Round 20 – West Coast v Fremantle: The State of Our Game

West Coast Eagles vs Fremantle, Optus Stadium, 5 August 2018

South Fremantle vs West Perth, Fremantle Oval 4 August 2018

Subiaco vs Swan Districts, Leederville Oval / Medibank Stadium, 4 August 2018

 

As our game grows and changes, there are bound to be casualties. I was deeply saddened but not shocked last week as my facebook feed began to fill with the news that Western Australia’s oldest football club and my childhood obsession, West Perth, was on its knees, begging for mercy. With debts of $800,000 and no discernible revenue stream to fix it, I read about the very real prospect of the club folding.

 

On Saturday, on my annual-ish trip home to Perth to visit family and friends, I made the pilgrimage to the mud-streaked sites of battles past. Fremantle Oval to see West Perth take on South Fremantle. Then rushing down the highway to catch a glimpse of our old home ground, Leederville Oval, as it hosted Subiaco against Swan Districts.

 

What I witnessed wasn’t pretty. There was nothing wrong with the standard of footy. Even in extraordinarily wet conditions, West Perth and South put on eight goals straight between them in the first quarter. The ball moved cleanly, and there were even a couple of screamers. They played out a tight and tense game, South only just getting over the line. At Leederville, Subiaco flexed its considerable local muscle, comfortably extending its unbeaten run with purposeful run and sharp goal sense.

 

It was in the grandstands and terraces that a grimmer tale was told. There were familiar characters cheering on every goal, barking out the ‘West Perth’ chant, waving their red and blue scarves. That got my memories flowing, but I doubt it roused any strong feelings in my ten year old nephew, who sportingly came along with us for the day. Fremantle Oval is one of the most beautiful and evocative venues in Australia, but its terraces on the outer side were virtually deserted. One lone cardie on the wing offering a running commentary to nobody. The South Fremantle cheer squad, all three of them waved their red and white flags. Like days of old we formed a pack behind the goals at Leederville, hoping to mark the balls that came slinging in at Subiaco’s end. But this time it was a pack of four, me, my sister, my dad, and my nephew, who got plenty of possessions for the quarter.

 

I don’t mean to overdo it. Like I said, the weather was truly terrible. The commitment shown by those who turned up was extraordinary. But to me this felt more like a last hurrah than a return to glory days. If West Perth goes under, who’s next? This is a model that cannot last. If we’re worried about the state of the game, surely this is where we start.

 

As Australians we know what it’s like to be a colony. We also know what it’s like to be colonists. This dynamic is played out in miniature (and of course, with much lower stakes) in our game – Australian Football. We have a dominant centralised authority that has swept all before it, controlling not only the code’s rules and regulations, but also controlling our histories, and if we’re not careful, our footballing futures too. Proudly independent communities have been progressively subsumed by the all-consuming logic of the financial and cultural juggernaut that is the AFL.

 

This is not a nostalgic grasp for the good ole days, nor a call for revolt, or a rant against the Vics. Even Asterix and the Gauls had to lay down their arms eventually. What I’m describing is a wake-up call, for me anyway, to lose the haze of nostalgia and see things for what they are.

 

The next day I witnessed something amazing. Much has been written and spoken about the magnificence of Perth’s Optus Stadium. It’s all true. Watching the Eagles get up over the Dockers in front of nearly 60,000, you could see where that passion for football has been transferred, transformed and amplified.* (see melancholy postscript below…)

 

Change comes slowly to the colonisers, seemingly comfortable in their self-appointed role as custodians and arbiters. The colonised however constantly adapt – they have to. In Western Australia we have had to change, in ways unanticipated even to ourselves. Much has been lost, but there is so much to gain, not just for ourselves but for the whole code.

 

Western Australia now has a stadium truly befitting the cultural and economic status that sport has in this state. More than that though, the new stadium in Perth sits alongside the MCG and Adelaide Oval as social and engineering marvels of our time.  I’m yet to hear a fair or compelling explanation for why all these places can’t occupy their rightful places at the apex of our game – grand final day. In football as in real life, history is vital to our future, but if we don’t move beyond it, history is all we’ll have. When history blinds us and excludes, it becomes a problem, not an asset.

 

I think we need to get past the ‘us-against-them’ tribalism that has characterised West Australian football, as we have dealt with the colonisation of our game. Let local footy be local footy, not a pathway to the pinnacle. Let it provide valuable outlets and opportunities for new generations to create their own identities, not captured by the ossified traditions of the WAFL as it mimics and falls in behind the AFL. Migration, demographic change, and the growth of female participation and leadership will lead this next generation, because that’s where growth lies. The West Coast Eagles and Fremantle Dockers, they stand apart, as full and equal clubs in the national competition. I look forward to the day when the AFL catches onto it.

 

(* We also saw football at its ugliest on this day. The kneejerk cheering of Andrew Gaff as he slunk from the field in disgrace did not reflect well on us. The best we can assume is that most of the crowd didn’t know what had happened. I can only hope that’s the case. It’s hard to argue for respect when we show none of it ourselves. It was a shameful moment.)

