Almanac (Tassie) footy – a speech by Martin Flanagan: More than a Name

In 2013, the AFL forced a name change on the North Hobart Football Club, calling them Hobart City as part of a “rationalisation” of the Statewide competition. After four years of struggle, supporters have re-taken control of their club. Last Saturday, Martin Flanagan addressed a function in Hobart celebrating the re-birth of the North Hobart Football Club.

 

In 1858, a new game appeared in Victoria. The colony was only eight years old and bursting with pride. Its residents thought they were a cut above the people from the old colonies of New South Wales and Tasmania because Victoria had not started life as a convict colony. Victoria was rich, having just had a Gold Rush. It was confident. Four years earlier at the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat, for the first time in Australian history, citizens – as distinct from convicts – took up arms against the government of the day. A new spirit was afoot in the land. The new game captured that spirit and soon spread from the private schoolboys of Melbourne, with whom it began, to the goldfields of Ballarat. From there it spread to other colonies and, in 1881, North Hobart Football Club was formed.

 

Your club goes back to that first chapter in the game’s history. You’re older than Collingwood. Your history is one of achievement, 28 senior premierships, 13 state premierships. When I came to live in Hobart in the early 1970s you had a fierce reputation. A bit like Collingwood’s at that time. Or, in South Australia, Port Adelaide’s.  Or, in West Australia, South and East Fremantle’s. North were the tough working class boys who knew how to win. You are the oldest club in the south of Tasmania to still be playing at the top level, the second oldest in the island. Your name means something.

 

What’s in a name? If the answer is nothing, why not call London, Paris? The reason we don’t consider calling London Paris is because each name means something. Conjures thoughts and memories that are unique to each place. Each has its own history, its own culture. Most people would not want to call London Paris because they would understand something valuable would be lost. So, yes, names matter. Everyone’s. And every football club’s, particularly a football club with a proud history dating back to 1881. I regard what was done to your club –  in having a name change forced upon you by the AFL – as being worse than needless. It was utter folly. A club that had made a cumulative profit of $300,000 in the decade before the name change was left four years later with a debt of over $100,000, the number of its paying members having dropped by 75 per cent. These changes coincided with an alarming malaise in Tasmanian football which is at last becoming apparent to people outside Tasmania.

 

There are many arguments to do with the origins of Australian football but on one thing all parties agree – the three letters, AFL, play no part whatsoever in the creation of the game. The AFL did not create Australian football. Unlike the deeply underwhelming AFLX, Australian football did not result from a group of highly paid executives sitting around in an office, “brainstorming” ideas. It appeared like rock n’ roll appeared in 1950s America, drawing its force from a series of cultural collisions that ended up creating a game that was fresh and exciting and a unique expression of the land it’s from. Its appeal transcends class, gender, religion and race. Very, very little transcends class, gender, religion and race. Why does it do so? Because there is a genius to the game. It demands athleticism of a high order and pulses with drama. Tom Wills, regarded by some as the founder of Australian football, proposed around the time North Hobart was formed that Geelong and Melbourne Football Clubs go to England and America to spread the game. As a code, Australian football is older than both soccer and rugby. But it didn’t happen, and, in the end, the game flourished in only five places on earth – West Australia, South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

 

The first reason I fell in love with footy as an 11-year-old living in Burnie on Tasmania’s north-west coast in the 1960s was because schoolboy footy was so good. Five boys I played with or against went on to play in the VFL/AFL. One of them was Collingwood legend Johnny Greening. As you all know, earlier this year, Burnie, no longer able to raise a team, followed Devonport in withdrawing from the Tasmanian Statewide league. I also saw Brent Crosswell play as a schoolboy in Burnie when he came along from Launceston. Both Greening and Crosswell could have gone number one in a national draft, had there been one at the time. I don’t have to tell anyone in the room that Tasmania has had only one AFL draft pick in the past two years. To quote a song from the 1960s, where have all the flowers gone?

 

Nor do I believe the problems now manifesting in Tasmania are confined to Tasmania. In the course of writing A Wink From the Universe, my recent book on the Bulldogs’ 2016 premiership, I asked the then chief recruiter for the Bulldogs, Simon Dalrymple, a simple question:  “Is there more talent out there now or less”. He replied, “Less”.  I don’t believe the Hawthorn team that won three premierships in a row from 2013 was anywhere near as complete a football team as the Brisbane side which won three in a row ten years earlier or, for that matter, the great Hawthorn sides of the 1980s and ’90s. I believe the future of Australian football is precariously placed and I no longer have confidence that the people in charge of the game know what they’re doing.

