Almanac Memoir: A new chum’s introduction to Australian Football

John Milton and Heather Holcombe have been part of the Almanac community for quite a few years now. John Harms first bumped into John while waiting in the (not insignificant) queue that is a feature of the Fitzroy North post office. Friendly bloke, he thought. He noticed a bit of an accent – perhaps the urbane Brit?  After that, they’d see each other at Brunswick Street Oval, then at Fitzroy FC lunches. They always had a good chat. Soon John (and sometimes Heather) were coming to Almanac lunches. They’ve become supporters of all things Almanac – and John has now written this terrific story about his footy life. It’s a naval story, and a story of where life takes you. (Perhaps the first of a few yarns?)



The bow of the Woosung.



by John Milton



Part 1: “Left a bit, a bit more, yes, that’s it Third Mate.”



It’s nearly fifty years since I “watched” my first game of Australian Football, I have deliberately put “watched” in inverted commas because I didn’t see all of the game or watch to the game’s conclusion. The game in question was the 1970 Collingwood v Carlton grand final and hopefully the following account will explain why I didn’t see much of the game and I didn’t watch until the final siren.


I am dredging up stuff from ages ago and the memory can sometimes play tricks. But here we go:


John Milton



In 1970, I was a junior navigating officer (Third Mate) with the China Navigation Company (CNCo), sailing in the motor vessel Woosung, operating on the company’s Southern Australian – Far East (SAFE) liner service.  My home base was Hong Kong and southbound our Australian ports were Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne; northbound we alternated between Japanese or Korean ports, before returning to Hong Kong to complete the round trip.


In late September we were loading cargo in Sydney and on the morning of the last Saturday of the month we were ready to sail for Brisbane.  We departed from No. 9 Walsh Bay at about 10.45am. I was the officer-of-the-watch, and with the company of the ship’s Master and the Harbour Pilot, I maintained the bridge watch until we had cleared Sydney Heads. We “dropped” the pilot at North Head just before noon and by ten past twelve “full away” was rung on the bridge to engine room telegraph as we set our initial course for Brisbane. I was relieved on the bridge by the Second Mate and stood down at about 12.20pm; just in time for a quick gin and tonic before lunch was served.


A post-lunch routine had developed in the previous few months whereby the Captain, Chief Engineer, some of the off-duty junior engineers and myself would play table tennis.  A full size table had been set up in part of the officers’ smoke room (a quaint nautical term for a lounge room). The room was furnished with several armchairs and sofas, a television set, hi-fi equipment. It also housed the ship’s bar, something not seen on ships these days as various regulations mean they are completely dry (and probably smoke free as well).


On this particular afternoon we were joined by our Australian Chief Officer, not one of the regular table tennis players. He said that he wanted to watch a football game that was being televised that afternoon. He went on to explain it was the Victorian Football League Grand Final and that it would be a cracker of game as Collingwood was playing Carlton.  This meant absolutely nothing to me, he might just as well have been talking about Hamilton Academicals playing Cowdenbeath in the Scottish Football League. The Captain agreed, saying, ‘I’ve heard about Collingwood from friends in Melbourne, they reckon they are “rather good”.’


The AWA black and white telly was switched on and the Chief Officer started flipping the dial but the reception was terrible (we were off the coast passing Barrenjoey Heads).  “Third Mate, go up to boat deck and start swinging the TV aerial,” ordered the Captain, “we’ll lean out the smoke room window and shout out directions on where to point it.”  The boat deck was one deck up from the smoke room and the TV aerial was positioned on a stanchion on the port side about 10 fathoms (about 15 metres) above and forward of the smoke room window.


I discovered that the aerial was pointing seawards, so after swinging it abaft the port beam (in the general direction of Sydney), I went aft (back) to the smoke room window.


“How’s that?” I shouted.


“Left a bit Third Mate,’ came the reply.


I went back to the aerial and moved it bit more to the left and then returned to the window.  “How’s that now?” I shouted.


“Left a bit more,” came another reply.


This palaver carried on for several minutes until the cry went out, “Okay that’s it!”


By the time I made my way back to the smoke room, and settled myself in, the game had been underway for some time. The TV reception was not crash hot — a bit snowy and grainy — but enough for me figure out it was some form of hybrid foot and handball game being played between Newcastle United (the black and white stripes) and the Oxford University first XV (a plain dark jumper but with the addition of a white monogram).  From the scoreline it appeared that Newcastle had the upper hand over Oxford University.


