Local Footy: University of New England footballers spread the word

By Rod Gillett

Most uni footy clubs are renowned for getting up to some hi-jinx. The Bushpigs based at Charles Sturt University’s Wagga campus claim to be “Australia’s most socially innovative football club” while the University of Queensland’s Red Lions took the their nickname from the Glencoe pub – an historic hotel on the New England Tablelands where they stopped during annual visits to play UNE in Armidale.

The University of New England Nomads do not fit the mould; on the contrary they are model citizens. This Saturday they are at home to Inverell in the Tamworth AFL competition. After the game they are not going to the trots or to the pub for a bonding session; they are going to the theatre!

Thespian onballer Sam Trotman is playing the role of one of the twins in Blood Brothers being staged by the Armidale Music and Dramatic Society at the Armidale Playhouse.

The Nomads are coming off a comfortable win over the Muswellbrook Cats last Saturday. The win puts the Nomads just a game out of the four and back in contention for a finals place.

The Nomads play a major role in promoting the game in Armidale, which is unlike the practice of most university clubs. The Nomads organise Auskick at their home ground on campus, the beautiful Bellevue Oval, which has a picket fence and is surrounded by elm trees, with a quaint wooden grandstand that was designed to cater for cricketers.

The UNE footy club also organises the annual schools competition and has appointed an arts student to write weekly match reports for the local newspaper. The match reports for the paper was an important task undertaken by this correspondent in the 1970s. Good to see that the tradition continues.

Australian football was first played in Armidale in 1962. The nearest competition had been in Newcastle or Brisbane – both a long way away.  Consequently the UNE had to organise their own competition. The student founders formed the grandly named Northern District Australian National Football League with just two teams, UNE and Armidale.

The students got a major surprise when they turned up for their first night’s training. The university’s ground staff had erected goal-posts but instead of marking out an oval shape they had made a rectangle!

Nobody other than Victorians and South Australians who were studying at the university knew anything about the game. There was no footy on telly or in the newspapers. It was only rugby union or rugby league in that part of the world.

The game truly took root in Armidale when the competition was expanded to four teams. UNE is Australia’s only real university town. The footy competition was based on residential colleges that provided the basis for inter-collegiate sport, or social and cultural activities. Hence the teams took the name of the colleges: Robb, Wright, St Alberts, and Earle Page. Later on, when co-ed colleges Austin and Drummond were built in the early 1970s, they combined with Wright to be WAD United.

The game took a long time to spread out of Armidale and it was not until 1975 that a club was formed in Tamworth by an ex-UNE player Dave Gilbert. A few players from Gunnedah played for Tamworth and in 1977 they formed their own club. Then the game really began to expand. Following the formation of clubs at Coonabarabran, Wee Waa and Moree, Tamworth and Gunnedah left the New England competition to form the North West Association.

Some students living in Uralla, a village 25 kilometres south of Armidale, formed a club named the Wanderers, which has become the unofficial name of the past UNE players’ group. The Wanderers maintains an online AFL footy tipping competition and a forum for discussion about contemporary life and the price of grain. Alas, the Uralla Wanderers footy club faded into oblivion in the early ’80s.

The founding of a footy club at Coffs Harbour was assisted by the UNE club. Coffs and UNE played the first game on the north coast against at the Coffs Harbour Racecourse (one of the UNE boy’s father was the racecourse manager) in 1978. A number of the university students who stayed with local families were drafted into the Coffs team, including fellow Almanacker Julian Morison, who stayed at the Gillett holiday flat in Park Beach.

Coffs Harbour entered the UNE competition in 1979 and won a premiership in 1980. They promptly formed another team for the 1981 season giving Coffs two teams, Norths and Souths. A team from further down the coast, at Port Macquarie, also joined the competition. The teams from Coffs and Port went off to form the North Coast footy league in 1982 with new clubs from Grafton, Woolgoolga, and Urunga.

In the space of seven seasons the UNE footy club had helped in the formation of two new competitions in northern NSW. In the ’80s the creation of new tertiary institutions in rural areas had a profound effect on the student population at UNE, with a consequent effect on football on campus. The uni could no longer support its own competition and a UNE team entered the North West footy association in 1985.

