Almanac Memoir: Half a century at the Gabba



Harmsy’s recent piece on all things the Gabba and Queensland has triggered many memories for me. Between footy, dish lickers and cricket I reckon I’ve attended the Gabba at least ten times a year for the past 50 years – 500 visits, probably more. His writing has reminded me of how much the ground is part of who I am. Harmsy also gets the North and our different take on sport and life.



I’m still laughing out loud at his story of Yosemite Sam shimmying up that lone telegraph pole – I remember that pole, and I remember the joy and laughter of an afternoon on the Gabba Hill, and carousing after-matches at the long-gone Gabba Hotel, Aussie Nash, Norman, Shaftson, Lord Stanley and Pineapple.



For my crew of adolescent schoolmates from the late 1970s, attending the Gabba was a rite of passage. Scaling the barbed-wire fence behind the scoreboard (I have a scar on my wrist to remind me of one ill-fated attempt), smuggling in grog, under-age sculling of hot beer and watching test cricket and Australian teams that rarely boasted a Queenslander – until we adopted Thommo, G. Chappell and Border. Even my childhood cricket hero, Samuel Christy Trimble, was originally a frickin southerner.



However, Keith Dudgeon, Geoff Dymock, “Wild Bill” Albury, Tony Dell, “Fabulous” Phil Carlson, Malcolm Francke (an eccentric Sri Lankan leg spinner who we adopted as our own) and John Maclean were all Queensland heroes of my youth. So were the long line of the best international stars that we shipped in to try and win the Sheffield Shield: Wes Hall, Viv Richards, Alvin Kallicharran, Asif Iqbal, Majid Khan and others. We were a national joke – the Queensland Shield team. But I was obsessed with their fortunes and would often wag school and walk down from Villanova College in Coorparoo to watch if we looked a chance of victory on the final day.



In the early seventies my great school mate Michael Youles and I would attend Sam Trimble/Brian Gaskell cricket clinics under the Vulture Street old timber grandstand. Those clinics improved my batting and bowling technique – leading to me being a handy cricketer – until my sporting career peaked at the age of fourteen. Youlsie’s career never peaked, but he is about to receive his gold fifty year membership of the Gabba Trust and he is still a regular attendee at the footy and the cricket.



It was, however, footy – Aussie rules – not cricket, that first brought me to the Gabba. My great-grandfather Tom Bird had played rugby union for Queensland in 1903 and was a founding president of the famous rugby league club Easts, a few miles south of the Gabba (and licensee at the Stones Corner Hotel). Tom’s son Dudley played in Brisbane Rugby League premierships for Valleys and my old man Garnet liked his rugby league as well (one of my earliest memories is of sitting on his shoulders at the 1968 Lang Park BRL grand final between Brothers and Easts). I was destined to play rugby league, until our next-door neighbours – the McMullens – convinced mum and dad to let me play the Australian game for Coorparoo.



The McMullens and Birds (and the Joneses, Ruddicks and many other Norcombe Street families) all went to the 1970 QAFL grand final at the Gabba to watch the Coorparoo Roos (CFC logo on navy blue) take on Sandgate Hawks (green with a red sash). I was seven-years old and it was my first live game, and it was a cracker. 10,000-plus spectators and the old wooden stand on the Vulture Street side was rocking – literally. High scoring, high flying, wild brawls and loud and passionate supporters – I remember being so excited that I didn’t sleep that night.



The following Saturday in late September 1970 our wonderful other next-door neighbours, Bavarian-born Harold and Irene Richert, took me to the German club in Vulture Street opposite the Gabba for some reason that I don’t remember. What I do remember was sitting in a back room, probably with a pink lemonade, watching Alex Jesaulenko take that mark and Carlton storm home to beat Collingwood at the MCG on a small black and white TV. I was hooked on “rules football” and my grandfather and father couldn’t believe it.



Australian football has been played at the Gabba since 1905. Other than when Perry Park at Bowen Hills was the centre of the code from the 1920s to the 1950s, the Gabba has been the spiritual home of the Australian game in the Sunshine State. The 1970 QAFL grand final was just one of dozens of season deciders that saw Queenslanders flock to the famous ground to watch Aussie rules.



Perhaps the most famous football match at the Gabba, prior to the ultimate arrival of the Brisbane Bears in the early 1990s, was Queensland’s victory over Tasmania in 1975. The Maroons beat Tasmania again in 1977, while also overcoming a strong Victorian Football Association team around the same time. I caught the 8C bus from Carina to all of those games, enthralled by the skill of Geelong’s Billy Ryan who was playing for Southport by then, after a couple of years at Coorparoo. I recall his ruck-work and marking getting Queensland across the line in at least one of those matches.



