Grass Roots Footy Man “Rocket” Rod Gillett farewelled from the desert.

Haje Halabi, June 14,2011.

“Rocket” Rod Gillett has been a much-loved member of the Australian football community in Abu Dhabi. This week friends gathered at his favourite oasis in the desert, Coopers Bar, to farewell him, as he will be soon venturing to Vietnam with his lovely wife Jessie and son Jeremy.

There was a great cross section of the expat community there.  The Australian Ambassador, Doug Trappett, made sure he juggled his two prominent appointments for the week around the night: his first appointment, was Foreign Affairs Minister, Kevin Rudd and secondly,  none other than our Governor General Quentin Bryce! Doug and his wife arrived in the official car with the flag fluttering at the front to sanction the event. There were teachers, engineers, business people and other folk, young and old, such is Rocket’s appeal to all people.

I first met Rocket one night at a training night for the Abu Dhabi Falcons. I was there to have a run and meet a few lads, but as a 48 year old I was not too keen on the run throughs and sprints, neither was Rocket! We did want to be involved with football though. I instantly hit it off with Rod and before soon we were talking footy and towns that we had grown up in. Rocket was born in Rushworth, and I was born in Bright. Maybe it was that country connection that kept us jabbering away, whilst the younger guys around us slowly eased into training, with then coach Peter Free (2010).  In between stretches I think he told me about 10 stories, addressed about a dozen footy people we both knew personally, debunked 15 football rumours and commented on the weather and his tight hamstrings.  Rod is that sort of man- a communicator – he knows many people and people are genuinely interested in him, his footy stories, experiences and wit.

Rocket is a great football personality and most clubs have someone like him in the clubrooms. Rocket’s jet engine is the love our of our great game, and the friendship that springs from it. He must know thousands of people due to his football involvement in so many communities. Prior to the gathering some emails went around trying to get some dirt together on Rocket.  Falcons’ footy manager Steve Watson (an old footy mate of Rocket’s from East Sydney) contacted former long-term NSW footy chief Ian Granland who then contacted Sydney footy stalwart Craig Davis. What was unearthed was a story of riches, of a man that has been genuinely interested in grass roots footy development, Australia-wide. In the 70s Rocket became a delegate to the burgeoning NSW Country Football League, and in the early 1980s became a director of the NSW AFL, and in1986, became the president. From 1987-89 he was a Commissioner on the NSW AFL serving under chairman Keith “Nugget” Miller, the famous cricketer, footballer, and fighter pilot. He was made a life member. He returned to Australia from working in Korea and Fiji in the early 2000s where he renewed affiliation with the Sydney University Australian Football Club.  His network was pivotal in developing the relationship with Collingwood for support of the newly formed Colts under 18 team. During this period became an umpire in the Sydney League where he umpired the Under 18s or low open age grades – where he could keep up with the play by not moving off the cricket pitch!  He also became heavily involved with the Willoughby Wildcats junior club where his son Jeremy started his footy. He started the footy club at Coffs Harbour. He had a lot to do with footy development all over NSW. He genuinely believes in the promotion of our game Australia wide.

Rod is very quick to give succinct answers to footy questions: Best footballer seen?  “Baldock- did it all mate”; Best player to play 100 games ? “Not bloody Sellwood- Hadyn Bunton had won three Brownlows by then”; and will Sydney embrace the GWS? “Yes- it will be the crowning of the game nationally”.

Rocket’s role here in Abu Dhabi has been that of football statesman- he has been at various times a football umpire, a confidant and mentor to some young players, newspaper reporter, advisor to coaches Peter Free and Dan Brooke, chief backslapper and motivator.  Present premiership coach Dan Brooke gave a heartfelt speech of gratitude to Rocket at Coopers as we slipped back a few Pale Ales named in honour of the bar. A funny moment was when Dan recalled how his Korean born wife and family welcomed Rocket into their kinship group- “They loved how he ate the Korean food and drank our wine” she had told him over dinner. Rockets appeal is as large as his cheeky smile. That is Rocket really- he loves being with different people and his appeal is massive. Rocket’s reply speech was full of class- he said he loved his involvement with the Falcons over the past few years and how it gave him much joy and how he basked in the glory of their Middle East Football grand final win.  We will miss Rocket, his sense of humour, wit, joviality and his perceptive footy brain. From all of us here in Abu Dhabi good luck mate, long may you rein.





  1. Ramon Dobb says

    Is this “The Bear, The Bear, The big black Bear” I’m reading? Gday from Murrumbeena (and Nicabellas), from Stinga!!!! Great article mate, I just love reading about the great footy culture especially in far fetched places such as this.

  2. johnharms says

    Thanks Haje, Rocket is unbelievable. I might put pen to paper about an afternoon in Sydney when there wasn’t a toff or a tramp he didn’t know. Thanks for taking the time to dot his yarn. It’s a beauty.

  3. Richard Naco says

    Sensational story about a man who seems to personify the true core values (and thus, the appeal) of our game. And anyone who can willingly partake of chimshi is far more man than I.

    His going to Vietnam is obviously a precursor to the rise of a second VFL.

  4. The classic Rocket story. During the trip to play Muscat this year, Rocket came down for the buffet breakfast. In his classic “How ya going?” style he he asked a blonde woman who resembled one of the girls from our group how she pulled up after the previous nights shenanigans. The fact that she was about 15 years older than our girl should have been the clue. If not the fact that she gave a very cautious reply to the strange man asking her questions at breakfast. I think this might also be the first time he has been told about it too!

  5. Really missing rocket and the boys from Abu Dhabi- but loving being home- and the green fields of Inverloch. Very cold! Going to see tiges v Melb on Saturday. Yes Stinga this is me. Best. Haje

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