Wests Juniors Australian Football Club (WJAFC) 90th Anniversary Keynote

Wests Juniors Australian Football Club (WJAFC) 90thAnniversary Keynote

Respect for Gratitude: Staying Connected through Footy in a Fragmented World

May 12, 2018

 

by Geoff Woolcock

 

Almanac writer (and member) and supporter for many years, Geoff Wollcock is a long-serving player and coach at Wests, captaining Qld U15s in 1983 and winning that carnival’s best player and then going on to captain the undefeated Qld Schoolboys to a national championship win in 1984. He played Teal Cup U17 for Qld and then over 100 senior QAFL games at Western Districts before returning to coach his eldest son Ethan’s team to a Div 2 flag in 2012 and more than 150 coaching appearances. A life member of the club, Wooly has also been a recruiting officer for the Melbourne Footy Club in the early 2000s and has worked closely with the AFL in the past decade with his ‘Talent Tracker’ research. As a social researcher for the best part of thirty years, Geoff has worked in some of Australia’s most disadvantaged communities and has a determined passion for social justice. Just turned 50 with a big celebration at the Oakman Park clubhouse last Saturday night, he’s pulled some thoughts together about the significance of local community and junior footy.

 


 

Firstly, I’d like to thank the club for the honour of being invited to share a few words and more importantly, for all those who contributed so much to make tonight happen, especially the organising committee.

 

Tonight is of course a wonderfully rich story of this club’s ninety years within which there are a whole lot of contributor stories, many of which I’m sure you’re already sharing amongst yourselves. A little montage of my enduring memories, or stories are:

 

  • First game ever 1977, picked on the wing and never strayed more than 15m from my marked position;

 

  • Getting KOed for the first time in my career as an U10 with an eternal visual imprint on my memory of the gum tree overhanging the far wing at Oakman as I fell, an imprint I was to see many times again in my senior career, as some close to me say is all too evident!;

 

  • Keeping tally on the old scoreboard on Saturday arve for the SQAFA (South Qld Aust Footy Assoc), some of the roughest and dirtiest play I’ve ever witnessed and if a blood rule had been enforced, then there literally would’ve been no one able to play!;

 

  • Up There Cazaly and the Rocky theme belting through our ears in the tiny Oakman Pk home room in U11s;

 

  • 1981 Boxing Day Test v Windies, Kim Hughes ton, Vivie b Lillee on stumps, sprinted down to Oakman for some huge kicks, at least they seemed huge!;

 

  • Broken arm contesting a boundary throw in during a rock hard ground winter in 1982 and with no first aid on hand, the old man driving his famous Belmont straight on to the field to ambulance me to the Royal Bris;

 

  • Departing words from Dad (Big John) before every game “Remember everything I’ve told you”;

 

  • Characteristically leaving it to the last minute before sprinting/racewalking (brief moment in the sun as state racewalking champion 84/85) late to school each day;

 

  • Coming back to coach as an 18yo and being part of the debaucherous bus trips on progressive dinner nights where I first saw – through my great model-like mate Chitty (in the pic to the right above) – the phenomenon that came to be known as cougars!;

 

  • Returning to Brissie in 2000 after living in Melbourne and invited to write the club’s first football charter, but soon became aware of the charter’s backstory, dissuading a ruthless coach who wanted to play his best 22 through the finals;

 

  • Bringing my pretty ambivalent at the time eldest son down to Auskick in 2006, instantly spellbound by Keith ‘Happy’ Wallis’ (his moniker was Supercoach in our place) and his distinctive way of coaching how to handball with the ice cream cone allegory;

 

  • Connor Ballenden’s drafting to the Lions last November when he chose to see it with us on the Oakman canteen porch, eschewing many other more glamorous options ;

 

  • Through to just last month, coming down to the season opener jersey presentation night, parking furthest I ever have just to get to the club and its now 350+ sign ons, more than a kilometre away up Stanley Terrace!

 

To set the scene for what I wanted to share tonight, I want to refer to a piece I was kindly invited to write for the prestigious literary journal Griffith Review in the lead up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, on social connectedness or social capital and grassroots sport, in which I went with the theme that we kind’ve take it for granted that grassroots sport is a big social connector in this country… I don’t know that we can take it for granted much longer.

 

I want to start by exploring this notion of home. For the famous Ziggy [homeless itinerant who regularly set up makeshift home on the edges the creek running beside Oakman Pk]– what is home? My three brothers outside our Toowong home where we grew up and then my great mate Steve Chichester and his favourite photo of us that he gave me at my 50thlast week.

