Almanac Footy (and Life): Life through the prism of football




I discovered the sport of Australian Rules ‘footy’ in 1956 on my return to Melbourne after four years living in Montréal, Canada. Being a little too small to play (age six), I noted that every good Victorian lad had to follow a team currently playing in the then semi-professional league, the VFL, not to be confused with the amateur teams that played in the VFA.


My brothers had all decided to follow a very strong team in the competition, Collingwood – the Magpies. I thus had eleven teams from which to choose (I could not be the same as my brothers) and naturally went for one of the strongest too, Melbourne or the Demons, under the mighty coach Norm Smith. I loved saving my pennies in the early days so I could by a Coke and would remove the seal cap excitedly to see whether I had scored a head photo of one of my heroes like ‘Bluey’ Adams or Ron Barassi underneath the lid. The Mighty Dees proceeded to win five Grand Finals in the next nine years with my support and, now, have not won a flag since 1964!


As I advanced in years through East Kew Central School, moving from the Junior Campus (Kindy to Grade 2) to the freedoms of the Upper Primary (Grade 3 to Form 2), I started joining in the winter kick-to-kick sessions on our gravel ‘oval’ at recess and lunchtime with my peers (boys only!). The footballs were invariably old heavy dark leather, worn thin, rather deflated, often with stitching unravelling and even a bit of bladder poking out the side. This ‘game’ involved the boys dividing into two groups and kicking a footy back and forth to each other. Once you gained possession of one of the many old leather balls flying through the air, you had a free kick (no interference from others) to the other end where another group of wild boys would jostle en masse in an attempt to initially mark the ball (not common) and then scrimmage for it on the ground until one (usually strongest/largest) emerged victorious with the ball. Obviously the smaller and younger participants struggled to get many kicks but it was a great excuse to be a boy and have a ‘rough and tumble’ in our free time. It also gradually refined the skills needed to be a successful player. If you were smart you would ‘wax’ with someone else, that is share alternate kicks when one of a pair of you successfully emerged with the ball. It was best to ‘wax’ with the strongest person in the pack.


We also played kick-to-kick in our back yard or down on Willsmere Park opposite our house.  Matt and I were the only two of the Stone boys who really took our footy seriously, playing in competitions well into our 20s. Kim was good at sport but took up rowing, hockey and rugby (union) at University High. As for the youngest, Ant, I am not absolutely sure what he played. I still remember the joy of my first games, not for the school but with our First East Kew cub group. It was on Straddie (Stradbroke) Park which was an absolute mud heap in those days. I do not know if I got any kicks but had a wonderful time sliding chest down through all the mud and sheets of water. A wonderful time had by all, except my dear mother who had to wash our filthy gear afterwards.



Me standing 4th from right, Matt seated 3rd from left


I am a little vague with respect to the football teams I played for in my early years as I moved from primary to secondary schooling at Kew High School. I know that I was usually selected in school teams for being an ‘honest’ and very determined taller player rather than being particularly skillful. I was often envious of the dodging and baulking skills many of my peers demonstrated, but I was a good back man who could mark well and kick the ball a long way, usually in the right direction. In those days we used the flat punt or ‘torp’ (torpedo) to propel the footy forward as the drop punt had not been invented and I did not have the skill to master the dying art of the drop kick or unique stab pass. As long as I kicked the ball as far as I could in the right direction I was happy. I do not recall kicking the ball to anyone in particular but hoped that someone on our side would get it and keep it moving forward!


I have fond memories of playing for a North Kew Football Club Under 15 team based at either Victoria Park (Kew) or Stradbroke Park. We were a strong team filled with many of the rough and tough state school kids I had grown up with kids who were skilled but rough and dirty if it was required. Every second Saturday, early in the morn, we would be loaded into the back of a big moving van that one of the local club supporters owned, doors closed and locked, and driven short or long distances to God knows where in the outer suburbs to usually thrash the opposition. The noise we made in the van to and particularly from the games was incredible. For home games I would be cycling to the game early in the morn in my footy gear, boots hanging around my neck and with fingers absolutely frozen. My association with this ‘tough’ group of players was a little out of character for me as I was a bit of a ‘goody two shoes’ at school and was usually Form captain who always did the right thing, my father being on the school council ensuring this. But put me on the footy ground and I loved the freedom to play hard and rough. It maybe explains why, despite all the incredible skill of my teammates around me, I managed to win the ‘Most Determined’ trophy at the season’s end in 1965. (I still have it.)


