Exhibition: A day at the footy starts at the gates

By Paul Daffey

Many of my boyhood memories revolve around local footy, from matches played on wind-blown ovals in the north-west suburbs of Melbourne or on lonely ovals in the Mallee. I can still hear the “phhhsh” sound of air being pushed from a player’s lungs as he absorbs an unexpected tackle, or the sweet thud of a torpedo leaving the boot. I can still see an overweight full-forward straining to haul himself on to an opponent’s shoulders and then hanging horizontally for what seemed like minutes, as if he had to make full use of his enormous effort to get up there, before falling to earth with the ball in his hands.

All those experiences began with the simple act of walking or driving through a gate into the ground. It was then that I started experiencing the sights and sounds that lodged in my memory. Often the gate consisted of a few metres of space between two wooden poles. As I approached that space between the poles, gravel crunched beneath my feet. Often there was a small shelter made of corrugated tin that sat just behind one of the poles. This was the gate attendant’s shed.

I have no childhood memories of seeing a gate attendant in his shed; all the attendants stood on the gravel, ready to step forward to take your few coins’ entrance fee and hand over the day’s footy record. The attendants wore pouches around their waist in which they put the change. Some were silent or grumpy, as if they resented the fact it was their lot was to collect coins while others were close to the footy, but most were ready with a smile. They liked being the first face you saw as you arrived at their ground, at their patch of territory. They felt pride at being “on the gate”. They would get to head inside and soak up the currents of the match soon enough.

The gate that sticks in my mind is the one I passed through most often. My mother is from Ultima, near Swan Hill in the Mallee. My cousins lived on the farm out of town. My grandparents lived in town, opposite the footy ground. When we stayed with my grandparents, my brothers and I often crossed the road to have a kick and a poke around.

Our excursion began by walking past the chook shed, along a short gravel path and over the road. The first contact with the footy ground was the gate. Every time I walked through it I looked in the gate attendant’s shed, a tiny three-sided construction made of corrugated tin, to see if anything was there. Sometimes an empty can of Coke lay crushed on the dirt. On one occasion there was a handful of records from a recent match. The records were small and white, with plain red print that said “Ultima v Nandaly”. I liked the way the shed was there every time, as if to greet me on my return.

One match day I watched with curiosity as Pa drove over the road to go to the footy; it was a cold day and he wanted to watch from his car. The gate attendant said, “Gidday Joe”. He put the coins in his pouch and then stepped back until the next car had inched forward. I stopped bouncing my footy as I walked through the gate. When I got inside I aimed a drop punt at a tree. Ultima wore royal blue jumpers with a white monogram; Sea Lake wore the red and white of South Melbourne. I stood behind the goals and watched Sea Lake’s 16-year-old full-forward kick eight. I can still see his unruly curls and his broad, easy smile. The gate was my portal to those memories.

The closest ground to my home in suburban Melbourne was down the bottom of what we called “the hill”. St Bernard’s College was perched at the top of the eastern side of the hill, and overlooked the ovals that stretched along the valley below it. I lived on the western side. On many Saturdays I walked down the tracks that snaked through brambles and thistles towards the creek at the bottom of the hill. At the creek, I jumped from a ledge over the rank water towards a grassy bank. Then I walked along a thin track to a small, neglected gate behind the clubrooms. On most Saturdays the gate was open, but I remember one season when the bottom of the gate was stuck on a rock. The rest of the gate was twisted back to enable you to enter. I liked emerging from behind the clubrooms as the St Bernard’s players were jogging out for the senior match. Their stops clacked on the steps that led down to the oval. Oil glistened on their arms.

I later felt that the entrance to the St Bernard’s ground was pertinent for a city boy of country parents. I liked winding down through the thistles and over the creek, with no sense that streets or houses were close by. The ground felt isolated from the city. The nature of the gate that I went through to enter the ground played a part in my perception.

In 2002 I went around Australia on a country-footy excursion with photographer Ian Kenins. In South Australia we came across a ground at Port Pirie that had a gate that was built as a war memorial. The gate featured an iron archway; it seemed suitably solemn.

At Queenstown in Tasmania, we found a gate attendant who actually sat in his shed, in his case to escape Western Tassie’s incessant rain. Rex “Whoopsy” Powell played 300 games for City in the old Queenstown league after the Second World War. As the gate attendant, he poked his head through the window in his tiny booth to check the scores.

