Grass roots and blond tips…footy’s range of play from Akerfeldie to Dermie

By Stephen Alomes

Snatches and grabs stimulated by Stephen Alomes’ Australian Football The People’s Game 1958-2012 – just published, available from wallawallapress.com

The story of footy is one of matches and marks, players and goals, supporters who saw their team ‘robbed, right in front of me’ and injuries, victories and defeats, from roster matches to grand finals. As many from interstate note, it is also the story of the commercial success of the rising AFL, built around the dominance of the Victorian footy empire, as the VFL became the AFL (aka Extended VFL). It is also the story of the rise of AFL ‘brand power’ and of corporates who talk about ‘product’ and ‘the industry’, even as it holds on to many of its traditions as footy, as Australian Football.

Part of the stories of change is about the grass roots. Local footy is the basis of the game, the Himalayas which make the Mount Everest of the AFL possible. Another, different, part of that tale of endless change is about something entirely different – the blond tips of celebrities on and off the field, covering what are presumably dark roots.

I tell both stories in different parts of Australian Football The People’s Game 1958-2058, now available from wallawallapress.com.  Except, here I’ve put them together.

Most of the book is about the game. It moves from the past centenary year (1958) to the coming bicentenary in 2058, from the blond bombshell Carl Ditterich to Nicnat, and from the rise of St Kilda to the new era of Brisbane, Geelong, and Collingwood. It tells those other stories of footy vs brands, tradition vs commerce and kick, mark and handball vs zones, presses and tackles. However, a small part of the story is about off field performance – that includes, not just the Almanac, but the footy media stars and the shows that go on…and on. Which is where those blond tips come in.

The grass roots story focuses on local clubs. As 1979 Carlton premiership player Wayne Harmes recognised when asked about the difference between coaching contrasting amateur clubs, establishment Old Scotch and Jewish Ajax. This ‘knockabout bloke’ of German extraction replied that ‘it doesn’t matter where you come from. A footy club’s a footy club, whether it’s Old Scotch or Essendon or Oak Park … a footy club’s a footy club whether you’re Jewish, Chinese, Arabic, Catholic, whatever. It’s still a footy club.’

Akerfeldie Day at Abers

The Abers, Aberfeldie in the Essendon district league, have their ‘home among the gum trees’ at Clifton Park near the Maribyrnong, in a kind of peninsula suburb of Essendon. The Abers are a big community club, with strong junior programs and modern clubrooms, which allow for comfortable meals and other functions. However, even with some high profile coaches, including Dean Rioli and, after a dramatic decision in mid-season 2012, Mal Michael, they have not been a big money club. It is hard to compete in the suburban leagues if you are not.

Yet, as footy becomes ‘monetised’ local clubs need sponsors as well as the bar, the beer tent, the president’s lunches (open to all), the annual ball and golf days, and the raffle. In 2011, the blond and black (hair and beard) theatrical villain of footy’s stage Jason Akermanis had his inaugural cameo year on the travelling ‘footy circus’. Most prominently, the controversial Aka played regularly as a fly-in with Glenorchy in the Tasmanian statewide league, but also cameoed in individual games with several other clubs. During the week, things were a little more local for him as he trained regularly with the Abers at Clifton Park.  While the media life expectancy of even a colourful and controversial footballer is rarely guaranteed (and has now disappeared) he can still run, tackle, mark and kick.

In one match, which the Abers branded ‘Akerfeldie Day’, the Aka circus came home to this far-flung suburb by the Maribyrnong. He played for them in a home match, bringing a big crowd and good returns, even if local suburban footy has no gate charges for roster matches. The large throng was looked after with extra stalls selling food and drink.  The club needed to obtain a good return, both in general and because of its costs.

These two images from the book of the team running on, and the half-time collection capture this strange ‘Akerfeldie’ day, when footy celebrity came to Clifton Park and the EDFL.

‘Akerfeldie Day’, Clifton Park, 2011: Jason Akermanis trained with Aberfeldie during a walkabout circus season.

Akerfeldie Day brings a big crowd and..

