Almanac Footy: The Lions, The Cats, The Gabba and The Divine







To a Chinchilla-born Geelong supporter who’s spent more than half his life living Up North, the idea of a Geelong-Lions Preliminary Final at the Gabba brings me closer to the Divine. I am imagining Brisbane this morning. River winding around. Timber homes on stilts clinging to the ridges. Students dodging the falling lilac petals of jacarandas in full October glory, aware of the time-honoured myth that if one lands on you in swat-vac you will fail.


There are two games to be played in this 2020 season. Not everyone feels the same way about these finals being played Up North. I’m confident of that. I remember the day, a couple of months ago, when Brisbane was chosen to host the Grand Final. Sitting in my study in The People’s Republic of Northcote, I was amused by the edict (which came from a resort course) and was even more amused by the fumbling efforts of the young (and some old) Melbourne media and Fox anchors, in their attempt to find something to say about the Gabba and footy in Brisbane. Not a lot of familiarity there!


The days went by and it was still clear Brisbane was an outpost at the farthest corner of the AFL Empire. Thank goodness for Lethal (who’s decided to stay) and Jonathan Brown and his Ekka winds (which blow, like clockwork, but only in August).


But, you know the journos I mean. The young ones. For a long time I thought they were one person. But now I realise there’s actually a few of them. They’re all called Sam or Tom and it seems they were all cloned in the Chemistry lab at Xavier, and trained in the sweat-shops of commercial sports radio. They’ve been mentored by the senior statesmen of the cult that is Victorian footy to believe it’s all about power and money.


My conscience precludes me from remaining silent. I feel an obligation to tell you that footy has been played in Brisbane since before most Melbourne teams were formed, and to explain how good the Gabba is.


The Gabba first. The Gabba is across the river from the city, to the south. From the top of the cliffs at Kangaroo Point you head down the road, past the Pineapple Hotel (yes, that’s its name), past Kentucky (FC) and onto the flat that is between Vulture and Stanley Streets.  Most sports have been played at the highest level at the Gabba for over 100 years. Cricket of course, greyhound racing, the two rugby codes, soccer, athletics, and Australian footy. Indeed, the Gabba has been the spiritual home of Australian footy in Queensland for that time.


Boys, I know you value the MCG, well Up North it’s the same with the Gabba. I first went to the Gabba to see the final day of the Test between Australia and the West Indies in November, 1975. Dad drove us down from Oakey for the day and we cheered as the Brothers Chappell put on 150 to deal with a tricky target pretty easily. I was too young to take in the wonders of an ancient sports ground.


But, once I lobbed at the University of Queensland in 1980 and started going to the cricket and the dishlickers on Thursday nights, I developed an appreciation of its character. It was nothing like the other grounds you saw on TV. As I was studying history, I came to realise it was the ground of a colonial outpost of a plantation state, as if we were in Antigua or Tanganyika. Poincianas. Humidity. It felt tropical. As I also had an interest in French cinema I half-expected Emmanuelle to pull up in Vulture Street in a Mini-Moke (Google her).


The Gabba was like a Queenslander – house, that is – where the family kept having more kids (as happened a lot in Queensland where blokes in pubs celebrating ‘Tiny’s’ ninth ankle-biter would raise a seven of XXXX and say, “You haven’t worked out what causes it yet have you old son.”) Families just kept adding rooms on – closing in a veranda, building a lean-to off the back (now covered with a choko vine), filling in the bit downstairs next to the old copper and concrete tub. The Gabba was not planned.


You could watch from the benches at the East State School End where the lush, dense ficas cast magnificent morning shade, and then when the sun got higher, which happens quickly in the tropics you might move to the pokey Hutcheon Stand which had a fan hanging down (not quite the wafters at Tatts in the city though) and then you might move to the Clem Jones Stand or sit on the handful of garden seats at the 704m starting boxes where you were so close to the action. But not as close as when you were sitting on the veranda of the brilliant old timber Queensland Cricketers’ Club where , after lunch of Moreton Bay bugs and rump steak, when Thommo or Patrick Patterson were bowling, you could reach over and pat AB on the bum.


