Book review: Wednesday Warriors: Doing it for the jumper: the St Pat’s Ballarat tradition

Title: Wednesday Warriors: Doing it for the jumper: the St Pat’s Ballarat tradition

Author: James Gilchrist

Publisher: Conor Court Publishing, Ballan, Victoria (2010)

The recent launch of James Gilchrist’s excellent book on his season following the first eighteen from St Pat’s Ballarat was held at the Celtic Club in Melbourne. The venue was appropriate considering that, since the time St Pat’s stated fielding footy teams in 1893, a large number of the college’s players have been the sons of Western District potato farmers of Irish stock who’ve come in to board at the famous college.

I spent a good part of the launch in a circle with half a dozen high-achieving sons of St Pat’s, like Paul James, the 1983 St Pat’s captain and best-and-fairest. In speaking to James I had the chance to ask about my one game against St Pat’s, in a practice match at the St Bernard’s oval in Essendon in 1982.

St Bernard’s was a Christian Brothers school, like St Pat’s, but it wasn’t a boarding school. In my day it was a very local school. Every St Bernard’s student lived within three kilometres of the senior campus. On the day we hosted the St Pat’s footballers, we scooted down the hill towards the oval on bikes or on foot, wearing any old tracksuit, feeling bedraggled from the weekend’s activities and the unaccustomed demand of representing the school on a non-school day.

I recall having a kick on the ground before the match, marvelling at the number of St Columban’s girls who seemed to welcome the novelty of Sunday school sport, when the St Pat’s bus pulled up and the players filed out — in uniform! They ran out on to the ground with every player wearing a long-sleeved guernsey (not one sleeveless jumper among them), took their positions in an orderly fashion, and proceeded to take the ball from the centre and shoot it over my head for a series of goals.

I was playing in the unaccustomed position of full-back, having recently achieved a height that meant I had outgrown the wing. I jostled with my opponent the first time. The next time he jumped on my shoulders and took a speccie. Then he did it again. I had four goals kicked on me by early in the second quarter.

Then the St Bernard’s team woke up and we settled into a pattern. From deep in defence, I booted long drop punts (I reckon I learned to kick in that game) to Wayne Carey (the original Wayne Carey, our ruckman). Wayne dished it off to a runner who kicked it to centre half-forward Greg Lane, who kicked a goal, and so we fought back into the game. We actually outscored the mighty St Pat’s, the team who wore uniforms on Sundays, for the second half. I ended up with six kicked on me. The St Pat’s players put their uniforms back on and filed back on to the bus.

No one in our circle at the Celtic Club on the night of the book launch could recall the name of the 1982 full-forward who leapt on to my shoulders. Perhaps that team had a range of players who could have performed such heroics. If so, it’s not a surprise.

The list of brilliant former St Pat’s footballers is extensive. Former students on current AFL lists include Drew Petrie (North Melbourne), Matt Austin (Brisbane), Shaun Grigg (Carlton), Nick Suban (Fremantle) and the Brown twins (Collingwood and West Coast).  Petrie was interviewed for the book. He likens playing for North Melbourne to playing for St Pat’s in that both have a tradition of playing with their backs to the wall.

Several former league players who went through St Pat’s are profiled, including John James (Carlton), George Pell (Richmond), Barry Richardson (Richmond), Brian Brown (Fitzroy) and Mick McGuane (Collingwood), as well as Petrie and Nathan Brown of the Brown twins. Nathan Brown was a senior player at Collingwood when he went to a Herald-Sun Shield semi-final between St Pat’s and St Joe’s Geelong at the North Port Oval in Port Melbourne wearing his old St Pat’s jumper.

All the profiles are fascinating but my favourite is that of Alex McDonald, the former Hawthorn and Collingwood half-back and the oldest brother of Melbourne captain James. In the book, Alex describes his heroes as Gary Ablett senior, Greg Norman and Mother Theresa, because of her selflessness. Gilchrist, rightly in my view, asks the question whether the St Pat’s tradition of selflessness ultimately hurt McDonald in his ambition to play his best footy. “As heretical as it sounds, would he have benefited from a little selfish flair now and then?”

McDonald’s ability to unite those around him is exemplified with the story from his 20-year school reunion. A former classmate walked in to the room wearing ostentatious gothic gear — accompanied by his boyfriend. McDonald broke the silence by walking up to his old classmate and beginning to chat. His inclusiveness has underpinned his life from school days.

The book’s appendix include a list of the 90 former St Pat’s footballers who’ve played senior footy in the VFL/AFL. I was pleased to see that that list includes Jack Hogan, the larrikin father of the girl I went out with as a teenager, if only to have it verified that Jack played two games at Collingwood, in 1960. In 1961, according to the book, there were an extraordinary 15 former St Pat’s players on VFL lists.

While the book celebrates the school’s mighty legacy of footballers, its underpinning is education. James Gilchrist grew up in Creswick, near Ballarat, and was a day student at St Pat’s. In 1988 he played four games in the first eighteen. In the 1990s he was teaching in London when he became horrified by the things of which teenage boys were capable. He thought of his time at St Pat’s and the lessons he learned. Throughout the years since then, he’s considered the question of educating teenage boys.

In 2009, Gilchrist shocked his wife and friends when he announced that he would use his long-service from Genazzano, the Catholic girls’ school in Kew, to write a book about the footy tradition at St Pat’s. His intention was to create a “case study in how football can have an inspiring effect on the lives of young men as part of their broader education.”

He does it well. The structure is of the book is to alternate chapters on former St Pat’s champions with chapters on the first eighteen’s 2009 season. In the profiles of former league players, the players themselves rarely mention footy. Instead they make much of the values they learned.

