Local Footy: All rivalries change, even the very strongest ones

By Paul Daffey

A few years ago, I was researching a story on rivalries in local footy and I consulted that treasure trove of footy knowledge Rod Gillett for background on Echuca and Rochester. Rocket, who spent part of his childhood in both towns (he likes country and western), passed on some gems of information, including the fact that the Rochester footy club was formed in 1874 for the purpose of “playing and beating Echuca”. What greater purpose could there be?

Rocket, as well as clubmen from Rochester and Echuca, came up with so many snippets to illustrate the rivalry that I started to froth at the mouth just writing about it. Noel McMahen, the former Melbourne premiership captain who coached Rochester to five grand finals in his five years at the club, said his greatest achievement in those five years was never coaching a losing team against Echuca. The two premierships, in 1958 and ’59, were somehow secondary.

In 2000, Ken Sheldon’s first game as Echuca coach was at Rochester. The away coaches’ dugout at the Rochester Recreation Reserve is in front of a tent that serves beer and steak sandwiches. Sheldon became so alarmed by the ferocity of the tent patrons’ vitriol towards Echuca players and coaches that he turned his back on the play and asked the sanger-munchers to pull their heads in. “It was a debacle,” he said.

Rocket loved my story. It depicted passion, honour and steak sandwiches, everything he felt to be right and good about country footy. In his mind the rivalry between Echuca and Rochester was as strong as it had always been. So pass the sauce, please.

I had Rocket in mind when I rang ruckman Guy Campbell before this season to ask about his move from Echuca to Rochester. From the stories I’d heard, that was like moving from Manchester United to Manchester City, from the Kremlin to the CIA, from the Christians to the Moors. I expected Campbell to be defensive because everyone from his home town would be on his back about moving to the enemy. How wrong I was.

Campbell spent the 2005 season on Sydney’s rookie list and although he played well in the reserves, he failed to crack a senior game. (Well, it was a premiership year.) The next year he returned home and played for his original club, Echuca United. Then he moved to the Echuca Football Club because he wanted to join former teammates from TAC Cup club Bendigo Pioneers who were playing there. Campbell spent two years at Echuca. Then before this season he moved to Rochester, again because he wanted to play with old friends from the Bendigo Pioneers.

I could almost hear Campbell’s shoulders shrugging when I asked whether his move from Echuca to Rochester had created ructions. He said he felt he owed Echuca nothing. It wasn’t his home club. He went there to play with old friends and now he was doing the same at Rochester. Campbell and his father run an earth-moving business in Echuca. They talk to with dozens of people a day, many of whom follow the local footy. Guy said he received no grief about going to Rochester.

“Maybe the rivalry’s not as strong,” he said. “I certainly think it’s not as strong now for the players.”

Under the TAC Cup system, Victoria’s best teenage footballers are funnelled into district teams such as the Calder Cannons and the Bendigo Pioneers. At the Pioneers, Guy Campbell would have played with teammates from Kyneton, Castlemaine and Mildura, as well as Echuca and Rochester.

After two years at a TAC Cup club, it’s understandable that players become good mates. If they fail to get drafted, they often go back to their original club. If so, there’s a good chance they’ll play against an old TAC Cup teammate who’s also playing at his original club.

Players who find themselves competing against former TAC Cup teammates can hardly be expected to shoulder the animosities of previous generations. They know their former teammates as people, not as torch-bearers of ancient grudges. I think the TAC Cup is inadvertently diluting the visceral nature of local footy rivalries.

I have a strong experience of a local footy rivalry. I grew up watching St Bernard’s play in A-grade in the Victorian Ammos competition. Our big rival was North Old Boys. The players from North Old Boys had been to school together at St Joseph’s College, North Melbourne. They came from the northern suburbs or the western suburbs. St Bernard’s players had been to school at St Bernard’s College in Essendon. We came from the north-west suburbs, from the wedge between the Maribyrnong River and the Moonee Ponds Creek, a wedge that separated the St Joe’s catchment areas.

St Bernard’s and St Joe’s colleges were both Christian Brothers schools. We grew up playing footy against each other in the Catholic colleges competition. In the later years of school, we both went out with girls from St Columban’s College in Essendon, so we got to know each other a little at parties, but not too much. We were bound by similarity and divided by it. It was the perfect cocktail for a momentous footy rivalry.

The old boys’ clubs from both schools entered the Ammos competition in the same year, in 1963, and they moved up through the grades more or less together before settling in A-grade in the early ’70s. Matches in A-grade in the ’70s were titanic. I can still hear the slap of skin and the exhalation of air as one man crashed into the other on the creekside wing at West Essendon.

In 1981 St Bernard’s were relegated. In 1984 I was a teenager in the team that won the B-grade premiership to put us back in A-grade. All the talk over summer was about playing North Old Boys again. It had been a break of only a few years but you’d think it was a lifetime.