After the first victory against Tasmania in 1975, The Courier Mail (notoriously unfriendly to Aussie rules) headlines read: “We can beat Victoria.” They were the words of the craggy-faced cigar-smoking president of the QAFL, Norm Crimmins, who went on to be quoted in the article as to how, one day, Queensland would eventually beat Victoria. Norm was alive to see the 2001 Brisbane Lions premiership.



By 1977, my interest in the punt had been piqued by my old man’s recent acquisition of an illegal SP (Starting Price) bookmaking business. Garnet would spend a lot of time fraternising with punters at the Norman Hotel and other pubs close to the Gabba, including the Shipp Inn, Plough Inn and Coorparoo footy club. On a Saturday morning my bedroom would be cleared and a small betting shop established as false walls were removed and multiple phones plugged in. As a fourteen- and fifteen-year old I would keep the betting ledgers in order and occasionally answer the phones when things got busy. My interest in the punt was on a rapid upward trajectory, rivalling my worship of cricket and footy. With my own sport and an SP-bookmaking apprenticeship consuming most Saturdays, the best opportunity to attend live-gambling events was the immensely popular Gabba dogs on a Thursday night.



And so my interest in “dog form” and a night at the Gabba dogs began. During school holidays Brendan “Macca” McMullen and I would attend (usually jumping the fence behind the scoreboard to save a precious few dollars to donate to the 30-plus bookies under the old Sir Gordon Chalk building). Our favourite dogs included Iron Hawk, Wings of Steel and Coorparoo Flyer. Macca looked fourteen, I looked twelve, but we rarely met resistance when trying to place our two-each way with Andy Pippos and other dodgy bookies.



In our year eleven and twelve school days, Macca and I and some of my school mates would often advise our parents we were going to the library to study on a Thursday night. Early closes at the library meant we could only attend the first half of the program at the dish lickers. Some of the teachers and priests at Villanova where also victims of the punt, and respected my punting prowess because of Garnet’s nefarious activities and his ability to cop a reasonable tip every now and again. My teachers would occasionally invite me to the infamous Aquarius seafood restaurant under the Clem Jones Stand after the last, to dissect the evening’s results.



To fund the punt, Macca and I would spend a fair slice of the summer as icecream vendors at the Gabba. A cosy relationship with the guardian of the dry ice and Nulla Nuts led to the establishment of a lucrative sideline. After loading up with more ice than ice creams courtesy of the guardian, pissed punters on the Hill would pay a premium for a small chunk of dry ice to keep their tins of XXXX cool.



In 1980, Macca and I and a mob of old teammates from the Coorparoo under 17s (including Jason “Bung Hole” Dunstall and many others who would play in Coorparoo QAFL premierships in 1984 and 1986), were back at the Gabba, watching the Coorparoo seniors in a QAFL grand final. Kedron (sky blue with a red yoke) overran the Roos on a blisteringly hot September afternoon. The Gabba was packed again for a footy match, well before the germination of the idea of the Brisbane Bears being considered as an escape from financial ruin by several VFL clubs.



Macca would go and win two Grogan medals (yep, the best and fairest for the QAFL is named after a turd) and play under 19 cricket for Australia, and Bung Hole surprised us all. In 1982 and 1983 Coorparoo’s coach Carl Ditterich wouldn’t give the soon-to-be-great full forward a game in the QAFL seniors



After my ice-cream selling career ceased and my beer-drinking career blossomed I looked for more nuanced haunts to enjoy my time at the famous ground. The Wally Grout bar in the Clem Jones Stand was always popular. I remember Tony Grieg wandering down to fine leg in front of that bar, wearing a helmet and stirring up the locals, after an errant can, tossed from the Wally Grout, narrowly missed the unpopular Englishman earlier in the session. The Don Tallon bar, atop the Sir Leslie Wilson Stand, gave a unique view of the beautiful ground. But it was often a challenge coming down the steep stairs after a ten-can day.



My favourite haunt was the unofficial Malcolm Francke Stand, on the terraces under the Moreton Bay figs on the school-side of the ground – right next to the dog kennels. I spent many Uni days trying to decipher the likes of Marx, Mill and Nietzsche, shirtless under the figs, sipping on XXXX. Still, the Shield eluded us. And so did Nietzsche, Marx and Mills.



