Footy Town: an experiential book review

Henry Ballard recently completed his Bachelor of Communications at Deakin University. This reflective piece completes his internship with The Footy Almanac which was his final unit at Deakin. 

 

 

 

My relationship with books has been sporadic to say the least. With high school’s world of compulsory readings and essays on Shakespeare and Orwell behind me, using books for leisure has quickly slid down my list of priorities during my three years at university. Taking their place has been the triumphs and tribulations of my BA in journalism; saving for and travelling the east coast of Australia; and my ever-changing love affairs with cricket, footy and my partner, Bonnie.

 

This is not to say I haven’t fallen for a book or two in the three years since books became optional, instead of assigned. Among my few reads in recent years have been Leigh Sales’ Any Ordinary Day; Hugh Riminton’s autobiography, Minefields; and my personal favourite, a crime thriller by A.J Finn called Woman in the Window. But this list of complete reads fails to mention the several additional books I tried and failed to trawl through: Paul Kennedy’s Fifteen Young Men, signed by the man himself; Tony Maniarty’s Shooting Balibo; Sujit Saraf’s 754 page The Peacock Throne; and the first few chapters of Cadel Evans’ autobiography. Equally, all of these books showed terrific traces of interest for me and have potential to become future favourites. But more important in these examples, is how I’ve always seen books as a measure of how the rest of my life is panning out.

 

These last few months, as I crawled over the finish line of my journalism degree, my literary yardstick was Paul Daffey & John Harms’ Footy Town. This review details what I retained from the backyard footy bible – brimming with the stories, short and tall,  about local footy – and how it reflects my life, past and present.

 

The moment I met John Harms outside Westgarth cinemas, in my best button-up and chinos, I knew I was in for a less than typical internship experience. With a cricket whites collar poking over his sweater, he spoke passionately of an online land of writers (The Footy Almanac), all with a passion for the yarn. Not one of wool and needles, but of tall tales from all corners of Australia – I began to understand how much a niche such as local footy writing could mean to a community.

 

I drove straight home that day and drank in the first few chapters of Footy Town, such was my eagerness to find the end of my university days. It was as if finishing the book would instantly hand me that $30,000 piece of goddam paper.

 

Paul Daffey’s opening chapter, ‘Footy Town’, details how his younger self cognitively mapped out the suburbs of Melbourne through his local footy exploits. As children in the backs of parents’ cars, we’re so unaware of where we were going or how we got there, and grassroots sport is one of the best mapping tools at our disposal. I remember  marvelling as a young teenager at how my mum could be given most any sportsground in Melbourne’s outer-eastern suburbs and – without map or direction – find her way there. I’d ask her how she did it, to which she’d reply, “I’ve been driving you boys to your games for over 10 years.”  She was right, my two brothers and I had played every popular sport under the sun and at least one of mum or dad had been there for every kick, hit, pass, goal, save, and home run.

 

Three years after getting my license I still rely heavily on Google Maps, but as I continue to noodle around Melbourne’s eastern suburbs and beyond – en route to sports grounds or otherwise – I find myself more capable of mapping out previously unknown routes.

 

I regret to admit, after 40 odd pages of Footy Town, I placed it on my desk for the majority of the semester. In true style, the workload of my final semester got on top of me and leisure time usually devoted to reading books and writing music was spent procrastinating and leaving assignments until the last minute. Footy Town was forgotten. Until my trusty old technique of writing out my priorities came to the rescue.

 

Fast forward to just over a month ago in early October and Footy Town was back on my radar. My journalism portfolio was complete, and I could breathe again. There was light at the end of the deep, dark university tunnel – in the shape of a book with a footy field on the cover. I decided my final piece for the Footy Almanac internship would be an experiential book review, a fitting end to it all. I dived deep into the world of local Australian footy.

