The Book of VFL/AFL Finals

 

The Complete Book of VFL / AFL Finals by Graeme Atkinson, documents the times when footy is driven by acute emotion, finals time. The book is heavily influenced by feature type journalistic style that seeks to capture drama within the game and hyperbolize its characters and quests. A random example would be: ’63,000 fans screamed for blood as players converged on each other throwing fists and boots’ (Atkinson, 2002, p.178). Reading this quote in isolation, one wonders if Atkinson is describing a Roman coliseum in early Christian times or the 1945 VFL Grand Final between Carlton and South Melbourne.

Atkinson reveals emotive elements of this discourse by using descriptive journalistic techniques and flowery prose to praise condemn and sensationalize events, incidents and the feats of players. Nostalgia coupled with contemporary critical observation in defence of the fan’s position makes Atkinson’s work populist, yet somewhat non-conformist. He relies on media reports to summaries his own presentation of the events, yet still finds opportunities to warn against the tide of television’s saturated coverage. In the 2002 edition Atkinson has seen fit to divide the history of the game in to generic era’s. The first is between 1897 to 1915, then 1916 to 1935; 1936 to 1955; 1956 to 1975; 1976 to 1995 and finally 1996 to 2002 or the present pending further editions.

The 2002 edition sees Atkinson attempt for the first time to include celebratory and critical reflections on the era he has chosen. For example, the role of the coach, so central to the messianic characteristic of success fans expect today, didn’t really come to the fore until 1902. This would mean that since 1858 teams played without specialized coaching until ex-Fitzroy player Jack Worral became the coach ofCarltonin 1902. Atkinson says: “Generally, a group of old players or the captain organized training.”(Atkinson, 2002, p. 7).

In the 1916 to 1935 era the game began to evolve and celebrate the symbolic relevance of the footballer as a social construction to be proud of and aspire to. This is especially pertinent after World War 1 where a number of Australian rules players died in battle. Surprisingly, the VFL competition was not suspended during the war and critics were divided on the subject of whether the competition should continue. The continuation of play could also allow displays of patriotism and Australian muscular Christian heroism that provided people with hope in the ability of the lads who went to battle. For instance, St.Kilda changed its colors because they resembled those of the “hated Germans, and one well-known player altering his name officially from Heinz to Haines” (Atkinson, 2002, p.63).

Heinz’s symbolic display of patriotism could be seen as a ‘CNN’ moment of its era. It provided an outlet for expression of colonial pride and helped garner support for both the war effort and the game of Australian rules. This example may also be seen as a significant precursor to the power of the individual as an archetypal hero in the game. While propagating patriotism, Heinz’s stance could also be seen as an advertisement for Australian football as a cultural pioneer in the search for national identity. While his action supported Britain, it could be seen as a choice to break away from European cultural idealism, with a German Australian taking the side of his new country. Little is mentioned about Heinz’s actual football ability and this indicates that while the game seeks to produce heroes to represent it as a form of sport, its main agenda is to instill a hagiographic individual image of Australian identity that is seen most clearly if viewed through the lens of Australian Rules football.

Atkinson also mentions the paradox in the game after the cessation of hostilities in Europe. Instead of promoting conviviality and national pride, peacetime saw more violence on the field and amongst the terraces. Atkinson argues: “With the return of peace, the game entered one of its most brutal eras. The 1920s saw regular vicious brawls, assaults on umpires and crowd violence” (Atkinson, 2002, p.63). This example does not depict a united and patriotic Australian rules football culture. It may be no coincidence then that during this era, the media began to play a more influential role in constructing heroes out of individual players. Newspaper reports were starting to increase and the 1920s also saw the introduction of radio and the moving image in film. The 1930s depression may well have ushered the cult of celebrity, primarily because people looked to escape from a world of high unemployment and social discontent. Football offered some solace and hope, but then again so did cinema and Hitler’s vision for many in Germany. While Hitler was gaining popularity in Germany, Haydn Bunton was the new Alexander the Great for many in Fitzroy. On the surface it seems ludicrous to contemplate such a comparison. And yet, the power of a charismatic individual to a desperate mass of people should not be underestimated. Fitzroy may be a long way from Berlin, but some of the accolades afforded to the mercurial and charming Bunton are indicative of the need for a culture to look to individuals for hope and meaning.  In The Call, Martin Flanagan writes about his uncle who carried a photo of Haydn Bunton in his wallet:

In the photograph, a slight, dark-haired young man was leaping through the air, ball beneath his arm, right foot pointed forward, left tucked in behind. Earth nowhere in sight. I said he looked like a god and my uncle nodded and said, ‘Yeah, you could say that’(Flanagan, 1998, P. 82).

Flanagan’s description illustrates the need for many in football culture to elevate football heroes into deities who could influence the way a community see themselves. Atkinson is prone to employing similar panegyric descriptions of individual champions of each era, however there is a balanced sense of caution when commentating on the evolution of the game holistically. For example, the 1956 to 1975 era is described as a time that further established footballers as media personalities with the explosion of television into the culture. Yet there is also the somewhat negative effect of distancing the players from the fans and the community that they represent. Atkinson uses the term ‘assets’ to describe players for the first time when writing about this period. He argues:

Television also resulted in players becoming personalities and assets, and their recognition of this fact led to spiraling monetary demands. Clubs were forced for the first time to embrace the corporate world and actively seek the sponsorship dollar. By the middle of the 1970s, the VFL, too, was forced to realize that it was only one more business struggling to survive in the same corporate jungle. (Atkinson, 2002, p.229)

To illustrate the cultural shift between the Heinz/Haines’ era and now, we can look at the decision in 1999 of then Geelong captain Gary Hocking to change his name to ‘Whiskas’ by deed poll in order to obtain a lucrative sponsorship from the cat food company for his club. The football public and media generally ridiculed Hocking for selling out so much to corporate pressure. However, Hocking justified his decision by claiming that his prime motivation for taking such an unusual step was to ensure that the Geelong Football club might survive and prosper. Hocking and Heinz have something in common here because they both obviously changed their names for what they perceived as an important cause, Heinz for country, Hocking for club. Yet they may also have taken their stances because of the fear that what is important to them may be under threat.

 

About Phillip Dimitriadis

Carer/Teacher/Writer. Author of Fandemic: Travels in Footy Mythology. World view influenced by Johnny Cash, Krishnamurti, Larry David, Toni Morrison and Billy Picken.

Comments

  1. Andrew Starkie says:

    85 elimination final greatest ever final Phil. roos came from behind to beat the evil empire. schimma and john holt were heroic.

  2. And McCann kicked 4 goals. I remember John Holt wore number 2 and had a beautiful left foot kick.

    This along with ‘The Wild Men of Football’ and ‘Football the Australian Way’ were the books that made reading worthwhile as a kid. Reading about the Pies triumphs in the 20s/30s used to lift my spirits during the 32 year drought.

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