Blondness be my friend – Dermie (Dermott) Brereton

Aka would become, in some views, a villain off the field, with throwaway comments in the Herald Sun and on now defunct MTR radio. Earlier ‘Dermie’, Dermott Brereton had been the explosive star and also the villain on the field. He was suspended more than most players in the contemporary era; however, such statistics are not as readily recorded as marks and goals.

When playing Dermie coupled great skill with aggression. He also coupled blond hair with green boots, the latter in reference to his Irish family origins. He was also asked by Mr Adidas, Teddy Whitten, to wear pink boots in a match. He kept putting off this theatrical gesture. When he told Ted he would wear them when playing for Victoria, Teddy was predictably aghast. He didn’t.

In the past, the Dermott Brereton story would have run out of legs after he had retired and hung up those green boots. He might have become just a radio commentator and Sunday footy panellist (which he did). Or remembered as an image on bubble gum collectable cards and a 1980s teen idol and that would be that. Like nightclub ragers, young colt footballers cannot go on forever. Great instinctive talent on the field was mirrored by incisive football intelligence in the media. In print, radio and TV analyses Dermie helped explain a more complex game. Off the field, his persona works, complemented by a magnetic attraction to cameras and mikes and to many young women.

The Dermie story is increasingly one of celebrity, not just footballer. Soon he became the media star, blonder than ever, and not just a footy commentator – but also a TV travel presenter. This is the story of the hero who became a celebrity, as footy shows went from Channel 7 ‘footyness’ to Channel 9 glitter in the studios which had featured Graham Kennedy, Bert Newton and Don Lane. He is the biggest, best and blondest footy celebrity – the greatest of footballers and the most outstanding of larrikins and characters, even if ‘The Kid’ remains the ‘hood from Frankston’, according to joking friends and some non-fans. Yet, spirited, charming and incisive, as well as blond and beautiful, the star footballer became a glittering TV star on Channel 9’s Getaway as he reported on surf, sun and even local cultures. His early partner in Footy Show double entendres and shocks was the happily narcissistic John ‘Sammy’ Newman, with ageing matinee idol looks allegedly enhanced by the cosmetic surgeon’s art. In then unusual flashy gestures, Sam had donned the white boots before Dermott sported an Irish green colour. Like the four-times married Sam, the younger Brereton was a ladies’ man: both liked nightlife, attractive young women and fast cars.

Blondness be my Friend: ‘The Kid’ becomes the Media Celebrity – Dermott Brereton. Painting by Stephen Alomes.

In the new culture of AFL television since the late 1980s, AFL footballers have become part of the media and social gossip whirl. They receive A-List invitations to the Melbourne Cup celebrity marquees and to event and business openings. Free drinks cards at nightclubs confirm their ‘social currency’ value in Melbourne. In this milieu, in which television conferred national status, Dermott Brereton and Sam Newman became celebrities.

Dermie now glides through the media packs as he once exploded through the footy packs. The radio football star with a newspaper column soon became a celebrity and a well-known ladies man about town. As he morphed into a Channel 9 personality, blondness remained his friend – behind the mike, at the opening, or in front of the camera.

Comments

  1. Peter Schumacher says:

    This is fine stuff but surely if we are going to have histories of the AFL the fact that the code existed in other states and that these states had their own footy cultures ought to occasionally rate a mention.

  2. Stephen Alomes says:

    Peter

    The book does address many aspects of footy interstate given that I grew up in Tasmania in the Sixties when local footy was even bigger than the VFL despite the impact of television and the Tasmanians in the VFL, which gave many of us an interest in St Kilda in particular (Howell, Baldock, Stewart, Bonney, Payne, Bingley etc).

    At the same time the book recognises that the VFL Empire won – Leonie Sandercock and Ian Turner termed it ‘a new Roman empire’ in their 1980s book Up Where Cazaly.

    We have to recognise that fact, even with Nicnat on the cover.

    However, I also write about the costs of centralsation and about nomenclature (eg ‘I play AFL’ – a phenomenon of the last year or two, except in NSW/Qld where it started earleir). Nor can we be fans of celebrity power in community football even if it seems to work – eg Fev at Wangaratta.

    It is a book about Australian Football. A meal rather than a Vic nibble.

    So, an excerpt is an excerpt – not the whole.

    Regards

    Steve

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