General Footy Writing: The game that never happened

by Ian Syson

It’s a long-standing problem for soccer in Australia that many of its elite juniors end up playing other codes of football at the senior level. AFL players like Adam Goodes and Brad Green were standout junior soccer players. Rugby League’s Andrew Johns starred with the round ball as a junior in Newcastle. It’s a trend that leaves many supporters wondering if we might have had more success had those players and others stayed in the game. I know the words, “He would have been a great soccer player!” have often passed my lips.

One of the reasons kids find it easy to shift codes is the idea that soccer is seen as a ‘new’ game in Australia as opposed to the ‘established’ sports. For many kids soccer is the entrée and not the main course in their sporting careers. Our national cultural memory has few soccer stories that shine above the tales of the Bradmans, the Barassis, the Churchills. John Aloisi, running like a madman, twirling his shirt above his head after scoring the winning penalty against Uruguay is a recent and rare exception.

Yet soccer is at least 125 years old in Victoria, older in New South Wales. How is it that proponents of the game have constantly to justify themselves in watching, playing, preferring this supposedly ‘new Australian’ sport?

A recent instalment of Radio National’s ‘Australia Talks’ (18/6/2009) gave me pause to think further on these matters. Host Paul Barclay interviewed soccer identities Andy Harper, John Kallinikios, Bonita Mersiades and Geoff Miles, delivering a thoughtful discussion on the current state of the game. Then the lines were opened for talk-back discussion and some of the negative calls were predictable: soccer is too boring, too ethnic, soccer gets too much government funding and so on. But the one that really stirred my interest was a ripper from ‘Nicholas in Geelong’.

Nicholas had obviously been thinking along the same lines I had in relation to the soccer potential of footy players – though from a very different perspective. He felt the Socceroo selectors were remiss in not selecting Melbourne AFL footballer Aaron Davey. “Week in, week out Davey did things with the oblong ball that would make Ronaldinho’s jaw drop.” I don’t know whether Davey played soccer as a kid but I suspect that he would have been very handy. Yet I also suspect that Nicholas needs to see a bit more of the Brazilian star’s magic in order to make his comparison stick. He might start on Youtube by looking first at ‘Aaron Davey soccer’ and then comparing it with ‘Ronaldinho crossbar’

Nicholas then delivered the astonishing conclusion: “If you take the world’s best soccer players and play them against the world’s best AFL footballers, the soccer players would probably win 3-1; playing Australian rules the soccer players wouldn’t physically last the first quarter.” This is simply a pub argument: one that can only be initiated and then had out with the aid of alcoholic encouragement – or at least that’s what I thought until I came across this story from the 1960s.

As John Kallinikios has written in his Soccer Boom: The Transformation of Victorian Soccer Culture 1945-1963, the game was undergoing a massive expansion in Melbourne in the late 1950s and early 60s. Extraordinary crowds were flocking to Olympic Park. Over 23,000 went to see a clash between George Cross and South Melbourne Hellas in 1962. In 1966 over 35,000 crammed into the same venue to see Victoria take on AS Roma. Simultaneously VFL football was undergoing something of a mild decline in attendance – albeit from a great height. The fear of a soccer takeover was growing in some footy circles.

this fear sometimes turned into the active suppression of soccer through such practices as exclusion from schools, restrictive ground allocations and concerted media attacks on the game and its participants. In Ethnic Involvement in Australian Soccer: A History 1950–1990 Moseley reports that in 1952:

the VFL directed its operatives to secure all available public sporting space in Melbourne in order to stifle the burgeoning threat posed by soccer’s migrant-inspired growth. Similar moves had been made in 1927 and 1928 when British migrants so rattled the VFL that it wrote “with alarm” of this “foreign code”. The 1950s boom in migration promised to be far more of a problem than that of the 1920s. In 1958 a Melbourne soccer club sought to lease a council ground usually used by an Australian Rules club. In response to the application one rules-supporting sneer, “let them play . . . in the gutter”. Melbourne’s reputation for paranoia was crowned in 1965 when youths daubed anti-soccer slogans over Middle Park, chopped down the goalposts and tried to set fire to the grandstand.

