Almanac (Jail) Footy: Why there were few fights in jailyard footy


FOOTY’S home ground advantage used to be an almost tangible factor at most levels of the game, from the big League – remember feral Victoria Park, tricky Windy Hill, weather-beaten Western Oval and muddy Moorabbin, to name a few – down through the suburban and bush comps, all of which had certain venues you just weren’t ever in a hurry to visit.


Social footy, though, was a bit different. Mostly, there was no such thing as home grounds, you usually just played wherever you could as long as there was somewhere to assemble for a few beers afterwards, which was by far the main reason most of these matches took place.


Back in the early seventies, when the newspapers of the town used to cobble together teams to play each other and anybody else who was up for running off their hangovers on a Sunday morning, there was one exception – the annual visit to Pentridge to take on the prisoners.


That was always a mix of curiosity, trepidation and false bravado especially for first-timers who had never been ‘inside’ before and had heard lurid tales – enthusiastically told and not always totally exaggerated —of lining up on multiple murderers, street thugs and intimidating psychopaths.


And there was always the nagging worry that some of the more publicly shamed ones might have good reasons to hold a grudge against journalists.


It wasn’t only the old ‘Coburg College’ – which was the state’s main jail from 1851 until it closed in 1997 – that we visited, with forays also down to  the prison farm on French Island, which operated from 1916 until 1976.


Naturally, there was no such thing as away games for those blokes – they always played at home.


To no-one’s surprise, they played it tough, too – but only up to a point, for good reasons.


I was educated about that the first time I graced Pentridge’s weedy, muddy old oval, watching from centre half-forward as a blue broke out down the other end. As I set off to join in, my opponent – who was, indeed, a multiple murderer – told me not to bother because the dude who started it would be dealt with by his own team-mates in no uncertain manner after the match. Punch-ups, he said, were heavily frowned upon because they were likely to discourage nervous teams from returning and that meant fewer games for them to play.


You didn’t need much of an imagination to form an idea of how the ‘tribunal’ proceedings would play out.


At French Island one day,  my old sportswriting colleague Phil Burfurd – who didn’t derive much joy from these fixtures one way and another – was in the middle of the fray when, he says, ‘some serious push and shove erupted.’


Burfurd copped one for his corner, and it was no accident. “It was a good shot, too. He knew what he was doing as he immediately adopted the boxing position,” he said.


After the final siren and the normal pleasantries the inmates gathered for a team meeting while the screws suddenly disappeared. When the team meeting was over the player who had started the fight was left with a seriously re-arranged face.


The reason later explained was that the fight had cost them their Sunday roast for a month. I often wonder how many he took down on the way to getting his prison justice lesson.


At Pentridge another day, Burfurd took a sliding mark in the mud and got to his feet with blood pouring from his knee. He had been seriously cut by ‘something bloody sharp’ – presumably a buried knife or razor blade, which probably wasn’t unusual thereabouts..


“To this day I still have a pronounced grove in my kneecap. It carved right into the bone,” he says.


Was there any sympathy on offer? Not much.


“It was agreed the wound should be seen to at the prison infirmary,” Burfurd says. “Accompanied by a warder I was led through into the bowels of the institution.”


“We had to negotiate about three large steel gates along the way, at each one a sentry would lower down the key and retrieve it back up once we had entered and the gate locked behind us. It was like something out of a Dickens novel.”


Arriving at the infirmary an inmate was allocated to attend to me. As he got started he casually questioned me: ‘How long are you in for?’


“When I said just for the day his response was: ‘You’re not one of us. Fix it yourself.’


I was left in the infirmary struggling to apply a bandage to a leg that had grown to the size of a football. Clearly the wound needed proper medical attention but I wasn’t allowed to leave the prison until the match was over and we could all be counted out as a group at the gate.


I somehow managed to drive myself to Scoresby to pick up my wife who then drove me to hospital where I spent two hours in surgery as the doctors extricated half of Pentridge from my knee.


“The fun things we did when we were young!”


That sentiment is echoed by old team-mate Graeme Willingham, who reckons Burfurd was probably lucky not to end up with his knee full of not just mud but sheep shit, because several of the woolly animals had to be chased off the oval before play could start.


Willingham’s opponent didn’t mess with him, but did crack it verbally with the umpire, who then stopped the game and refused to continue until a couple of warders escorted the abuser off the field, no doubt destined for his own tribunal appearance.


“Not a nice place to be on a cold, wet Sunday morning with a hangover,” says Willingham. “Can’t remember the score but it would have been wise to lose.”


Maybe ‘social’ was not necessarily the most apt descriptor for these rugged contests, but they survived for a few years so it couldn’t have been all that unfriendly – and, in truth, it wasn’t. Most of us enjoyed it for the unusual experience that it was. You certainly met a few interesting characters – even if there was no opportunity to do so over a few after-match beers.



The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in the coming weeks. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order right now HERE


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  1. That is a great yarn, Ron.
    Thanks for sharing

  2. Rulebook says

    Very educational read to say the least,Ron

  3. Brilliant. Thanks Ron

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