 

In February, AFL operative Stephen Hocking told representatives of the AFL clubs that as 65 per cent of the game’s income now comes from broadcasting rights the broadcaster’s interests have to be considered and that changes would shortly be made to the way the game is telecast. I accept that there is a discussion to be had about the relationship between the broadcaster and the game, but it is a discussion to be had publicly. But the clubs were also told not to talk about the proposed changes to the media. That is, you people – the football public – are not to be part of a decision which goes to the essential character of the game as a spectacle.

 

If I were to licence a psychiatrist to examine the AFL, the first question I would get that psychiatrist to ask the AFL’s leading executives is this:  do you think you’re a corporation? Because you’re not. You didn’t create the asset. You say Tasmania can’t afford an AFL team but you invest $21 million a year into Greater Western Sydney. The truth is you choose to invest in GWS in a way that you’re not prepared to invest in Tasmania. The AFL clearly thinks it’s pretty good at what it does. In 2016, when the Australian Prime Minister was paid $516,000, the AFL had 12 executives making, on average, $734,500. No doubt, if challenged, the AFL would give you the old corporate line that to get the best people you’ve got to pay top dollar. I say the best people in footy are the ones out there doing it every weekend for nothing. They’re the true believers, the ones who carry the spirit of the game and make it available to the next generation. In 2016, each of the Tasmanian Statewide league clubs received less than one seventh of the average salary of the AFL’s top executives. But whose opinions on the current crisis in Tasmanian football do I take most seriously? People like Thane Brady, president of North Launceston, John McCann, president of Glenorchy, Craig Martin, president of North Hobart. These are the people who must now be heard, not just in Tasmania, but nationally. Tasmania is Australian football’s canary in the mine.

 

One of the AFL’s chief delusions over the past 25 years is that it is the Australian equivalent of the American NFL. Each year a train of AFL personnel have, at profligate expense to the game, travelled to America and attended the Superbowl. Australian football is not to be likened to American football for three important reasons. The first is that America is a mass exporter of culture – we are an importer of culture. This means our game was always vulnerable in a way theirs never was. The second reason is that the NFL is embedded in the American education system – in their high schools. It also rests on the platform of college football. Our game used to be embedded in the education system but is not any more. We do not have the platform of college sport. Our game has only two levels – the AFL and grass roots. If Australian football dies at the grassroots, so will the game.

 

The AFL is not a corporation. Indeed, in the words of one Tasmanian club president, “If they were a corporation, and the product (that is, the game) wasn’t so good, they’d have gone broke by now”. Nor is the AFL an elected government. If it were an elected government, it would have reason to fear the next election. What has happened in Tasmania over the past 30 years amounts to a degree of mismanagement that would make it a scandal were it to occur in politics. Four years ago, at a time when the AFL was congratulating itself on its billion dollar broadcasting deal, the Tasmanian Statewide League did not even have a cash sponsor and the competition’s profile had dropped so low that clubs were finding it difficult to get sponsors for individual players. The AFL has now requested that the Tasmanian clubs not take their complaints to the media but instead take them to the AFL. I say the public has a right to know, for example, that the president of a major Tasmanian club who disagreed with an AFL initiative was told that he risked having his club relegated to a minor league and a so-called “franchise” put in its place. This was a club, incidentally, that had contributed more than 20 players to VFL/AFL clubs.

 

Prior to the creation of the AFL in 1990 when the game was administered by the VFL, no-one called the game “VFL” – it was called Australian rules. The fact that the game is now commonly called AFL has fed the fatal illusion that the AFL is the game. What is the AFL? It’s a big bureaucracy that imposes top-down solutions on what it perceives as problems, whether or not the problems exist. A lot of people are now being paid a lot of money to interfere with the game. The best news for Australian football at the moment is women’s football. That’s where the energy is, the growth. Sure enough, the AFL wants to interfere with that. I say to women footballers – you know in your hearts the game you want to play, women have known it for 100 years: don’t settle for less now.

