Coburg: An oval for old men

Middle-aged men mingled on the terrace in front of the grandstand.  Nervous energy was evident.  They talked and joked to relax, but it was a ruse.  Excitement can’t be suppressed, not when a game of football has to be played.

Other men were in the rooms, beneath the bowels of the grandstand, stretching and flexing.  Footballers have different pre-game routines.  Some seek solitude and get changed early, others need company.  Some have superstitions to adhere to, as they’ve done more than thirty years.

A few entered the rooms late and dressed in a hurry.

Coburg’s rooms were noisy, a permanent gee-up, predictions of success willed upon teammates hopeful of finishing the season with a win.

It is the final round, just one more game to nurse a swollen knee, sore shoulder or strained muscles.  Four more quarters and season 2013 was over.  There would be no finals.  Coburg weren’t good enough to get there.

That didn’t stop the hype, the laughs and the sledges, you going to hit a target today, you might get a kick today, don’t expect me to pass it to you.

There was an extra edge to the build up.  The game was being filmed.  Commentators had been appointed.  Interviews were necessary.  Most of the players had never been filmed before.

Mostly they ignored the intrusion, like it happened all the time.  The truth, in the aftermath, would prove to be different.

Jason Heatley, who kicked three goals for St Kilda in the 1997 grand final, paced the rooms, grinning, offering advice and patting players on the back.  Heatley is 41.  He last played for St Kilda in 2000, and kicked 171 goals from 63 AFL games.

Now, he is Coburg’s assistant coach.  He is also injured, unable to play.

Heatley coaches because he loves footy.  His career might be over but it doesn’t stop the fascination.  The men he coaches are too old to embark of an AFL career.  Their peaks are long gone, but in terms of weight-for-age, a lot of them are in peak fitness.

Some of them will never be fitter.

Heatley has no desire to coach in the AFL.  ‘I’m pretty happy with what I’m doing,’ he said.

His ambition is to give something back to a game that once made him famous.  It doesn’t matter the age of the men playing.  There are lots of kids roaming free, in the rooms and out on the terraces, bouncing on the inflated castle, kicking footballs and watching the reserves game.

Age, when it comes to football, is irrelevant.

The kids are watching their dads, and Heatley’s message is all about mimicry.  You’re never too old to play.  You’re never too young to learn.  Besides, someone is always watching when you play footy.  The kids watching on might be inspired by their fathers.  Those kids, in time, could create their own legends.

The facilities at Coburg City Oval are old, which adds to the charm.  The stand is built from brick and the rooms are primitive, like a suburban club, which is how all football clubs start out.

The outer consists of terraces.  At capacity, it holds about 15,000 people.  At the weekend, about three hundred people sat in the sun at the grandstand end, waiting for the main game, a super rules contest between Coburg and Plenty Valley.

Super rules games are played under modified rules to reduce the risk of injury.  Players must be over 35 to qualify.

In the rooms, both coaches addressed their men no differently to an AFL coach.  Tactics were discussed, matchups made and encouragement offered.  The instructions given could’ve been uttered by Alistair Clarkson or John Longmire.

The footballers listened intently to words they had heard thousands of times, words that morphed into importance because of the excitement and expectation.

Volunteer physios massaged muscles and taped knees, ankles and fingers.

Three flights of stairs led to the press box, perched above the canteen.  The vantage point was on the flank rather than the wing.  The press box is bare and sparse, the same as it has always been.  The cameraman huddled inside a small shelter.  The commentators, four men with limited experience, sat outside in the wind.

Coburg won the toss and gambled, kicking into the wind, which was worth three or four goals.  The ball was clearly holding up at the Pentridge end and being pushed wide on the outer side.

Plenty Valley used the wind well to lead by eight points at quarter time, but Coburg’s two goals were crucial.

In the second quarter, Coburg kicked five goals to set up the game.  Valley didn’t score.  They couldn’t get the ball beyond the centre.  The margin was 26-points at half time.

The play, at times, was slick and quick.  Coburg was harder at the ball, faster and more skilful.  They expected to win, and they did, by 37-points.

There were sloppy moments and basic skill errors, but it was hard to believe most of the players were older than 40.  They played serious football.  From an elevated position, they didn’t look 40.

In the rooms after the game, the song was belted out with gusto, the euphoria of victory.  For Coburg, their season was over, finishing fifth, a couple of wins from the finals.  Victory in the last game was consolation, one to be celebrated.

In the aftermath, players from both sides mingled in function room.  Valley players, save for a few, didn’t stay too long but they put some money over the bar and ate complimentary chicken, bread rolls and finger food.

The crowd was Coburg’s biggest of the year, for the super rules competition.  The joy was addictive.

The players huddled together, chinking stubbies and retelling the game.  The banter, basic, funny and unsophisticated, was the same heard around hundreds of grounds every weekend, no matter the competition.