Among Ian’s many superb photos from that season, my favourite was taken at Swifts Creek in East Gippsland. Raymond Gallagher was the Swifts Creek president as well as an ageing defender. On this day, his dedication stretched to dressing for the match and then manning the gate until he could duck off to join his teammates for the first bounce. Of the gate attendant’s shed, Gallagher said: “Our full-forward Peter Fenton knocked this booth up a few years ago. As you can see, he’s the local baker.”

The disused grounds in Matong in the Riverina and Tempy in the Mallee had an eerie sadness. Nobody will pass through the gates at Matong to see a game again; nobody will enter the gate attendant’s shed at Tempy with a pouch full of change. The gate at Matong and the shed at Tempy are portals to a collective memory. They offer a window on a significant part of Australian sporting and cultural life.

An edited version of this piece appears in the catalogue for Strewth! That’s Heritage exhibition that is being assembled by Andrew Saniga and Hannah Lewi, with assistance from Ivanka Buczma, at Melbourne University. The exhibition is being opened in the Winderlich Gallery on the ground floor of the Architecture Building at 5.30pm on Tuesday 9 February. It continues until 26 February. All are welcome.


  1. John Butler says

    Great stuff Paul

    I still miss going through the turnstiles at Princes Park on a Saturday.

    Whatever the week had held, you could escape for a few hours.

    The Docklands BattleStar just isn’t the same. Then again, I’m not that young kid either.

  2. Paul Did you produce a book after the 2002 excursion ? If so where could I get hold of a copy ?

  3. Gary,

    Yes, it’s called Beyond the Big Sticks. There are none in the shops. The remaining copies are sitting in boxes that crowd around me as I write.

    Here’s my email if you want to get hold of one.


    [email protected]

  4. Richard E. Jones says

    DAFF: I recall the 3-sided gatekeeper’s box at Maryborough’s Princes Park when I used to accompany my hotel-owning grandfather on Saturdays. This would have been around 1950-51 whe Maryborough, along with Geelong West, competed in the Ballarat F.L.

    Half a century (and more) on and the box is still there. The current gatekeeper is named Cliffie, I think. I missed seeing him at last Sept.’s MCDFL prelim. final — Dunolly vs. Avoca — but he had told me earlier in the season that his tenure had run into more than 45 years.

    Out at Newbridge’s Riverside Oval the gap “gate” between the 2 poles was still there last time I watched a Loddon Valley league game. Mind you since the mid-1990s the said river is just a trickle.

  5. Richard,

    Cliffie sounds like a very good story, not to mention a good pic. Might have to go and spend a day on the gate with him.

    His shed sounds like exactly the sort of three-sided tin construction that I mentioned above.

    In 2002 Ian Kenins and I came across five blokes who man the gate at Ganmain, in the Riverina, every Saturday. Their collective years of gate duty was around 150 years.

    Good stories there, too, about silly Mick Grambeau being paraded down the main street when he was recruited from North Melbourne in 1956 as playing-coach.

    The Herald in Melbourne ran a front page story on the locals flocking out to see him, and the fact that he was given a cow as a gift but he didn’t know what to do with it.

  6. Daff – loved Raymond Gallagher’s quip. Playing old blokes footy (Supers and Masters) has a similar feel to what you describe here. Blokes do a multitude of jobs, though i remember one day the opposition objected when our side couldn’t provide a goal umpire and we suggested our fullback could be the judge. Biased? Never.

    By the way I’d like a copy of Beyond The Big Sticks too.

  7. Dave Goodwin says

    Lovely lyrical piece Daff. Thanks. I’m sure other countries have their iconic similarities to this – there are gates at soccer grounds the world over. But it makes me reflect on the lack of a sporting soul up here in Singapore where people don’t wander down to suburban grounds – a function of the heat and the allure of shopping malls. You’re the bard of the heart and passion of ordinary people that are drawn to minor sports grounds. I love the way you captured so well two of the great sounds and sights of Aussie Rules – that “phhhsh” noise, and the stops clacking/oil glistening on arms (this is part of the Rugby codes’ lore too). Mick Grambeau of Ganmain was obviously the precursor to Roger Federer, most recent winner of the Order of the Cow after his first Wimbledon. But I bet Mick didn’t cry in a high pitched squeal after he won.

