Football linkages

Former North champion Laurie Dwyer drove the van.  The little-league kids in the back grew impatient as the MCG drew near.  They watched through the windscreen, overawed, as the van inched closer.

 

The MCG was lit up.  It was Friday, March 29, 1985.  North Melbourne was hosting Collingwood to open the season, the first VFL night game for premiership points.

 

Largely a speculative experiment, the VFL hoped to draw a good crowd and good television ratings.  It was clear the fans had embraced the concept.  Traffic was thick heading into the city and congested around the ground.  It took almost an hour to crawl four blocks.

 

Night football, of course, had been played for years.  The Escort Cup, a mid-week competition that drew interstate clubs, was contested under lights at VFL Park.  All clubs were accustomed to night football.  The VFL should’ve had enough experience to run a night game, but the mid-week competition never drew huge crowds.

 

The MCG, despite being the premier ground in the country, had never had lights bright enough to cater for football.

 

An hour before the game, the queues snaked hundreds of metres.  Waiting fans grew restless.  Reports in the media the following week suggested the VFL hadn’t expected a large crowd or couldn’t handle it, with some gates remaining locked.  Archival footage shows the fans kicking down gates and gaining illegal entry.

 

It was chaos.  In the aftermath, the VFL and MCG Trust pointed blame at each other for those locked gates.

 

There was no line-up at the player’s entrance.  Getting in was simple.  George Pearson, North Melbourne’s little-league coach, talked to the man on the gate, they’re all with me, and everyone went in.  In the North Melbourne rooms, kids who would later play little-league stared raptly as the footballers stretched, kicked, hand-passed, bumped each other and shouted encouragement.

 

John Kennedy, walking back and forth, hands clasped behind his back, bellowed encouragement.  It was his first match as coach of North.  Kennedy was 56-years old, but looked a decade older.  A triple premiership coach at Hawthorn, he’d been coaxed out of retirement to lift a club that finished eleventh the previous year.

 

Kennedy took the challenge.  A few months later he was coaching the first home and away night game in VFL history.

 

Jack Cahill, as Collingwood’s coach, was doing the same.

 

From the player’s race, the MCG seemed bigger under lights.  The crowd seemed enormous as people continued to flood in and find a seat.

 

Back in the rooms, the kids were drawn together as the players made their way through the door.  Following the players up the race, the kids shouted encouragement.  The roar as North Melbourne ran onto the MCG hit those kids like a smack, stopping them still, eyes wide open as they gazed out onto the ground, taking in the grass, the goals and the crowd.

 

Nick Watson was eight years old as he stood in the race, cheeks aglow, grinning as his heroes ran onto the field.  He played junior football for Oak Park in the Essendon District Football League.  Oak Park wore North Melbourne jumpers.  Nick followed North Melbourne, as I did.

 

The little-league game would be the only time he played football at the MCG.

 

‘I remember being in the rooms with the players before the game, listening to the coach’s address,’ he said.

 

Nick had been in the van with three adults and five other kids.  Dwyer had talked gently about football, about playing on the MCG, what a thrill it was.  Not knowing who Dwyer was, Nick was respectful without awe.  His excitement rose in the rooms and reached a crescendo as he watched the players break the banner.

 

He couldn’t stand still when the game started.

 

At quarter time Collingwood led by three points.  Midway through the second quarter Nick was called into the rooms to change.  The Magpies led by three goals.  At half time they led by five, 10:8 to 5:8.

 

As North’s players walked off the ground they were tired and losing, not acknowledging the kids who formed two lines, clapping and encouraging as they went past.  Those kids were wearing the same uniform, going into the same unknown, a game of football, and the real players didn’t care.  The crowd didn’t care.  Regardless, a few minutes later the first little-league night game at the MCG began.

 

The kids seemed more intent on watching their shadows, five of them thrown by the lights, fascinated by their body movements portrayed on the turf, ghostly images of themselves.  When the ball wasn’t in their vicinity, their eyes were down at the grass or up at the crowd.  The thrill of playing on the MCG was all-encompassing.  The match was scrappy, the ball moving forward and back in increments of five or ten metres.

 

Nick did alright, playing on the forward flank, getting a couple of kicks, getting knocked over and taking a mark.  After two five minute halves the match was over.