Our footy gear in those days was quite simple. One jumper (heavy, woollen and long sleeved) for all matches. Black or white shorts depending if you were home or away, long socks that never stayed up in my case and the old high sided leather boots with the leather ‘stops’ that would be replaced or hammered back into place before each game using the trusty hammer and last. A number of times a rushed job would see nails digging into the soles of my feet during a game. A bloodied foot or very sore big toe (boots too small) was not uncommon.


Moving to live another three years in Canada towards the end of ’65 dampened my skills somewhat but not my enthusiasm for the game. On return to Kew a year ahead of the family to complete my Matric at University High School, I chose to board at Otera, a Methodist home mission training college. I was free to come and go as I liked. I opted for rowing as my summer sport at school. Having no previous experience, I was lucky to be chosen for the 2nd VIII. Being perceived as tall and strong I was put in the ‘engine room’ (centre) of the boat and, after a rocky start, we went on to have a wonderfully successful season, more so than the First VIII. I have never known a more demanding and physically draining sport. I would rise around 5am to catch the old rattler bus into town and then walk down to the boat sheds on the Yarra to train for many hours. Then off to school or back home to Otera on a Saturday morn. I thus chose never to row another season. I also played footy for Uni High which had a very strong team, including several VFL players. I was certainly quite rusty initially and think that if it hadn’t been for my good looks and size, I would not have made this team of experienced players.



Premiers 1969. Me top centre, Alan Tate on right, Matt next to him.


During this time I was talked into turning up for training for a relatively new team, East Kew Combined, (Methodist/Presbyterian) which played in C Grade of the Eastern Suburbs (Protestant) Churches League (I think). We had the most wonderful coach, Alan Tate, a truly Christian gentleman who would always turn up to training in his carpentry work clothes, covered in wood shavings, an Essendon beany pulled over his mop of thick white wavy hair and old pair of footy boots on his feet. We trained under one gloomy light at Willsmere Park with its recently constructed changing rooms as our base. In my first season with them (1968) I walked to and from training from Eglington Street, Kew. In subsequent years I just had to walk over the road from our house on Willow Grove. I was soon playing at my favourite position of centre half-back, the best position on the ground in my eyes because you were always playing forward in search of the football. I was rarely concerned about leaving my man to get the ball. If I missed it there was always another line of defence to back me up.


Our parents played an interesting role in their boys’ sporting life. They were very supportive of our involvement in any sport without being intrusive. My mother, who had a very healthy and active large family country upbringing in WA, was not particularly good at sport in our eyes and only really took up golf to please my father and for the social interaction. (She much preferred cards, bridge in particular). My father, as already stated, was an outstanding sportsman in his youth, having even represented Country SA in football in some intra-state competitions. While living in East Kew he was very committed to his golf at Greenacres Golf Club, just up the road, on Saturday afternoons. So I think the only time he ever saw Matt and me play a full senior game was our Grand Final appearance in 1969. My dear mother’s contribution to sport was to make sure that her sons were well fed for their Saturday afternoon sporting commitments. So it was invariably steak with three vegetables for lunch. On many an occasion I somewhat regretted my mother’s loving efforts to energise her sons, as trying to dash around the footy field with a stomach still bursting with undigested steak was not always conducive to your best game. But no way would I have asked her not to serve up this tasty meal. To the best of my memory, it was the only time in the week that we boys were served up a steak!



Proud brothers at Willsmere Park


During 1969 in my first year at Melbourne Uni, my brother Matt joined the team. Although slightly shorter, he was a far more skillful player than me and went on to play at a higher level in other leagues, but he and his mates ensured we had a strong team that year. We went on to win the C Grade Grand Final that year, the only Grand Final I have won in any team/sport. Much to my surprise I also won the Best and Fairest player award for the team. (Yes, I still have the trophy.) I think Matt and I shared a Best and Fairest a year or so later. Due to uni travels and job commitments I gradually moved away from the team over the next couple of seasons and thus was devastated to learn in 1972 that the wonderful Alan Tate had died of a heart attack leaving behind a relatively young wife (in my eyes) and two young kids. He had apparently known that he had a weak heart and yet had given his all in the coaching. In the selfishness of my youth, I did not fully appreciate the great example he continually provided of giving to others and not expecting any reward. One of my big regrets in life was that I do not think I every really said thank you to Taty.


In one memorable match on a cold and wet afternoon, we were playing away on one of the usual muddy fields in the outer suburbs. My centre half-forward opponent had lost one of his contact lenses early in the match, so I made sure I jogged around him continuously as he searched the ground for his lens when the ball was not around (we played positions back then). I had a brilliant game and we won unexpectedly. After the game Taty was there as usual, at the race, congratulating all my team mates as we trudged off. I was expecting a big pat on the back for my ‘match winning’ efforts but he just stopped me, looked me in the eye, shook his head, turned me around firmly and said, ‘go out there again and help your opponent find his lens’. My opponent and most of his team mates were on their knees in the mud looking for the lens. We did find it in the end.