Soccer’s rise to prominence produced various responses, but perhaps none as fascinating as the idea of a soccer-VFL match played under soccer rules. Jack Dyer, ‘Captain Blood’ challenged Slavia-Port Melbourne to match to raise money for the Victorian Society for Crippled Children and Adults.

The idea for the game came about after Dyer had been a guest of the Victorian Soccer Federation at the final of the 1964 Dockerty Cup, won by Slavia 1-0 over Footscray JUST. Dyer repaid his hosts’ generosity by writing in his subsequent Truth column on 10 October, “I went, I saw and I was sickened. Soccer . . . It really is a girls’ game – but only for big girls.” He felt that if he were allowed to train the best of the VFL players in the rudiments of the game they would easily beat a team of soccer players.

This rankled with a number of the Slavia team, and Dave Meechan, invited onto Channel 7’s ‘Wide World of Sport’ by Alex Barr, suggested that Dyer should put his money where his mouth is.

Manolis Papadopoulos, who attended the game, also remembers Dyer generating interest in the challenge by “attacking the soccer players’ abilities as athletes and the game itself as easy and simplistic for anyone to play. Dyer believed that VFL footballers were so physically advanced and technically skilful that playing soccer would be easy for them”. Slavia accepted the challenge and the game was set for 15 November 1964.

The Sporting Globe excitedly previewed the game, “We’ve been waiting for years for this and it’s here at last . . . soccer v. footy.” The Globe was glowing with the prospect of a tough game:

“‘Captain Blood’ has already warned Slavia that it’s going to be ‘on’, and this means one thing – it’s going to be the toughest, roughest soccer match Victoria has ever seen.”

Indeed, Slavia would be facing some hardened VFL footballers. Dyer’s team contained Ron Barassi, Ted Whitten, Kevin Murray, Des Tuddenham and Gordon Collis. The Slavia team included keeper, Ray Barotajs, Peter Aldis, John Auchie, and Hammy McMeechan – well-known in soccer circles but hardly household names in the wider Victorian community.

Papadopoulos remembers the footy players making their intentions clear immediately. Barassi led the charge, literally, taking every opportunity to rough-up Slavia players. This backfired when Barassi went into a tackle and was let down by his woeful technique. John Auchie simply put his foot behind the ball and when Barassi came charging through for a massive toe-bash he found himself flying through the air and landing in a crumpled, injured heap. One report is that the footy legend was carried from Olympic Park on a stretcher. Others are less dramatic, having Barassi merely limping off injured.

Ray Barotajs alludes to Barassi’s injury in his own Truth column on 21 November: “I think the VFL boys would be the first to admit now that it isn’t a girl’s game – just ask Ron Barassi.”

Many years later Slavia right-winger, Hammy McMeechan met Barassi in a King Street newsagency where they happily recalled the match and the incident. McMeechan claims Barassi confided, “That was the injury that eventually made me give footy away.”

It should be emphasised that Hammy refutes Papadopoulos’s notion that the footy players were ‘putting it about’ or trying to bully the Slavia team. He claims that a marvellous spirit of goodwill had developed between the players, most of whom displayed the mutual respect that sports people have for each other’s abilities. After all, the Slavia players were the ones who had trained the VFL team in the rudiments of the game.

McMeechan says, “They were decent guys, especially Kevin Murray. They respected us for our skills and as people.” He also recalls a moment of hilarity when prior to the game he went into the VFL rooms to say hello to the footy players and was amazed by Paul Wadham’s size 13 boots. He put them on and went back into the Slavia rooms saying, “Look at my skis!” In the meantime Wadham returned to find his boots missing but was happy to enjoy the joke when Hammy came back in with them on such was the camaraderie between the teams.