 

‘I can’t remember if we won,’ he said.  ‘It was too long ago.’  By virtue of time he was equally vague about the experience of playing on the MCG.  ‘I don’t remember what I felt but I know I did it.’

 

Our father, Bill was helping that night with the little-league, the only time he ever assisted George, who lived across the road.  That’s not to say Bill wasn’t interested in getting involved, he was just never asked.

 

Bill was happy to be involved, to support his kid.

The AFL doesn’t list little-league results.  The only way to find out if North won or lost would be to find the VFL record for round two, 1985, and find the result in the back pages.

 

It hardly matters.  Little-league was a promotional vehicle for the VFL, the predecessor to AusKick.  Clubs were represented by kids who went to school or played junior football in their recruiting zone.  Little-league was fun for kids, the results meaningless.

 

Nick was still excited in the rooms as he changed.  ‘Did you see my mark,’ he said.  ‘I got some kicks too.’  He was eating a pie and drinking a strawberry flavoured Big M, match payments for kids.  His mates from school talked about the game, always about their kicks or handpasses, the biggest game of their life, under lights at the MCG.

 

Before the third quarter started, Bill carried a blue duffle bag filled with jumpers and shorts up the race, putting it down and knocking over a fat man’s can of VB.

 

Bill didn’t apologise.

 

‘Don’t worry mate,’ the man said as he picked up the leaking can.  ‘I didn’t want to drink it.’

 

Bill ignored him.  The man raised a fist when Bill’s back was turned.  When Bill found out he wasn’t worried.  The man was a little drunk, bordering on abusive, telling the kids to get out of the way, get back, damn it, I can’t see.  Despite his association with North Melbourne’s little-league, the fat man was surly.

 

‘Who cares,’ Bill said when I told him about the fist.

 

Collingwood led by 17 points at three-quarter time.  Bryan Taylor was kicking goals at full forward for the Magpies.  Russell Dickson, who was debuting for Collingwood, was also among the goals, finishing with four.

 

The result seemed certain early in the last when the margin blew out to five goals.  North, having finished eleventh in 1984, couldn’t match Collingwood, who played finals the previous year.

 

There were positive signs though.  Kennedy had instilled desperation for the ball and the man with the ball.  North controlled the play and kicked consecutive goals for brief periods in the second and third quarter.  Tackling was a feature, as was spoiling in the marking contest.

 

The electronic scoreboard posted the official crowd late in the last quarter, 65,628, but thousands of people gained entry through gates that’d been busted down.  Media reports suggested more than 70,000 were at the MCG when night football was born.

 

The final margin was 38 points, 15:13:103 to 21:15:141.  Brian Taylor kicked seven goals for the Magpies, Phil Krakouer getting three for North.

 

After the game George took the kids inside for another look at real footballers, the losers no doubt, but men who earned the right to play at the MCG.

 

The little-league kids, who had been bestowed the same honour by virtue of address, couldn’t understand the difference.  Nick, who played the first little-league game under lights, understands the difference now.

 

A word like pioneer is often followed by institution and tradition.  North Melbourne, despite playing in five grand finals in the seventies, was struggling financially in the mid-eighties.  By necessity, it became a pioneer, showing the VFL there was money in night football.

 

Friday night football is now an institution and tradition, a valued time-slot for the AFL, who plan the fixture carefully to maximise exposure and revenue.

 

It seems amazing the VFL allowed North Melbourne, a club with no money and few supporters, to make the move into night football.

 

That’s the beauty of ideas.  Get in first, get the worth.

 

North played two Friday night games in 1985, both losses, losing to Carlton by 76 points in round 14. In 1986, North played six Friday night games.

 

They virtually owned Friday night football into the nineties, before the AFL finally figured out that powerful clubs would guarantee bigger crowds, more sponsorship and more money, and punted the Kangaroos from the timeslot.

 

Through 2010-11, North played one Friday night game each season.  Twenty-nine years after that first game, North is still struggling for a buck and support but their Friday night shutout cannot be argued against.  The AFL is sharing the wealth.

 

If North keeps playing like they did against Essendon in round one, they should stay away from Friday night.  The Bombers hammered North by 39-points.  The margin should’ve been bigger.  Nick watched the game at home.  He did not send me a text.  I didn’t send him one.

