The Other Side of Soccer

I thought I’d post this piece (that I wrote in May) to give something of an antidote to the 634 problems that I’ve identified with the World Cup.

The Game They Play in Tassie

Chris Hudson’s A Century of Soccer, 1898-1998 is a comprehensive history of the game in Tasmania. There aren’t too many like it in Australia and it’s a tremendous model for historians of other states. It’s a shame then that it begins with the commonplace error that “British Association Football first came to Australia in 1880″ with the now legendary King’s School v. Wanderers game in Sydney.

As a result Hudson inadvertently obscures the fact that the earliest recorded game actually took place in his own state, Tasmania. On 10 May 1879, the Cricketers Football club played an internal scratch match using the “English Association rules”. The Mercury reports:

The natural amount of inconvenience was felt by most of the players who essayed the novel rules for the first time, the mysteries of off and on side and the obligation to leave the hands idle proving almost insurmountable. After some practice no doubt those difficulties will be overcome.

As if to foreshadow the sometimes shambolic organisational skills of those running Australian soccer, it is reported that the “club played without goal posts; as Mr. Briant who had promised to bring them, did not do so, coats were used to mark the goal instead.” A month later, on 7 June, the Cricketers met New Town for the first recorded inter-club soccer match.

These clubs met for the return match on Marsh’s ground, New Town, on Saturday afternoon, playing the English Association Rules. The result was a draw, no goals being kicked by either side.

Alas, this was no sparkling beginning of the beautiful game in Australia. Of the four Hobart football clubs, City and Railway insisted on playing under Victorian Rules. New Town’s own code resembled the Victorian game. The need for code conformity and the weight of numbers meant the rejection of soccer. The game seems to have retreated into the background until its re-emergence in 1898, and firm establishment in the early 1900s on the back of migration from the British Isles. Figures like JB Honeysett and his family were vital in this process.

It is no slight on Hudson that he missed this part of his own state’s history. These documents are buried in the archive and hard to find. The discovery of this important footnote to Australian sport history is due in large part to recent developments in searchable digital databases. It would have been a fluke if Hudson had indeed found the reference using the old-fashioned technology at his disposal.

* * *

It was with this sense of Hobart’s history and the quiet but consistent strength of the game in that city that I travelled to South Hobart FC’s Washington St ground on Sunday 23 May 2010 for its Centenary Gala Day and Premier League game against the Glenorchy Knights.

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Cut into the side of one of Mount Wellington’s many foothills, the ground looks like it’s been there a long time, with a beautiful old wooden grandstand sitting next to a bigger, more recent addition. The ground slopes away at between 5 and 10 degrees, like many things in Hobart as if poised to slide into the Derwent River. On the far wing and southern end wire-fencing that prevented match-viewing from those boundaries only increased the sense of lop-sidedness.

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I had arrived nice and early to catch as many of the day’s events as possible – not early enough to see the reserves game won comfortably by South, 4-0, but in time to see a community club celebrating its own longevity and success. I was particularly looking forward to seeing the club’s memorabilia display, which contained a number of trophies and photographs that spoke of the club’s history and success. But it was a touch disappointing because the excellent quality of the material on display suggested that many other riches might have been included to make an even more impressive statement.

Prior to the game, club juniors and local kids were involved in organised on-field activities that seemed both casual and enjoyable. A series of wandering commentators (who all seemed to be named Ian) brought their own daggy brand of comedy to the day.

There was a quiet dignity to all of the preliminary activities that caused me to reflect on what we have to endure prior to A League games, where the frantic passion is mostly fabricated and forced. The people at South Hobart have 100 reasons for passion and pride; you just get the sense that they see no need to be “in-your-face” about it.

The relaxed pace of the preliminaries made way for a quickening expectation. South had gone to a lot of trouble in making this day and a series of events heightened the anticipation of the big game. Perhaps the most impressive aspect related to the South Hobart strips. Guided by historic photos and descriptions of early playing strips, replica tops had been tailored for the day. When the players ran out in their Rich Maroon tops with a white V and waist band across the front, the sense of occasion was truly lifted. Though the tops’ silk-like appearance gave one Glenorchy supporter the opportunity to heckle, “Go the team in pyjamas!”

A little bit of magic occurred at the singing of the Anthem. Unfortunately, the comedy Ians had so enjoyed themselves with the microphone and PA that the poor machine must have been exhausted and began to pour smoke just before Rebecca Downes attempted to sing into it. She was forced to soldier on a capella and in the considerate silence belted out a truly powerful and moving rendition. It served to raise expectations just that little more.

Preliminaries over, the game started at a good pace with neither side taking control immediately. In fact the teams looked well-matched. And while South might have had the slight edge, there were no shots at goal for the first 15 minutes or so. I took several impressions from this period: that both sides were up for the occasion; that the game was played in a good spirit with very few niggly incidents; that the long ball game I might have been expecting was nowhere to be seen (in fact one tactical criticism that might be made was the failure to use the long ball occasionally as a means of variation).