When Anne and I were posted to the country to teach at Terang in the Western District of Victoria I joined up with the local team. I had no choice, as the first thing my new Principal did on meeting me was drive me to meet the president of the Terang Football Club. I played a season with them but really was not good enough for this high standard country league. I got much more enjoyment when I joined the Noorat League the following year. I much preferred being a big fish in a small pond. Injuries got the better of me in the end. I had always had weak ankles, my back was giving problems and my ‘backman’s shoulder’ meant I was walking wounded by the season’s end. I think I was embarrassed to win the club Best and Fairest. In all my years of Saturday footy I would invariable get terrible attacks of cramp in my hamstring muscles by the evening of game day, which sort of took the edge off nights out (with Anne) with me jumping up from the dinner table, groaning in pain and clutching my leg in agony while others looked on in bemusement.


When Anne and I decided to live overseas in England for a couple of years in 1975, that was the end of my regular football playing career. Yes, I played the odd game after that but not seriously. I enjoyed coaching junior football in various schools for years after that but avoided any more senior commitments. In 1978 in Hamilton, Victoria, I took up hockey to keep myself fit for the next 20 plus years, but that is another story!


I have coached soccer, basketball, hockey and football in my teaching career. The only game I knew anything about really was footy, and even then I had my limitations. That is why I always ensured that I coached a junior team. My philosophy was always to encourage (no matter how hopeless the player was) and give everyone a go. I soon discovered that my brilliant half and three quarter time addresses to the students were a total waste of time. They would usually be fidgeting madly, prodding each other, fighting over the last piece of orange, picking their noses or asking to play full forward. I ended up entertaining more of the parents with my eloquent, slightly tongue-in-cheek addresses. The one thing I did learn in these years of coaching 9 to 14 year olds was that some students are just seemingly born with an innate ability to play Aussie Rules and many others were not meant to play the game.


One of my most memorable successes was Rigsy. He was utterly hopeless at the game, spending each quarter running in ever decreasing circles, arms held out in front of him, hoping that a ball might land on his chest. A whole season went by with the same story, Rigsy asking at every break to play full forward, Rigsy not getting a touch the whole game, Rigsy coming off at the end of the game as pleased as punch, asking me how well I thought he had played … until that fateful last game! The first three quarters proceeded in the normal vein. It was his turn to be full forward in the last quarter, and then it happened. Some deity happened to be looking down from above and arranged for Rigsy’s erratic dashes in the forward line to actually coincide with the flight of the ball. Not only did it land on his chest from great height, it stuck there when he closed his arms in shock at being hit on the chest with something. What’s more he was only 7 metres out. Not a chance I thought. I was wrong – he steered the ball, using a unique combination of drop/ flat punt, torpedo and stab kick, through the centre of the goals! The crowd erupted. The siren went. Had we won? Not a clue, but Rigsy, the hero of the day, was on cloud nine. At the end of the match in my final address to the boys (parents actually) I congratulated Rigsy on being the only player I had ever coached who had a 100% conversion rate for marks and kicks at goal. I suggested he should retire with that record. Rigsy did not turn up for training the next year.


My son Fin went on to play Aussie Rules after his early soccer days. He was a good player and recently ‘retired’ from competition at nearly 40. While he loved the game, the female side of Anne’s family were less endeared to the game. In fact, my eyes were opened to my dear mother-in-law’s (Marge) total ignorance of the game (despite her husband of 60 years being an MCG member and regularly going to watch his favoured team, the Mighty Dees). Fin was playing in an Under 17 representative team up in Cairns, where we lived at the time, and we talked a visiting Marge to come along to the match. We could tell that she was fairly upset about the physical nature of the game and asked her at half time what the problem was. She pointed out that some of the larger lads on the field were clearly older than 17 and that our dear Fin could be injured. I agreed that some were quite big for their age but they actually had qualified for this age group. She disagreed and seriously pointed out that the man running around the ground in white was clearly over 30 years old!


With that true story I finish my football saga.




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  1. Loved this story, Tom. The ‘Rigsy’ anecdote is a classic – one of those that stays with a coach forever. If only there was video footage! A good follow-on from Andy Thurlow’s recollections last week.

  2. Andy Thurlow says

    This does bring back memories – the footy gear, mud, and those boot stud nails sticking into feet. Love your concession to struggle with playing on a full stomach just to keep the steak routine going. This is a story about growing up in bygone decades, rich in history, and loads of fun, including your quarter-time addresses which sailed over the heads of distracted youngsters to some appreciation from their parents. Keep writing Tom.

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