AFL Round 20 – GWS v North Melbourne: Community footy in Canberra

Saturday afternoon. StarTrack Oval in Canberra. It’s an absolute picture. Perfect playing surface. Big, pale blue after-frost sky. Not a breath of air. Winter trees. Warm in the sunshine; cold in the shadows. The spire of St Christopher’s and the square of Manuka shops.

People have enjoyed their pre-match rituals: lunch in a café or at the Kingo or Eastlake Footy Club all just a short stroll away.

I have been at the GWS function where we heard from GWS chairman Tony Shepherd who talked about the national game in the nation’s capital. I agree: of course we should be playing AFL football in Canberra.

It is the land of the lanyard and of cocktail functions, so the canapes are first-class (how much lime-chilli chicken is appropriate?). There’s a lot of “Where are you from?” and “Who do you barrack for?” and “What brought you to Canberra?”  A lot of the triple love: your original club, the game and now GWS.

We also hear from Alistair Peek who is part of the ACT’s sailing team at the Special Olympics in Melbourne later this year. He did a terrific interview with MC Nick Johnston.

And I have shared a red with Kevin Sheedy. “Story-telling,” he says. “Lighten it up. That’s what it’s about.”

As the match gets going, the crowd is quiet, watching the contest, rather than participating in it.

North have the lead and are doing just enough. Just as people are concerned the match won’t offer much, the young Giants stir.  Shane Mumford (I love him) fires them up and gets them moving and they kick a couple before North slot a steadier.

Then the game comes to life. Adam Treloar finishes a beautiful running goal which has more than a hint of Kardinia about it, and Jonathon Patton wins a free kick which takes him to the goal-line when Spud Firrito won’t stop arguing with the umpy. The heat is on; the billy is bubbling.

Soon after Mummy gets them going again and a pass finds Patton 65 metres out. Sheeds has been standing at the back of the Bradman Stand, shaking hands, cracking jokes, being more ambassadorial and statesmanlike than any representative in the embassies of Canberra’s circles and circuits. His running commentary on the game is not directed at anyone in particular, yet you feel like it is directed at you.

“He’ll kick this,” he announces. “Go back and kick it son! Have a shot!”

Patton winds up. He runs the arc to the right and pumps it across his body for the extra roost. It sails through the powder-blue sky. And sails. And sails over the pack, and through.

The crowd go up. The Giants are within a kick. And coming. The place is rocking. It has that feel of a metropolitan ground, alive, and a big, country oval bursting with the game’s energy. You can almost hear the cars tooting. There’s hope. “We can win this!”

“Look out North!”

Sheeds is on the boil himself. He’s striding back and forth now. Bursting with pride for the young boys – and for the fact that he’s predicted it (big character is our Sheeds).

“I tipped that! I tipped that! I knew he could kick it.”

More striding and back-slapping. “I told you.”

And that huge grin, improved enormously by quality denture work. “You know, that bloody Kevin Bartlett. Sometimes he was right. Sometimes he needed to have the shot. Sometimes he needed to kick it straight over the head of Royce Hart.”

More importantly, as the players go to the sheds, the crowd is alive with possibility. The talk is of North’s mental fragility. The talk is of opportunity.

Sadly, the Kangas smash the Giants in the third term. The fire goes out.

After the game the mood is a little flat, although there remains the sense that the side is building. People wander off to find somewhere to watch Freo and Geelong, and Port and Sydney.

Walking the perimeter of the Manuka Oval I am impressed. I always have been. It has character.

The Canberra element of the GWS initiative is important to its success. It’s almost a century since Australian football was first played on the plains of the Molonglo, as Canberra was being built. The GWS club can build on that history and the love of the game that is so clearly prevalent there.

On the Thursday I spoke at the Ainslie Football Club past players’ function. Ainslie started in 1927. Eastlake and Manuka, neighbouring suburbs, also began in the 1920s. They were started by blokes in the tent camps; tradesmen who were building Parliament House and the roads and residences and services. Many were from Victoria and loved their footy. And from around the country. The story is beautifully told by Keith Miller in Kick it long: a history of Eastlake and Manuka Football Clubs which was published last year.

So we have a steak and a few reds at the Eastlake footy club where they’ve been meeting for decades and watch the Cats sneak home.

And look forward to the next time the Giants are in the national capital.


John Harms @ratherbeatlunch

[email protected].au

More articles at


The Footy Almanac 2013


About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears (appeared?) on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three school-age kids - Theo, Anna, Evie. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst four. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.


  1. David Butler says

    John, you have changed your mind about Mummy. S’pose if R Farah can alter his opinion of Mick Potter.

  2. Hi John
    Sounds as though you had e a good few days. Sat with Keith on the day. Gnats looked very ordinary in the second half. I think Patton needs to have chat with Hawkins. Boyd as well. A classic story of big kids who dominated junior footy who are slow and lazy in their second efforts. Manuka looked terrific with the lowering of the surface improving the spectacle. The GWS power brokers where very bullish at Friday’s lunch about one of the bigger clubs from Melbourne coming to town next year which would be great as the Bullies and Port don’t have much of a following in Canberra which detracts from the crowd and atmosphere and give the anti AFL and Anti Canberra lobby some ammunition. That said, the Faiders are doing the cause a service.

  3. Good match report JTH. Succinct and sums up my opinion of Canberra also that is worthy of many more AFL games. It was a bit sad that North left there it had more potential as a 2nd home away from home rather than the Gold Coast (as opposed to relocation and the related ‘dance with the devil’ that ensued). Now of course Canberra acclimatises you to Hobart where the breeze rips off the Derwent and is the equivalent of walking in Port Phillip Bay in mid winter. Canberra is probably best in the hands of the NSW clubs, but it’s very picturesque and some patrons that actually do know what’s happening (as opposed to everyone’s favourite martian Kevin Sheedy!)

    Cheers PT

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