Yes, so many beaut spots. But, in all our Queensland-ness, it was the Gabba Hill that became our home, underneath the dilapidated wooden scoreboard. We were fed and watered from the stand-alone bar (known as the Karen Pini Bar) at the top. Chiko Rolls and XXXX cans (initially) which, when drained, were thrown in the direction of the three LMT (Leo Muller Toyota) 44 gallon drums which acted as bins. I remember the day (second day of the Ashes Test in 1982-83) that a first session bottle of Bundy (smuggled in in a hollowed out loaf of bread) got the better of Blue Hansen and he fell asleep under his Australian flag between the bins. Thirty five degree heat and ninety per cent humidity rendered him unconscious, and blissfully unaware that every can consumed that afternoon had been thrown in his general direction, until he emerged from under the pile of cans like an emu chick seeing the light of day. He raised both arms in triumph, to wild applause.


The Gabba Hill was a special place. It was such fun that people travelled from all around Queensland to be there. So at the Test you’d have bushies in ringer’s hats and Jackie Howes, tradies, public servants, and many others. The Test coincided with the end of uni exams – perfect timing. Everyone was ready to play up like a secondhand Victa. It was a place (pre-zombie security) of freedom, and freedom of expression. You might even catch sight of Happy Jack.


Two memories sum up the spirit of the Hill. On the first morning of a Test match someone had found a Pelaco shirt box on the Hill (clearly some yobbo was on a promise for a members’ dining room tickets and had made late arrangements at the menswear store at Stones Corner). With single-line biro, he had written ‘FUCKWIT FREE ZONE’ on the cardboard and hung it on the small cyclone wire fence at the front – before the path. People were nodding as they read it. The other memory is of a lone telegraph pole which for years remained, unused for anything, towards the front of the Hill. It just emerged from the Queensland blue couch. No-one had ever thought to take it down. One day a bloke who looked like Yosemite Sam, sitting not far from us, went very hard on the Orange Whips early. It was hot and, for some reason, he was wearing nothing but track suit pants. A tradition on the Hill was for some yobbo to yell ‘Stacks On’ at which point blokes would break the tag of their missus and dive on the pile of Queenslanders which would form like a Cracker Night bonfire up the front of the Hill. So off goes Yosemite and dives on. He looks like he’s packed down in a few scrums before (as hooker) and is soon buried deep in the bodies. Not long after he emerges – sans tracky dacks. Naked on the Hill in full view of the Queensland Police Force’s finest is not an ideal place to be, so he bolts. The coppers chase. When he spots the telegraph pole he does what any goanna-loving Australian would do and shimmies straight up to the top and is perched. The coppers gather around the base, their training at the Oxley Police Academy having not prepared them for this scenario.


“Come down!” the Sergeant demands. “Now!”


“Come up and get me you bastards!”


Yosemite was thrown out. He returned to great cheers fifteen minutes before stumps.


Memorable days on the Hill ended at one of the local watering holes – classic old inner Brisbane pubs like the Gabba, the Aussie Nash, the Clarence Corner, the Red Brick and the Lord Stanley, or if you went back towards town, the Pineapple or the Story Bridge.


Whereas, if you were going to the dogs, you might start with a few sharp ones at the Aussie Nash. You’d head across to the Gabba where $17 would get you entry, a racebook and all you could eat (way before Sizzler) at the bistro which had two chefs (one who did the roasts and the prawn cutlets, and the other, a Chinese bloke, who did brilliant Chinese). There were thirty or so bookies and you might even sneak a bet on a major sporting event. The Queensland cricket team would be doing fitness training with AB and Fat cat about 50 metres off at the back. Ten races.


But the Gabba had also been the home of footy in Queensland for a long time. Which is why it was ridiculous that the VFL made Carrara the Bears base. The footy culture in Brisbane wasn’t huge but it was strong and had a rich history – as Queensland footy does (just read Murray Bird and Greg parker’s tome More of the Kangaroo). Eventually the Bears realised they just had to make the Gabba their homeground. They were tapping into years of Brisbane footy culture – and Gabba culture.


So footy was in its natural Queensland home. Pressure came to change the ground. We watched on as, bit by bit, the Gabba we loved, the Gabba of Old Queensland, was replaced my all-seat stands, conventional and concrete. The Gabba became another modern sports stadium, in form not unlike the MCG. The Hill’s last hurrah was the 1998-99 Ashes Test.


New stadiums bring new memories and Test cricket didn’t change and the Bears became the Lions and were on the rise. Great days of the youngsters emerging. Standing (for footy) on the Hill in 21 degree winter’s sunshine, as Voss and co started to show they had a lot to give. Those who followed the footy in Queensland had their own VFL team but they also grew to love the Brisbane team. And many had Brisbane as their one and only team. We watched as the team developed. Got to know them as footballers and as people around Brisbane where they did not have the celebrity of Bronco players. They played beautiful footy – at the Gabba.


