My Friend Gary

Prep can be a tough gig when you have a thermos of fried rice rather than a Vegemite sandwich.

Sure, I got a knowing nod from the Wong sisters, and the insatiable competitive beast that was Andrew Sun, who, even at the ripe old age of five, had the age-old Chinese tradition of comparison perfected. “My mum’s is better than that” he’d say. That was slightly unfair I thought. Andrew’s dad worked in the building across the road; he’d get fish and chips delivered every day.

But to the Steves and Jeremys of the world, this was uncharted territory – Vegemite sandwiches were safe.

They were good fellas, Steve and Jeremy; they would share their Twisties during recess. Steve’s dad went for the Swans. From the age of five he knew about the “blood culture”, and knew about Bobby Skilton. He’d yell out at recess while jumping on my back “CAPPER!!”. I asked my mum what he meant. She didn’t know.

Jeremy’s dad was a Dees man; Feebey, Tingay, Lyon and Stynes was probably about 50% of his vocabulary. Part of their DNA, footy was.

VicKick (as it was then called) was the thing to do on a Saturday morning. That afternoon, they would sit with their dads watching, absorbing, continuing their family culture.

So came the question, “Who do you go for Vin?”

Awkward. Not dissimilar to the time I was at home watching the ANZAC day parade with my grandfather, wearing his medals and marching proudly up and down the hallway. Only to be gently let down by my teacher the next day that, because of the colour of my hair, and the “slender” nature of my eyes, it was pretty unlikely that my granddad was an ANZAC.

“But he has medals!” I’d exclaim.

“He’s old, just like the men on TV!” I’d say.

“I think he may have fought for the other side sweetheart,”  was her reply.

Awkward. I wanted to have a grandfather who was an ANZAC. I wanted to have Vegemite Sandwiches. I wanted them cut in triangles, not rectangles, because that’s how Jeremy and Steve had them. Even David with the cool “Mr Men” art smock had it that way. I wanted to belong, but I was different.

When you’re that age, most things in life can be answered by ad. He told me to sit and watch a match on Saturday, and whoever won that match, I should go for. Then I could tell Steve and Jeremy who I went for. I’d belong. I’d be able to stand on Steve’s back and yell out whatever name I wanted.

But there was only one match on that Saturday.

I don’t remember much of that game in 1989. I remember lots of balloons. Brown and gold, followed by navy blue and white.  But I do remember one man. He wore navy blue and white. He was fast, strong, had hardly any hair, and a rather big bottom. He would jump in the air and kick the ball high. The crowd would cheer. He knew how to kick goals the voice on the TV said. Nine of them. Gary.

I’ve since seen footage of the 1989 Grand Final about 100 times. But when you’re a little five year old Chinese boy watching his first game, you don’t care about Yeates crunching Dermie, or how Dipper’s lungs are. You’re looking for something to inspire you, or at the very least, something to identify with.

I remember Gary, walking up to receive his medal; inconsolable, broken, vulnerable (for the record, I didn’t think of those words back then). It was like I had a friend for life. I felt that both of us knew the feeling of missing out on something special. Medals were nice, a justified recognition of past deeds, but the memories that are evoked confirmed that for my friend Gary and I, we were never quite part of the grand plan, we were a little different.

That was when the addiction started. In the years following, that was how my 6 times tables were better than anyone. Every time I would get asked what 9 x 6 was, I would pause, smile, and remember my friend Gary. That’s how I would get into trouble with Mrs Dempsey in the playground during lunch as I justified to her, that because Paul Salmon’s nickname was “fish”, then surely, a “Longmire” was a type of horse.

Twenty-two years have passed. I’ve since married and moved away from Melbourne, but decided that this Easter, my wife and I would fly to Melbourne and see our beloved Cats play at the MCG. It is for some, a weekly obligation, but for us, it is a precious and rare privilege.

Dad rang me up about a week ago and expressed amazement that I still went for the Cats. He had a front row seat to my tears in `92, the tantrum in `94, and the hole in the fence in `95.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. I belonged, to borrow a line, for better or worse. I would march into school with my homemade navy blue and white beanie and jump on Steve’s back and scream out “ABBLETTTTT”.

Acceptance. Understanding. All from a game of imaginary kick to kick.

I love that footy is now engrained in us. I love that it is and forever will be a part of my culture. I love that we’ll take our kids for kick to kick in the future and they’ll be able to yell out “SELLLLWOOOOD”. And the knowing nod from the Wong sisters will be “Yeah, he’s a gun”.

We’ll take our seats in the Ponsford stand this Tuesday. If you see a bespectacled Asian couple with our Geelong guernsey’s stop and say g’day; you never know, maybe our kids will be swapping Vegemite sandwiches for fried rice with your kids someday.


  1. johnharms says:

    Vincent, I think this is a superb piece of writing. You have the five year old’s sensibility down pat. (And the reflective adult’s voice down pat too) Your rich and sensitive words conjured memories of my own five year old fears and upsets. Only yours have their own quiddity (as les Murray would say). Indeed the whole piece is distinctive and individual, and yet universal. As a writer, I would say you have quite some touch. Wonderful. I hope someone who has read your piece finds you in the Ponsford Stand on Tuesday. Were I a little fitter I’d come and say g’day myself. Another time. (And can I ask: what is the story of your granddad and his medals? Not that the piece requires us to know. That this is left dangling fits perfectly, because you are right, we don’t need to know. It’s just my curiosity)

  2. John Butler says:

    Vincent, I’d like to echo JTH’s praise.