Plagued by the tyranny of distance the North West association floundered and went into recess in 1993. The students attempted to reform the campus competition but had to dovetail into the university’s intra-mural competition in order to play a game even if only in Trinity term.

The formation of a 12-a-side competition at Tamworth in 1995 paved the way for the revival of the game on the Northern Tablelands. The UNE club was reformed in 1999 and entered the Tamworth AFL.

The Tamworth AFL currently consists of six clubs: two from Tamworth, the Nomads, Inverell, Gunnedah, and Muswellbrook. Unfortunately, Narrabri went into recess because of the drought last year. The junior competition has not been sustained, but all clubs run an Auskick program.

It’s great to see that blokes in that part of the world can enjoy a game of footy on a Saturday afternoon. And a jolly good night at the theatre afterwards.


  1. rocket,
    good history of the expansion of the game in the north west. coonabarabran joined up and played for a few years and were staffed from refo croweaters from the west coast of south australia around the towns of tumby bay,arno bay and cleve. like the good refos from the south that built the uni comp from the early 60s the west coat refos had a plan. they were all farmers who discovered the sandy loam country around coona and thought it was the same as the west coast and at that time wass a lot cheaper. tommy mccallum, a distant cousin from tumby bay and former speedy winger, told me this at coona. he was one of the tumby bay refos. it must have been a fair sort of emigration to field a team but that how coona FC started. it folded when they got too old and they discovered the soils weren’t quite the same. quite a few of the former coona Fc are still in coona however.


  2. jezzaOWNZ says

    Dear Almanackers,

    Great to see Rocket writing about the Glory days at UNE. One of the Greats was Julian Morison who penned this classic piece for the booklet produced for the reunion a few years ago that I would like to share with the Footy Almanac community as it really captured the essence of the place and I reckon deserves a re-run. All Clear!

    “Didn’t matter where you came from when you got to Armidale, one thing you could be sure of was, you were in a minority. Didn’t matter if you came from Sydney or Newcastle, Dubbo or Moree, Bordertown or Ballina, Rocky or Rochy, didn’t matter. And it didn’t matter if you went to Geelong Grammar or Rockdale High – you were definitely outnumbered. And if you did Ag Ecos or Rural Science, Arts with a major in Drama or Psych, again you were one of a few. And this was the beauty of the place.

    Sure, there were enclaves of ethnicity; left footers in ‘Albies, bluebloods in Robb and girls in Mary White. But even these bastions of homogeneity would eventually mix and sometimes even integrate with the wider morass. Not everyone who went there left with the piece of paper they went for, but the majority learnt a lot, even in a short time, and most of that was life not academic.

    If you played Aussie Rules, you were a definite curiosity. Kick the ball funny, bounce it, run all over the shop and those South Australians with their quaint lace-up guernseys, not sure if they were stuck in the last century or cashing in early on the heritage concept. These were all things to look at and wonder about.

    Now Aussie Rules was very odd, the transitory nature of team makeup – amalgamations and recess, birth and rebirth – an odd evolutionary path where both extinction and abundance were constant possibilities. But even odder was the make up of individual teams. Half a dozen players with Aussie Rules in their blood and passionate about the game. Another half dozen, some with a background but not passionate, others from rugby and other codes who’d dabbled. Then there was the third half dozen; passion definitely lay elsewhere but had been conned by the passionate ones to give up their Sunday afternoons to engage in the fruitless chase of the elusive leather rabbit.

    Many things moulded the unique nature of the Armidale game. Rugby (both codes) had an influence – for instance, southerners learnt how to be tackled properly, even if they could never get the hang of it themselves. But rugby was not the only code to contribute to the flavour of New England Aussie Rules. Soccer also had a role to play. In 1979 the Uralla Wanderers FC secured the services of one Frank O’Connor, who claimed to be a dashing forward flanker from Bankstown. It transpired he’d only ever played soccer, knew nothing of the southern game and was forever screeching “Offside!” to a non-existent linesman as his direct opponent ran off with the ball. But Frank was a passionate young man and knowing nothing about something never inhibited his desire to tell others of his novel insights. And on Aussie Rules, like everything else, Frank had a theory; one you fancy, even Kevin Sheedy would raise an eyebrow at”

    Kick ‘em Like O’Connor

    It were quarter time back in ‘79

    The Wanderers a puffin’,

    Pitched against the lads from Coffs

    Their efforts had come to nothin’.

