Off Season Odyssey – Part 14: Kicking Over Wheat Silos


Kicking Over Wheat Silos


I wake up with four kids staring at me.


Blink. Blink, blink.


The farm is half way between Bordertown and nowhere. Pete gets off the phone.


“There’s no work for you today,” he tells me.


I get the impression the boss is the sort of bloke who says “There’s heaps on” when there isn’t, so you’ll be there, just in case he needs you.


1,000km detour is a long way to come to prove a point on arseholes. Money’s damn low. I stress on it a bit.


The kids are bored, so I draw them a picture of Pete and my playing history.



Soon, we take three of them and go on an Odyssey of our own, within my Odyssey, of all the desert fringe ovals. And, just like that, everything is open roads and eucalypts, and nothing matters.



We drive to the grounds elevated from and surrounded by the stringy bark swamps, the ones tucking into never-ending seas of vineyards, ones under the bleak shadows of mighty, forgotten wheat silos.



We kick at each oval. Soon, the girls want a part of it. We feed them some easy stuff, then keep breaking into hard leads. Pete shoots time and again from fifty.


I know he said he’s done, but to see him float sideways, monstering marks with all that strength and height and weight behind him, there’s no way he’ll retire. Not ever, I reckon. If he ever falls asleep at the wheel, the legend of him will play on. I’ll simply be back this way, and have a training run with his memory.


Between stops we drive forever.


It’s amazing. Some clubs have nothing more than two blocks of faded weatherboard houses to feed them before the road opens up again. Not a shop, not a factory. The one sign that says “Welcome to…” and “Thanks for coming…”. It feels like, with the silos closing down, and the track growing over, what’s left is blending back into the desert.



Others are lucky. Hanging on a bit harder, their silos still going. Frances has a nine ute pub. We count them as we walk into its cooling dark. Not one sedan or land-rover or station wagon.


Even saying it sounds right.


“A nine ute pub sorta town,” we tell each other.


“Stay for a few more,” says a harvester driver.


I give Pete a look. It’s tempting, would be easy. I could lose a month in a nine ute pub, live stories. But we’re already on a lazy journey.



Each club has its own quirk. One has a video camera pole sticking out from the open-air wine bar, over the boundary, so the people in there don’t have to turn their backs from drinking. The structure’s a beaut. Big, wooden beams with the bark still on them, a roof and backing wall.


We stroll in. Everything’s there. DVD players, telly monitors, pot belly fires. Glasses, bar stools. Nothing stolen.


“Bush clubs,” Pete says, as if bragging.


“Blokes used to piss on the tree-covered rise behind the bar, in sight of the club rooms, so they erected two five foot high corrugated iron sheets up there for the to squirt behind,” he tells me.


I walk over and have a look. There’s no ditch, no trough. Just earth. And, if you’re over 5ft, a perfect, uninterrupted view of the action.



One ground has about six, rich green patches. Everything else is dry and yellow.


“Spot the sprinkler locations,” Pete chuckles.


Each club, no matter how well off, or run down, no matter how poor, has netball courts and a mighty playground for the kids. Mighty! As if it’s the rules. As if they know what matters.


They’re community ovals, every one of them. More than football.


Some things we see are just funny.



We drive. Pete tells me the name of the league. It has so many words in it I’d need a degree to remember it.


“Yeah, it’s a state of the bush thing,” he says. “It’s actually three or four leagues merged into one.”


Eleven clubs, or there abouts. Some hanging on, a few going strong.


“You can sometimes make out the old towns, or ovals. The line of Cypress trees in paddocks.”


I spare a thought for them all, their ghosts, as we push along back roads and nowhere.



Padthaway made finals, but had to bus in 13 players each week from Adelaide.


“Five hours one way, just for home games. Over an hour more for most away ones,” Pete says.


“They come, they play, leave. Give nothing back,” a man outside the milkbar says.


He blames money.


“Offer them $700 a game and they just laugh at ya! Most of them are broken down city boys anyway.”



I don’t know what to blame. The times. It’s all seems to be about winning at the moment. Glory. Battling teams, even on telly, are described as ‘disgraceful’ and ‘pathetic’.


Yet without those thirteen imports there would be no club. I’ve got no answers.


We have a kick at another. Shoot for goal, on the run, again from fifty. Always from fifty.


There’s a top-dollar electronic scoreboard on the far wing, worth as much as the clubrooms. It was donated by a rich grazier. Word is the man has no family, and has left everything in his will to the footy club. Meanwhile, until he dies, he’s feeding them.



The rich vineyard owners and spud and onion farmers feed another team. The locals pay for this league, keep it alive. The big dynasties. It’s the wild west, propped up by imports and mercenaries. Paid for, kept alive, by people who live down the longest, dustiest, hard-working drives, who you rarely see, other than once or twice a year, in the outer.


One oval, in the nearest rural city, has advertising everywhere. The other clubs think of it as the enemy. Its surface is HUGE! Much bigger than the MCG. Even the scoreboard is like a fortress.



“If you were coach you’d give them one drill, surely,” I say to Pete. “Running.”


There’s no pockets to hide the old in. No closed-in quarters to go the knuckle. The opposition coaches could never say: “They have more skill, but bash into them.”