When it came to the game, however, it really was over before it started. The footy players were so technically deficient that they stood no chance of winning. The photograph below of the VFL stars trying to clear a ball from their defence speaks a thousand words on this point.

n a moment that demonstrated just how difficult the translation was for the VFL players, McMeechan ran on to a through ball with his marker, Brownlow Medallist Gordon Collis in tow. He could feel Collis’s massive frame bearing down on him and so played a neat backheel to his captain and right-half, John Sanchez. But, instead of stopping, McMeechan kept racing toward the corner flag. And Collis kept right on following! Arriving at the flag McMeechan turned around with his arms outstretched as if to say to Collis, “What are you going to do now?” Collis turned away grumpily, to the amusement of the massive crowd.

At the break (they had agreed to play 25-minute halves) the score was 3-0 to Slavia, decisive without being embarrassing. Having now recognised what was an obvious mis-match, representatives of the VFL team came into the Slavia dressing room at half-time asking if they could play Australian Rules in the second half. The Slavia coach, former Manchester United player, Brian Birch, said, “Look at my players. Hammy’s the biggest forward and he’s only 5’ 6”. No way. We never said we could beat you at your game!”

The Sun’s soccer reporter, the American, Morrie Buckner suggested that the VFL team improved in the second half but unfortunately for them so did Slavia, running out 8-0 winners. As he wrote in his match report: “A dozen VFL stars showed little more than faith and hope when they played for charity in an exhibition soccer match at Olympic Park yesterday.”

Thankfully missing from Buckner’s measured report is the Globe’s rhetoric of footy triumphalism. Though, if disappointed, footy fans might have derived some joy from his reporting that the VFL won the four-man relay race and Barassi won the long-distance kicking competition (Sherrins and soccer balls) conducted prior to the match. To round out the pre-Match contests, Slavia’s Shepherd won the kicking-accuracy competition.

McMeechan makes a valid point when he says the might of the VFL was up against one semi-professional soccer team. “We only had the best runners in our club and we were up against men like Bluey Adams who had competed in the Stawell gift. I’m not saying we would have won the race but had we been able to select from the speedsters in the other Melbourne soccer clubs we would have given them a better run.”

In what must have been something of a culture shock a few things were revealed to the sporting public. First, the might of the VFL had been hammered by a team of part-timers, none of whom would rank in the top 1000 players in the world.

Second, soccer has its own requirements of strength and fitness that cannot be dismissed out of hand. While few would ignore the sheer toughness and durability required to play Australian rules football, too many are prepared to downplay the physical demands of soccer. While John Auchie’s tackle had an unfortunate impact, it nonetheless demonstrated the balance of technique, strength and toughness required to play the round-ball game.

But the most important lesson I think is that for too long many Australians have failed utterly to understand the technical skill and artistry of the world game and the physical qualities needed to play even at a moderate semi-professional level. McMeechan recalls with a chuckle that prior to the game, when his workmates found that he would be marked by Gordon Collis, he was told, “You won’t get a touch!” To me the only surprise in the result is that some people were surprised.

Yet I suspect that some people will still be surprised today. Had the lessons that Captain Blood and his team learned 45 years ago entered the mainstream sporting memory we wouldn’t still have to listen to the uninformed opinions of the Nicholases from Geelong every time soccer makes some ground in the cramped space of Australian sport.

Ian Syson


Comments

  1. Having grown up north of the Barassi Line in the 60s and 70s, I know how dismissive most rugby league supporters in those days were of anything smelling of Victoria and aussie rules footy. ‘Parochial’ is one way to describe the general attitude -‘provincial’ might be a more apt description. The same narrow attitude saw soccer labelled by most rugby league followers as ‘wog ball’, a game only ’10 pound poms’ and ‘dagos’ played and loved.

