A Footy Learning – What Footy Photos Taught Me About The Way I View The Game

As we find ourselves amidst social-isolation, social media has become a throng of football discussion in a way that suggests people are lost without it. One such sensation has been people posting photos using the hashtag, #footballphotochallenge, resulting in many codes, teams, players and fans being represented from around the world. Immediately and out of impulse, I knew which photo I would post but I did not have a reason why.


The photo is more than likely a pose by former Burnie and Richmond champion, Ray Stokes. Upon reflection, I delved into why it was that I had chosen the image. Was it because I am a Tasmanian Richmond die-hard? Was it because Burnie is now my adopted home of more than three years? These were the logical conclusions that I arrived at, but my mind – as it often does – went wandering again.


If I was so focused on Tasmanian-born Richmond players, why did my mind edge towards Stokes and not that of my childhood and teenage idols, Matthew Richardson and Jack Riewoldt? More specific still, if Burnie was a factor in  my decision making, why would I not choose Brendon Gale? A star in one of my earliest Richmond memories – a cigarette and beer infused lounge-room that hosted a viewing party for the 2001 semi-final in which the Tigers triumphed over Carlton. Again, I pondered until it hit me.


The picture of Ray Stokes should not be viewed merely as that of a footballer. Rather, I view the image in a much deeper context – as a representation of Australia’s social and political history. There are two main factors that stand out to me.


The first is in his eyes. They suggest that this is not just a run-of-the-mill footballer posing that was typical of the time, but is instead an action-shot of a determined man. A survivor and victor against circumstance, who was willing to give his all. Having been born in 1924, Stokes and others of his generation were born into The Great Depression. Labor Prime Minister James Scullin’s term in office, which started when he was sworn in two days before the New York Stock Exchange collapsed in 1929, can be seen as a metaphor for an entire generation that inherited a society of economic hardship as their birthright. North-West Tasmania and economic struggle have essentially gone hand-in-hand since the area was settled.


Economic collapse was soon followed by World War Two. Now in his teens, Stokes was kept on the home front, rather than sent to the battlefields. Despite being recruited in 1944 by Jack Dyer and Richmond secretary Maurie Fleming, the ravaging global conflict kept him in Tasmania until 1946. As a highly skilled apprentice patternmaker, his trade was classed as an essential service and he was kept home. Out of such harsh conditions globally, an attitude that valued hard work and determination among most Australians wanting to ‘do their bit’.


When eulogising Stokes in 2017 following his death at age 92, Brendon Gale said, “he was a product of his generation, pretty hard, frugal, personally disciplined and full of integrity”. Such a quote reminds me of my Grandmother, who is from a similar generation. She recycled tea bags until the stench was too much and would freeze cartons of milk until she needed them – but she would always pay her way, look after her own and work hard in her garden until her final days. It is with little wonder then, that the image captures Stokes with socks pulled up, jumper and shorts in pristine condition and a look on his face that says ‘I’m ready for any challenge thrown my way’.


The second aspect of the black and white pixels that speaks to me is the background that outlines Stokes as a figure. A white picket fence outlines the ground in which he stands. Behind that, the roofs of buildings can be distinguished and above them there is a mass of sky, something that is seldom seen in modern football images in stadiums that engulf the players with their seas of people. This is a suburban footballer, a representative of a town and not that of an organisation. A ‘local’. Local football is the breeding ground of dreams and with it come volumes and volumes of stories that still live on within towns across Australia.


As alluded, Ray Stokes is, for all intents and football-purposes, from Burnie despite being born in Longford. Like much of Tasmania, Burnie is now caught between two worlds, the local and the global. The opposition between day-to-day local industry and its replacement from the globalised-capitalist model is there to see for anyone who should visit. The same can be said for sport in the State.


While the empire that is the AFL now has a stronghold on most football supporters, there are still diehards that go and support their towns from week to week, home and away. Should a North Melbourne or Hawthorn game be scheduled on a Saturday afternoon, there is only one reason why there a various pockets of empty seats in either Hobart or Launceston. Local football still has a pulse, albeit a lot softer than it once was.


Former Sydney Swan, Shane Fell once told me that he “felt like a rock star” in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he played with Glenorchy, the industrial powerhouse of Hobart’s Northern Suburbs. Each weekend, he would be swamped by masses of football fans that saw him as their hero in a fierce competition. It was local football against the best of the best, a fact that had not changed since Ray Stokes’ time playing for the Burnie Tigers.


Stokes was a football champion in North-West Tasmania, returning after his stint at Richmond to captain-coach the club from 1952-1957, which resulted in a premiership in 1954 over Wynyard and personal success, as he would take home the Wanderer Medal awarded to the best and fairest player in  the North-West Football Union. The following year, Burnie would be runners-up to Ulverstone.


The black and white pose of Stokes conjures up images in my mind of fans packing out West Park, with its beautiful old wooden stands that shield the players from the harsh winds howling off of Bass Strait. These days, people can be seen in the terraces but they are scattered, not packed in like they were in the 1950s. Stokes was a local champion, playing when the Apple Isle was Eden. Much like the biblical tale though, the apple unfortunately turned poisonous.  I truly hope football can nurse itself back to health and the pulse can beat at its strongest again.


To this end, I learned that I do not view the game in kicks, marks and handballs, but rather as a force force through which we can learn about society and people from the matches that are played.



Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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About Liahm O'Brien

Tasmanian Tiger - Born into the Northey era, blinded by the Wallace era, healed by the Hardwick era - Twitter: @LiahmO_Writing


  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I enjoyed this Liahm. It made me think about the way that I see things too.

  2. Luke Reynolds says

    Enjoyed this too Liahm. It’s a fantastic photo, the context in which you viewed it was fascinating.

  3. Colin Ritchie says

    Fab read Liamh, old photos certainly have so many stories to tell!

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