We are Green and Gold (2014)

 

Warrnambool in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of The Standard.

 

The weather in Warrnambool rolls in from the south-west. From the Southern Ocean, then Port Fairy and Killarney, before breaching the sandstone buttresses of Thunder Point and the concrete breakwater at Lady Bay, and continuing its journey along the Great Ocean Road.

 

Winter is long and grey and well on its way by the annual racing carnival, first week of May. The ever faithful wind carves and bites and locals hunch their shoulders and shiver and jig from one foot to the other. Night arrives early, well before the evening news brings more stories of doom from outside the Warrnambool cocoon.

 

A gentle, welcomed sun, freshly cut grass and local footy finals offer hope at the start of spring. Until October rains interrupt the opening of the cricket season and batsmen battle green tops. Sometimes, summer flirts during Melbourne Cup week, before disappearing again until Christmas, or January. Sometimes summer doesn’t come at all.

 

On Boxing Day, the caravan parks, carved out of scrub either side of the surf club, fill with optimistic locals who wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else, and mysterious, olive-skinned Italians, Greeks and Chileans from Melbourne’s suburbs, bringing their free-spiritedness, music and food, to camp in the same spot they have for generations.

 

If it’s a wet one, campers dig trenches around the caravan annexe to keep the water out, and set up the barbecue inside. Young girls hold hands and make a screaming dash for the communal shower block.

 

When the heat finally visits, however fleetingly, they charge laughing over the dunes to swim in the sun and brace in the cold, pure ocean. When the tide’s out, sunburnt families play cricket on the flat, hard sand, while red and yellow surf club members skim the tops of waves in the speed boat, looking for the one shark of the summer.

 

Late afternoon, the south-westerly brings change and when the sun goes down, the seaside carnival spins to life. The next morning, the day at the beach is front page in The Standard.

 

For many of Warrnambool’s ovals – the Reid, Friendlies Society Park, Walter, Mack, Allansford – a line of trees, corrugated iron shed, tiny grandstand or change rooms, stand guard against the elements, offering a little protection for players and spectators.

 

This is not the case at the A.H. Davidson Oval. On the north-western edge of town, the Davo, home of Old Collegians in the Warrnambool and District Football Netball League, sits exposed to God’s wrath like the Aran Islands of Galway Bay. On a bare, north to south sloping plateau, the change rooms and social club huddle near the top end goals, while on elevated land on the far side, the rain lashes spectators’ windscreens. With deep pockets and endless wings, the Davo is said to be the same size as the old Waverley Park.

 

In 1951, Young Christian Workers (YCW) were invited to enter the then WDFL. Within a few seasons the club had changed its name to Old Collegians, maintaining connections with the local Catholic school, Christian Brothers’ College. The club’s first two coaches were Brothers Stewart and Hanley, and initially, non-Catholics weren’t permitted to join. This rule was soon relaxed.

 

Prominent family names involved with the early years include Ryan, Walsh, Primmer, McFarlane, Kennedy, Gleeson, Healey, Kelly, Toleman and McMahon.

 

Runners-up to West End in `55, Old Collegians defeated South Rovers by six goals the following season to claim the first of eight Senior premierships. Framed green and gold premiership blazer and jumper from the era hang in the social rooms today.

 

From ’61, Old Collegians played in an amazing nine consecutive Grand Finals, for four flags. Much of this long period of success was owed to club legends such as defenders Marty Ryan and Frank Kelly, rover Barry Walsh, and centreman and forward, Ray Primmer.

 

By the mid-`70s, the club had fallen on hard times and was on the verge of being wound up. However, legend has it, not enough members showed up to an emergency meeting to vote on the matter. Fateful decisions were made to carry on and also enter an Under 18s team made up of CBC boys. The latter decision would prove to be the most important in the club’s history.

 

Under 18s were Premiers and Champions from `81 to `83, and the club’s revival was complete the following year when Seniors and Reserves won flags on a glorious September day at the Friendlies. In the club’s first Senior Grand Final since 1970, Old Collegians defeated perennial grand finalist West End Allansford by 34 points. CBC teacher Peter Barker was non-playing coach, while full-forward Owen Casey kicked eight, all before three-quarter time, bringing his total for the finals to 29, and 99 for the season. Best on ground was the imposing and downright frightening centreman, Denis Finn, who would coach the club to a flag five years later.