The Chief Officer told us that the game was being played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and that there was a huge crowd in attendance; a bit like the Cup Final day at Wembley Stadium but on steroids. I tried to get my head around the idea of a football match being played on a cricket oval. The thought say, of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur running onto the hallowed turf at The Oval or Lord’s, was beyond my comprehension. Little did I know at the time that this in fact would occur when Carlton and North Melbourne featured in an “Exhibition” match at The Oval in the late 1970s.


The Chief Officer provided a commentary and tried to explain the rules (I reckoned there weren’t any, no offside, no hand-ball and no penalties for forward passes or knock-ons that’s for sure) and every now and again he would shout out something that sounded like “baaawl” – what was that all about? He also explained that when the ball was kicked between the taller posts the kicking team scored six points and if it went between the big post and the little post it was only one point. Apparently you didn’t get six points for an own goal. From the tone of Bruce’s sometimes anguished cries (“what was that for?” and more “baaawls”) I concluded that the referee (umpire John, umpire) didn’t always make the right decision, which was clearly endorsed by the spectators as well, if their roars and boos were anything to go by.


As we progressed northwards the TV reception started to falter and again I was dispatched to the boat deck to tweak the aerial and repeat the process of traipsing up and down the deck and checking below to see if the reception improved. I definitely spent more time on the boat deck than in front of the telly. Suffice to say, somewhere south of Newcastle reception from Sydney ran out and it was decided to call it a day.  I don’t remember  what stage the game was at but I think Collingwood was winning.  It would be some time later, when I had gained a much finer appreciation of the game, that the 1970 Grand Final was regarded as an all-time classic in the history of the game.


What did I take away from watching this game? As far as I could make out it didn’t have any rules, well, none that I could understand. I was taken by enormous crowd (a bit like the Brazilian soccer matches played at stadiums in Rio De Janeiro or Sao Paolo). And, I still couldn’t get my head around the fact that they played football on the sacred turf of such an iconic cricket ground (evoking childhood memories of Peter May and MJK Smith’s MCC tours of Australia in the 1950s and 60s, in the pre-satellite days when filmed highlights were shown on the BBC days after the event).



Trying not to be blown off the deck.



Fast forward to February 1971.


I was on study leave in Melbourne, enrolled in the School of Navigation at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, undertaking preparatory studies for the Masters and Mates examinations (First Mate’s Certificate of Competency, Foreign-Going to be precise).  The Company had put me up in digs at the old Federal Hotel located on the corner of Collins and King Streets. The Federal was a classic example of Victorian 1880s boom-time architecture, at one time it had been a coffee palace run by the temperance movement of the time. By the 1970s it was rather rundown but it still maintained a sort of “genteel elegance”. In 1973 it was demolished to make way for Enterprise House, an office block occupied by a Victorian Government department. Apart from myself, another notable tenant at the Federal at that time was ‘Captain’ Peter Janson, racing car driver and playboy, who lived in the penthouse apartment.


While at the Federal I became friendly with a first-year Melbourne University student, Heather [Holcombe], who had a part-time waitressing job at the hotel. At some stage, probably at a student party, I got to meet Heather’s brother Peter (who was also at Melbourne University) and couple of his uni mates Gavon and Mick. I don’t recall too many details of the night (too many beers perhaps) but we did agree to keep in touch. In the days before mobile phones I not sure how we managed to do that but we did. When not seeing Heather I would catch up with Peter, and sometimes the others, at various venues in Carlton (Poynton’s, The Clyde, Johnny’s Green Room and Genevieve’s come to mind).  As the weeks passed my nautical studies were beginning to suffer but heigh ho!


The VFL season was just underway and the inevitable question of what team do you barrack for came up. I mentioned that I didn’t have a team and in fact didn’t know much about the game. It reminded me of being asked by a Melbourne wharfie one Sunday afternoon, “How’s the footy going Mr Mate?”