    A great piece.

    More of those please. :)

  3. Peter Flynn says:

    Watching that game, we had it distilled down to:

    Kick the ball to Gary and he will kick the goal.

    Thanks Vincent.

    Hope you enjoy Tuesday as much as I enjoyed reading your piece.

  4. Vincent – fantastic. Loved the medals bit.

    I reckon you and your kids might be calling out “Duncaaaan” (Mitch), or “Browwnnnnn” (Mitch), or “Menzellllll” in the future.

  5. Brother David says:

    Enjoyed every word. Great piece.
    How important is it for kids to feel accepted. Isn’t footy just a great way to break down the barriers. My kids have just started at a new school and team sport has already created great friendships.
    And you became a geelong supporter despite their loss. Just demonstrates how Ablett senior was by far a greater spectacle than the result of the game.

  6. Brings back memories to when all started watching footy, nice words
    Hope the weather is good for footy and both sides put on a display of their class on tuesday for you Vincent

  7. Clearsighted says:

    Thank you, Vincent. You have evoked our longing to belong, our need for the ideal, and have invited all this in through our universal portel of vulnerability.
    I feel like YOU are a friend for life.

  8. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Vincent, sometimes footy can find a home for our soul. Your piece illustrates how that can happen. Well done mate :)

  9. Eric Ellis says:

    Tan Xiang-sheng hao! Wo ye xihuan nide xiezuo. Bu guan bai mao, hei mao, lizhu laoshu jiu shi ta shi lanse he beise he yingde le weida bisao” (White Cat, Black Cat, it doesn’t matter so long its a blue and white cat and wins The Big Game – with apologies to Deng Xiaping -

  10. David Downer says:

    Echo the other comments Vincent.

    A workmate of mine named Matthew Tan is also an avid Catter and would be of similar age to yourself. It’s a longshot, but any relation??


  11. Rick Kane says:

    Hi Vincent

    Thank you for a beautiful, evocative, from the heart reminiscence. I can feel you pain, awkwardness and absolute joy. Whoever we are, wherever we are, all we are looking for is a place to belong.

    I watched the 1989 GF on TV in Perth, barracking for the Hawks. But like you and many others I could not but barrack for Ablett. That goal steal in the pocket when he rose above the ruck and booted the ball before landing stands as the single most impressive piece of footy I have seen.

    On Tuesday you’ll be in your colours and I’ll be in mine, wanting different results but, more than that, feeling the joy of belonging.


  12. Good choice Vincent.

    ‘God’ worked in mysterious ways.

  13. Stainless says:

    Hi Vincent
    I hope you enjoyed the hoops’ excellent win today. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know, had you been five years old again and watching today’s game (sans Ablett senior or junior), would you have been as enchanted as on that famous day in 1989?

    I was at the game today and remarked afterwards that the best thing about Ablett Junior leaving Geelong is that his absence underlines just how many other good players are in that team. It would have been a very satisfying win for experienced Cats’ fans with many fine displays from their seasoned (and not so seasoned) performers. But none of the breathtaking brilliance required to stir the passion of a five-year old novice, I suspect.

    Anyway, great piece.

  14. Vincent,

    I looked for you in the crowd every time the camera showed the Cats faithful.

    You picked a good day make the effort to travel to watch.

    Cheers, Phantom.

  15. Neil Belford says:

    My good friend Kathy who is of pure Irish stock was moved by her parents from Brooklyn (NY not Sunshine) to Ballarat when she was 8. The story she tells about this topic is hilarious and I wont do it justice but anyway it goes like this.

    On her first day at her new Catholic Primary school in Ballarat she is confronted by two big girls, with a backdrop of onlookers, who demand to know who she barracks for. She has no idea what they are talking about – at which point one of the two girls tells her she can choose Collingwood or Richmond. Richmond sounds more familiar than the other word so she chooses that. The other girl punches her as hard as she can in the solar plexus. The first girl says ‘good choice’ and everyone walks off leaving Kath in a heap gasping for breath.

    As it turns out if she had an answer that wasn’t Collingwood or Richmond she was going to cop it from both of them and either way she was for it from one of them. She still barracks for Richmond.

  16. Richard Naco says:

    Brilliant piece, Vincent.

    I was going to write something about my own ethnic origins and their melding in to the great indigenous game, but there’s not enough of we Irish-Ukrainian half castes around to make any sort of point.

    My kid has it even tougher than that, as there are even fewer Lebiranians (Lebanese-Irish-Ukrainian), but he, like your kids, is having that Catter attitude we so know and cherish infusing through his very pores all the way to his heart.

  17. Barbara Smith says:

    that is one of the nicest reads I’ve had for a while.
    It has humour, pathos, and a happy ending!
    We all remember being little kids, no matter how old we are now, and remember how hard it was being the new kid.
    I can’t imagine how hard it was for you, but I think it’s great that Gary Ablett did his bit helping you to settle in.

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