Like a lot of kids who grew up in the country in Australia in the 1970’s, a large part of my childhood was spent playing and watching footy.
Kick to kick with my brother and our mates and watching the local senior team at home or away.
The Big League was far, far away and accessible only via television, so we had to make do with what we had. And what we had was pretty good.
Each Saturday the whole town and surrounding wheat-farming community would come out in support; barracking, volunteering and playing as we competed against a neighbour. First and Reserve Grades, occasionally mini league and of course the netball.
Home games had a freedom and rhythm we quickly grew into. Pre game we’d emulate the Big League stars, leaping like Van der Haar and Knights with all the energy and enthusiasm our young bodies could muster. Shots on goal from the boundary would follow and when the reserves resumed playing we’d do the same, moving to behind our team’s goals so we could get a touch of the prized match ball.
If kick-to-kick was fierce this was something else – a TW Sherrin or Ross Faulkner ball was not often seen around our way so returning it to the field of play was highly fought over. Approaching the end of the reserves we’d grab a quick bite and Big M from the canteen, watch wide-eyed as the seniors ran out, then race to man the scoreboard before the start.
When the game got under way it had its own soundtrack that could be heard streets away; the low and insistent siren, the shrill and repetitive whistle, (backed by the shorter sharper netball one), the constant yelling of the players, the dull thud of ball meeting boot and the banging of signs around the ground together with the cacophony of car horns whenever we goaled. Rising above it all was the noise of the crowd, relating to the play as it unfolded; encouraging, berating, screaming, chanting, clapping and booing.
On the field grown men, (primarily with moustaches), ran at the ball and each other without a duty of care. These were the original heroes of my childhood. Men performing great feats. And lesser ones too - but those have been long forgotten.
The game itself was evolving too; strategically, through the replacement of drop kicks with drop punts and technologically, most evidently via the transition from high cut boots with nail in stops to low cut moulded sole versions. In a further sign of things to come uniforms were changing too; the time honoured black or white cotton shorts reverted to a single gaudy yellow nylon pair. And for the first time the club runners even had their own tracksuits with, (to quote the footy record of the day), ‘suitable lettering on the back’.
From our privileged position high up on the scoreboard we took it all in. It was a real education. At the breaks in play we’d sprint to the team huddle, getting as close to the players, coach and trainers as we dared. The smell of liniment, deep heat and sweat hit us from twenty paces and grew stronger the closer we got. So did the language, particularly from the coach.
On the other side of the boundary other rituals played out; the mums and girls wandered to and from the netball and the canteen, the dads assembled close to the action, shouting advice from right on the fence. The visitor’s supporters and the more measured of ours occupied the grandstand and teenagers sat on the bonnet of their cars, occasionally leaning in to hit the horn.
Smaller aspects have stayed with me too; final sirens and the setting sun, the grandstand’s lengthening shadow, the clank of the scoreboard numbers as we packed them away, the kick to kick until it got too dark to see. And a community coming together, united by hope and sport. In our little town football was quite literally the fabric of our society and it didn’t seem to matter whether we won or lost.
To young eyes our town’s navy jumper with a yellow ‘v’ and collar was a thing of beauty and something to covet. Its short sleeves and yellow sewn-on numbers on the back were akin to the Big League and elevated those wearing them to heroes in our eyes.
That jumper was the emblem of our town and every season each player would have temporary custody of a treasured club jumper bestowed upon him. The favoured players got the lower numbered jumpers and the also rans the higher ones. Some, worn by the more physical players, showed signs of wear and tear and some, particularly in the reserves, were extremely large in size.
Each jumper had its own story; of the players who’d donned it and the action it’d seen. Most had several custodians over the seasons the club had them and all carried the distinctive smell of sweat and liniment. We were too young to know any of these custodians but we grew to love their smell.
To this day I can instantly recall it. And it conjures up so much; of the small custodial layer added to the jumpers I later wore during my own modest career. And the communities, teams and jumpers I came across over this period. Of the games, the experiences and the people.
My family moved towns a few times in my younger years, each to another country town and while the jumpers changed, my love for the game and the function it served in each did not.
These collective footballing experiences became embedded in my memory like the liniment and sweat in the old woollen jumpers, entrenched all the more at the time by the demise of the woollen jumpers themselves, at the hands of pale, fully synthetic imitations.
Perhaps that’s what drew me into buying a proud if somewhat-faded old jumper in a tiny op shop just on a decade ago? Whatever compelled me to do it that jumper, representing the tiny community of Robinvale in Northern Victoria, started a collection of vintage Australian Rules Football ‘woollen*’ jumpers, (circa 1970 – 90’s), that continues unabated today.
In the 1970’s a whole generation of Australians grew up knowing the story of a community, the importance of football and the sanctity of their local jumper. Fabric of Football aims to retell that story.
*actually mostly 80% acrylic 20 % nylon