 

The Subiaco cheer squad. Subiaco vs Swan Districts, 4 August 2018, Leederville Oval

 

About

Based in Ballarat. Supports West Coast Eagles. Originally from Perth but trying to raise a new generation of Eagles supporters in Victoria. Only partially succeeding.

Comments

  1. Sad news indeed about the Cardinals/Falcons, I used to live in Leederville back in the 80’s and loved wandering down to Leederville Oval via the nearby Leederville Hotel to watch Les Fong, Paul Mifka, Craig Nelson and a young Derek Kickett going around. Dennis Commetti was coach and the large crowds were loud and colourful and used to sing like UK soccer crowds. It was bad enough moving out to Joondalup but going the way of the dodo is far worse.

  2. all great names! Les Fong in particular an unappreciated West Australian genius. For what it’s worth though, as hard as it was at the time I think the move to Joondalup is the best thing the Falcons have done. It has made them strategically very important given the population base up north, and given them a whole new generation of kids to engage with. it’s maybe the key factor that could ensure the club survives. Having made that difficult decision though, they didn’t follow through fully and are paying the price now. The time is long past since the name should’ve changed and the club fully invested in being the northern stronghold. Hopefully it’s not too late.

  3. I have a feeling that they did rebadge the club to the Joondalup Falcons in the early days then switched back to West Perth, could be wrong but according to karl Langdon that will happen

    https://www.perthnow.com.au/sport/wafl/karl-langdon-falcons-clue-to-wafl-future-ng-b88910698z

  4. Terrific article Dave. I was at the Leederville game on Saturday arvo supporting Swan Districts with the Avenging Eagle’s extended family. Our nephew Brandon was on a half back flank for Swans.
    Too cold and wet to play golf for me, but I enjoyed the hard contest in the WAFL despite the bitter wind and the sheets of water on the playing field.
    Subiaco’s “local” muscle (check out the imports on their list) comes from the war chest they built selling seats to the Eagles at Subiaco Oval. The cash flow is gone but the bank balance remains.
    Not sure how much the Cardinals financial woes is down to poor club management and how much is the move to the outer suburbs at Joondaup. Bit of both I think.
    But your coloniser metaphor is spot on. The AFL has destroyed the financial and fan base of the local comps across Australia, but feeds them crumbs to act as development leagues.
    My Eagles demands for a stand alone WAFL club next season will just about kill off the legitimacy of the WAFL. East Perth wanted to play their best and local players in the League team; the Eagles wanted the rookies on their list getting development opportunities. Tanking in the WAFL to feed the coloniser’s long term needs.
    Your pleas at the end are heart felt, but they need a financial/structural framework to be realised. My nephew plays for peanuts in the WAFL, but he could probably get a grand a week (cash) playing in the bush. The WAFL is caught in a pincer sustained only by tradition and mateship.
    Onya for making your annual footy pilgrimage back home.

  5. Thanks Peter. You’re right I don’t really have a solution, but I think it’s something like stripping back the expenditure required for local operations like the WAFL. Make it resemble the amateurs more than the AFL, or possibly even merge with the amateurs. The scale of what these clubs are trying to do on the back of goodwill and nostalgia is too much. That would mean getting rid of the Colts as the main development pathway and possibly having academies that really focus on elite development (perhaps a northern zone aligned with West Coast and a Southern zone aligned with Fremantle), leaving the local clubs to focus on their own communities. That way clubs like Subiaco wouldn’t need to rort the system as they are accused of doing.

    I’ve always resisted the idea of a full AFL reserves competition as I thought the WAFL needed the AFL players to maintain its quality, but I think I’ve changed my mind. I think the time might be right for that to happen. This will help isolate the AFL’s influence over local football.

    It’s all idle chatter anyway, just like the grand final discussion, because these things are stitched up elsewhere, so I guess I’m talking about my own mindset shift rather than practical solutions.

    It’s a pity we don’t know each other cos I’m sure we could’ve had a good chat at Leederville Oval on Saturday. I was there at the Swan Districts after game function, in the East Perth Social Club Rooms, at a Subiaco home game, at West Perth’s old home ground. modern times.

  6. Gerry, you’ve got me worried now…. I’m agreeing with Karl Langdon.

  7. Yes, a disturbing development Dave lol

  8. E.regnans says:

    Great story, beautifully told DaveMcG.
    Enjoyed your observations from Leederville.
    Well played.

  9. Have a feeling much the same is in progress in the SANFL. Crowds are going backwards, clubs are in deep financial trouble and the dislike of the AFL teams in the SANFL is closer to hatred, especially in the case of Port Adelaide. They will eventually disappear up their own fundamental orifices (is that the correct plural?), although I suspect it may take a little longer than the WAFL. Whole new generation has no connection with a local club and knows nothing beyond the AFL.