 

Old Collegians’ last Senior flag came in `92, coached by Leigh McCluskey, yet another CBC staff member, by then named Emmanuel College, after merging with St Ann’s, the local girls’ school. The club had joined the netball competition the year before.

 

My schoolmates and I played junior footy with CBC before moving onto Old Collegians U18s in `87, where we lost the Grand Final to Russells Creek.

 

Through the next decade, I came and went as player and supporter with the tide of life. In recent years, however, I have been pulled back physically and emotionally as I’ve come to appreciate where my football heart lies. With middle-age chasing hard, Old Collegians and Warrnambool, and the memories they contain, mean more than ever.

 

The `94 season found me back in Warrnambool, at Mum and Dad’s and Old Collegians, after a handful of years at La Trobe University, where I had muddled through a History and Politics degree.

 

My mate Matt McNeil and I struggled through the season with dodgy hamstrings. We spent many training nights sitting on the cold concrete steps in front of the change-rooms, watching black, heavy balls flop through the air and spit off the wet turf. Shouts and shit-stirs from teammates cracked the darkness, while further up Caramut Road, the clanking of loading and unloading could be heard from the cattleyards. In the distance, the training lights of South Warrnambool, Dennington and Merrivale formed yellow domes, like tribal fires.

 

Under wet light, splayed down from the two floodlights, Matt and I jogged slow, steaming laps. We’d disappear into the night, past the West Warrnambool cricket nets, bottom goals and little scoreboard; through the Dessy Hughes pocket, where from his back fence, he’d watch son Dave play; and up the hill and far wing. Finally, we’d emerge again into the light at the top end goals.

 

We’d talk about Saturday night at the Macs, the Old Collegians’ pub, cover bands at the Criterion, and past girlfriends. We counted the weeks down until finals and prayed we’d get ourselves right and back in the Reserves, who were looking to go back-to-back under coach, Andrew Watts. On Saturday mornings we donned white coats and goal umpired the Under 18s.

 

The Reserves finished on top after the home and away season. I got back in for the finals, but Matt, a member of the premiership team the year before, missed out.

 

We faced Merrivale in the semi-final. Down for most of the match, Wattsy pleaded for a special effort in the three-quarter time huddle. We loved Wattsy and would do all he asked. We wore down Merrivale and won through to the Grand Final. All involved described the win as one of the best they’d been part of.

 

A fortnight later, in the Reid Oval rooms after the granny, again after beating the Vale, Matt stood alone against the wall, beer in hand. On the way to the showers, I hung my premiership medal around his neck. He tore it off and swore at me. Matt knew the cold, indisputable truth of finals footy: only those on the field on the day feel part of it.

 

Having to leave out Matt and a few others broke Wattsy’s heart – he never coached again. Peter ‘Skeeta’ Moloney oversaw the hat-trick the next season.

 

I started `95 in the Seniors. Mid-season, wanting to chase the world outside the cocoon, I sold my Commodore and headed to London on a two year work visa. My premiership medal came with me; talisman and connection to home and Old Collegians.

 

Like many Warrnambool people, Matt believed venturing too far out of sight of the T&G clock tower on Liebig Street, was too far from home. He’d landed a plumbing apprenticeship with Crighton’s out of school. Warrnambool had everything Matt needed; he’d never leave.

 

Matt built and lived in two houses out past the old Brierly mental hospital, North Warrnambool. His door was always open and he had many visitors and the odd mate or family member as lodger. Friday night gatherings in the garage were famous. With the passing of years came routine and comfort; Matt stayed single, his own man.

 

On my return from London, I headed to Melbourne and an office job in the concrete and steel canyons. I’ve happily stayed in the suburbs, through two decades, a couple of career changes, and the birth of Eloise to Linda in April 2012.

 

But once a country boy, always. Warrnambool will always be home, my anchor and counterpoint, drawing me back to family, friends, history and the occasional Old Collegians game.

 

These days, I see more of Matt’s brothers, Sam and John. I drop into McNeil’s BP to fill up and catch up with local gossip not already relived by mum.