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But most surprising was the apparent age of the players. None of them looked over 25. Where were the grizzled old hard men in defence; the slow bodies with wise heads in the mid-field; strong, experienced backs-to-the-goalkeeper forwards? Nowhere to be seen. In their stead a bunch of energetic young men running their hearts out.

For all the effort, goals were in short supply, and South managed to score the only goal of the half via a tap-in by Andy Brennan from a Shae Hickey pass, a score which just about reflected the play.

The half-time break provided another memorable moment. The 100-metre sprint produced a race that saw the two front-runners neck-and-neck all the way. The Knights’ Matthew Nowicki just pipped Toby Macgregor of Tilford Zebras.

After half-time it seemed we’d see more of the same, with South still shading it. Their stand-out was Shae Hickey, energetic, skillful and intelligent, every time he received the ball he looked dangerous. He was the one player I could see making the transition to the VPL.

Yet a couple of moments, including a cracking volley from Mnyonge Kamba suggested that Glenorchy were not out of it, not yet. Then just after the hour things fell apart for the Knights who seemed collectively to forget how they had contained the South strikers and started to give them too much space. Andy Brennan banged in another four goals with Jon Lo adding two, all in the space of 30 minutes. James Hope managed to get one back for Glenorchy.

What had been a balanced tussle turned into a hiding more lop-sided than the ground on which they were playing. And while it served to raise the spirits of the South faithful it was a bit of a shame for us neutrals. South deserved to win it. A 3-1 margin might have adequately reflected the game. The Glenorchy team deserved a less brutal memorial of their performance.

In the post-game ceremony a number of trophies and awards were given out. To no-one’s surprise Brennan (a 17-year-old still in Grade 11!) took out the JB Honeysett trophy for Best on Ground. Indeed he demonstrated the ability to finish off scoring opportunities better than some of the trundlers doing the rounds in the Victorian Premier League.

* * *

I left the ground with a great sense of satisfaction, having seen a game played by young men who were possibly playing above themselves (and probably above my expectation) and loving every minute of it. I also saw a crowd that enjoyed itself: the South supporters suffused with pride for their history and their team’s performance; the Knights supporters, nonetheless good natured and cheery, despite the hiding and allowing for the eternal off-side complaints we expect hammered teams to make.

Among the Knights’ supporters were a good number of Africans, presumably following their team’s four African players. The presence of these supporters brought home once again the role that soccer has had in giving the displaced and exiled an entrée into Australian life. Like many crowds around Australia, this one was clearly multicultural but in a way that differed from every other crowd I’d experienced.

So much about this day was different from my usual soccer fare. It occurred to me that for the first time in Australia I had attended a game between clubs that seemed comfortable about just being there. There was nothing strange, foreign or culturally threatening about a bunch of grown men playing soccer in this environment. This suggests a lot about the maturity of Tasmanian soccer, the South Hobart Football Club and the people involved in the game. But it also says a lot about the benefits of a club being aware of its own history and having a sense of home. For any number of reasons clubs in Melbourne do not share the security or sense of belonging felt by South Hobart.

Ultimately the day showed how important it is to feel a part of an ongoing history. There are many within the game who want to burn the past and only look to the future. I wish they could have been among the 600 at South Hobart to get an insight into what our game has meant and still means to its flourishing grass roots.

Thanks to fellow Knacker Adam Muyt for the photographs and hospitality.

Comments

  1. Phantom says:

    Nice one Ian. Tassie in the spotlight again.

    I once remember watching my son representing North West against the South (one of the fiercest rivalries in world sport) play at the Mount Nelson ground a little to the south and higher up the hill.

    The game was called off in the second half due to low cloud descending from the mountain and making visibility beyond your nose impossible.

    That South Hobart ground has a very nice slope from east to west. I recon a drop of nearly 10 metres accross the pitch. You get acraphobia sitting in the stand (top side).

    Nice little boutique ground in amongst a quaint (now yuppie) part of Hobart. Quite close to the Cascade Brewery.

    Phantom

  2. Michael C says:

    I’m confused now. You’ve tried to over state the impact of ‘English Football’ (from a soccer perspective) previously, talking about a game played in Warrnambool in 1861. However, clearly, English Association Football wasn’t impacting Australia until 1879-1880 time frame, basically, once the English themselves had got sorted with the games of Sheffield FA and London FA effectively merging to give birth to the hybrid game that truly would become soccer.

    Before that, ‘English Football’ was still a pretty fluid ‘idea’ more than practical specific game. Were the participants from London, from Sheffield, from Glasgow or Dublin or were they playing Rugby? or some (other) school boy game?

  3. Michael, I’m not sure of your point here.

    English association rules were advocated widely in the Australian press during the 1870s. In the Advertiser in Adelaide in 1873 it was reported: “After discussing the various rules seriatim, a code was drawn, up somewhat similar to the rules of the English Football Association.” It didn’t last long of course.

    I accept your argument about fluidity. That fluidity is observable across all football domains until the 1880s.

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