In early cases, the players mention the importance of the Catholic faith in their young lives. John James, the 1961 Brownlow medallist, mentions prayer. George Pell, the current Archbishop of Sydney, says expression of faith was just a part of the daily life of a St Pat’s students in the 1950s. It’s noticeable that the place of faith in the footballers’ lives diminishes beyond the 1970s. By the 1990s, the values espoused are those you might hear mentioned at any one of the better footy clubs.

The towering figures of the book are not distinguished former footballers but coaches, especially Brother Bill O’Malley, who coached the first eighteen from 1928 to 1960, and Howard Clark, the current coach. All the players interviewed from Brother Bill’s time as coach claim he had more influence on their lives than any other figure in their teenage years. Brother Bill demanded loyalty, teamwork, competitiveness and discipline. He reminded players never to play for themselves, but for those who had gone before them.

Howard Clark’s story is underpinned by his battle with cancer from 17, when he was a promising player at in the Melbourne under-19s, through his years as a teacher and family man who becomes grateful that he was able to survive to impart the lessons of his life. His journey towards becoming the coach of the St Pat’s first eighteen is different to that of Brother O’Malley’s, but the values he teaches are the same.

Gilchrist establishes interest in the St Pat’s 2009 season through profiles of the leading players, such as Josh Cowan, a silky midfielder from Daylesford who was later drafted by Geelong, and Richard Bamblett, an Aboriginal scholarship player from Heywood with a habit of kicking timely goals. Pat Britt carries the tradition of his family from Dunnstown, an old potato-farming area where it’s no surprise that the local pub is the Shamrock Hotel. Marc James is the captain and leader of men. Rob Lockett is the determined rover who’s in the front of every photo (a curiosity with Lockett is that he quits footy after the season; it’s not quite explained why). I like the way that the otherwise unsung Brad Whittaker achieves prominence during the Herald Sun Shield semi-final against St Joe’s Geelong when he comes off the bench and kicks the goals that break the deadlock.

The writing on this semi-final against St Joe’s is superb. It maintains the tension through the match and right up until the final moments, when St Pat’s emerge with a win that ranks with any in the school’s long and proud history. The writing on the final of the Ballarat schools competition, against Ballarat and Clarendon College, is just as good. It’s another cliffhanger that finishes with a famous victory to St Pat’s. Gilchrist was blessed with the season that unfurled before him, but it takes good writing to have the reader hanging on the result of a series of games.

I have a few minor reservations about the book. One is that it’s not explored whether footy has just too much prominence at St Pat’s. The second is the relationship between St Pat’s and the TAC Cup team North Ballarat Rebels. Richard Bamblett appears to have been brought to Ballarat by the Rebels and then sent to St Pat’s as the best school option. I’m sure there were several political moments during the season when the school and the Rebels both wanted his services.

The third is Brother Bill. There is no doubt he was a good man, whose effect on the lives of many young men was profound, but reading between the lines he was also a fearsome man. I remember Christian Brothers like him from St Bernard’s. They were brilliant men and teachers, usually kind and compassionate, but one or two of them were prone to outbursts of volcanic rage. I now think it’s sad that the inner lives of these men were so tumultuous that they were prone to such rages. Gilchrist does just enough to show that Brother Bill had his demons, but I reckon a deeper exploration of his darker moments might have been in order, especially when he was the main influence on so many young men’s lives.

I realise, however, that the book is a celebration of the St Pat’s footy tradition and in that vein it’s a triumph. Gilchrist’s writing is descriptive, respectful and heartfelt. He writes with heart and soul about St Pat’s footy, and Catholicism and community in general.

It’s significant that the book starts in lawless London classrooms and ends with Nathan Brown explaining that he’ll always be grateful for the values he learned at St Pat’s. Ultimately, the book is about values. Gilchrist’s wife and friends can be pleased that he spent his long-service leave well.

Comments

  1. Andrew Fithall says:

    Paul – In the St Pat’s v St Joe’s game referred to, was St Joe’s coached by Tony Paatsch? Tony is a Colac boy who went to St Pat’s (HSC 1978). I had seen him coaching St Joe’s teams in the Herald Shield competition in the past. Was Deputy Principal at St Joe’s and I believe he is now (from this year) Principal at St Bernard’s!

    The book sounds like something I should read.

  2. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Do yourselves a favour Knackers and have a read of this one. If for nothing else than for James’ perceptive writing, wit and humour. I know little about Catholic schools and footy, but found the book to be fascinating in the way it alternates from past to present.

    Daff, I agree with the O’Malley sentiments. Definitely wanted to find out more about this inspiring,unnerving and seemingly complex man.

  3. Andrew,

    Tony Paatsch is indeed the St Bernard’s principal.

    I know he’s coached Marcellin and, I think, Mazenod in the Amateurs, but not sure who was coaching St Joe’s that day.

    You’re right about James’s writing, Phil.

  4. Rocket Rod Gillett says:

    A lot of mentions of Catholic schools in this, but where are the Protestants? Surely they were the mob St Pat’s most wanted to beat for most of their history? Ballarat has had a couple of boys’ private boarding schools for most of its history so I’m presuming they were the major rivals?

    Loved the story of Daff riding his bike down to the St Bernard’s ground and having a kick prior to the big match against the well-turned out St Pat’s!

  5. Rocket,

    True enough about the proddy schools. I gather St Pat’s used the win the Ballarat schools comp every year with ease, but in recent years there’s been a contest and even other winners. Ballarat and Clarendon College seem genuine rivals. They almost tipped out St Pat’s in the 2010 Ballarat schools comp decider.

    How many schools in that comp? Is it only four?

  6. Tony Paatsch is actully the St Bernard’s principal.love the story relateed to bike riding……….

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