Almanac Book Review: ‘Australia’s Game: The History of Australian Football’ by Matthew Nicholson, Bob Stewart, Greg de Moore and Rob Hess

 

 

 

 

Matthew Nicholson, Bob Stewart, Greg de Moore & Rob Hess, Australia’s Game: The History of Australian Football, Hardie Grant Books, 2021, HB, xii + 764 pp, $60.00.

 

The phenomenon that is Australian football emerged in the latter part of the 1850s following the desire of gentlemen who played cricket to provide themselves with exercise and fellowship during Melbourne’s winter months. The game became increasingly popular with players and spectators. In time, with numerous bumps, twists and turns along the way, it became the most popular spectator and financially successful sport in Australia. It constitutes Australia’s unique contribution to the wonderful world of sport.

 

In Australia’s Game, Matthew Nicholson, Bob Stewart, Greg de Moore and Rob Hess provide an account of the major developments associated with the game over more than 160 years. They canvass issues associated with the origins of the game, its spread across the suburbs of Melbourne into country areas and interstate, and attempts to propagate the game in foreign lands. They also examine the formation of leagues to regulate the sport, both in Melbourne/Victoria and in other states and territories.

 

Other issues examined include tensions between clubs; between clubs and leagues; between leagues; leading administrators and problems of administration; relationships between leagues/clubs and ground managers; relationships with governments and other regulatory bodies; the role of the media, print, radio, broadcasting; on-field violence; Indigenous players; adoption of the game by different ethnic groups including Chinese players in the Nineteenth Century; racism; women’s involvement in the game including the formation of leagues of their own; controls on players; player income; player associations; champion teams, players and coaches; scandals and odd ball incidents and characters who have strutted football’s stage.

 

Australia’s Game runs to over 760 pages. Their text is organised into fifty-four chapters and includes 45 pages of bibliographic material in an eight-sized font, with 2517 endnotes. Those wishing to read this material would be well advised to purchase a magnifying glass.

 

The authors employ a chronological rather than a thematic approach in the presentation of material. The greatest weakness of Australia’s Game is that it lacks any conceptual theme around which to organise material. It basically consists of little more than the presentation of lots and lots of data/information, what scholars refer to as a ‘mountain of facts’. The most successful parts of the book are those chapters which are concerned with examining a particular, stand-alone issue.

 

The first 180 pages or so, where the emergence, codification and growth of the game in Melbourne is examined, is the best part of the book. Other successful chapters are those that examine the Victorian Football League’s plans to expand nationally, reigning in the wayward conduct of players, integrity issues, the Essendon drugs scandal, the rise of women’s football and the creation of the Australian Football League Women, and the league’s response to Covid during the 2020 season.

 

There are three major problems with other chapters. First, they usually include introductory comments about broader developments in Australia or overseas, sometimes going off on tangents, that add little to (and detract from) the narrative. Given the length of the book most of this material should have been deleted which would make Australia’s Game more accessible and interesting for readers. More in-depth information on various issues pertaining to the game could have been included.

 

Second, most chapters contain brief comments on too many issues which occurred in a certain slice of time which makes for dull reading. Chapters jump all over the place and/or are a mish-mash of unrelated issues. Third, there is too much repetition of material as Australia’s Game finds itself having to re-examine the same issues that re-emerge again and again in different time periods. An alternative would have been to employ a more thematic approach where longer chapters were devoted to particular issues rather than having snippets spread across so many chapters.

 

The authors adopt an uncritical, implicitly celebratory, approach to the operation of those who have been in charge of the Australian Football League, the AFL Commission. There are only two instances where they are critical of the Commission. They are the AFL obtaining sponsorships from betting companies (and the use of poker machines by clubs to raise funds) when there are strictures on players, club and league officials against gambling to ensure the integrity of the results of games. The second is the AFL not calling out racism when Indigenous player Adam Goodes was subjected to continuous booing by fans which forced his retirement from the game in 2015. This can be contrasted with Michael Warner’s The Boy’s Club: Power, Politics and the AFL which adopts a more critical approach to the governance and operation of the AFL. It is as if these two books, published only a couple of months apart, are examining two completely different organisations.

 

Australia’s Game is a difficult read. It is too long and poorly organised. Even those who are interested in the history of their respective teams and great players will find the material included on them too sketchy and piecemeal. Supporters of teams are better versed in the history, star players and coaches of their respective clubs. It is doubtful if anyone other than book reviewers will read Australia’s Game from cover to cover. Most will give up before the halfway point. This is a book that will not be widely read and will be quickly forgotten. The history of Australian Football is still waiting to be written.

 

 

We’ll do our best to publish two books in the lead-up to Christmas 2021. The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020  and the 2021 edition to celebrate the Dees’ magnificent premiership season(title is up for discussion at the moment!). These books will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers and Demons season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from these two Covid winters. Enquiries HERE

 

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Comments

  1. Kevin Densley says

    Interesting review, Braham; as a general principle, I like reviewers who are prepared to stick their neck out like you have done in this instance. That said, any of us who get our hands on this book will ultimately make up our own minds on its positives and negatives, of course.

  2. Braham Dabscheck says

    Hi Kevin, I couldn’t agree more with your final observation.

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