The other teams, with their small ovals, would find only air. They wouldn’t know what happened. Run hard on that a few nights a week and you’d be unstoppable.


I ask Pete what the standard is like?


“High enough,” he says. “Good, even. There are no mugs,” he tells me.


We cut back past Keith, I think, to try and kick a footy over it’s wheat silo. The thing looks enormous!


Pete manages to get within five feet of the roof. I only get just over half way. Him and the kids, and a couple of railway workers have a laugh at me and my faded hamstrings.



I was never a long kick, even in the day. Mark, feed it off to the runners. Make ‘em look good. That was my game plan. Maybe a train will pass I can handball into. We could watch it leaving. “A 800km play,” I’d tell them.


I try again, aiming straight up, but the crosswind gets the ball and it misses everything.


“Mate, you couldn’t even hit the side of a…” one of the workers starts up.


“Don’t say it,” I snap at him.


“Hell knows how Billy Brownless did it?” says Peter.


The last oval we got to is Mundulla. Big, lazy trees everywhere, it has a nice size to it. Is looked after well, soft, despite the lack of water.


We kick and lead. The girls are country kids, through and through, it’s been a huge day, but they’re still not over it. They get in the way and join in, and laugh and tumble.



“Notice how they’ve spread the amenities out,” Pete says.


I look around. There’s the club rooms, the toilets away from them. The scoreboard behind the goals, the beer shed another twenty meters along, the canteen another ten along, the change rooms and coaches boxes are a big, weatherboard shed that backs right onto the far boundary.  In between everything are these little Mechano stands that can only sit about fifteen people.


The oval is a bowl, even when empty, surrounded.


“It’s the best ground,” Pete says. “If I play anywhere this year, it’ll be here. Shame they don’t pay, but, feh,” Pete shrugs his shoulders.


The town’s won something like eleven of the past fifteen flags because of not paying. Because of family. Each one of the four or five farming families had about eight or nine kids, and bang, there’s your netball and about one-and-a-half footy teams. The running joke is the club’s inbred.


Sounds to me like jealousy.



If I could I’d play here. I’d play at every club in this damn league! Life is the shortest thing when you think about it.


“A lot of the brothers are getting too old now, the next gen moving to cities. They’re slipping backwards a bit, not making finals, but still refuse to fork out like the other clubs…” Pete says.


We kick and lead up the oval and back, and up again. The sun begins setting. Everything about the ground looks strong, casual and healthy. Inviting. Like bush footy.


I watch my mate Pete, dodging his twin girls, and step-daughter, laughing with them. Yellow streaks of light cut through the gums, making his shadow almost as big as he is.


There’s no way he’s going to retire. Not ever.



We’ve covered almost 300kms. The day’s been perfect.




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  1. Skip of Skipton says

    Kowree-Naracoorte-Tatiara League, Matt. It provided two kids at last years National Draft, which is one or two more than most.

  2. Matt Zurbo says

    Two more than the league I’m in, Skip!!!! Good on them/it! Which two, do you know? I’d love to follow their careers, see how they go. Did you play there ?

  3. Skip of Skipton says

    Lachlan Neale from Kybybolite to Fremantle. Lincoln McCarthy from Bordertown to Geelong.
    I only ever played footy in Geelong and the Army, Matt. Although and old neighbour and drinking buddy played for Edenhope back in the day and played against some of those sides. Phil Carman was originally from there too.

  4. Matt Zurbo says

    Cheers. Geez, Kybyboliite is a LONG way from Freo!I hope he makes it.

  5. John Harms says

    Matt, very timely that you were in this area. KNT league is very strong. Mundulla, as Daff has written, is just a remarkable club.

    Add to the two recruits from Kyby one Jack Trengove also from there. Now that’s a story. My nephews played there. Jack’s Mum came to an Almanac launch in Adelaide one time.

    I do a spot on ABC SA each Saturday about country and suburban footy. KNT is a much-loved league. Also the road through Pinaroo-Lameroo-Peake etc takes you past some super ovals.

    I love your photographs, esp the second one.

  6. Matt Zurbo says

    Thanks John! It reminded me very much of my old league, the CDFL. There are strong, cashed up teams, and others that don’t even have a town any more, (three) and are kept alive by the next, town-based generations who’s fathers played there, and one that is propped up by the one farmer and his (love and) money and lots of players bussed in from Geelong..Despite the hardship of several clubs, I am told there are 8 or so current AFL players from it. Hodge, Foley, Henderson, Bucchanon, Parker, etc…

    The KNT looked like the sweetest league to play in, real bush footy. I was very jealous.

  7. Rocket Kim says

    As I recall Billy Brownless had quite a few frothy ones at the Mirrool pub before he booted it over the silo.

  8. Peter featherston says

    Great writing once again turbo, we shall have to go and relive the glory days again one day! :-) keep up the good work and enjoy you journey

  9. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great read as always what is a worry is the amalgamation of clubs and leagues in general , the gradual decline of people living in the bush , have huge repercussions on sport and life in the country
    As always I love your communication skills and I would love a dollar for each time you have had. Kick and catch in your life , Thanks Matt

  10. Peter Fuller says

    I guess Lachlan Neale made the grade; Lincoln McCarthy has done a bit as well.

  11. Great read back in 2012. And a great read in 2020.

    Timeless, Old Dog.

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