    To dismiss another code simply because you don’t identify with, or understand it, shows nothing but ignorance on the part of those uttering such inanities. Every footy code has it’s share of skillful, beautiful and dramatic elements, layered with social and cultural associations. You might never be able to embrace another game with any depth, but you should be open enough to appreciate that others do, respecting other codes for what they essentially are: just different ways of kicking or throwing a bit of leather about a park. And to play any of them – even at lower levels – takes skill, committment and passion.

  2. Richard E. Jones says:

    I QUITE agree, Adam. I’m old enough to remember Footscray JUST: a Yugoslav, team, as I recall and I’m pretty certain was mainly made up of Serbians.
    Plus in the Vic. comp. there was Hakoah (the predominantly Jewish) club as well as Juventus (for Italians). How supporters and followers of the two great Milan clubs — AC and Inter — plus those whose clubs of choice hailed from Rome –Roma and lazio — felt about playing with an outfit with the moniker ‘Juve’ I have no idea.
    Last November I was fortunate enough to be in a 75,000-strong crowd at Old Trafford when the mighty Man Yoo belted Stoke City 5-0. Cristiano scored from a free just 3 mins. in and the Red Devils dominated from then. You have to be at an EPL match to hear the appalling chants from both sets of supporters.
    The Teev audio we hear in Oz, and anywhere else for that matter, has to be diluted because of the profanities. Have a listen next time you’re watching an EPL fixture. All you get is a dull roar … no real word-by-word chants. Having heard it first-hand a few months ago, that’s not a surprising choice made by TV producers.

  3. Ian Syson says:

    Adam. It’s your kind of sentiment that will bring peace, love and understanding in our time — then where would the powerbrokers (of all codes) be?

    I’ve since spoken with one of the footy players on the day (not Barassi) and he had some interesting comments. He suggested that most of the VFL players on the day came to the realisation that soccer was a damned sight harder that it looked and that he personally came to a sympathetic understanding of why soccer players went down holding their ankles/shins/whatever. He also made the point that Jack Dyer did not have a clue on how to coach on the day and that one of the reasons they were beaten so badly is that he had them running around like chooks with their heads cut off instead of playing with some sort of structure. Ray Barotajs (in his Truth column after the game) concurred suggesting that the VFL team played with a goalkeeper and 10 ruck rovers!

  4. Peter Schumacher says:

    I have to agree with the sentiment that other codes should be respected even though I must admit that I myself haven’t always shown that respect particularly with soccer. They all have their good and bad points. I was reminded of this when someone suggested to the effect that my blind allegiance to Aussie Rules overall was fine but that in the round ball game for example because of the lack of goals there was (is) always the capacity for an upset win. With ‘Rules, games are frequently decided long before the final siren and my critic made the point that there was little point in the supporters of the losing team hanging around.

    Now all I have to do is to learn to understand and love gridiron. And it has to be good, it certainly captivates its American supporters. This comment is meant to be taken seriously, not tongue in cheek. I actually had a chance to attend a Canadian version of the American game in Vancouver and stupidly passed it up.

  5. haiku bob says:

    Great read Ian.

    I had never heard of this game before. Fascinating.
    Though the game itself may have changed their personal opinions, it hardly had the desired effect. As a kid growing up watching World of Sport in the 70’s, Jack, Lou and co. would still routinely laugh off soccer as a girl’s game….which was probably (subconsciously) part of the reason I gave it up as a junior.

    Rob.

  6. Ian Syson says:

    HB, Thanks. It’s frustrating to read that Dyer kept up the patter because in his first Truth article after the game he seemed grudgingly to accept that he’d underestimated the code.

    It strikes me that sometimes anti-soccer rhetoric is more perfomative than actually felt or really believed by the utterer. Perhaps in Victoria in the 70s it was deemed to to be culturally necessary to bag soccer in the same way that the boys on Footy Confidential find it necessary to bag Caro. There’s an imperative that comes not from experience or genuine knowledge but from a misplaced sense of cultural duty or responsibility.