 

 

And in the same spirit I say it’s an honour to be here today to celebrate the re-birth of the North Hobart Football Club. You fought and you got your club back. Old North Hobart people rallied around to all but erase your debt. You’re back and you’re one of the best footy stories going – continue to inspire people around Australia! And, on behalf of my family, can I say how deeply moved we were by the respect shown to my father Archie during the final decade of his life when he was North Hobart’s oldest living player. That’s when we learnt what it means to be part of the North Hobart Football Club. Go North!

 

 

Photo of North Hobart Oval

North Hobart Oval looking south

==

 

Find “A letter from Martin Flanagan,” written in 2017, in reply to this open letter of humble thanks.

 

Find all of our pieces on North Hobart FC here.

 

 

READ MORE FROM THE ALMANAC WRITERS HERE

 

Comments

  1. Frank Cheeseman says:

    Nailed it.
    All of the rule changes we’ve had over the last 10 years – the rolling rugby scrum, the barely disguised flick pass, etc, etc, etc are there to appease the Sydney-centric media moguls……..
    This is OUR game and the AFL’s highly paid, ethereal executives, the faceless men, just go along with the suits. A pack of yes-men living in their own privileged world.
    They are killing the golden goose.

  2. Yvette Wroby says:

    Wonderful writing and spot on. Who overseas the behemoth? There is no foreseeable way for the AFL to be checked. No way to critique, no way to express concern.

    The problem with organisations this unaccountable is group think. They hear only their own voices echoed back.
    Those echoed voice think they’re doing a terrific job!

  3. Andrew Fithall says:

    While I agree with the sentiment expressed, I do have to contradict one point. Martin says:

    Prior to the creation of the AFL in 1990 when the game was administered by the VFL, no-one called the game “VFL” – it was called Australian rules.

    In 1987 I travelled to Murwillumbah in northern NSW. At the local catholic primary school, a cousin and I took a group of kids for an unofficial PE class and officiated a game of Aussie Rules. All the kids referred to the game as “playing VFL”.

  4. Joe De Petro says:

    Great speech, Martin. It is so sad that footy is withering on the vine in one of its grass roots states because the current trustees of the game, intent on conquering the non-footy states, have taken their collective eye off the ball.

    Money, shmoney. As Martin quite rightly points out, the AFL is happy to send bucketloads of money up to Sydney and southern Queensland with no hope of a payback in our lifetimes but they expect Tassie to cope without any assistance at all. This is short-sighted and neglectful.

    Tasmanian football and the Great Barrier Reef, two Australian icons that are almost down and out due to our warped priorities.

  5. Thanks Martin. Great writing that connects with people and expresses what the rest of us struggle to put into words – what footy means to us

  6. Dr Rocket says:

    These days when you turn off to Manly after crossing the Spit Bridge you see the picturesque Balgowlah cricket ground. It now has footy goalposts at each end. The Balgowlah Suns only started a few years ago and now has 3 junior teams. A newly Balmain junior club is based at Birchgrove Oval where rugby league was first played in Sydney in 1907.

    West Wyalong, a rugby league bastion in Western NSW has more kids playing footy than league.

    These scenes are repeated all over the state of NSW. The game is booming at the grass roots. The women’s teams have given the game an amazing boost. Everywhere.

    The future of the game is much brighter than that suggested in the piece and subsequent comments.

  7. Thoughts and insights that pertain to far more than Tasmanian football (neglected and vital though it may be). The AFL reminds me of the Russian oligarchs bequested great wealth by the “mates network” breakup of Soviet assets at the end of Cold War Mk 1. Abramovich owns Chelsea FC not because he created anything, but because he was a drinking buddy of Yeltsin when state assets were being given away for peanuts. The AFL are inheritors of the game by accident of history, and profit from it rather than nurture and reinvest.
    I was struck by the TV generated debate about closing the roof at Etihad, led by ‘Gerard the Good’. The game looks better on TV under artificial controlled lighting, ipso facto it is “better for everyone” – players, spectators, coaches etc. Jeez fellas the game has been played on sunny afternoons for 150 years with light and shadows. The next weekend the new Optus Stadium in Perth was being lauded as the greatest edifice since the Opera House and the twilight games are all in half light/half shade for the first half as the sun sets over the Indian Ocean. Where was the squawks of the commentariat then? Build a roof for a balmy autumn evening in Perth and next we’ll need to put in air-conditioning.
    The tail is wagging the dog. Thanks for saying it so insightfully Martin. Buggered if I know what to do about it. The only group with any market power and sense of purpose/community connection are the players. Is it too far fetched for the AFLPA to put a demand for a fixed share of TV and corporate revenue to go back to the grassroots clubs (that they were recently part of) – in the next collective bargaining agreement?