 

Across the four major codes national leagues in Australia, teams are 19% more likely to win at home than away. For me that still stands out as a pretty significant figure given all players are running out on decks with the same goal posts at each end.

 

I think it draws our attention to the comfort of home, and the never more important sense of belonging. Just last year the UK appointed a Cabinet Minister for Loneliness, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has now confirmed that loneliness will be the biggest disease of the 21stcentury; public health stats tell us that acute loneliness is equivalent to smoking a pack of durries a day; all evidence points to this being the loneliest generation ever, with the “how many people can you turn to in a time of crisis?” question asked annually of a large random sample of Americans averaging 5 in the 1970s, now most common answer is zero, noone. Australia is second only to Iceland in use of anti-depressants. Interestingly, the word ‘sport’ does not appear once in our current National Mental Health Plan.

 

But I still see some light on the horizon. In the now-commonplace writers festival sessions on the future of cities, panellists inevitably thump the familiar drum of the desperate need for more public amenity and interaction in our inner cities, seemingly oblivious to the thriving social world fuelled by grassroots sports throughout our suburbs on any given weekend – a picture that the celebrated liveable cities Vancouver and Zurich could only dream of.

 

The increasing corruption of professional sport, accompanied by infantile behaviour of several notable sports stars, has furthered public cynicism about sport’s virtues. But even here, I reckon there’s an upside among many parents standing along the touchline: such shenanigans are the inevitable fallout from top-tier sport’s riches and, in turn, actually serve to affirm what’s most important about sport, namely its capacity to allow people of all backgrounds and abilities to come together and put aside petty prejudices.

 

There’s more intangibles than tangibles in this whole sense of belonging but American author Henry David Thoreau shrewdly observed a long time ago: ‘Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.’ I saw this pretty early on in my coaching career with an U8s team that included a host of characters: you had Robbie Dean scratching out noughts & crosses in the goalsquare and not just when play was at the other end – Robbie ended up in construction; another was determined to run live commentary on the game complete with fake mic, again no matter where the ball was, including smacking into his chest, and he ended up being a journo; while another (Toby if I remember correctly) filled that familiar role in the underage teams of providing a constant scoreline even though the scores are never recorded, and he went on to be a statistician.

 

I was the last of a generation in junior AFL to have league ladders in all age groups, which were replaced in the early ’90s with Auskick for all kids under eleven, with no game scores recorded and no tackling. There persists an old, flat-earth brigade of many ex-players, now fathers or uncles, who label this change of philosophy as ‘politically correct nonsense’. I’m not one of them. When I was in my twenties, I was an under-8s/9s coach and saw the rapid surge of kids registering to play, who felt safe playing – getting in a kick and a handball that full-body contact wouldn’t have allowed them – and then stayed on into the older age groups. Mind you, I recall a rather pampered kid at the close of a Thursday night training at Oakman recently asking his mother if they could take the Pajero and not the Lexus to their upcoming away fixture because it would be easier on his back, triggering a haughty hurrumph as I fondly remembered the days when all twenty of us little Vegemites would squeeze into the open-tray plumber’s ute that belonged to our team manager. Perhaps we were even a better team for it.

 

Another real key to belonging at this club comes with the recognition of appearances and the regular celebration of milestones. No other code does it as well as AFL, seen in the pride of old boys looking back at the honour board at my party last Saturday night… mind you, my brother Rog was fond of some old school coaching techniques, including thundering at one of his charges in the pre-match warm-up: “You’ve played 199 ordinary games, let’s make this one extraordinary!”

 

Back to that piece I wrote for Griffith Review a couple of years ago, a good part of it was drawn from a brother of one of my best mates in Melbourne but who grew up in the ‘badlands’ as he calls it of Windsor Zillmere. Don’t quite know how it started but Shane’s worked with kids doing it tough most of his life and he starting getting into an email rant about why the incentive to win in junior footy was so important in his development….