  8. Dave,

    Mick Grambeau and Roger Federer! What an opportunity missed. Ah well, next year.

    Thanks very much for your comment. You’re right about soccer gates. I still remember the turnstiles at Highbury from my few visits all those years ago (the turnstiles at Vic Park are still there, rotting away), and you’re probably right about Singapore.

    Mick Grambeau’s two-year stint at Ganmain is legendary. He went from being just a player at North Melbourne to being the highest-paid footballer in Australia – 80 pounds a week to play in the Riverina. There was money in wool in those days!

    His premiership team in 1957 included nine Carrolls, who were two sets of cousins. The youngest, Tom Carroll, was 16. In 1961 Tom (never call him Turkey; he hates it) kicked more than 60 goals for Carlton to be the VFL’s leading goalkicker.

  9. Dave You are certainly right about Mick He was the definitive colourful football identity ! The bush was the place for VFL players to get a decent earn from football. My father left North Melbourne and accepted a coaching position at The Rock in 1953-salary 500 quid.The first game there were 3500 through the gate at 2 bob ahead so the club got the lot back ! The Rock was also the last place that you could get CUB product as you headed south. Past The Rock it was Tooheys/Reschs only !

  10. Gary,

    Love the detail about The Rock being the first port of call for the CUB product.

    I’ve never particularly seen the Murray as the natural border between Victoria and NSW.

    Insofar as the Newell Highway is concerned, it’s where:

    * uprights replace goalposts on the grounds as you drive through town

    * Tooheys signs replace the blue CUB signs that hang from the verandahs outside pubs.

    On this basis, NSW starts somewhere between Narrandera and West Wyalong.

  11. Cool story Paul :)
    these days i must admit the guys (gate attendants) are always bloody good looking!
    Make me want to buy a record from every record guy!
    you would think that the occasional nudging and girlish squealing would make it obvious that they are being checked out, but no, all they have to say for them selves is:

    ;) Danni

  12. Martin Reeves says

    Nice one Daff – your line about the ground feeling ‘isolated from the city’ stood out to me. I’ll always remember my first game on Brunswick St Oval for the Reds, lining up for goal as the 112 West Preston tram passed by. I was a long way from the Hampden grounds I’d been playing on. Probably my favourite football memory.

  13. Richard Naco says

    Congratulations Paul for tapping in to such a rich primal vein that seems to run through all of us who are replying.

    I’ll be after a copy of that imspired tome as well!

  14. Richard E. Jones says

    Daff, where have all these blokes been hiding. Behind the door, behind the shelter shed or behind the bar?
    My copy of the Big Sticky, autographed in effusive style by your goodself, is dated August 19, 2003.

    That’s six-and-a-half years ago. The classic photos in my view are of the Courthouse looming on one wing at the Maldon ground (page 57), the 1895 grandstand at Maryborough (page 61) and Charlie Diorria (page 67) displaying the winning ticket number for his weekly raffle at the Seymour ground.

    Charlie is marching past the goal posts with a stick slung over one shoulder. The little blackboard nailed to the end of the stick shows the chalked-in lucky number.

    The page 65 pic of the Donald gatekeepers with the bag of spuds, toilet paper and tins of beetroot and pineapple for some lucky raffle winner is pretty good, too.

    The Big Sticky should be back on sale in Border’s and the other big bookshops.

  15. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rocket says


    The Rock was the last stop for CUB – at the next stop, Wagga, they brewed their own beer Tooths Old Kent. Right up until the early 80s the brewery produced this delightful drop of amber liquid.

    The story of how Carlton beer conquered Wagga is a classic. Former mine host of Daff’s old local in West Melbourne, Bob Briggs ( now dispensing in Victoria market from his base in Maldon)managed to get Carlton on tap at the RSL and Leagues clubs overnight in an audacious deal that involved club politics – best told over a few ales by Briggsie.

    The Rock has always been a solid footy town.

  16. Pamela Sherpa says

    Local Rites – Daff’s other book is a great read too and I would love him to do another one- in his spare time that is. The changing landscape of country footy- mergers etc would be an interesting topic/social study.