  10. Dennis Gedling says:

    I went to the West Perth v Peel game the previous week as a show of solidarity following the news that had emerged. As a member I do my bit but can never make it up to Joondalup so see them a few times a season around closer suburbs. Was expecting a few extra people there to rally around old Cardies but it was the same crowd, the same old members with their tattered scarves. There was passion but it wasn’t that of times of Fong, Mifka et al.

    If a threat the one of the great sporting sides of WA doesn’t get people active then what does. It seriously scares me they may not exist or have to be a dumping ground for the Eagles. Some of us didn’t drink the West Coast or Freo kool aid in 1987 or 1995 because we had our WAFL club and our VFL side. Change is needed, you are right. The trouble is the WAFC boys club never eat their own or try to admit there’s an issue. Fitting the commission was housed in an old Freemasons Hall for so many years.

    The league has been dying by a thousand cuts since 1987 and nowt has ever been done about it.

  11. Good stuff Dave. Loved all your reflections. Let’s bring the wafl to Subi Oval for a brand new era!

  12. Keir Reeves says:

    Great article David, very thoughtful, the past is indeed a foreign country. The nostalgia you evoke about WA makes me think of the Merry-Go-Round In the Sea. What a great club and it is a fantastic suburban football ground. Your thoughts about grass roots footy in a cultural heartland of the code ring true as do your suggestions regarding what a truly national competition would look like.

    I do hope that you managed to drown your sorrows with a few quiet ones at the Leederville afterwards. Interestingly your observations about the challenges at West Perth ring true of the recent history of the North Ballarat Roosters and their departure from the VFL.

    Regarding grass roots footy and the elusive quest for a hot pie in the Victorian goldfields on a rainy Saturday afternoon – last weekend Maldon FNC in the Maryborough and Castlemaine Football & Netball League had a win in the seniors to just keep the finals dream alive while the very well coached Reserves romped it in to tie up third spot. The Bill Woodfull Oval in Maldon is a picturesque setting located in the veil of Mt Tarrangower. You can buy a beer (I even had can of Fosters Lager at the the Dream Time round match) for a few bucks and a great hot pie or slowed cooked meat roll for about the same. You also know the players on the field and the MCDFNL seems to have cleaned up the “Gaff style” behaviour that typified the League for decades and it really is a family day of netball and footy. As you’re now dwelling in the Victorian goldfields (with the “wise men from the Eaassst”) you should come out and watch a match with me some time soon.

    Interestingly my children came along once (also as good sports like your nephew) although, that said, my nieces and nephews are totally into the footy grass roots and the big league.

  13. John Butler says:

    Dave, similar issues back in Victoria, as what remains of the VFA now merely serves as a feeder for the AFL. As you’d know, Ballarat and Bendigo have lost VFL teams in recent times. Smaller country towns continue to struggle to field a team. And then there’s Tasmania.

    All is not well in the heartland, despite AFL propaganda.

    Cheers

  14. Rick Kane says:

    Hi Dave

    This is a ramble rant following your excellent essay and the discussion it raised:

    The first cut in the WAFL’s death by a 1000 cuts was its ignoble rush to join the then VFL, allowing local clubs to perish on the vine so to speak. A social history of WA (especially in relation to sport, and in particular, footy) will tell the tale of a state with an impressive chip on its shoulder, always trying to out-do its bigger cousins in the East. And threaten to leave home every so often.

    But the period from mid-70s to late 80s is a time unto itself. WA gets cockier the more it beats the “mighty V” at State of Origin, we win the America’s Cup, the PM is a home grown Sandgroper (yes, I know he was born in SA) and the VFL is looking to solve problems of its own. Enter the powers that be at the WAFL, who with the haste of a mongrel dog scavenging leftover pig entrails in the lane behind a butcher’s shop, bought the farm or sold the farm – whichever one means they threw all their golden eggs into a huckster’s basket. And thus the Eagles were born.

    The WAFL then concentrated its efforts on beating the Vic scum, I mean concentrated its efforts on having the Eagles win at any cost. In doing so the WAFL was decimated. And from 1987 to 1992 the WAFL limped on with barely any support from its master, while the WAFC put its money, resources, energies, best efforts and best laid plans into building the Eagles into a dominant football club. Many of us from that time well remember, with a bitterness that is still hard to swallow, the unadulterated avarice displayed by the WAFC and the Eagles in trying to get what they wanted and how they damned our own League and a 100 year footy history.

    The issues of today’s WAFL have a root system that goes all the way back to the fateful decisions made in the mid-80s to get the Eagles into the VFL and even deeper down into the identity and psyche of a State that still hasn’t found a way to just enjoy living in its own skin.

  15. The original licence holder to compete in the VFL/AFL was held by a publicly listed company called Indian Pacific Ltd and not the WAFC, which eventually did buy all the shares in the company. Apart from that, the Eagles pay approximately $3 million in rent to the WAFC for the use of Subiaco Oval, and 50–70% of overall profits, according to Wikipedia. If that is the case, where does all that money go? Some of it should be distributed to the WAFL clubs you would think to underwrite footy in the State, which I believe is what happens in SA, but maybe that isn’t the case.

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