Review Essay: Going To The Local Footy

For curiosity’s sake, I investigated whether I lived closer to the MCG or my own football club. In a close run thing, the Main Oval at Melbourne University came out marginally nearer. The reason for my search was the idea of ‘local’ footy. I, like many others, equate local footy with something entirely different to the game played at the MCG. But I am sure there are a great many fans who still think of their local footy team as the one who plays in the AFL and has its roots in a particular suburb.

My father grew up on the border of Collingwood and Richmond, equidistant from Victoria Park and Punt Road Oval. His father barracked for Richmond, a trait he passed on to Dad’s brother. But Dad ended up supporting the Magpies, the other of the local teams. In a strange quirk of fate, my brother and I ignored Dad’s allegiance and grew up going for the Tigers. Although we could cite the influence of Grandpa and Uncle Mike, I don’t recall either being involved in our decisions. We managed to barrack for Richmond despite the suburb being 300km away from our home.

The idea of local is a touch arbitrary. Growing up in Burramine South, the closest football ground to my house was about 15km away. The closest ground to my house now, Victoria Park, is just over 500m away. (Unfortunately no football team calls Victoria Park home these days, making the idea of local side redundant.) For two years I regularly drove over 300km just to play football for my ‘local’ team, the Birchip-Watchem Bulls. Funnily, ‘my’ AFL team which plays and trains only 3km from me, Richmond, is less of my local team than the Bulls. A trip over Easter and reading a book edited by Paul Daffey and John Harms, Footy Town, reinforced the idea of local footy to me.

Mrs Bugler and I were married in the coastal hamlet of Barwon Heads. After a life in the Mallee, her parents decided a sea breeze was needed to blow away the residual red dust. We regularly make the trip down over the West Gate to enjoy the company and the coast. I took a ride around the Bellarine the weekend after Easter and while pedalling through Portarlington noticed a sign that said their local footy side, the Demons, was to take on the might of the Barwon Heads Seagulls the following day in Barwon Heads. I managed to talk Mrs Bugler into a walk down to the ground to take in the local footy.

The first thing I noticed, after we weaved our way from the coast through the caravan park to the ground, was that local footy includes everybody. On any given Saturday a person could be representing their team on the field, in the canteen, behind the bar, and in the ranks of supporters. At the MCG or Docklands, it is made abundantly clear that you are an anonymous consumer, merely a member of a crowd. Despite the inherent inequality between the crowds drawn to the games, both netball and football are played at local footy. In some local footy leagues, even hockey is included. Significantly more gender-balanced than the lip-service played by the AFL to females in the annual Women’s Round.

The wonderfully built new grandstand at the Barwon Heads oval looks out over the ground, the caravan park, and beyond to the heads of the river which give the town its moniker. Surrounding the grandstand were people and for the first time I felt that we were seeing true Barwon Heads locals. Wandering the town in holidays, it seems the town is made up of those escaping the city and there is barely a permanent resident to be found. But at the football, the personnel were the same as those that can be found in any country town in Victoria.

The gustatory experience of local football is never a thing to be under-estimated. Hand-made sandwiches and salad rolls, pies and sausage rolls from the local bakery, deep-fried goodness, and bright red hot dogs in fresh buns – football canteens know what the fans like. The volunteers in the canteen included a member of the Seagulls’ senior team who would run out to play in little less than an hour. A local manned the over-sized barbecue and created a hamburger with the lot that would rival any you could find in the finer restaurants of Melbourne. And at only $6, a good deal cheaper. Also, far less expensive than the landfill supplied by ‘catering’ companies at the various stadia in our fine city.

I surveyed the scene before me while enjoying my burger. Premiership flags hung in the rooms behind. The can bar did a brisk trade for the thirsty fans. The Barwon Head Reserves put the finishing touches on a demolition of Portarlington. The mid-April sun cast everything in a warm glow. Everywhere people moved, performing tasks for the benefit of their community and local football club. It was a poignant and picturesque reminder of what local footy is.

Footy Town is a collection of stories about local footy around Australia. Each writer shares their passion for the game that is played at local parks and in local paddocks throughout the country. It is a different game than the one we see on our television screens, and the one played out at my ‘local’ MCG. The authors are players and supporters, parents and children, barbecue culinaires and bartenders, umpires and cheer squad members, timekeepers and gatekeepers. The commonality they have is that the game belongs to them, their team and club belong to them. It doesn’t matter if they are near or far, they each have their own local footy team. The Age‘s Martin Flanagan describes Footy Town best when he says “The roots of the game are not to be found in sports administration degrees or marketing manuals but stories such as these.”