I didn’t have a clue. My immediate thought was, why would someone in Melbourne be interested in Match of the Day being hosted by London Weekend TV’s Brian Moore? I was blissfully unaware that probably he only wanted to know how Port Melbourne were going against Williamstown or Geelong West. I recounted to Peter the abortive attempt to watch the 1970 Grand Final on television whilst sailing in the Woosung.  I told him that as the Captain and Chief Officer had been cheering on Collingwood, I thought I would be contrary and therefore went for Carlton; besides that, I quite liked their uniform (even if it did look like the Oxford jumper with the sleeves ripped off). So if I was to have a team I guess I would go for Carlton. Peter said he followed Fitzroy (about whom I would learn a whole lot more in the years to come) and maybe we should go to see a Fitzroy or Carlton game live at some stage. I agreed.


As it turned out we didn’t get to see a Fitzroy and Carlton game that season. I needed to knuckle down and cram for examinations in May and I could not afford want to “waste” precious study time on Saturday afternoons; in addition I was due to return to sea in early June. So a date was set for the last Saturday in May (post exams) and it was agreed that we should go to a game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.


Peter, Gavon and Mick rocked up about midday on the Saturday and to start off the afternoon we decided on a counter meal in the Federal’s public bar – steak sandwiches and chips from memory – helped along with a few seven ounce glasses of Carlton draught (I ask, when did the pot replace the glass as the standard drink in a Melbourne pub)? Sometime after one o’clock we made our way down Flinders Street to catch the tram up to Jolimont. We strolled across Yarra Park towards the stadium and walked around to the old Southern Stand. I was taken by the fact that supporters of both teams were mingling as they made their way into the ground (nothing like the heavily policed crowds at British football grounds). There were mums and dads with kids, bedecked in their jumpers and  scarves, with flags and banners – like regimental battle colours. And the cries of “Go Dees!” and “Carna Sain’ers!” Eventually we made our way up to the first level and positioned ourselves midway between to the two sets of goals, arriving in time to see the  teams run on to the ground. I can’t remember if the teams did a banner run through or if the clubs’ theme songs were played; the pre-game warm ups were nothing like today’s routines. I was struck by the noise of the crowd and the sense of anticipation in the lead up to the start of the game.


As it is now almost fifty years since that day at the `G and my memories of the details of the game are few. I tried to keep up with Peter’s explanation of how the game was being played but quite soon I was happy just to watch the spectacle unfolding. I was impressed by physical size of the players; this game was tough and rugged and the clash of bodies when players tackled was brutal. There was something happening on the field all the time; the shouts of “ball” rang in my ears.  And, above all, I really got the sense of tribalism but also the camaraderie among the spectators — a distinct difference from the segregated crowds at English soccer. The conviviality of my footy companions just added to the excitement of a magnificent afternoon at the MCG.


The Woosung arrived in Melbourne the following Friday and I rejoined as a newly promoted Second Officer. The ship remained in port for a further five days loading cargo for Japan and Hong Kong. On the day we sailed Heather, Peter, Gavon and Mick came down to 31 South Wharf to farewell me.


The Woosung returned to Melbourne several times over the next eight or nine months and I would catch up with Heather and Peter but I didn’t get to see another game of footy. However, that afternoon at the MCG in late May left a lasting impression on me, and in times to come I would go on to see many more games of Australian Football.



Heather Holcombe




Part 2:  A clearance to Fitzroy



In 1973 I moved to Melbourne permanently to take up a position with the Commonwealth Department of Civil Aviation; a career change from sea-going nautical to aeronautical. I was living in North Carlton not far from Princes Park (just a couple of Geoff Southby kick-outs in fact) so I sort of gravitated towards following the Carlton Football Club (some DCA colleagues were Carlton members/fans). I would also discover that Peter had known Southby at University and they had been at Alan Ramsay House (a uni hostel) at the same time as well.


Over the next few years I got to know Heather’s family very well. I was to learn that Heather’s father Bert Holcombe had a long association with football, playing first at Alphington and then Northcote. In 1936 he had been invited to train with the Fitzroy Football Club, this was the era of Haydn Bunton, Chicken Smallhorn and Doug Nicholls (with whom Bert played at Northcote). Bert managed to play a few games in the reserves but a VFL career did not eventuate. Australia was still in the grips of the Great Depression and Bert, a science graduate in industrial chemistry, had just accepted a position as mill chemist at APM’s Broadford paper mill. The security of a staff position in one of Australia’s largest companies took preference over the uncertainties of the VFL. Fitzroy tried to entice Bert back to Melbourne with an offer of a job with the Northcote City Council. He didn’t think his prospects would be as good so he didn’t accept.