In those glory years, with the Hill gone, I would sit in the media room with Ben Dobson and that old school sports reporter from the Australian Brian Burke. There was a fridge full of cold cans and next to me was often a woman from 4ZZZ (a radio station which can make 3RRR look like 3AW) who also liked beer and the shiny arms of the slim-waisted on the ground below.


So, while I loved the mighty Cats, and yearned for their success, I had a genuine affection for the Lions.


What the Cats and Joel Selwood have done since then has been phenomenal. Geelong fans are very grateful.


So, I sit in lockdown in The People’s Republic of Northcote genuinely sad that I cannot be at the Gabba tonight. It is the Gabba of a New Queensland, and of Old Queensland and all that means.


I will be wishing for Geelong of course. I’ll be hoping the local knowledge of one of those Lions premiership sons, Chris Scott (ah, had you forgotten that connection?), might count for something. How do you play the Gabba? And that he might give his very talented team – which includes genuine champions – the freedom to show the world what they can do (as Wayne Bennett has always done).


It’s set up to be a classic match. So, my dear brother Sparrow, who now barracks for the Lions, I will not meet you under the poicianas this time, but I wish your team, and mine, all the best.


And, yes, you Sams and Toms, the history of footy and of sport is as rich in Queensland as anywhere else. It is full of memory and meaning. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: whether you appreciate the richness or not, one thing is certain, those Old Queenlanders from the Gabba Hill couldn’t give a fuck.




Read more from John Harms HERE


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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 three. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.


  1. Kevin Densley says

    A rich, enjoyable piece, JTH – densely packed with all sorts of wonderfully interleaved, meaningful things.

  2. Maaaagnificent JTH – the choko vines, Xavier clones, smuggled rum, Yosemite Sam climbing the pole like a coconut palm and that French “cinema” star. I’m listening to the faint hum of a bug zapper on the verandah while toads jump and plop into view from the darkness reading this.

  3. I felt your flesh and blood love for the Gabba. All the senses. Nice John.

  4. Thanks John.
    You tell a great story and I hope Yosemite Sam did not get any splinters in his ascent or decent of said useless pole

  5. Ah JTH what a.treat of a read. Almost made me get in the car and drive to QLD. Fuck the lockdown.

    The Lions might be about to make some new memories for themselves.

    Go Cats

  6. Go the Gabba and Go the Lions!

  7. Marcus Holt says

    Not sure if anyone’s ever told you this John, but , fuck you write well!

  8. After finally home after almost 9 weeks in hospital, it’s great to be able to see the footy again.. I agree with you Jan. Go the Lion sand if they don’t make it, go the cats.

  9. Chris Daley says

    Perfect. Thanks John and good luck

  10. Ben Fenton-Smith says

    And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call great sports writing.

    Absolute ripper John – on so many levels. It’s one for all of us who live and breathe footy and sport outside the bubble of the Toms and Sams. Great last line, that tops off the innumerable brilliant observations.

    (Many an old Geelong fogey been waiting for revenge for that ’67 GF just quietly…)

  11. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Sports radio is a cancer (it shouldn’t be, but it is). You may have found the antidote JTH.

  12. Thanks for all of the lovely comments. I’m really looking forward to the game – but very nervous about the result!

  13. Thanks John, it was great read.

  14. Lyrical. A few parts still require translation for me. Must be a Queensland thing.

  15. Nice bit of nostalgia there, John! Plenty of support for the Brisbane Lions at the Lions Club BBQ in Dalby this morning – also celebrating one of our own being drafted to the Brisbane AFLW team!

  16. Jen Costello says

    Thanks so much John. A wonderful, rich read. Go the mighty Cats Saturday!! How sweet it is. Well done to Joel and all the boys and good luck to the Lions for next year. They have plenty to like.

  17. Roger Lowrey says

    Great read that JTH.

    And now to get on with the job next week and expunge the 1967 memories of Peter Sheales’ free kick to Michael Ronaldson for a non existent ruck infringement, Fred Swift’s mark behind the goal line and other dubious calls.

    I saw it all unfold and still think we were robbed.

    Go Cats!


  18. Jamie Simmons says

    Thank you John for the playful dig at a few modern journos but in particular mentioning the KFC. In pre-marital days where many were splurging their hard earned at The Piney or Aussie Nash, hanging out with The Colonel was my pre-game ritual.
    Biased of course but I loved this.

  19. Thanks for this, JTH.

    The Gabba is on my bucket-list.

    But I dare say that you are being too kind when you say “new stadiums bring new memories”.