  1. Tony Robb says

    hi Liam
    fine sentiments indeed Local footie is what its about The stuff a the G has lost the plot

  2. PeterSchumacher says

    Have to go to a local game here at Shepparton!

  3. Andrew Else says

    Nice read. Not bad for a Blues bloke either.

    Hopefully the Uni keeps the ‘player run’ feel after the redevelopment.

    Great that the BFL are playing over Easter and giving a chance for holidaying folk to take in a game.

  4. Mark Doyle says

    This book and essay is a naive, romantic and nostalgic memory of local football clubs in the first half of the 20th century. In this time most players and supporters of VFL clubs in Melbourne were working class people who lived and worked in that suburb and the weekend football was the main social activity. In small rural towns there was a similar culture when most people were farm workers and the football club was the main social activity. In most regional cities most football players lived in that city and worked in public service and small business type jobs and the football club was their main social activity. However, in contemporary Australian society, most of this community culture has become redundant and people are better educated, more affluent and travel for their entertainment. It is now very easy for we Australians to travel to places such as Arhus in Denmark for arts and music festivals and Sans Sebastian in Spain for film festivals. AFL football has no community culture and is nothing more than upper middle class entertainment for professional people and competes with activities such as the visual and performing arts, overseas travel and restaurant dining for people’s entertainment. Most AFL football supporters in Melbourne are also happy to access their AFL football through the electronic media and have easy access to AFL football while enjoying other activities. In rural areas most small town football clubs have also become redundant because young people no longer live and work in small towns and on farms; these people now live in larger regional and state capital cities because of access to education and professional and trade jobs. These small town football clubs can only survive with mergers and amalgamations of leagues and most of their players train in the larger regional cities and travel to various locations on the weekend. This culture also applies to the semi-professional competitions such as the Ovens and Murray and Goulburn Valley Leagues where approximately 20% of players live and work in Melbourne; these players train with a Melbourne based club and travel to their club game on the weekend. The only places where the football and other sports clubs have a genuine community culture are small towns with less than 10,000 residents where there is a lack of entertainment such as the visual and performing arts and restaurants and the football and other sports clubs provide a valuable community and social environment for local residents and most of the club activities depend on volunteer labour.

  5. Andrew Fithall says

    No it isn’t. No it wasn’t. No it wasn’t. No they didn’t. No they don’t. It is not easy. Yes it does and it is not. No they aren’t. No they haven’t. 20% is not the equivalent of “most”. They are certainly not the only places.

    I disagree.


  6. MD – “AFL football has no community culture and is nothing more than upper middle class entertainment for professional people…..”

    Exhibit A – Joffa

  7. Derrinalphil says

    “AFL football has no community culture and is nothing more than upper middle class entertainment for professional people and competes with activities such as the visual and performing arts, overseas travel and restaurant dining for people’s entertainment.”

    Upper class people are as rare as a full set of teeth in the Brisbane Lions cheer squad. Mark obviously goes to Richmond games where they argue incessantly about Plato and discuss translations of Tacitus.

    He does have a point about the AFL now being a TV game. It was many years ago when income from TV became greater than money through the gate.

  8. Mark

    Firstly, what the ……??????????????? Secondly, do you talk to your family and friends in this tone, and if you do, does their faces crease up the way most people on this website’s do?

  9. Tony – I very much enjoyed your contribution to Footy Town, a great tribute to your dad. I agree that the ‘product’ at the G has lost the plot. You can’t have a conversation with someone without being screamed at by the PA!

    Peter – I grew up not far from Shepparton and have been to many games around the area. I even played for Euroa for a season. GV is a strong league!

    Andrew – It will be interesting to see how Uni footy goes with a new Pavvy. My guess is it will be pretty similar. The key to Blues and Blacks is the quality of the people and I don’t think that will change. Both great clubs to be at, although Blues people are a shade better!