You fluked that goal with a torp from fifty out on the boundary.  That one kick you had today, that was a fluke.  Did you like that goal I set up for you?  Yep.  That is the first time you’ve hit me with a pass all year. 

The on-field banter had been good too.

Mate what did you slap me for? Because your wife told me you like it.  Mate, what are you going to tell your wife tonight when she asks how you went, I watched number seven all day?? Have you thought about getting a kick instead of watching?

The players wanted to know how the game would look on DVD.  I suggested it would look like a game of football, only slower, less skilful and clumsy.  They asked about the commentary, how many times did you call my name?

The response was simple; what’s your name?  Some wanted to know if they played well.    I’m not sure, I called a few bald blokes today.

Two men won a six-pack each for playing well.  They ripped the wrapping off and handed the beers out to those who needed it.

A band called the Sisters and Misters provided the entertainment.  The line up consisted of men and women old enough to be grandparents.  That’s their appeal.  If middle-aged men can play football, grandparents can sing.  They opened up to a tepid reception but by their second song they had attention.

Later they dispersed among the crowd, geeing up the patrons, dancing and fooling.  The crowd sung, all the songs were golden oldies, and the mood at Coburg lifted.  For a short while, beer was free.  The patrons were happy to pay.

About nine o’clock, save for a few footballers, everyone had gone.  For some, the night, just like the season, was over.  For a hearty few, the night was just beginning.

Hours later, in a pub at Port Melbourne, six men watched the cover band and drank beer.  They were sore, tired and content, just as they’d been 20-years ago, when they were quicker, fitter and better.

No matter the age, footy is a hard game.  The ball still needs to be won.  Bodies clash, muscles get weary and tear.  Blood is spilt.

Football can’t be different, no matter the age.

Nothing about the game was different to any game played anywhere.  For some inexplicable reason, I expected it to be different, but footy has been the same more than a hundred years.

I had asked a few men why they kept playing.  Their answers were the same.  They craved the camaraderie, the physicality and the competition.  There was no talk about ego, though I am sure that emotion is a key factor.

Mostly they just love football too much to let it go.

The game was taken seriously but played in the right spirit.  Opponents were given a hand up off the ground.  No one got belted.  There were no cheap shots.  They looked after each other and still went hard at the ball.

The umpiring was consistent and good.

A feature of the super rules competition is community involvement, which is no different to every league in Australia.  Without volunteers, there is no club.  At Coburg, dozens of volunteers worked the bar, the fast food stall, the kitchen and the boundary.

A woman flew in from Tasmania, just to volunteer in the kitchen.

Involvement, when it comes to football, is all encompassing.  There is always a role needing to be filled.

My involvement, calling the game, was a privilege.  It was impossible to watch and not want to play.  That’s how good the game was.  I hope the commentary does it justice.

I offer my thanks to the Coburg super rules club for letting it happen.  Thanks to Plenty Valley for access to their rooms with virtually no notice.  And special thanks to Paul Turner for organising it all, in that inimitable, haphazard way…

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. Lovely start to my morning Matt, well done. Soerb piece.

  2. I have some great memories of Port Melbourne games there, though some more positive than others. Beating Coburg there in 1980, the year Port was the only side to beat them, and deny them a premiership . The following year, they caned us there, one of our two defeats on our way back to back flags . There was also a match in 1982-83 when Phil Cleary knocked out our Peter “Bluey’ Wilkinson, and Port fought back on the scoreboard, rolling the Burgers. Ahh suburban footy, will it ever be like that again ?


  3. Andrew Starkie says


    Great piece.

    I live around the corner from Coburg City Oval and when time and baby duty permit I heed the call of the umpire’s whistle across the houses and back fences. All my life that noise has drawn me like the pied piper’s pipe.

    I love the back of the old grandstand; the way it towers and curves like a pair of reliable, strong shoulders.

    I catch a quarter or half of the odd VFL game, but can’t really get into it. There’s something confused, compromised or tired about the VFL these days with the way it has been chopped and changed. Old clubs like the Burgers keep it genuine to an extent, but the club appears to have little or no connection with the local community. The ground is in the middle of the Coburg shopping area, a carpark separates the oval and Sydney Rd. Yet, I never see a poster or scarf or fixture in the shops. It’s a shame. I don’t know whose fault this is, but as an old, soon to be stand alone club once again, Coburg needs to reconnect.

    Sunday mornings are often used for women’s footy or a competition for people living with intellectual disability. With good reason, many fans are cynical towards the AFL these days. On the terraces in front of the old stand watching these games reminds what footy is really about – love of the game, people and having fun.

  4. I live near City Oval and just like Andrew I am drawn to the few games played there each year. Coburg as a stand alone club next year must do much more to connect to the community. One thing that must happen is the removal of the fences around the ground,once bequeathed to the citizens of Coburg but now monopolised by sporting clubs.

  5. Coburg plays Box Hill at Coburg on Sunday afternoon in the VFL. Great venue. Enjoy the footy and Sydney Road – tram or train.

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