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Game of Australian Football rules writers’ hearts

7 September 2013 1,005 views No Comment

IN the immediate aftermath of the Sydney Swans triumphing in an epic AFL grand final last year, pundits and punters alike asked if it was the best decider in the 115-year history of “our game”. Certainly, this far from fanatical Aussie rules follower, like many others, was transfixed by the late unfolding drama that day.

And with Sydney taking out the premiership by 10 points over Hawthorn, the emerald city was awash with red-and-white-clad supporters celebrating a memorable season, along with not a few out-of-the-woodwork hangers-on who will climb aboard the bandwagon at the least smell of success.

With this year’s finals season starting this weekend, it’s timely to consider the two anthologies under review, which with essays, articles, verse and excerpts from stage drama shine a light on the game, one that is in the main far removed from big-picture occasions such as that MCG classic.

In ‘Australia’s Game’, editors Ross Fitzgerald and Ken Spillman revisit many of the articles they published in the oft-reprinted ‘The Greatest Game’ in the late 1980s, with its manifesto to “celebrate Aussie rules as a form of art through our nation’s greatest exponents of literature”. Contributors include historian Manning Clark, playwright David Williamson, poet Bruce Dawe, crime writer Peter Corris and songwriter Paul Kelly. MNIR Story Ad

This is sportswriting at its finest, shorn of the cliches so prevalent in the genre and articulating in some style the game as a microcosm of life’s bigger issues. Needless to say, the authors are unashamedly passionate about their sporting first love, and their obvious enthusiasm had me wanting to handball with a mate on a big paddock, just for the sheer joy of it.

This is a volume you can dip into at random, perhaps during the half-time break, for gems such as broadcaster and sometime clergyman Terry Lane’s hilarious story about his theological college principal, who every Wednesday afternoon changed from “gentle Christian pacifist” to “a fascist, a tyrant. The Franco of the football field. Genghis Khan. Hitler. Ivan The Terrible” and so on. In Dropping the Ball: The Original Sin, Lane asserts football is the metaphor for life: cruel, humiliating and savage. You just get the feeling, though, despite those unedifying insights, that he loves it.

In Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (Thus passes the glory of the world), Melbourne Demons fan Paul Kelly (never to be confused with the former Swans captain of the same name) takes a single moment from a match at the MCG and turns it into a heart-rending eulogy for ageing stars who can never regain their heights. After uncharacteristically hesitating with a clear goal in front of him, Robbie Flower’s golden chance goes begging as he is tackled.

“It was a weird, sickening feeling watching Flower become inevitable meat in a football sandwich,” Kelly writes:

an other-worldly sensation, like watching rain fall upwards. Flower, aged 30, picked himself up. He dusted himself down and trotted nonchalantly back to his position. The sudden rent on reality closed over as quickly as it had appeared. The fabric of the afternoon remained unchanged … But somewhere, up in the stands, a man thought of time and age and death and diminishment while, on the fence, two young boys in red and blue scarves and beanies were cheering younger, fresher-faced heroes.

In The Sherrin, Vin Maskell traces the evolution of the ball itself and his relationship with old and new versions. Journalist Bill Cannon teeters on the edge of a fully fledged football career in The One-Gamer. And a scene from David Williamson’s play, The Club, shows that sometimes the tactical strategies on the field are nothing amid the political and business machinations of the boardroom.

‘Footy Town’, edited by Paul Daffey and John Harms, is a varied collection of insights into Aussie rules at the grassroots, and if some of the literary aspects are a touch blander at times, that does not detract from the obvious passion for the game of the 48 writers represented here. As the editors note, the authors’ love of storytelling is “like having three first XVIIIs for the Campfire Yarns Football League”.

Indeed, many of these yarns are endearing and fascinating, presenting up-close-and-personal views of the game at its purest.

David Enticott’s A Season with Stripper is one of several stories that combine humour with a tender poignancy for the vicissitudes of our involvement in the game. Enticott, a Baptist minister, gets little sympathy from his footy coach, Stripper, when his church services overlap kick-off time. “Can’t you get mass to go faster?” says Stripper. “You’re the priest, leave out a couple of prayers. No one will ever know.” Enticott also fears he may have trouble explaining to his wife the Stripper listing among his phone contacts.

In Sydney Confidential, Ian Granland recounts his appointment as chief executive of the NSW AFL days before the organisation was threatened by bankruptcy, and his efforts to turn around the league’s fortunes. He realised some “traditions” had to change, such as fans gaining free admission to finals matches by sliding through a broken fence. Granland fixes the fence, to the chagrin of one official, who throws a punch at him.

In Age and Reason, David Bruce busts a little finger that destroys his confidence and signals the end of his short-lived comeback to the game in middle age. In The Swine, Murray Bird recalls his umpiring days alongside his good mate after whom the piece is titled, who trains barefoot and introduces himself with: “I’m The Swine and nobody likes me.”

Footy Town is a meaty collection of heartfelt, funny and inspiring stories that portrays the game and its characters, not only the players, with affection.

‘Australia’s Game: Stories, Essays, Verse and Drama Inspired by the Australian Game of Football’
Edited by Ross Fitzgerald and Ken Spillman
Slattery Media, 327pp, $34.95

‘Footy Town: Stories of Australia’s Game’
Edited by Paul Daffey and John Harms
Malarkey Publications, 390pp, $34.95

Gary Smith is a Sydney-based writer.

The Weekend Australian,September 7-8, 2013, Review, BOOKS p. 25