Brunswick Revisited – A Day with North Old Boys

At the place where Sydney Rd meets Albion Street rise two distinct buildings, the Edinburgh Castle and Don Bosco Boys’ Hostel. Passing these landmarks I recall flickering images of youth. Twenty years ago I boarded at Don Bosco with many other students and apprentices new to the city. A few of these made their way down the road to Gillon Oval, my destination today, to play for North Old Boys, a football club formed in 1963 for students of St. Josephs College Pascoe Vale and North Melbourne. Brunswick has long been a haven for country boys and like Don Bosco, North Old Boys nurtures young men from its own back yard (through its relationship with Brunswick Jr Football Club and the surrounding school district) as well as boys from all over regional Victoria. Its affiliation with St. Pat’s College Ballarat and the closure of its old ally St Joseph’s North Melbourne seems to confirm its status as the “country club”.

Today is Ladies’ Day at Gillon Oval. Inside the AR Glenn Stand President Trevor Ludeman mans the bar while over a hundred women listen to an impressive address from young Criminal Defence Lawyer Cassie Collier while the seconds do battle on the patchy turf outside. Women play a tangible role at this club. From trainers Charlotte, Lara, Liz and Cathie – physio students who assist with the pre-game rub downs and Treasurer, Wendy Canobie who keeps a keen eye on the finances; through to “First Ladies” Margaret O’Toole and Pat Leigh who sit at their traditional table by the window enjoying the day’s events. Margaret’s late husband Tom was a former team manager and her son played for North Old Boys but as they have moved on she continues her relationship with the Club, a proud life member. As she puts it simply “It’s my life … It just keeps me going”. Similarly Pat’s husband was one of the foundation members of the team of 1963 and when his playing career ended ran the boundary for over 400 games. Like Margaret she maintains a constant interest in the Footy Club and after her sons stopped playing she just adopts the new boys that come through “You just take them over, they become a part of you.”

Both ladies have nothing but praise for the young men who play for North Old Boys. Margaret insists “we’ve never had a bad one, they’re a pleasure to know” while Pat adds “I’ve got a lot of courtesy, you always get a kiss and a hug from the boys who play.” Pat ought to know how men should behave, being able to recall a more chivalrous age “I was in the vintage of John James and saw him at dances at CLC” (East Melbourne) James a legend of Carlton and St Patrick’s College was ever renowned as a consummate gentleman.

In the change rooms seniors coach Richard Peoples quietly speaks to his players. A club which at one time achieved two A Grade premierships now finds itself mid-table in Division 1, three layers from the top of the VAFA. But a residue of pride seems to linger in the grandstands and locker rooms. Locker 12 bears the name “Mark Hannaberry 1976-1989” a player who at that time also found his way to Victoria Park to strive for the Magpies. Underneath is the name Peter Weir. When combined with former champion Les Murray, North Old Boys seems suddenly a club of artists.

As the players rise from their stretches to begin bullet handballs the adrenalin lifts as Peoples gathers them for the pre-game address. Five key words dominate the whiteboard Fitness, Skill, Ability, Belief and Fight. “Boys we can go through the stats and tactics but in the end you know it comes down to belief.” Peoples, a fearless and uncompromising player for Ballarat YCW and St Pats in the ‘80s is a good person to talk about these things. He sends them out with ferocity to meet Whitefriars. The season in the balance, four points are needed for the finals. A striking unit of purple and white now graced with the green of St Pats go forth to shape their season.

In an empty concrete stand adjoining the main clubhouse, several couches have been unusually placed to form a surreal members’ lounge. From this perch, Club stalwart Lee Iafrate, clad in Geelong cap and ‘North Old Boys St.Pats’ jumper offers constant advice to the players below. Like all true believers this is often expressed as tough love. A keen Cats fan he frequently tells the boys to “just do the simple things and stop tryin to be (expl deleted) Joel Corey” His frustration deepens as North struggle for cohesion under a gloomy sky and Whitefriars claim the first goal courtesy of an ill-placed tap by a home defender. Soon after forward Matt Keown conjures a clever mid-air soccer goal to square the ledger. A tit-for-tat struggle ensues as showers descend. Iafrate’s mood alternates between comic – at one stage suggesting the need for a smoking jacket and glass of port for the couches – to morose “Lose this and its sayonara for the finals”. He seems anxious at the loss of pace through recent injuries as Whitefriars speedy on-ballers threaten the goals. But the North defence led by the dashing Josh Forte, are up to the task.