    I’ve taken a number of footy supporters to Bob Jane Stadium (where you can get really nice and close to the action) to see South Melbourne play in the VPL and there is a real sense of their having had something revealed to them about soccer that they won’t get from watching Victory at the Dome or any television game.

  7. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Ian,

    I reckon you have written a timely and ground breaking piece in terms of the implicit prejudice towards soccer from the AFL/VFL.I do believe, however, that in Melbourne in particular it has always been more about affiliation with the clubs rather than the code.

    I have always been an advocate for AFL/VFL clubs turning into multi-sport organizations if they can look beyond the myopia of just footy. Barcelona and Olympiacos are great examples of this. They have basketball and volleyball teams which draw crowds all year round and represent the brand.

    If AFL clubs could realize that they might enhance their brands all year round they would accommodate soccer, basketball, volleyball, netball, baseball and cricket teams. I would definitely go and watch Collingwood v Carlton in a game of soccer. They have tried this in the past but it has failed because they used AFL ovals.Soccer pitches with a capacity of 10-15 thousand would be perfect and there are many around in Melbourne.

    If each Victorian club invested in multi-sport there would be less codal prejudice and there would be more girls and women playing passionate sport. Finally, the AFL suffers because it runs for six months of the year. The other sports, if marketed enthusiastically, could also garner support in the off-season.

    Melbourne should now be mature enough to take the next step.

  8. Phil,

    Can’t agree that AFL clubs can be multi-codal ‘sports clubs’ – the time for that sort of all-
    embracing sports club approach has passed. Multi-sports clubs evolved in Europe in the early decades of the 20th Century largely as an expression of working class, locality-based, identity and culture. Clubs there embraced all sorts of activities, indoor and outdoor: everything from mountaineering and hiking to swimming and football.
    Anyway, the Great Leader would probably insist the kids of such clubs dress as ‘AFL Pioneers’, where they’d get to sing heroic songs about marching into the western suburbs of Sydney and saving the populace from heathen forces…

  9. Ian Syson says:

    Phil, I think I’m with Adam. Carlton SC and Collingwood Warriors put paid to that.

    There was a de facto sports club model that used to operate. Witness the inscription on the plinth at Brunswick St Oval (but soccer was not a part of it). There’s a great picture in the FFV boardroom of the eight British Association clubs in 1909 (Carlton, Fitzroy, South Melbourne, St Kilda and others) who used the same colours as the footy teams and represented the same districts as the footy clubs. While that model was very much compromised by the tension of the relations between the codes, it held while soccer was not seen as a threat. After WWII and the influx of migrants the district system in soccer collapsed (though there are still regular efforts to regenerate it!)

  10. Ian Syson says:

    I wonder if anyone noticed Greg Baum’s piece in the Age, ‘inspired’ by the above.

    http://www.theage.com.au/news/sport/soccer/the-game-that-never-happened/2009/10/13/1255195784822.html

    I’d be interested to know what you thought of it. The first I knew of it was on the day it was published. A lot of people congratulated me on getting the story in, to which I responded, “but I didn’t”.

  11. Dave Nadel says:

    Ian,

    The story was a good one but it was Baum’s story rather than yours. It was significantly different to the three versions I have read/heard from you (Almanac, Bulletin of Sport and Culture, Talk at ASSH). Baum reports it as a historical curiousity and gives equal weight to Hammy McMeechan and Gordon Collis. You are actually making a serious point about relations between the codes and soccer and immigrant status in Australian society.

    Baum has every right to write the article he did but he should have acknowledged you as another writer on the topic rather than give the impression that you were an academic he interviewed as part of the research for his article.

  12. Michael C says:

    Granted it’s some time since this article was published – I stumbled upon it on the Meanjin site.