 

Things were bad.

 

It was Saturday afternoon, an early BBQ dinner, when we discussed the game.  I had deleted it.  Nick gave up midway through the third quarter, when Blake Grima kicked a short pass out on the full.  We were bitterly disappointed.

 

Next week, Nick’s son Tom will play his first game of AusKick, under lights at the Gabba.  A tangential mantle, a memorable link, is passed.  Tom is five years old.  At training during the week, he forgot to kick the ball, running through the goals and grinning.

 

Nick was watching, yelling kick it, kick it.  The next time Tom got the ball, he forgot to kick it again as he sprinted over the goal line.

 

On Saturday, as Tom ate sausages, Nick asked what he needed to do when he got the ball.

 

‘Kick it,’ Tom said.

 

‘Did your dad tell you about the time he played for North Melbourne at the MCG,’ I asked Tom.

‘No,’ Tom said.

 

‘It was little league,’ Nick said.  ‘You know the MCG.’

 

Tom shrugged.  He is too young.  In a few years, he will enjoy the story more, how his dad played in the first little league game of football, under lights, at the MCG.  And back then, the kids played like the seniors, using the full ground.

 

The significance of Nick’s game isn’t measured in kicks, marks or the scoreboard.  The significance is much simpler.  Seeing my brother play on the MCG was exciting.  I was nervous, wanting him to do well and clapping his possessions.

 

Besides, Nick followed North Melbourne because of me.  That is the significance of club support.  When one family member has the love of football, it usually touches everyone.

 

And it endures through the generations.  Twenty-nine years after that first night game at the MCG, Tom, professes his love for a club he doesn’t even know yet, go Roos, go you Rooboys

 

I hope he doesn’t forget to kick it, when he makes his debut…

 

Life is all about links to the past.  The link between Nick and North Melbourne has captured Tom.  In truth, he didn’t have a chance.  By virtue of being an older brother, I am part of that link.

 

The love continues its perpetual spread…

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…

Comments

  1. Great stuff Matt. I reckon you have to stop young Tom watching the Broncos. When he gets the ball he can’t remember which code he’s playing.
    Laurie Dwyer could play a bit. You could have done with him in the midfield on Friday night.
    Has Brad Scott tried to change the game style and they are afraid to take the game on now? The recruiting is strange. Everyone is 6’1″ – no key position players.

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Enjoyable read it is quite funny and ironic that kids don’t get swept away with the venue they are playing at it’s us adults who do and how quickly in general the result of the game is forgotten . We can learn off the kids ! Loved re the family link of barracking for the Roos mine was from my dad re the mighty red legs hear in south Aust passed on to my son who has been lucky enough to see back to back flags !
    It would be interesting trying to organize a reunion of Nicks team from that night and see what the memories are from every 1 of the night , family , mates the lot as even tho the youngsters didn’t no it at the time they are a significant part of football history
    Can we have a report of Toms game Please ? Thanks Matt

  3. Hey Peter B,
    I’m not sure what North is doing. We are constantly touted as top four material and we’re nowhere near good enough.
    Maybe North played above themselves last year. And remember that recruiting Nick Dal Santo was going to help us make the jump to the top four.
    Right now North couldn’t jump out of bed without asking Brad Scott which part of the game plan it relates too.

    Malcolm, your suggestion of a reunion sounds like a great idea. Unfortunately, George who lived across the road died a few years back. But he had to submit a team sheet for the night.

    Perhaps somewhere, in the great stored history of the AFL, that team sheet might be available…

    Cheers

  4. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    You can find digital copies of the Footy Record at

    http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/football-record

  5. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    And the little league scores and bps for thIs game are on page 30 of the 1985 round 2 record

  6. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Two goals and second best to J Leppitsch in Round 1 for Hawthorn, according to the same page

  7. Mark,
    Sounds like you have the footy record, so who won between North and Collingwood???
    I have to know.
    J Leppitsch for Hawthorn – I think he grew up following Hawthorn. Has to be the same man.
    Cheers

  8. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Nah, looked it up online at the above link.

    Collingwood 7.1 (43)
    Kangas 0.0

    But the Kanga bps were Kiker, Noble, Heffernan, Green, Greenough

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