 

In the middle of town, just up the Princes Highway, or Raglan Parade, as locals call it, from Dad’s old butcher shop, McNeil’s is a Warrnambool landmark.

 

The boys gather to chat, settling in against a bowser, with conversation reassuringly consistent and generally revolving around why I would ever leave Warrnambool and when am I moving back.

 

Occasionally bumping into Matt at the Macs, a few hundred metres further up Raglan Parade, conversation would go the same direction and with my answer equally non-changing, I’d receive an incredulous, scrunched-up look.

 

In October 2013, I drove home for a fundraiser put on by Once Were Warriors, the club’s past players group, led by Denis Finn. On the way, I realised I hadn’t seen Matt for a few years, so considered dropping him a text. No need, I thought, he’ll be there. However, Matt and his tradie mates were on their annual bus trip to the Cox Plate. No worries, I’ll catch up with Matt over summer.

 

Some mates you don’t need to see all the time; bonds forged through footy and school stay strong forever.

 

Matt died the next Saturday night. He suffered a massive heart attack when riding his bike home. John received the call and sat in the gutter beside his brother while ambos applied CPR in vain. Later, it would be revealed Matt had been living with a major blockage to an artery which could’ve been treated if discovered earlier. Matt McNeil was 43 years old.

 

 

Next morning, a mate phoned me at work to break the news. I called mum. Matt’s passing had been announced at Mass. His work, footy and school mates gathered at the Macs; The Standard was full of tributes all week.

 

Death ripples through a country town.

 

At home in Coburg, I found my premiership medal hanging behind the door in the spare room and took the team photo down from the mantelpiece. There’s Matt, squeezed in between Bluey and Seany Ryan. Taken the morning after the Grand Final we’re all looking a bit rusty, but pretty happy with ourselves.

 

Those were our wonder years; nothing could touch us. We were immortal, oblivious and the world revolved around us.

 

Matt was buried on Remembrance Day. The sun shone, but Warrnambool was bleak and blanketed in silence. I squeezed into the crowded foyer at St Joseph’s alongside people from all over the district, including the local police in their pressed blues. You know someone’s made an impact when the police show up. Catholics acted on memory; non-believers stood awkwardly and respectfully.

 

The eulogies spoke of Matt’s Reserves best and fairest, love of a yarn, genuine interest in every stranger he met, and most of all, his magnificent ordinariness. The mass booklet contained photos of Matt in his footy gear and enjoying a beer and chat with mates and family.

 

One photo stood out. It caught Matt during a family gathering, chin resting on hand, immersed in the comforting swirl of conversation. He wore a contented, almost blissful look; Matt was in his element. As his father Noel told me months later as we sat chatting in the back office of the BP garage on a cold Sunday morning, Matt didn’t look for too much in life.

 

Shane Howard sang ‘Carry Me’ and Matt’s coffin was carried out to Cold Chisel’s ‘Flame Trees’, a reminiscing song about male friendship, lost love and coming home.

 

Afterwards, the congregation stood outside like petrified gum trees. Matt’s death had brought the focus back on our own mortality.

 

On the drive back to Melbourne, as the sun sank behind me and the flat landscape faded to black, I thought of schooldays, and `94, and how long ago it all was. And how everything must change – like the weather.

 

 

PS. Despite finishing minor premiers in the Seniors for the 2016-17 seasons, Old Collegians lost both Grand Finals. The Reserves won the 2017 Premiership.

 

Read another Warrnambool memoir by Andrew Starkie.

Read more by Andrew Starkie

Comments

  1. wow, another great piece Andrew, that sure stirred up some memories. As I’ve mentioned before I was born & grew up in Warrnambool, went to CBC & played for the school and also Collegians, albeit a bit before your time, when Barney Doolan from Koroit was coach. I wasn’t aware of the history of Collegians, but i remember they were very successful during the 1960’s. I also recall McNeil’s garage on the corner of Henna St & the Highway and the cheesy jingle they used to have on 3YB back in the day. Noel & Neville were also sponsors of Warrnambool FC where i played for four years back in the mid-70’s. Condolences on the loss of your good mate.