 

My early October readings were interspersed with the shoe gooing of a new cricket bat – with which I’d make a hard fought single from the opening seven overs of Round 1 – and watching my L.A. Dodgers crash out of baseball’s post-season unexpectedly, like a sack of you know what. I laughed along to Damien Callinan’s recollection of his time in Toowoomba where he and his team would dance to a song called Nude School, which I promptly turned on and had stuck in my head. Clint Rule’s yarn ‘Hold Your Bowlies’ had me stifling a laugh at his list of ridiculously good nicknames from his time at Adelaide University. I’d have laughed far louder if I’d not been reading next to Bonnie and her family as they went all GoggleBox at The Block.

 

The 11th of October saw me catch train and tram in order to enjoy a few beers and a vino with fellow Footy Almanac tragics, at an Odd Friday Lunch. The North Fitzroy Arms is the kind of hotel you could quickly fall in love with, and the people I met that day didn’t hurt its chances. After listening to Carlton coach David Teague elucidate the overtly winning focus of the AFL, I couldn’t help but think of Avan Stallard’s thoughtful piece ‘Play On’ in Footy Town (of which, there were multiple copies about the hotel including my own) which details their take on how winning isn’t everything. This far from coincidental connection caused me to reflect on my relationship with my own football club and its culture, and it’s safe to say winning is only but a part of why the Heathmont Jets are so close-knit. As I chatted that afternoon with new acquaintances John, John, Rod and John (Harms) over cheeses and a bowl of olives no one else was touching (score!), it became clear my lust for other people’s opinions and experiences needed fulfilling. I dived deeper into Footy Town on the train home.

 

One thing I learned about myself these past few months is that physical endeavours empower and drive me far more than academic ones. As 2019’s ToughMudder approached with frightening pace, I plucked myself away from my book and headed to the park for a self-devised workout. But what I noticed moreover was how my appetite for things like reading coincided with my ambition to improve my fitness, both were on the rise.

 

With all other assignments out of the way I took full advantage of my freed-up Mondays and vacuumed up some scrambled eggs while sipping on Footy Town. I found the book is more than for entertainment’s sake, with Robert Allen’s biographical piece on mystery man, Roy Cazaly, enveloping me start to finish. Michael Sexton’s catch-up with Gavin Wanganeen had a similar historically important feel to it in ‘About Townies’, and it was around this 235-page mark that I turned my eyes to an equally important piece of writing: Hamish McLachlan’s extended interview with Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti in the Sunday Herald. An important enough piece on its own, the interview, which details McDonald-Tipungwuti’s upbringing in the Northern Territory’s Tiwi Islands, reminded me of a piece earlier in Footy Town by Sean Gorman called ‘Hot Pursuit’. Gorman’s addition recalls his travels to the Tiwi Islands, which is also the home of legendary footy family, the Riolis. Gorman interviewed the late Maurice Rioli, and the experience of reading both McLachlan and Gorman’s pieces in quick succession has given me a fascination with the Tiwi Islands and Aboriginal life (I was quickly looking up flight and ferry prices, followed by some expected disappointment).

 

The one-two punch of Stephanie Holt and Nathan Ryan’s pieces once again reminded me how much footy can mean and how much a club can do for people. While these authors’ pieces came from about as far apart as one could imagine – the U.S. and country Victoria – they write so passionately about their feelings towards footy that it’s hard not to place your own home club into the narrative. Then there came the chapters which quite literally hit close to home. Sasha Lennon’s ‘Junior Boot Camp’ takes place on the same hallowed turf where I now wield the willow for my cricket club’s 3rd XI, while Daryl Pitman’s ‘Beyond the Burton’ uses his opening line to reference Ringwood’s Jubilee Park which neighbours my old high school, Aquinas College. Noel McPhee mentions his time umpiring on many familiar grounds across the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, including Bennettswood Oval “in the shadows of Deakin University’s ever-expanding Burwood campus”.  I’ve walked that oval to Hungry Jack’s on numerous afternoons and, if you’re reading, Noel, Deakin’s latest monstrosity casts your depiction in a very literal sense.

 

I received my final results last week. Humbly, I passed. Oddly, I felt prouder in the moment of completing ToughMudder than I did my three-year degree, but I assume a realisation will set in soon enough. Never out of tune with my life, my literary yardstick, Footy Town, finished up nicely and on reflection it provided me with almost as wide an array of emotions as the whole degree did. I laughed and awed and marvelled at yarns from across the globe. It’s these feelings which remind me why degrees and qualifications and career obsessing aren’t everything.