    Mark – I’m not sure where to start with your comment. Safe to say, I thoroughly disagree.
    I felt the community when I played at Birchip-Watchem (admittedly less than 10,000), the Uni Blues have a very strong community in Melbourne, and the first time I really felt a sense of community at Barwon Heads was when I went to the footy. The local footy feeling is still going strong in this day and age, and the community culture is not redundant.
    Football has never been about just working class people, it has always been the great equaliser. I have played with professors, doctors, AFL execs, and farm hands, wood choppers, and shearers. The whole range of society still exists and all are keen on football.
    It seems that you barely read my essay or the book. My story was from Easter 2013 and wasn’t nostalgic at all! Nathan Ryan wrote an essay in the book about travelling back to Nathalia last year. He clearly loved the experience about heading back to his home town with a couple of mates and playing in the community he grew up in. Again, not nostalgic. 2012!
    I suggest you re-read my essay and the book with an open mind!
    Thanks for the comments,

  10. Liam

    Despite the rule changes, stadiums with roofs and saturation coverage, I still love big time footy. However I agree that local footy, in my case following a junior team, is fantastic. The feel and look of suburban grounds with trees around them, people with their dogs and everyone chipping in, is beautiful.

    As you say, this isn’t limited to football, as in local and rural places, hockey, netball, cricket etc can’t survive without volunteers or parents willing to chip in.

    Great read, well written, loved it.

    I still have yet to have a hot dog at an AFL ground that comes close to one from my local ground too.


  11. Liam, I really enjoyed your piece, and thanks for supporting the idea of Footy Town.

    Mark, I find your comments a little difficult to digest although I think I understand the narrow definition of ‘community’ you have chosen to use. You are welcome to a review copy of Footy Town which has no political or social intention, it’s just 48 yarns about footy clubs. When looked at en masse certain themes emerge. These are not manufactured. People see in their footy clubs a coming together in common purpose, a fraternal environment not obvious in a lot of other places and just good fun in a spirit of absurdity. So perhaps you could identify the nature of the false consciousness which pervades those writing for the book and engaged by the book, and by extension this website.

  12. Sean – I am still a huge fan of the footy as well. I think I have watched more this year than in the last decade! It is just a couple of things that nag at me, and despite the game being played, the whole she-bang feels like they are forgetting what footy is about.
    I agree there is nothing like local footy. Every person is as important as the next, from the star player to the kid running water to the people on the gate. Everyone is in it together.
    And the hot dogs are the bomb! My wife is getting sick of me talking incessantly about savs whenever we are going to country footy. I think she believes I am there for the food, not the footy!

    John – thanks for the comment. I had forgotten how much I like the Almanac until Footy Town came out. Then you and Paul came to speak at the Blues’ ANZAC dinner. I didn’t go (was in Tassie), but I heard it was a great night! Cheers.

  13. Peter Flynn says

    Mark Doyle,

    I thought you were going to mention Charlottenlund Travbane.

    The Copenhagen Cup is on next month.

    Buy a form guide (in Danish) and try to unlock the code.

  14. QUINNY …. Like you I love local footy, in my case the Bendigo Football Netball League.

    You’ll be flattened by Birchip-Watchem’s progress this season, so far. The Bulls are in the cellar & last weekend went down to the North Central League’s runners-up last season, St. Arnaud: 118 to 35.
    Two of 2012’s strugglers in Charlton & Boort are currently in the Top Four, however, so all is not lost.

    Darky: unfortunately I fear Doyley might have hit on a 21st century phenomenon. That being the AFL becoming a sort of ‘theatre’ for the well-off. Not across the board, but there’s pockets of it there, undeniably.
    Example: we have a friend who was bequeathed a multiple membership ticket extending from 2011 for a further 5 years or so.
    She’ll go to the G or Docklands to watch her deceased friend’s AFL club, but when I ask her did she note Billy Bloggs tagged Fred Nerk, she’ll look blankly. Not only does she NOT know any of the players’ names she’s been watching but has no idea of tactics/team moves/match-ups or any of the things you and I [and Knacker regulars] take for granted.
    Multiply that example by the thousands who flock to the corporate boxes to quaff their preferred vintage and gulp down their horses’ doovers and you have a whole new huge, viewing audience.

  15. pauldaffey says

    Hi Mark,

    I agree that the communities at country footy are not what they were in the 1950s, but they’re still communities. People still turn up every weekend and feel a part of something larger than themselves.

    It’s true that crowds will never return to those of the halcyon days and that many players travel to play. But all of us want to belong. I reckon the community aspect of local footy has lasted pretty well.