Bert played football for several years with the Broadford Football Club competing in the then Hume Highway League. From the late 1950s and during 1960s Bert was the Broadford Club President. When I first met him, in the early 1970s, he was the President of the Waranga-North East Football League (a combination of Hume Highway towns and towns along the Upper Goulburn River and around Lake Eildon); he retired from that position in about 1974 or `75.


In the early 1980s, not long after Heather and I married, Bert renewed his association with Fitzroy, having joined the Past Players and Official’s Association. Most Saturdays he would come to Melbourne to watch Fitzroy play, usually the home games at the Junction Oval; Heather suggested I should go along as well to keep Bert company. I think that’s when my football allegiances started to waver. The die was finally cast, after a game at Princes Park, where Carlton received an absolute shellacking from Fitzroy. As we walked (I trudged) along Pigdon Street on our way back to North Fitzroy, Bert quietly asked, “Coming to the Junction Oval next week?”


I remember well those days at the Junction Oval, we used to stand in front the old stand between the imposing Blackie-Ironmonger grandstand and the city end goals. At half-time and post-match we would descend into the bowels of the stand to the Past Players’ rooms (I think the rooms might have been the reserves’ change rooms as well) for “refreshments”.  It was an opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the greats from Fitzroy’s past, former players such as Danny Murray and Eddie Hart, Len Pye and Tich Edwards, as well as the junior brigade in the likes of Ivan Smith and Lionel Allemand and Bruno Zorzi (who today can be seen on the boundary at Brunswick Street cheering on Fitzroy in the VAFA).


For the next decade or so Bert and I followed the `Roys at the Junction and then in their once again nomadic existence across Melbourne; first to Victoria Park, then back to Princes Park (where they moved after leaving Brunswick Street at the end of 1966) and finally to the Western/Whitten Oval. After the “merger” with Brisbane in 1996, Bert started to lose interest in the football. I decided to follow the Brisbane Lions but I could not convince Bert to do likewise. “It’s not the same John, it’s not the same,” he lamented.


With Leigh Matthews as coach the Brisbane Lions began to see success, making the finals 1999 and 2000. Bert started to show interest again. In the 2000s Bert had developed health and mobility problems and he did not see many Lions’ games in Melbourne.  He was not able to enjoy the re-emergence of Fitzroy (in the guise of the Reds in the ammos) and their return to Brunswick Street and renew acquaintances with some of those old Junction Oval mates either. We did get to watch the three Lions premierships, albeit on television, and we belted out the Fitzroy theme song at the end of each game.


Sadly Bert passed away in 2006 just three months shy of his 90th birthday. His funeral was well attended to the point where the church was full and many had to stand outside on the footpath. Ivan Smith, the Secretary of the Fitzroy Past Players’ Association, brought along the 1944 VFL premiership flag, it was draped across Bert’s coffin, as well as a 1960s style Fitzroy guernsey and a Sherrin football.


Bert and John



I had the privilege of reading the eulogy recounting a number of Bert’s footballing highlights which included the following.


Bert had been a regular panellist on the GMV6 Shepparton’s Friday night football program during 1960s, previewing the Waranga-North East games to be played the following day.


He was football columnist with the Seymour Telegraph.


For many years he had been the players’ advocate on the Waranga-North East tribunal and, having such a success rate, earned the nickname Perry Mason.


As a league president Bert was also closely involved with the Victorian Country Football League and following the league zoning arrangements of the time he became well-known to the Melbourne and Geelong Football Club Secretaries as well.


As for football these days, well, I still follow the Brisbane Lions at the AFL level and I go to see them whenever they play in Melbourne but my heart will always be with Fitzroy.


On match day it’s walking down St George’s Road (or hopping on the tram if I’m running late) to the Brunswick Street Oval to watch Fitzroy go around in the “Ammos”. I have enjoyed the highs of seeing them rise up through the ranks of the VAFA to B Grade and the lows of regulation to C Grade at the end of the 2017 season. Then the sheer delight of the premiership victories of the Firsts and Seconds the following year and promotion back to B Grade.