  8. Wonderful writing, as always.
    As a Sandgroper, I wasn’t aware of this situation in Tassie. I see parallels between that and what has happened in WA. East Perth fc became West Coasts affiliate and the culture of a once proud club has been gutted. Certainly, they made the choice so it’s a clear distinguishing feature. But it was a constrained choice. Similarly the VFL. Not the same but the echos are there.
    Canary in the coal mine indeed. What’s the answer? A breakaway HQ and competition? AFL player advocacy?

  9. Luke Reynolds says:

    Read the heavily edited version of this in The Age on Saturday, thanks for posting this full version.
    Great speech. A name is hugely important. Fantastic to see the North Hobart name back. Go North!

  10. Stainless says:

    Interesting timing. The Age reports this morning that an AFL committee is meeting this week to discuss footy in Tasmania, in particular the issues of the state league and potentially reinstating a Tassie team in the TAC Cup. A Tasmanian team in the AFL is not on the agenda.
    According to the article, the committee comprises Gillon, Brendan Bolton, Chris Fagan, Nick Riewoldt, Trish Squires, CEO, AFL Tasmania and Rob Auld, AFL head of game development. All worthy, well-intentioned folk, no doubt, but where are the members with current, direct involvement in Tasmanian footy who can provide valuable local perspective.
    Time will tell of course but I fear this sort of approach will result in a top-down solution being imposed on Tasmania, complete with big announcements by the AFL white knight (new TAC Cup team, re-vamped state league), that does little to assist Tasmanian footy at the grass-roots level.

  11. Excellent stuff from Martin once again.

    Peter_B – Interesting you mention Optus Stadium. Was thinking the same thing. Didn’t go to see the Cats play (probably just as well), even though I live fairly close by but a friend of mind who’s a West Coast supporter made the journey. Here’s his take:

    “We were way up on the fifth tier. Up a big set of stairs then several escalators to get there. Lots of pop music and obnoxious ground announcements blaring through the dozens of speakers hanging from the roof. Made me think of what happens at giant American sports stadiums. All very crass and commercial. To be fair, you do get a pretty decent view of the game from the fifth tier, but at $45 a pop even for a cheap ticket, and with all the commercial bulls**t, plus the struggle to get home on the train, it’s quite an alienating experience.”

    I asked him if they play music right up to the bounce or if they allow for crowd noise following the initial warning sired to let the tension build before the opening bounce:

    “Crowd noise appears to be outlawed outside of certain designated times. I can confirm it’s non-stop, nauseating bulls**t right up until bouncedown. There were elements of that at Subi, but it’s much, much worse at this new joint. Even Menzies (he of the special stand erected so his valet could park his Bentley right in to Princes Park and watch the game from shotgun position) would be ashamed.”

  12. Thank you for writing this. I’ve been a fringe supporter of an SANFL club for half a decade now but this article was the kick I needed to go and buy a season membership.

    No more just expecting the state leagues to just be there and do their thing. I’m invested, go the Bays!

  13. E.regnans says:

    Thanks M Flanagan for posting the text of your speech here.
    Thanks The Footy Almanac for posting in such an accessible way.

    These are thoughts and ideas of consideration and weight.
    I guess the presentation of them could be thought of indeed as: “taking the game on.”
    Where “the game” in this sense could be thought of as a roughshod short-term management approach honed for immediate financial gain without respect for social or any other form of history.

    Well done M Flanagan.
    Well done to the people of North Hobart.
    Go North.

  14. Daryl Sharpen says:

    I used to bait my brother-in-law regarding him still attending school at age 26 before he emerged with 5 degrees. He commented once, “You can educate yourself through institutions or life experiences one is quicker but not as deep. Every so often a well-educated person arrives with life experiences; they are the real geniuses.” M Flanagan in one of those. I’ve watched first hand as truly great traditional clubs on the island have perished. The North Hobart episode damaged the whole fabric of Tassy football. Supporters from all clubs were confused, the purists aghast. The AFL seem to think that kids for the draft are born aged 15 and are adept both sides of the body. As is rightly pointed out Tasmanian football is the canary in the mine. Sadly the canary hasn’t flown much lately.

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