 

Whenever I witness, or replay, or replay once more, a piece of sporting greatness, as the commentary crescendos and the crowd fall deafeningly silent, I get goose bumps. When Leo Barry saves the day, or Chappy’s toe-poke hands the cats a flag, or Usain beats his chest, I feel a sense of occasion which nothing else comes close to. Not a high distinction, or a graduation, or a student-free curriculum day could give me such sensations. And I’ve rarely felt such excitement from any piece of writing – such is my relationship with books. This is why my hat is off, in finishing, to one Bill Walker.  Bill, your piece ‘A Generational Thing’ was one of the few writings during which I’ve felt my skin ripple in excitement. For anyone who has had a dad or been a dad, and for anyone else with a sense of how much footy can mean to a family, a club, a town – this one’s a good’n.

 

In Bill’s own words, “Tears, relief, bliss, love – it was all there.”

 

 

This piece comes with many thanks to the advice and friendship accorded by John Harms, as I found my way through my first ever internship.  Also, to Ian Hauser, who’s allotment in the Almanac’s editing schedule happened to endure my weekly editions – your correspondence, however brief, was welcomed. Read Henry’s column – Henry and the Jets  – about the Heathmont footy club HERE.

 

 

Footy Town is available from the Almanac Shop – for $20 (which includes postage).

 

Read Martin Flanagan’s review of Footy Town HERE.

 

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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About Henry Ballard

21 year-old student of journalism, local footy, and fluent conversation. Of which I have perfected none and should never hope to.

Comments

  1. Mark Duffett says

    Wow. On the strength of this, I’m going to have give Footy Town a re-read.

  2. John Butler says

    Henry, ‘tragic’ is probably too close to the mark for comfort. :)

    It was a pleasure to chat at the lunch. Pleased to see you appear to have survived the experience.

    All the best.

  3. Henry, thanks for the kind comment. It was my good fortune to be on the desk on Thursdays when your pieces lobbed. I enjoyed them primarily for their fine content as well as for not having a lot to do to them from an editorial perspective.

    ‘Footy Town’ is a classic and you do it justice with your thoughtful review. I admire your self-control in being able to repress your ‘laugh out very loud’ mechanism while reading Clint Rule’s ‘Hold Your Bowlines’, a feat I certainly couldn’t match!

    Now that your degree is completed, the challenging part starts. Every best wish as you embark on your career, and don’t forget to keep contributing to The Almanac.

  4. Henry Ballard says

    And another! Thanks very much Mark Duffett.

    By the skin of my teeth John! Hope to see you there again one day soon.

    Ian, I hope to submit many more an addition to the Almanac on a Thursday arvo. Thanks again.

  5. A great read about a a great read Hen.
    Having known you all your life I can say you personify many of the heroes and the moments you capture.
    Stay true to your passion and your abilities and greatness will find you.

    Cheers
    Gus Bower

  6. Well played, Henry.
    I’m sorry I couldn’t get to that lunch and catch up.
    Footy Town is a blast, and I will always be immensely proud of being a contributor

  7. Thanks for the mention Henry. Coincidentally I have just finished reading the last half of the book and agree it is a very special quirky part of footy literature. I loved every piece, plenty of laughs and some great writing.

    I worked for Deakin Uni in Geelong for a few years, 20 years ago. Unusual place, “we’ve got no money, we’ve got no money”. Then a huge building would appear. I will keep an eye out next time I am driving that way.

  8. Henry Ballard says

    Thanks Smokie, I’ll look forward to one in the near future.

    I’m sure lots will have changed since you’ve driven along that stretch of Burwood Hwy Noel, least the turf is in good nick. :)

  9. matt watson says

    Henry,
    Footy Town is a great collection of local-inspired footy stories.
    I read it last year and thoroughly enjoyed it!!
    Good luck in the future.
    Cheers

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