  16. Hey Richard,
    I still have a few mates at the Bulls so keep an eye on North Central results. The small league means a side can drop from contender to pretender very quickly. And the Bulls are battling!
    Hopefully they cause a few upsets and sneak into the finals.

  17. Liam
    A great piece!
    As a contributor to Footy Town, I am pleased that you are enjoying it.
    The community feel at my local club in Williamstown is wonderful…..
    mums and dads watching their sons play, casual observers, locals,
    past players. It is a fantastic way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

  18. Andrew Starkie says

    Went back to the bool a few weeks ago to watch my old club, Old Collegians, play. I know i can rock up to the Davo Oval, park around the fence, make my way to the bar and run into old mates, without contacting anyone in advance. It’s my home ground in so many ways. Country footy is footy’s soul.

  19. Thanks Smokie, the feel at the Uni Main for me is the same. One of my good friends lives in Hong Kong at the moment but his folks still turn up each week because they enjoy the club so much. A great place to be.
    Andrew, a great anecdote that I can thoroughly relate to. If I head back to Tungamah, it feels like every second person is an old friend or a relative who I want to stop and chat to. But sometimes you have to put the blinkers on and make a beeline for the hot dogs or can bar!

  20. Well said Mark. I agree with you totally. Mind you I did stop reading after “this book and essay is a naive, romantic and nostalgic memory of local football clubs”.

  21. Stephanie Holt says

    Nice piece, Liam.
    And completely flabbergasted by Mark’s response.
    Naive, romantic and nostalgic … well, that flavours much fan-based writing in whatever genre, sometimes flattening out into cliche, but at its best expressing emotional connections that are no less intense for being hard to put into words, or shared by many, or expressed in a common language of treasured images, character sketches and oft-told stories.
    But much of Footy Town comprises contemporary accounts, clear-eyed about the realities of contemporary footy clubs (more often more properly, as Liam suggests, footy/netball clubs).
    Conflating ‘community’ with some all-encompassing regional/class solidarity (and homogeneity) seems itself naive, romantic and nostalgic.
    What fundamental bonds, connections, meanings do we aspire to find in community, do we think existed in those more easily recognised communities of half a century ago or more?
    What I took from Footy Town was an exploration/celebration of the joy, fulfilment, meaning, connection and sense of identity larger than the individual that might arise around a footy club, and that is perhaps captured by the idea of ‘community’, whether a contemporary iteration of it, or honouring (or longing for) a lost version.

  22. Lord Bogan says

    Mark has obviously not read Barry Dickins story about playing footy in Lalor in 1962.

    Nothing middle class comes out of Lalor. Or goes back in for that matter.

  23. From that essay Lord Bogan, which is penned in love (Barry assures me, and I don’t doubt it), there are many fine lines.

    In some ways Lalor is incidental: Barry is actually representing (at once playfully and honestly) a state of mind, an inner-anger, an hostility.

    He writes:

    “Good mark you fuckin’ idiot!” was a popular line of encouragement as we did end-to-end, in trying conditions.

    It is such a funny piece.

  24. Peter_B says

    “Good, Mark you fuckin’ idiot!” could just become a standard response on the Almanac. Would save us all a lot of time and column space.

  25. Lord Bogan says

    Harmsy, it is funny, but there is also an underlying sadness at the brutal psyche of some of those fans which makes it very real. There is always a touch of acidity along with the nostalgia. Even the seemingly harmless comedy of the Three Stooges is an interesting analogous reference as there was plenty of encouraging violence among Moe, Curly, Shemp and Larry. They too used to bounce up, not complain and get on with the next round of hi jinks.

  26. Unfair Peter.
    Mark’s words are always enjoyed here and let’s not get too cosy.
    Buffoon, Flemington

  27. tr.v. Doyled
    1. To be heavily critiqued at length with dubious statistics and obtuse references to media buffoons, exotic European cities, cycling, the arts, fine dining and other high-brow proclivities

    [Origin unknown.]

  28. Dr Rocket says

    One of the key findings of an obscure thesis on the early history of footy in the Riverina in the late 19th century was that where as in Melbourne the game was a mass spectator sport (Turner & Sandercock, 1981) football in the Riverina was a community game where people came together – not divided by religion or social class – but united by their isolation to support the local team (Gillett, 1984).

    Reckon the position hasn’t changed….

Leave a Comment