 

Like most kids playing club sport when I was young, I wanted to rock up on a Saturday, piss about with my friends for a little bit, try to avoid getting ‘dacked’, then get on with doing something that was totally different to everything else in my week (and my life in general). Matches provided an hour or so where my fellow nose-pickers and I took each other a bit more seriously – where we all put our bodies and brains together to tilt at the windmill that was trying to get a win. It was different to mucking about in the park; it gave us a reason to run ourselves out of breath until we weren’t entirely sure whether our little lungs would ever catch up again. And, it was exhilarating. We craved it as kids. Most young people love to test themselves like this. Get in with your mates from your suburb and try to run out of breath together to beat the kids from across the way – it really tickles your DNA. You know you’re alive – even when you are nine. It’s so sweet. You start thinking about playing days before you actually do. You get nervous; you get excited. You get invested. It hurts. It brings happiness. I never found it ‘fun’: fun was to be had at the BMX track. Footy was way better. I loved the shit out of it. I lived for it. It satisfied something in me that I wasn’t getting elsewhere. I was a nervous kid. I walked taller when I got together with all my friends to play footy. I was obsessed with it. I couldn’t wait to do it – sometimes waiting for Saturday was worse than waiting for Christmas. It was never ever ‘fun’ to me. We still talk about those footy days now as adults. We don’t talk about ‘fun’ totem tennis games we had; footy was better than ‘fun’.

 

The great footy journo Martin Flanagan captured the same essence of footy in a recent talk he gave at the North Hobart footy club:

 

There are many arguments to do with the origins of Australian football but on one thing all parties agree – the three letters, AFL, play no part whatsoever in the creation of the game. Unlike the deeply underwhelming AFLX, Australian football did not result from highly paid executives sitting around in an office, “brainstorming” ideas. It appeared like rock’n’roll appeared in 1950s America, drawing its force from a series of cultural collisions that ended up creating a game that was fresh and exciting and a unique expression of the land it’s from. Its appeal transcends class, gender, religion and race. Very little transcends class, gender, religion and race.

 

Another wonderful ‘voice of the people’ writer and orator John Harms – founder of the e-version of fanzines Footy Almanac – has produced a couple of edited books called Footy Towns. Not all of the contributors refer to stories of a local footy club’s renaissance, but where they do, there is invariably a rural/regional flavour to their resurgence. So Wests Juniors revival is a distinct counter trend, with an inner urban club enjoying a considerable renaissance. Perhaps Coorparoo is the only other example in this town but they certainly haven’t enjoyed the onfield success this club has in recent years where WJAFC has become a drawcard club. Of course, it didn’t hurt that families like the Labroms had four sons spread evenly over a decade or so of participation; nor the tireless efforts of Happy Wallis who went to literally hundreds of schools in the lead-up to sign-on day through the late 80s/early 90s; nor the fact that the Bris Lions hit a purple patch with their three consecutive flags; nor the advent of the most progressive change to the code in recent years with women and girls participating but what really mattered was that enough people cared for the club to gradually start re-emerging. And the underlying value behind that resurgence was respect– for the club as a whole to regain respect and for the individuals contributing to it to respect the efforts of those around them. Perhaps the most unique and remarkable aspect of this respect was the reverence given to Ziggy in his various pop-up homes around Oakman – any newcomer to the club doing their warm-up laps was quickly shut up if they offered a sledge at Ziggy and I’ve always liked to think his presence is a constant reminder of how most of us have been given so much in our lives, with the onus to give back.

 

The media reported the retirement of my favourite AFL player of recent times Bob Murphy as “in keeping with Murphy’s offbeat character, he thanked his family and the junior clubs that gave him a start”. I think it would be a great sign of progress if thanking your junior club wasn’t regarded as “offbeat”.

 

Tonight Australia’s wisest observer the 80yo Hugh Mackay is speaking at the Powerhouse just across the river on his latest offering, Australia Reimagined. The foreword states: “We have to connect with each other – it’s that connection that gets people through… our innate desire to belong can conquer our perverse drive to exclude”. Junior footy clubs continue to be one of this nation’s most potent social lubricants.

 

The most treasured email I’ve ever received in my footy life was from the father of a ridiculously courageous, undersized back pocket who played in our premiership-winning side in 2012. He simply wrote, ‘Harry’s just told me that was the best moment in his life to date…thanks for how much you helped contribute to it.’ I want to extend my thanks to everyone who’s sustained this proud footy club and for fostering arguably the most pressing virtue our current world needs – gratitude.

 

Up the Doggies!

 

 

Comments

  1. Sasha Lennon says:

    I was lucky enough to be there on the night. Brilliant speech by a Wests legend on the importance of footy clubs and how they contribute to “the glue that binds us”. Well done Geoff.

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