I thought I’d played in front of decent crowds in 1984, with cars filling the tiered viewing areas in the natural amphitheatre, but it was nothing compared to the numbers that turned up for the 1985 A-grade match against NOBs. Cars were piled on top of each other on the hill. Spectators lined both forward pockets nearest the creek. I’ve never seen crowds like it at St Bernard’s before or since.

I remember taking a mark in the forward line. As I walked back to take a shot, Jerome Griffin, the NOBs captain and full-back, asked me what I was doing on the field. He said I looked too young. It was then, realising I was deep in the cauldron of a match against NOBs, that I was sure I’d made it as a local footballer. (That I missed the goal was a portent.)

NOBs have gone downhill in the last 15 years because the demographics of the school that feeds the footy club have changed. Many students at the school are Vietnamese or Somalian, and they’re more interested in soccer. A decade ago I was astounded to learn that St Joe’s, North Melbourne, no longer fielded footy teams. No wonder the North Old Boys footy club was fighting so hard to stave off decline.

NOBs have since adopted St Pat’s, Ballarat, as its feeder school, but you can manufacture a link only so much. The bad news is that St Joseph’s College, North Melbourne, is closing at the end of 2009, so there must be real fears for the future of the old boys’ footy club. They’re in D-grade as I write, while St Bernard’s are on top in B-grade. The prospect of a clash in A-grade that would draw half the Catholic population in the northern and western suburbs appears remote at best.

The fortune of footy clubs like North Old Boys is like Australia’s history of immigration writ small. Families moved out from Italy and Greece early last century. Some of their sons and daughters married out and so did their grandchildren.

The grandchildren of those immigrants know all the stories from southern Europe. They know the food and the culture, but they’re also immersed in their lives in Australia. They know what went on in the old country but their lives are necessarily different from their forebears.

Local footy rivalries are like that. They change with the generations. They might become diluted, or there might be an event that lends a new edge, but whatever happens they continue through the stories. The question, as Guy Campbell’s story shows, is whether that’s enough for a rivalry to survive with the same passion.


  1. johnharms says


    Have been following your discussion with Rocket Gillett and I think both positions have merit. I think, in your very engaging piece, you are dealing with two reasons for rivalry being diluted. One is that players don’t feel the rivalry as much. Your particular evidence is fine. But I suspect you could find many competitiins where the rivalry between two clubs remains, is renourished (by injustice, embarrassment, despised individuals and playing styles etc). And that the sense of rivalry among fans can be diluted.

    I agree with Rocket when he says that rivalries reside in the imaginations of the fans, and when geography and history are factors, all that needs to happen is that the fans believe the players are playing for their team, and therefore them.

    I’m interested to hear the latest from Rocket re the Rochester-Echuca rivalry.


  2. Pamela Sherpa says

    Geography and history are naturally major factors where rivalries are concerned therefore I find it a bit sad when rivals have to merge. For example when one club moves from their home ground and changes their jumper part of their identity is changed/lost.
    The articles written by people in W.A and S.A about the effects of the national competition on local alliegances are interesting.

  3. pauldaffey says

    Pamela and Darky,

    I reckon there are two main factors behind an intense rivalry: geography and a history of close finals matches. The rivalry is more intense if that history of close finals tussles is recent.

    I’ve just been called for tea (we’re having a roast!). Will get back with a good finals example: Chiltern and Greta.

    Bon appetite.

  4. pauldaffey says

    Sorry, as I was saying, a history of finals tussles makes for a good rivalry.

    In 1954 Chiltern led Greta all match in the Ovens and King Football League grand final. Chiltern was four goals ahead at three-quarter time and still two goals ahead 43 minutes into the final quarter.

    That’s right – 43 minutes. Apparently the umpire blew time-on after every mark, with the result that the quarter went on until dusk.

    In the 44th minute, Greta kicked two goals to snatch an improbable victory. The game became known as the Never-Ending Grand Final. Chiltern always blamed Greta’s timekeeper (it didn’t matter that the Greta timekeeper was sitting with him) and the many subsequent finals matches between the clubs always had an edge.

    Greta had the last laugh again in 1993 when two of Chiltern’s best players were schoolboys called Nigel and Matthew Lappin (who are second cousins). Chiltern were raging favourites but the Lappins had quiet games and Greta scored another famous victory. Nigel and Matthew were drafted a couple of months later and left Chiltern to begin their AFL careers.

    After the 2003 season, Chiltern decided to leave the Ovens and King league to play in the Tallangatta and District league. Greta people were spewing that Chiltern’s exit meant the two clubs couldn’t make a big deal of the 50th anniversary of the Never-Ending Grand Final. The more chary Greta supporters reckon Chiltern made their decision out of spite.

    Even in different competitions, the two clubs cast a grudging eye at each other’s results.

  5. pauldaffey says

    I neglected to mention that Chiltern are on the bottom in the Tallangatta league and Greta are about mid-table in the Ovens and King league. Not sure why both are struggling. They’ve got a history or being very successful clubs.