The Shield eventually arrived and I was there, like 150,000 other Queenslanders. So did the Bears and Lions with many more great memories (that one-point win over Essendon in a semi-final sticks in my mind – I caught Gavin Wanganeen as he lurched over the fence after narrowly missing a goal that would have won it for the Bombers). I was there the night Shaun Smith took the mark over Richard Champion and the day the Bears came from 100 behind to beat the Invincible Hawks (I think Voss and Dunstall played that day).



Some of my most cherished memories are of umpiring a few Gabba AFL games and taking my three daughters, Hannah, Caitlin and Phoebe to half-time Auskick matches. My favourite memory was umpiring a few QAFL grand finals with Martin Hopp (a former-Coorparoo teammate) and Donny Edwards there when QAFL finals returned again in the early 1990s.



In the early 2000s I was working for AFL Queensland, running the “State league” which was what the QAFL had morphed into after some lean years during the 1990s. The arrival of the Bears at Carrara and some jaw-dropping neglect from the AFL ultimately resulted in the evisceration of the local competition. Mayne, Kedron, Coorparoo, Windsor-Zillmere, Western Districts, Sherwood, Mt Gravatt, Wilston-Grange all went into liquidation at different times.



My role with AFLQ included Gabba ground inspections on a Friday before AFL matches. The Gabba pitch and its varying degrees of hardness were always a talking point for visiting clubs, the Lions, the AFL and local journalists. On some occasions the only attendees at the inspection were groundsman Kevin Mitchell Jnr. and myself. In 2005, after giving a favourable pitch report, I suggested to Kevin that an AFLQ grand final at the Gabba would be a boon for the local competition after many years of playing the decider at the suburban ground at Coorparoo. Kevin suggested a carton of XXXX Gold would do the trick. The beer was delivered within 24 hours and Southport defeated a Morningside in the last local grand final to be played at the Gabba.



The Gabba was rocking again last Saturday night, exactly fifty years after the Sandgate Hawks beat up the Coorparoo Roos. The night was pregnant with hope – the Brisbane Lions in a Gabba grand final. That would have topped all my Gabba memories – a Lions premiership at the Gabba. And I can’t say maybe next year, can I? I think there is a strong argument for the AFL grand final to be played away from Victoria – every second year, maybe? Surely it is a national game and the SCG, Adelaide Oval, the Gabba and other iconic grounds should host a grand final at least once a decade.



I love the Gabba – thanks Harmsy.




The John Harms piece referenced by Murray is HERE.



Murray and Greg Parker have written an extensive history of Aussie Rules in Queensland. You can view an extract HERE.



Harms and former umpire Murray Bird. “So why didn’t Williams get one vote in his 44-touch game?”




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  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya ’bout the raising of the wrist.

    Do you have any colour shots of the Sandgate strip from 1970 Muzz?

  2. John Butler says

    Loved this, Murray.

    As a confirmed southerner, the Almanac constitutes a large portion of my Queensland education.


  3. Well done Muzz….brilliant..lots of memories

  4. A beautiful love-letter, Murray.

  5. Kevan Dacey says

    Vivid memories of Norcome St and Burchell St Carina in the 60’s and 70’s
    Some of the images you have portrayed of the Gabba bring back nostalgic memories.
    The Gabba is most definitely the spiritual home of AFL in Qld

  6. Stephen Bury says

    Nice work Muz. You can add to this that if you played for Gabba Squash club at Sam Trimble’s courts under the Sir Leslie Wilson stand on a Thursday night you could place a sneaky punt in between matches!

  7. Ah Murray what a companion piece this is; the Bundy to JTH’s XXXX (or should that be the other way around?) Maybe the Yatala Pie to his Bowen mango…but I digress (and risk getting caught in a QLD vortex). Thanks for sharing your wonderful Gabba memories.

  8. Daryl Schramm says

    I had read and enjoyed this contribution before, and loved the retelling of the story at todays lunch. The old Gabba is a complete mystery to me, only ever seeing it on TV until taking my then young boys on a holiday in the area mid 1996. Got kicked off the oval having a dob. “Where are you from? Adelaide. Would you be aloud to do this at Adelaide Oval?” Back through the cricketers club interruptingwhat appeared to be a formal function of some sort. Welcome, we were not.

    Murray. Who would have been the Qld umpire who came to Football Park in Adelaide for the interstate game in the eighties? Your good self?

  9. Paul Daffey says

    Brilliant, Muzz.

    The false walls in your bedroom explains a lot.

  10. I’d have thought that an article about the history of the gabba might have described what went on there between 1920 and 1950. Readers might well have been fascinated to find out that a game of soccer between two women’s teams in 1921 attracted 20,000 spectators. There’s a lost of history in those three decades. Here are some articles that reveal some of the hidden narrative

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