Heather and I love to attend the occasional pre-match lunches which are held in the Community Rooms adjacent to the main grandstand. It was here in 1996 that Bert celebrated his 80th birthday at a large family gathering (it was a joint celebration as sister Muriel had her 90th birthday on the same day). The lunches are always entertaining and have a variety of themes, such as the Pollies Lunch where on one occasion we had Premier Daniel Andrews as our special guest, or the Rouge et Noir Cup, which revisits the rivalry between the Melbourne University Blacks and Reds (the forerunner of today’s Fitzroy) and even a book launch for the Footy Almanac.


I’m in lockdown on Saturday afternoons now, when I’d rather be at Brunswick Street barracking for the Roys, catching up with Steve and David and Warwick and saying g’day to Bruno. I discovered there is a rule in watching football that says: “no matter which side of the ground you stand, the play will always be on the opposite side.”  I guess that gives me plenty of time to gaze across to the Freeman Street wing and wonder is that where Bert used to stand back in the day.


The now not so new chum has found a footy at home at Fitzroy.


(All photos from John Milton’s family album)



The Woosung




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  1. A wonderful yarn, John.
    Thanks for sharing it with the Almanac.
    Fitzroy FC are certainly a well-run organisation these days, and even though I am from an opposition club (Williamstown CYMS), I have made quite a few acquaintances at Brunswick St.

  2. Colin Ritchie says

    Ripper story John! You’ve certainly had a wonderful, rich and diverse life journey. Your story has been a joy to read.

  3. John Milton says

    Smokie and Colin
    This is my first piece for The Footy Almanac. Thank you for your encouraging words.
    Stand by for a new story soon.

  4. Welcome John. I am always intrigued by the reach of things – including something like the 1970 Grand Final. How and where it is watched.

    Thanks for your memoir. Love it.

    PS What happened to ‘Captain’ Peter.

  5. John Milton says

    Hi John
    After the Federal was pulled down Cap’n Pete lodged at the Windsor for a couple of decades Last I heard he was at the old Rutherglen warehouse(?) in Flinder’s Lane near King or Spencer St.. Returning to his roots?

  6. Thanks John, wonderful story to read . I’ll look forward to your next one. Cheers Pamela.

  7. Yvette Wroby says

    Thanks John. You are a natural. Enjoyed this very much

  8. Patricia Pegram says

    Typical story from my erudite “little” brother. He has a fabulous memory and a fund of stories, always a joy to be in his company.

  9. E.regnans says

    G’day John,
    Thank you for sharing this story with us.
    I love learning how you first perceived Australian football.
    And your impressions of cultural aspects of the footy scene.
    I wonder if you found anything similar in Hong Kong, Japan or Korea.

    Perhaps we will meet at Brunswick St Oval in the future.
    I like to stand within striking distance of the barbecue and head onto the field during the breaks.
    Thanks again, David.

  10. Tim Pegram says

    Great story John, hope we get to watch a game with you one day! Tim & Anna.

  11. Daryl Schramm says

    All of the above John. Looking forward to reading more.

  12. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Dare I say, welcome aboard John.

  13. Thanks John. Really enjoyed your memoir and looking forward to more. Welcome.

  14. Terrific story John. Its been quite a road. And wonderful to read how the footy found a way into your being. The tribalism, the community of barrackers, the social aspects, the sheer beauty of the game.

  15. A great read John, excellently crafted. The pics are great too! I now understand your deep rooted passion for the “mighty Roy’s” ( past and present). I look forward to a preview of your next project when we get to have a hit at Yarra Bend again.

  16. John Milton says

    To everyone whose posted thank you again for kind words of encouragement, they are much appreciated.
    To E-regnans David we have met previously at an Almanac lunch, the photographs flatter me, older/greyer now. I will look out for you near the bbq if we get back to BSO this season.
    Regards to all

  17. Hi John,
    A wonderful story and so well told. Intriguing where you have been.

  18. Nice line re Captain Peter!

  19. Sandra Mahoney says

    A wonderful, and for me, very sentimental read. Beautifully written brother in law. I vividly remember visiting the Woosung when in port

  20. Adam Muyt says

    Lovely tale. Thanks for sharing. Go Roys!

  21. bernard whimpress says

    Great yarn, John, and glad to see mention of Johnny’s Green Room – the billiard saloon. As an Adelaidean living in Northcote in the late 70s recall going there for a late night feed after a jazz or rock gig. Reckon they did great steak sandwiches.

  22. John Honsky says

    As a North American, I am as much in the dark about “footy” as I’ve ever been but John’s biography has sparked in me an enthusiasm for the game.

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