Footy: My season exploring a wonderful tradition

By James Gilchrist

At the start of Wednesday Warriors, the book I wrote about the footy tradition at St Patrick’s, Ballarat, Matt “Twiggy” James, stands suspended on top of a ten metre pole, contemplating the “Leap of Faith”, part of a team building exercise with the St Pat’s First XVIII in the chill winter months of early 2009 in Bacchus Marsh. Each boy must climb a series of high suspension ropes before the final test, leaping from this high column onto a metal trapeze a metre distant. Although tethered with abseiling ropes and encouraged from below by coach and team mates, Twiggy remains on the pole — frozen. The entire climb has been a terrible ordeal and this last test seems to have him defeated.

This was my first impression of the St Pat’s First XVIII of 2009. Although I had managed a few games in the famous jumper in the distant days of 1988, I didn’t recall anything like this. Twenty years on, with the insights most of us acquire from work, travel, relationships and children, I wanted to go back to my beginnings and write the story of the St Pat’s First XVIII for a season and a century; to fathom that mystique which always seemed to surround the football team when I was a student and to find out a little of what made young men tick.

It was long-service time and I wasn’t one for being tied down to thesis or renovation. What better way to spend my days than writing about football? But rather than turn to the AFL, where established writers seem to have the game sewn up, I would look instead to a country school where football is held as near sacred. I would follow a team of young men and search out their ideals and aspirations in the days before they became cynical and jaded, as I sometimes felt. Perhaps some of them would even go on to make the big league.

Twiggy didn’t seem like much of a footballer to me, standing up there paralysed and red faced. A solid boy (hence the nickname), he must have found it difficult to balance on that post, desperately seeking the comfort of the ground. “Come on, Twiggy,” his team mates coaxed, “you can do in mate.” Still he remained in limbo.

After a few successes and failures in writing about football and other things, I became more confident after linking up with the Footy Almanac and plying my trade writing on the occasional Collingwood game. The Footy Almanac had a good group of people, with some talented writers to learn from. It offered a sense of fellowship. From there I would try once again to spring into an ambitious project, a book about a football team.

Most people don’t think school footy matters. That it is just a prelude to the main event, unworthy of serious investigation. I looked at it differently. To me that is when young men are often at their most idealistic, ready to fight for a cause, sacrifice for mates, do it for the jumper. Cliches these may be but a seventeen-year-old often doesn’t know what a cliche is.

To me it seemed like there was a depth of passion, tradition and youthful aspiration in school footy that, if capably described, might just make a good read. I followed my heart back to the nostalgic traditions of my old school. For me it would prove to a worthwhile leap of faith as I came to know some of the great players of the past, from John James to Drew Petrie, as well as the character, personalities and playing styles of these boys as they took me on a trip that culminated in the finals of the Herald-Sun Shield.

Along with the terrified Twiggy, other images have lingered: the fraternal larrikinism of Robert Lockett; the country-boy honesty of Patrick Britt; the lion-hearted courage of Marc James; the at times breath-taking skill of Josh Cowan; and the moment of pristine stillness in the changeroom before the Shield semi when coach Howard Clark, a man who had battled with cancer to put his optimistic stamp on an historic football team, stood before them as a group and asked the simple question: “How do you want to be remembered? In twenty years time will you be able to look back and say that you did everything you could on this day for this great college?”

Boys sitting before their coach in the change room and boys standing on a giant column ready to leap staring at a hundred years of history, feeling both the power and the weight of it.

Twiggy jumped, grasped and held on. He was lowered to the ground to his great relief and mobbed by his teammates, aware of just how much of a test it had been for him, even though most of them had completed the task with ease. Twiggy would go on to a stellar season, playing a superb role as a pinch-hitting forward flanker. Marking brilliantly, moving like a cat and kicking with arrow-like precision. If I could write as well as he played, the words would sing from the pages.

Wednesday Warriors – Doing It for the Jumper, The St Pat’s Ballarat Tradition by James Gilchrist, will be launched by Connor Court publishing at the Melbourne Celtic Club, 316 Queen St., Melbourne,  on Monday 15 March, at 6.20 p.m. Speakers will include Francis Bourke, Frank Dimattina and Barry Richardson. The evening is to be compered by Courtney Walsh of The Australian. Bookings $80, proceeds to the St Patrick’s College Indigenous Education Program. There will be a second, stand-up launch at a venue to be confirmed on the evening of 24th March. See website for details:

www.connorcourt.com

About james gilchrist

James Gilchrist is another Collingwood tragic who enjoys reading, writing, music, travel and teaching. A father of three, he teaches at Genazzano College, writes for the Footy Almanac and waits ever patiently for that next elusive Magpie Premiership.

Comments

  1. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Brilliant work JG. Can’t wait to read the book. I can relate to the ‘thesis and renovations”. Been there the last year, not very satisfying. Congratulations.

  2. Richard Naco says:

    A fine & worthy subject for your tome!

    You can’t have a rooster without it having broken free of an egg some time before. School – and junior sport in general – is the fertile breeding ground of the heroes and heritage of tomorrow, and without due emphasis on it, all that will be left are the whispered memories of past glories fading away with the breeze.

    I would also add that this is also why teaching is the most horribly undervalued and underpaid profession in Australia – an imbalance that we deperately need to address. Heroism & vision are necessary in all fields of human endeavour, as are the coaches & teachers who will mentor tomorrow’s champions.

  3. Andrew Fithall says:

    And some of us just made up the numbers…
    Andrew Fithall
    St Pat’s First XVIII
    1977

    No-one from our team went on to the highest level. The closest to any sort of fame was VC Mark James – son of Brownlow medallist John.

  4. Howard Clark says:

    Congratulations James on the contribution that you made to St Patrick’s College’s 1st XVIII programme in 2009. From the nervous beginnings at the football camp to the drama at the MCG Grand-Final day, your calm, gentle presence, provided a stabilising influenece on not only the playing group however the “coach”. In a year of many highlights and not all connected to the playing fields, your novel “Wednesday Warriors” captures the true essence of the season and is something that you should be extremely proud of. Wednesday Warriors is a wonderful summary of not only the season, however schoolboy football and the playing group are extremely fortunate to have been given such a positive account of their year so that others can enjoy.

    Thankyou for not only producing a wonderful novel, however also for becaming a very positive role model with the boys and a highly respected colleague and friend of mine.

    Howard Clark
    1st XVIII Coach
    St Patrick’s College
    Ballarat

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