THE BIG BOYS FLY UP

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Heartfelt Moments in Australian Rules Football

Ross Fitzgerald (ed)
Connor Court Publishing P/L, 2016
ISBN: 9781925138948
RRP – $29.99 pb

Reviewed by Paul Henderson

THE BIG BOYS FLY UP

Ross Fitzgerald’s book consists of his introduction, followed by 37 short accounts or essays about aspects of Australian Rules Football and an epilogue which considers the effects that weather has had on the game.

The 37 authors come from many walks of life including former players, administrators and coaches, past and present politicians, business leaders, academics, journalists, a cardinal, a publisher, authors and diehard supporters. Fitzgerald describes a diehard, true supporter as someone “never giving up or relinquishing one’s team”. While this may be true of supporters, some of the players and coaches who made contributions to this book certainly jumped around from club to club.

The book is of high quality. The essays are easy to read and are full of information. Most of them are punchy and to the point. They certainly reflect the highs such as new clubs being admitted into the VFL/AFL, as well as the lows such as the demise of Fitzroy and the transfer of South Melbourne. The enthusiasm of authors is notable but sometimes is not always justified. For example, St Kilda got into the 1965 Grand Final against Essendon by winning the second semi by only one point, whereas Essendon won both their finals by nine goals. St Kilda did not, as the author suggests, go into the Grand Final as “warm favourites”.

One of the nicest features of the book was the number of authors who discussed what football meant to their own relationships or to the relationships of others. So people wrote about how football bound families together as they experienced the ups and downs of football clubs. Footy brought parents closer to their children; two authors remembered fondly the influence of their school coaches in Melbourne and Ballarat.  The relations between fathers and sons were important, such as that between Bob Rose (Collingwood) and his quadriplegic son, Robert. Star players such as Peter Moore, Chris Langford, Tim Watson and Gary Ablett gave much support to their sons.

The book provides details about the introduction of new clubs from WA (West Coast and Fremantle), SA (Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide), NSW (Sydney Swans and Greater Western Sydney) and Queensland (Brisbane Lions and Gold Coast Suns). Although some of these clubs took a while to gain success, nevertheless their supporters remained fiercely loyal. Many authors discuss the showdowns between their own club and the great rivalry with another, a rivalry which was always present.

On the other hand, Phillipa Power (Ch.3) describes the pain of seeing the Swans transfer to Sydney while Les Everitt (Ch.18) writes about the pain of the last game Fitzroy played which was on the other side of the continent  (The only team before Fitzroy to leave the competition was University in 1914). These changes must have been painful, especially as the AFL has given financial assistance to so many clubs in recent times.

Some authors wrote about violence in football ranks. Incidents which are discussed include Leigh Matthew and his “hits” on Barry Cable and Neville Bruns, Jim O’Dea’s assault on John Greening and Harry Caspar’s punch on John Coleman, which undoubtedly cost Essendon the 1951 Premiership. The 1945 “blood-bath” Grand Final and a particularly brutal game between Fitzroy and Collingwood in the 1950s are also mentioned.

While there are many highlights and great moments, which are discussed in detail, there are sadder or tragic moments which some authors also recall. These include the death of Darren Millane in a car accident in 1991, only a year after he was a member of the Collingwood 1990 Premiership team. The premature death of Peter Crimmins (Hawthorn) in 1976, shortly after Hawthorn had won the Premiership, and, more recently, the sudden death in 2015 of Phil Walsh, the coach of the Adelaide Crows, are also covered.

Another important issue is covered in Dick Whitaker’s chapter entitled “Black Magic”.  He highlights the question of racism, which has, intermittently, marred Australian Rules football from time to time. He goes back to the 1930s when Doug Nicholls, playing for Fitzroy, copped abuse from opponents. Nichols went on to have a distinguished public career and, as the author points out, is the only VFL/AFL player to be knighted. Whitaker also discusses more recent issues when Nicky Winmar (St Kilda), Michael Long (Essendon) and Adam Goodes (Sydney Swans) also felt they suffered from racial abuse.

One interesting observation is that most past players, administrators and coaches usually wrote with a degree of humility, often underplaying their true contributions.  On the other hand Brian Dixon (a Melbourne player) and Jeff Kennett (Hawthorn president) were at pains to point out the very important roles they played in their respective roles and their contributions to the teams successes. John Birt (an Essendon player), in his account of the Grand Finals in which he played, mentions frequently how many goals he kicked and how well he played. John Elliott (Carlton president) wrote, not surprisingly, the longest chapter. Elliott stresses his success at Carlton and his influence over the VFL/AFL in general, but doesn’t mention the state in which he left the club in the late 1990s.

Some authors wrote with passion about only one game or a few particular games, going into considerable detail describing the 1970 Grand Final (Ch 19) or the 1977 drawn Grand Final (Ch 36).  Whereas other chapters covered many games, in some cases spanning a decade or more. Both approaches were handled well. This is a fine book, made for enjoyable reading, whether you are a diehard supporter or not.

There is one criticism I would make and a couple of suggestions if a reprint or a second edition were to follow. There are 37 chapters in the book, which roughly should work out at about two chapters per club. While this ratio is impossible to achieve, there is very little about North Melbourne, a club which has won four premierships since 1975. There is a chapter on the 1977 Grand Final draw, but it was written by a Collingwood player, and, naturally, with a Magpie emphasis. Barry Cable’s very brief stay at North receives little coverage.

The chapter on Windy Hill (Ch 14), the former Essendon home ground, was written with lovely prose and minute detail. You felt as though you were there with the author. In many ways I enjoyed reading this chapter the most.  The chapter on the effect on weather on football games was also very informative. While some examples were given, the author may also have referred to Round 11 in 1963 when, due to dreadful weather, the whole round was postponed until the following week and the Round 21 game in 1971 at the Junction Oval between Fitzroy and Carlton which was so affected by fog that is was impossible to see half the length of the ground.

Maybe chapters could have been written about the now obsolete grounds, and more general themes, such as the detailed effect of the weather and events such as the power blackout, which meant the night pre-season game at Waverley Park between St Kilda and Essendon was postponed. Also, it would have been interesting to read the heartfelt moments of a former umpire or a former or current AFL administrator.

However, these are small observations and suggestions for additions, which must be balanced against what is overall a very enjoyable book.

 Paul Henderson is an author and lifetime Essendon supporter