  6. I really like the geographical aspect in all of this, which is why I’ve never liked the name West Coast and am bitterly disappointed about losing the Footscray name. Neither of them engender a sense of identity in my opinion. I know all the reasons behind the Western Bulldogs change but I wonder if, as good a job as David Smorgon has done with the Dogs, it has made any real difference. If the on-field results since ’97 had been the same but the name change had never happened, what would be different now about the Dogs?

    Having played more competitive cricket than footy, I know that the long-lasting rivalries were real in club cricket too. I played for Albion in the (now defunct) Sunshine Cricket Association and our sworn enemies were Sunshine United. I knew that to be the case right from my first days in the under 14s. To this day, I don’t actually know why it began, although it was probably simply that we were the two most successful clubs. When one of our players sought (and eventually got) a clearance to United, the whole “he’s gone to the dark side” mentality was palpable.

    In the early 80s we were forced off our home ground by the council. We shared it with the Sunshine Baseball Club and they wanted to expand their facilities. Baseball had a bit of currency around that time and their clout won out. We had to move our home base to Albanvale (between St Albans and Deer Park) a few kms away. But there was never any thought about a name change. To this day they/we are Albion (now in the Vic Turf Cricket Association). I don’t know why, but I feel good about that.

    Paul, I like the idea of rivalries building as a result of close finals matches, especially Grand Finals. It was certainly part of the reason the Albion-Sunshine United intensity continued throughout my playing career (to the point where in one season Albion actually appealed to the VCA to have a United GF victory over us to be declared null and void – long story for another time).

    However, I worry that rivalries such as that which has developed between Sydney and West Coast in recent years, will fade away before becoming ingrained. And I think it could be partially because the AFL and TV stations promote the existing rivalries to the point where newer rivalry legends will have a much harder time gaining any traction. I don’t begrudge the traditional rivalries at all. They are great. But TV stations will always go where the safe money is and as soon as the Swans and Eagles dip down the ladder (as is now happening) these great games will disappear from the minds of too many. The AFL needs to take some responsibility here. The Syd-WCo sequence of games with margins under a goal is the greatest on record, with the majority being finals and two grand finals. How do we ensure these aren’t forgotten in today’s throwaway environment?

  7. Dips,

    I just love it when you mention the words Albion Cricket Club (especially in conjunction with Robert Groenewegen). Your stories from your old cricket days are always nicely fruity.

    I agree re- the Swans and Eagles rivalry. I reckon a book should be written on those few years when they could barely be separated. My only reservation is that both played in that shut-down way that thankfully became so yesterday when Geelong went nuts in 2007.

    Not sure where the fruit and nuts references have come from, but keep up the good work, Gigs!

  8. Sorry for addressing the above to Dips and not you, Gigs.

  9. That’s perfectly OK Paul. I’m sure Dips won’t mind me saying that we are both lacking in the height and hair department. Although I can’t lay claim to be even a remotely good sprinter, let alone being placed in a Stawell Gift final. (My strength, if there was one, was in the high-school cross country events.)


  10. Andrew Fithall says

    Gigs et al,

    Just be careful how much detail on your previous sporting achievements you record. As an HR Manager I receive resumes many and varied. I received one yesterday from a Kuwait-based candidate for a Parts Interpreter position I have advertised on-line. The resume included a bit too much detail. In rejecting the application (in consultation with the relevant manager), I took care not to mention that if he had come first, rather than second, in the high school long jump competition in 2001, we might have considered going to the expense of bringing him to Australia for an interview. But we won’t settle for second best!

  11. Thanks for the advice Andrew. This sounds like a good time to mention that in a game against Braybrook in 1985, we were defending a paltry 98 in a one day game. When I came on to bowl, Braybrook were 3/60 with plenty of time to spare. I bowled three overs and took 7 for 1 (including a hat-trick) and they were all out for 63. Five were out bowled. I won the competition bowling award that year and one other. Also played in three premierships in four years. The only reason it wasn’t 4 out of 4 was because we mistakenly played a player without a clearance for half a season and lost all points from those games. We still just missed out on the four that year.

    Do I get the job?

  12. Oh, and I can provide you with a copy of the scorebook from that game if you like. That week was the only one in the entire season when the results weren’t published in the local paper. As an attention-seeking 19 year old, geez, was I annoyed about that!

  13. Go on Andrew, give him something to do for God’s sake!

  14. Mark Gullick says

    Hi Rod,

    I have been reading your information about Rochester, which is very good.

    You may be interested that I am currently writing a book about the Rochester Football Club. The book begins in 1874 with the formation of the club, and will conclude at the end of this season (hopefully with a senior and reserves premiership!). It is scheduled to be released early in the 2010 football season. It will give a very detailed account of every year and include plenty of photos and interviews.


  15. Hi Mark,

    I’m absolutely delighted that the history of the Rochy footy club is to be written.
    It is a very rich story; a story that very much has the community at the heart of it.
    I am fascinated at the success of the club between 1958 and 1965 when it played in every BFL GF.
    This was a stunning feat. The town and district was fully behind the football club.

    Like you I hope the launch of your work can coincide with another flag flying from the pavilion at the Rochester Recreation Reserve!

    Best wishes,

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