  20. Thanks JTH. Great evocation of place and time. Was lucky and visited the old Gabba in ’89. Saw the Wally Grout food and liquor bar and marvelled at the dog track. Sat on the Hill and saw Greg Ritchie make a quick forty in a Shield game as part of his brief comeback. Ducked into the Pineapple too.

  21. Shane Reid says

    What a great read John. Before the world went topsy-turvy this year my family and I had a trip booked to Queensland over Easter. The Brisbane North Melbourne game from the original fixture was locked in, unfortunately it wasn’t to be and our first time at the Gabba will have to wait. looking forward to it. It seems to have a special atmosphere

  22. Love this JTH. As a Melbourne boy, I only knew the Gabba through WWOS cricket coverage. Richie Richardson hooking off his nose onto the dog track at 2/3. Dean Jones 145 in that 1dayer v England (“oh that’ll end up in Coco’s”). Chris Matthews’ opening spell. November hail stones.
    I made it there as a teenager one summer. Maybe 90/91. Or 91/92? After we family of five drove up in the Valiant Chrysler regal (west Wyalong, Tamworth, Toowoomba). We had to see The Gabba. Turned up to a January Shield game and found my vulture/ Stanley bearings sat in the Clem Jones stand, wondering about the link between Terry Alderman his nickname of “Clem.”
    Love the Jacarandas. And the sheer life of this story.

  23. John Butler says

    Just needs the Rennie Ellis photo montage to accompany it. Bugger the copyright fee.

  24. Great read, hope the Cattas can do it again and beat the Tigers

  25. Kevan Dacey says

    Brings back memories JH.
    My intro to the Gabba was in the mid 50’s as a primary school kid, nicking empty (and sometimes full) drink bottles from under the feet of patrons in stands to get the refund. Eventually graduated to actually training and playing AFL on the ground, initially for Coorparoo in the early 60’s and then playing many matches for Uni of Qld on the ground.
    Even managed an odd cricket match for the Cricketers Club when they were short. Can confirm I saw the tied test live!
    Was back there on Saturday night – disappointing result, but Geelong were clearly superior on the night. Will be there this Saturday night.

  26. Mathilde de H says

    Reading this with the Cats victory a fait accompli. And so fell completely in … to Brisbane and the heat, the wobbly things the heat makes us do, the lushness, the growth, the strange mutiny of the north and the northerners … Read whole paragraphs out loud, dwelling on the river and ridges, verandas, garden seats and cyclone wires, emus and endless drink, layers of play accreting on that Turrbal country.

    Please write more often!

    It’s been a great thing to come to know BNE a little these past three years. We walked to the GABBA from South Bank one soakingly warm summer evening to watch the Sri Lanka/Australia test, a spirited evening session which was regularly supplemented by the antics of a handful of locals engaged in bonafide Aussie flirtation on the ‘pool deck’ below us! It wasn’t just once that I thought ‘only in Queensland’.

    I think the Cats can do it. We’ll be with you all the way!

  27. Superb John.
    As a former Victorian who arrived in Queensland in 1998, I’ve seen all the Gabba has offered. And lived it.
    Had beer poured on my head during a Test by a mate, to help me cool down.
    Seen centuries, and great bowling performances.
    Watched the Lions with envy through their greatness.
    Consumed bourbon and rum smuggled in by mates in their shorts.
    If the Gabba is redeveloped, it needs a hill…

  28. Daryl Schramm says

    Having just read MB’s article (again) and now this one, I feel much more familiar with the venue and environs. Ripper read JTH. Thank you.

  29. Well done JTH.
    With Halloween approaching I’m hoping that tonight Richmond is Geelong’s nightmare!
    Go TIGERS!

  30. Laurie Laffan says

    Onya Johnno!! You still have THE touch.Sad about my Fitzroy Lions.Maybe next year??Go Catz!!!!
    Been to the original egg shaped,dog track Gabba and last year to the New round Gabba.Great days out with Macca and Stevie.

  31. Luke Reynolds says

    Superb. This should be displayed on a wall somewhere at the Gabba. Like others, this brings back memories of Deano, AB, McDermott etc. in WSC one dayers at the venue. The new stands, night games and the exciting, emerging Bears team of the mid nineties were as much of a much watch as the Swans were for a couple of years in the 1980’s.

    Enjoyed your telling of the Yosemite story on David Astle’s show the other night.

    All the best for tonight!

  32. Paul Daffey says

    Superb, Darky, on all levels.

    What is it about tracky dacks?

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