A brilliant forward thrust leads to full-forward Todd Patterson marking and converting. But Whitefriars respond with cutting run across the outer flank and a set shot goal after the siren to stamp a ten point lead much to Iafrate’s consternation.

Sitting behind the fence with his young daughter is former Hawthorn player John Barker. Both his brothers played for North Old Boys and he pulled on the jumper twice himself but promptly gave it away after he broke his hand on the face of a Sunbury opponent playing in the twos, a team coached by his brother Michael. He now works as forward coach for the Hawks but is “always keen to get down and have a look” and like many enjoys the great community spirit of the Club “It’s a great environment … I’ve had many memorable nights at Club functions.”

Whitefriars open with the first of the second and an arm wrestle follows with rain again threatening. It feels like North need the next one to stay in touch. It comes through the bulky strength of Matt Keown who notches his third in a set shot from the outer flank. The midfield may be depleted but the bookends seem capable as Forte provides constant run from defence, eventually setting up Keown for his fourth to reduce the margin to three points before frustratingly Whitefriars again break the shackles in the dying seconds to goal after the siren and deliver an eight point lead.

At the half Peoples stands inside the rooms beneath a large motto which reads “With Perseverance We Shall Prevail” and calmly recalibrates his side. “Just keep running that’s the key to it. We talked about belief, take the game on, we’re not going to win by playing safe footy. Let’s not come off the ground wondering what we could have done.” With injured playmakers Simon Thompson and Adam Crameri watching from the sidelines, the response to this challenge might tell a little about this Club today.

Out of the slog that develops in the pouring third quarter rain the ball is barreled forward to Patterson who converts a banana from deep in the pocket to pull the side within two. Then a sweet passage through the corridor between Mills and Layley releases Patterson again for an open goal and the lead. The grandstand roars its approval and the game rises in intensity resulting in whipping, frantic forays from each side. Whitefriars press repeatedly but fail to convert until eventually North counter-attack swiftly through the corridor where the troublesome Patterson finds McPherson breaking in space for a team-lifting goal and a handy eleven point margin. With their tails up North finish the quarter full of run and the lead.

At the last change Peoples again emphasises the simple words “pressure, run and belief”. These seem to be embraced in full as the defence holds firm at the start of the last and Keown marks cleanly in heavy rain, kicking gun barrel straight to stretch the lead to seventeen. Cheers resound as things turn bleak for the visitors stuck now in monsoonal conditions and perhaps wishing they’d made hay while the sun shone. North Old Boys’ dominance grows with each minute, repeatedly threatening the scoreboard. The key defenders Forte, Hosking and O’Donoghue mark imperiously in the drenching rain but the highlight of the quarter comes when Simon Harwood hangs in the air for a classic grab in the square to finally register the sealer.

In the rooms they belt out the song, a variation of “Join in the chorus …” joined by the lusty voices of thick ranks of supporters and loyal club men representing many years of history in a proud football club. Harwood, like his team mates is soaked and mud-stained but buoyant. One of the few team members to come from St Pat’s College, he was vice-captain of the famous College’s First XVIII in 2003 and carries fond memories of playing with his mates under the highly respected mentor Howard Clark. He talks of North as a club for country boys, a club that is now North Old Boys/St Patricks College:

“There’s a rich culture of kids that come from the country to study or work in Melbourne, from Terang, Barooga, Warnambool. We are all close and have something in common. We are trying to build a St Pat’s heritage. If we can get into C grade then maybe we can attract more boys from there. Things are going well. We’re heading in the right direction.”

Inside the main grandstand the lights are on but the ladies continue to socialise. It has been a good day under the black clouds of Brunswick. At Gillon Oval in the autumn chill, men and women have found a common ground and the city has met the country, sharing in the tradition of a footy club that still prevails through perseverance and belief.

James Gilchrist is the author of “Wednesday Warriors – Doing it for the Jumper, The St. Pat’s Ballarat Tradition”, available from Connor Court Publishing.

About james gilchrist

James Gilchrist is another Collingwood tragic who enjoys reading, writing, music, travel and teaching. A father of three, he teaches at Genazzano College, writes for the Footy Almanac and waits ever patiently for that next elusive Magpie Premiership.


  1. James – great report, but as an old Whitefriars boy its always sad to read of the team’s defeat. Its been a frustrating season for the Friars so far. But they’ll be back. Don’t write ’em off.
    Go Friars!

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