  17. Daff,

    Man your making me miss footy so much !

    Looking forward to this season.

    Great writing mate, really got me hooked.

    Jeff ;)

  18. Daff


    I suspect I have your sensibility Daff: hard to be in a town without tkaing a few minutes to have a look at its footy oval, the war memorial, and one of the pubs.

    Often the gates to the footy oval are actually the gates to the town’s sporting precinct.

    In Oakey, that precinct included the National Fitness Hall (where I had my only boxing bout – and have retired undefeated -and we went skating each friday night for years), the bowls club, and the rugby league ground.

    The gates were wrought? iron. They were called the Memorial Gates – erected I suspect after WWII, although it could have been WWI (terrible that I never asked, or looked properly).

    But they were very well known in the district because to get your driver’s license all you had to do was one lap of the town during which time you had to back through the Memorial Gates. When I got my license the copper was so huge in the tummy area and my 71 Torana’s seat belt so unadjustable that he had a couple of attempts at getting it around him then looked at me and said “Oh well” and off we went.


  19. Darky,

    Yes, a lap of the ground and, hopefully, a pot at the pub. I used to buy a stubbie holder at the pub, but I’m very grown up now and don’t do that any longer.

    Martin Flanagan also takes a look at the library. I sometimes drop in to the local library, to see what’s in the local history section, and to see what silly displays are in the glass cases over to the side, but I rarely find the time.

    Last Saturday I did a lap of the oval at Beechworth about 7.30pm, while the cricketers were sitting on eskies at the base of the old grandstand, dissecting the day’s play over a stubbie.

    The cricketers saw this old lady’s little silver car (I’d borrowed Mum’s) and looked at me strange, as if to say, “Who’s this bloke in his Mother’s car doing a lap of the oval on a Saturday evening.” I didn’t stop to chat.

    After Beechworth, I did a lap of the ground at Tarrawingee. I was curious to see just why it was the favoured ground for Ovens and King finals for so many years. I also wanted to see where Mick Nolan cut his teeth and where Mick Wilson coaches every Saturday.

    For the past few years, the O&K grand final has been played at the Showgrounds in Wangaratta. Maybe I was imagining it, but the Tarrawingee ground seemed a bit sad, as if it was missing the grand final it had hosted for all those years.

  20. Daff

    Love when footy grounds appear sad. It’s abit like Thomas the Tank Engine.

  21. Stephen Cooke says

    Geoff King, the Lake Boga stalwart, would take your money at the gate and give you your change in raffle tickets – no matter your age or the note you handed over, it was always the same. And don’t expect discounts on the tickets just because you handed over a fifty!
    Geoff was in hands-on roles with the club for at least the 15 years I was involved (and I’m sure at least twice that time) and was rewarded when the boys beat Swan Hill in 2003 for the flag with a bunch of players with Boga junior ties.

  22. Cookey,

    Geoff at Boga sounds like a beauty.

    There’s a bloke on the back gate at Elsternwick Park during the Ammos finals. He’s as grumpy as hell. One day I didn’t have enough cash to get me in. He told me to bring it the next week and waved me through.

    I did bring it the next week, but he waved me through again. He almost gave me a smile. My gesture of remembering the previous week’s non-transaction was enough.

    I like that bloke now. I’ve never spoken to anyone about him, but I imagine he’s one of those people who hundreds have got a story about.

    Maybe we should all get together one day.

  23. There was an old bloke with one arm who used to patrol the gate at the Stawell track to prevent unauthorised people from accessing the ground. We, as little kids, stood next to the gate (and probably annoyed the hell out of him) as it was the only place we could get a good view. The old bloke grunted and growled at us for years (stop leaning on the gate, stop pushing the gate etc etc), but when Warren Edmonson flashed home and won the Gift in 1977, we all got very excited and the old bloke opened the gate and let us run out onto the ground. He obviously got caught up in the moment too.

    A few years later the old bloke was gone.

  24. Richard Have now got my very own copy of Beyond the Big Sticks (also personally autographed !) The book is a cracker -great photos and wonderfully written . Should be compulsory reading for Demetriou and his AFL bureaucrats!! The release of the book must have been the best kept secret since Pearl Harbour !It received very little publicity north of the Murray

Leave a Comment