    “The umpy’s crook”, complained the COACH

    “The wind, it ain’t real fair”,

    An ugly stoush around quarter time

    And Teddy’s lost his flair.

    Drew and Dave can’t tie their boots

    And Youngy’s all a haze,

    Pitto’s been on the grog so bad

    He’ll be no good for days.

    “We gotta lift”, implored the COACH

    “Get in and have a go”,

    But the second stanza were no better

    And no more score to show.

    Half time blew, the COACH were desperate

    “You’re a mob o’ useless tools”,

    Where’s ya heart ‘n where’s ya soul

    Ya playin’ like friggin’ fools”.

    “I got an idea”, came from the corner

    “Ya might think it’s a shocker”,

    But leaping to his feet Frank roared

    “Let’s play the game like soccer!”

    Amid the uproar that ensued

    The COACH he called for calm,

    “He’s on to somethin’ here me lads

    Frank’s plan can’t do no harm”.

    Back on the ground the Wanderers strode

    With an evil, inner grin,

    “We got the buggars now” they thought

    “With Franky’s stratagem”.

    Run it wide and hold the ball

    A simple plan to honour,

    Then cross it over, atop the square

    Just kick it like O’Connor!

    Cret ran it wide and held it in

    Before dishin’ off to Glover,

    Cammy marked, and kicked a goal

    And then he kicked another.

    It were early in the final term

    When Burpo took possession,

    “What we need”, the ruckman thought

    “Is physical aggression”.

    He tucked the ball under one big arm

    And down the field he ran,

    Then a mongrel punt that went nowhere –

    He’d forgotten Franky’s plan!

    The game were over and it were lost

    The Wanderers left to ponder,

    If only they’d stuck to the maestro’s plan

    And kicked it like O’Connor!

    So if you pass the ground[1] one day

    Just give a thought in honour,

    Of that innovative soccer player

    The bloke they called O’Connor.


    1. Uralla & District Sportsground

  3. Saturday should be a good day at Bellevue. As well as the match with Inverell and our little bit of culture in the evening, the Inverell and Armidale Auskick groups are having a little competition before the main game (starting noon).

    I liked the “model citizens” quote. Written by a man that didn’t see the state of the players (or the bus) after the Muswellbrook trip on Saturday.

    Although the Tamworth AFL junior competition wasn’t able to be sustained, Mark Taylor at the Armidale School has an U16 side in the North Coast competition, and they play their home games at Bellevue.

    Interestingly, while the college system was the basis of the game around Armidale in the past, it can be argued to be a negative factor these days on player recruitment. As the number of internal students has dwindled, and the sex ratio in the colleges has changed (Robb has gone from all male to about 60% female, I believe), the peer pressure on blokes to play in the more traditional college rugby teams has increased. As a result there are a number of very good football players wasting their lives playing rugby union. Of course, the converse of this is that the Nomads as a club is less dependent on students than ever before and hence the holiday and exam periods have much less of an impact.

    Thanks for the mention Rocket, hope to catch up in Armidale some time.

    More on the history of football in the region, in the shape of the text from the booklet produced for the reunion mentioned by JezzaOWNZ can be found at newenglandnomads.net

  4. Looking for Mr Rod Gillett, gidday, your article re UNE Gunnedah tAMWORTH BRINGS BACK many good memories, hope your umpiring skills have imroved over the past 30 odd years Rod. Am in Gunnedah at moment, where are you, be good to catch up give me a buzz, are you still on the wrong side of politics? Anyone knowing Rods contact details please reply or let him know about this post, 2010 is the year of the Dogs, after all its only going to be 56 years! Hope you get this Rod, Regards Terry French (AKA Frenchie) Albies 74-77

  5. Rocket Rod Gillett says

    Great to hear from you Frenchie!

    Your mighty Bulldogs are still in with a chance for the flag after staging a remarkable turn around against the boys in red & white. Something Albies were unable to do in UNE footy circa 1974

    Do you also follow the Gunnedah Bulldogs in the local league?

    You’ll be delighted to know that I am still umpiring over here in the Middle East – I am still relunctant to move too far from the cricket pitch…

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