dad, for facilitating experiences connected to this era of football. It was tough, full of flare, aluminium beer cans, burnt onions, old fashioned public transport, and standing room only much of the time. Players weren’t afraid to have a smoke before the game, or multiple pies and beers afterwards. It was a time when you could run onto the ground after the final siren and kick your footy. Ahhh…I remember that sound, one hundred footballs being kicked with varying abilities amidst the cold of Saturday evening descending. If you couldn’t get to the football, you’d hear Harry Bietzel, Lou Richards, or Jack Dyer commentating on the radio (…3KZ is Football!). You’d get a super-footy-day all in one Saturday over six venues through Melbourne and Geelong and after the footy you’d strive to get home in time for the replay on Channel 7.
Footy’s Glory Days by Elliot Cartledge (Hardie Grant rrp $29.95) is an insightful book that captures the significant shifts and changes going on in the VFL from the late sixties to early eighties. It is more than a book however. It is a well-crafted remembrance of those heady days when football was moving from non-professional, to semi-professional, to a professional sport, from black and white to colour on TV, from drop-kick to handball on field, and from suburban grounds to main super-venues. A time when the game had outgrown itself as a pastime. Cartledge describes how clubs and the governing body created the scope for this growth, how their vision for an expanded competition morphed into a business structure demanding clubs themselves be accountable for the future security of football.
This commercialisation of football was symbolised by sponsors making their way onto jumpers (Yakka, CUB, Courage Draught). Naming rights for certain elements were also up for grabs (Commodore Cup, Escort Cigarettes night series). This new mainstream interest in football as a commercial vehicle created a stream of income that fed the imaginations and appetites of players. Many weren’t awake to it immediately, especially those who were modest of skill and just happy to get a game. They found safety in the old ways of loyalty and low match payments, yet some were seeing themselves fairly and squarely in the plan that was unfolding in front of them. Loyalty was the first casualty of these new opportunities (so wonderfully captured at times in David Williamson’s The Club). Whilst loyalty to club still counted for something, those who felt they could make a living from football saw their ability as “the business” and were happy to be part of a market place. There was many a dud trade however, and some more exciting ones.
Peter Moore went to Melbourne and won a Brownlow Medal, Graham Teasdale went to Collingwood (for big money) and didn’t do much, other champions like Robbie Flower (Melbourne) chose to stay with their original clubs, the thought of leaving unbearable. A host of interstate imports also coloured the competition.
Allen Aylett, President of the VFL from 1977 to 1984, brought much to the table in terms of business acumen. Former player and North Melbourne man through and through he contributed much to the transition of the VFL with his own skills, and his network of business minded colleagues who saw the Trade Practices Act as a catalyst for protecting and encouraging capitalism of the highest order within football. “The VFL’s central administration income went from $6.5 million in 1976 to $23.9 Million just eight years later” (Cartledge, P20, 2013). The expansion of the competition was inevitable and this would test the passion of the thousands and thousands of supporters whose patronage and loyalty formed the very foundations of the huge business opportunities that were appearing. In a wake of financial loss South Melbourne moved to Sydney in 1982 and “significantly altered the game’s landscape” (Carteledge, 2013, p27). Still, the “Keep South at South” group formed in response, showing that the hard-core suburban football narrative was still breathing.
Nationally, the VFL had experimented with games for premiership points throughout Australia since 1952. The first game in Sydney was played in 1968 between Carlton and St Kilda, with a crowd of 22,000 people turning out to witness the Saints prevail by 58 points. Major centres such as Adelaide, Perth, Hobart, and Launceston were Australian Rules strongholds, feeding the competition proper with players and support. A national fervour for the game was evidenced by the hugely popular and parochial State of Origin clashes. This combination would surely demand a national competition at some point.
Armed with a detailed business plan, and encouraging forecasts of growth, West Australian club East Perth applied to join the VFL in 1980. The VFL’s leadership however, through Jack Hamilton, did not take this seriously. Studies at this time showed that half of the clubs in the competition were” technically bankrupt” (Cartlegdge, p 28, 2013) demonstrating damaging holes in club management modality. Gone were the days of simply selling booze and hamburgers to pay players who worked as plumbers and gasfitters during the week. Also disappearing was the “suburban warfare” which had so successfully underpinned the rabid parochial support the early years of Australian Rules football had been mythologised upon. Those old crows who couldn’t accept the change tore their membership tickets up and waited for cricket season. Fortunately, most came along for the ride.
All the original VFL clubs have survived the journey, bar Fitzroy (who merged with Brisbane Bears, yet the colours still live on). This is more than an impressive feat in business and economic terms, and a credit to the loyalty of VFL and club administrators, committees, supporters and their abilities to adapt. It is more amazing in a context of the unfair and crippling traditional method of recruitment, which no doubt affected the financial and on-field wellbeing of clubs in many ways. Established in 1967, a geographical zoning system that connected areas of Victoria with VFL clubs predicted that “five clubs would win flags over the next 23 years” whereas in the previous 23 years (pre-1967), nine clubs had shared the honours (Cartledge, P21, 2013). Zoning was a dud and the VFL would have been anchored to the spot if a draft system had not been introduced.
Sitting in a near-empty outer-grandstand at Victoria Park, with dad quietly marking the footy record in a shaft of winter sunlight; the Pies taking on the Bulldogs in front of him, we never talked much, but I could tell he was proud to be showing me the greatest game there is. He wasn’t a “touchy feely” man, but dad was a VFL umpire for 10 years and he loved footy. Taking me to the footy was his way of telling me he loved me, and his way of passing something onto his son. I love football because it connects directly to powerful life forces: family, community, tribe. Elliot Cartledge’s book is a wonderful package, filled with descriptions of an important time for Australian Rules football. It is also an invaluable time capsule for me, and anyone who grew up watching footy in this era will return to this text again and again for reminders of this footy magic.
Neil Boyack is a poet, writer, welfare professional and commentator. He is also the founder and director of the Newstead Short Story Tattoo
Check neilboyack.com for more.
Refs: Cartledge, E, Footy’s Greatest Era, Hardy-Grant, 2013.
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