    What I find curious is the ‘over statement’ of ‘soccer’ around the time of the Melbourne rules game being established. Where did soccer yet exist? Pedantically, soccer being an abbreviation of ‘Association’ did not exist until after the formation of the London FA in 1863.

    The comments about ‘English football’ in Warrnambool in 1861 is then odd. ‘English football’, was that by Cambridge Rules of 1848? or was it played by a large number of old Etonians? Or, simply that it was not of a manner as might be played by old boys from Rugby or Marlborough?

    That there were similarities b/w the rules of the London FA of 1863 and the Melb Rules 4 years earlier is ironic, as, the Rugby lads continue to claim the Melbourne game as merely an adaptation of Rugby. To me, if both sides are claiming it – then, it truly did succeed in finding a compromise for all to play.

    Noting the ‘strength’ or otherwise of the London FA game – that, precious few of the founding clubs stuck with it or survived very long. Barnes club is a clear example, their man, Cobb, was regarded the father of Association Football, and yet, Barnes club was to reject the game and revert to the Rugby style games. Richmond played the first game by FA rules but were not too impressed and reverted to Rugby style games.

    What seems apparent is that ‘football’ in England was still searching for identity into the 1870s. It was not until then that the RFU broke the deadlock created whereby clubs like Richmond and (ironically) Blackheath were refusing to play teams that employed tripping and hacking. For FA football, it was not until the Sheffield FA and London FA brought their games into full alignment that the game we’d call ‘soccer’ really took shape. By then, cross bars were in, corners in, catching out and a clear ‘English game of football’ was to be seen, rather than just an undefined collection of ideas.

    On another point – the tensions between the ‘codes’ of ‘football’ in Australia seems best explained as being a symptom of a greater angst. The periods of high migration tended to create ethnic divisions, and tension b/w the residents and the newcomers. This is common across the world. In the sporting context – no surprise that there was a spill over. It doesn’t excuse it so much, as that it doesn’t mean it was something perculiar to the running of a particular sport.

  13. Michael

    You are misrepresenting my argument slightly. I suggest that a ‘game resembling soccer’ was being played at the time. This is a relevant section from the end of the article:

    *****

    While it would be ahistorical to look for organised soccer prior to the game’s codification in England in 1863, attentive historians nonetheless need to keep their eyes and minds open for games resembling soccer being played well back in Australian history. As Roy Hay has claimed, ‘Football probably more closely akin to the association football rather than what became Australian Rules was being played in and around Melbourne in the mid-nineteenth century.’ [18] Evidence suggests that Warrnambool Football club was established as an ‘English Football’ club in 1861. According to the club’s website:

    On 4th June 1861 Warrnambool was the scene of a game of ‘English football’ in which two goals were scored. Shortly after the second of them the ball burst, bringing a premature end to the proceedings, with no victor declared. However, the sport itself appears to have been a winner, and today’s Warrnambool Football Club traces its origins all the way back to that winter of 1861, making it among the oldest football clubs in Australia.

    Warrnambool is one of the oldest football clubs in Australia and it has been an Australian Rules club for almost all of that history. But a game resembling soccer was there at its origins. Indeed ‘a game resembling soccer’ is a way to describe the very first example of the Melbourne Rules laid down in 1859, as ‘Free Kick’ attests:

    The [English] Football Association was accordingly formed, and set of rules drawn up, which by a very curious coincidence, are very nearly similar to those which were decided on at a meeting of representatives of football clubs, held at the Parade Hotel, near Melbourne, some 5 years ago … Whether a stray copy (for the rules were neatly printed and got up) ever found its way home I do not know, but if not it is a strong argument in favour of our own code, that the football parliaments assembled on opposite sides of the globe, should bring the identical same result of their labours. [19]

    As far as ‘Free Kick’ is concerned, the similarities between soccer and Australian football in 1864 were far more significant than the differences. Indeed, games resembling soccer have been played in Australia for as long as any other code of football.

    ****

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