  2. Neil Anderson says:

    Wonderful piece of writing and tribute to Matt Andrew. As far as I know McNeil’s petrol station is the only place you get served by an attendant, which hasn’t been seen since the first Back To The Future movie set in 1955. The people working there including the McNeil family members have always been polite and helpful to us over the past 30 years we have lived in the district.
    It didn’t surprise me that you have written a glowing tribute to your friend knowing he was part of the McNeil family.

  3. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Brought a lump to my throat, Andrew. Terrific piece of writing mate.

  4. John Butler says:

    Glorious tribute to your mate, Starkers.

    Great writing.

  5. Jack Richards says:

    Great read Starks,
    Brings back some great memories- ‘Hole’ was a legend!!

  6. Peter Rodgers says:

    Well written Starks. I wasn’t a collegians man, but played a few games on the Davo. Could be very unforgiving. Great read about mateship. Could picture Matty through your description. Well done.

  7. Nice Starks. Rest easy hole

    Blue

  8. Brendan Whelan says:

    That was the best thing I have read in a long long time Andrew. With a tear in my eye your descriptions about Warrnambool and Matty were absolutely spot on. Makes you think of how easy it is to take things for granted. A great read THANKS!

  9. Starks a great piece mate some terrific memories of a good mate & the mateship we held together at a great club. Salute you great man.
    Wattsy

  10. Peter Day says:

    Brilliant Starks , squeally will always be remembered, his twinkle toes bursts out of packs are legend

  11. Dave Hughes says:

    Brilliant story. I didn’t want it to end. My story too. Dad(Des) on the balcony. He’s gone now. The tree he planted on that side of the ground is huge now. Matty had a great smile. Lovely fella. Flame trees always reminds me of the Bool. Saw Barnesy sing it recently. I teared up. Those were the days.

  12. Wonderful tribute to a time and a place as much as to a man. Beautifully told AS. I’m sitting on a sunny patio on an Andalucia evening, but I felt the stinging rain of a SW spring and the fingers bending behind a sodden footy. Regards.

  13. Chris Daley says:

    Thanks Andrew. For a beautiful piece your mate about our home town.

  14. A truly beautiful and powerful piece, Andrew. Thank you for sharing it with the Almanac community. A touching piece of mateship and connection despite distance and time since last seeing each other.

  15. DBalassone says:

    Beautiful piece Starks – could hear ‘Flame Trees’ playing in my head all the way through this. RIP Matty.

  16. Well played Starks. I often listen to flame trees (on vinyl) and think of Matt. Hope you are well Mate. Rude

  17. Really well written Andrew. You have me pining for home.

  18. Chris Kol says:

    Andrew, On behalf of the McNeil clan, I can say they were absolutely delighted with the piece that so well portrays their Matt. No sugar coating such a knock about character, a character that is deeply missed. Thanks for the time and effort you have given to extend his memory. Cheers Chris Kol

  19. Lovely stuff, Starkers.
    Showing us the threads of family, mates, home (wherever that may be), mortality, all intertwining and never-ending.
    RIP Matt.

  20. Great story Andrew!

    20 years of working with Matt (Hole), it is hard to fathom he’s no longer around. Great times away, either working or playing up.

    Still a spare seat on our annual trip for him. Memories forever – Curly & 11 other great punters.

    Should I stay or should I go. RIP, Hole.

  21. Paul Fortuna says:

    Wonderful words Starks. Great memories of the Davo.

  22. Conor Murphy says:

    Great read, well done. Matt was a great bloke and I’m sure he’d be proud of your piece.

  23. Touching tribute of brotherhood.
    Country towns and mates- you never leave them.

  24. Marcus Holt says:

    Brilliant!

  25. E.regnans says:

    Thank you A. Starkie.
    Grateful.
    Go well.

  26. Murray Walding says:

    Thank you for that wonderful evocative piece. Country footy is the emotional heart beat of many a town and you’ve captured that perfectly.

  27. Nathan Adams says:

    Very moving piece Starks, as I grew up playing footy for the opposition team in Allansford over the years , this bought back some memories…and what country footy is all about and friendships that are made…

  28. There was a notice in the Warrnambool Standard about Matt this week from his family, so it is obviously the anniversary of his passing, sad …..

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