South: Footy Days at Primary School

Morphett Vale South Primary School only exists now as fading memory.

The Adelaide metropolitan area made its great thrust over ‘the hill’ – either O’Halloran or Concrete, depending on which road you take South – and suburbia came to the Southern Vales in the 70s, under the shadow of the now fallen chimney of Port Stanvac and above the most beautiful vineyards.

If one looks at the City of Onkaparinga Council Chambers (formerly City of Noarlunga Council Chambers), a building that dates from this time, you can tell it was planned to be a very Dunstan-esque suburbia. It ended up being just a most South Australian suburbia but thankfully with some lessons learned from the flatlands and open skies of Elizabeth. (Landscape helped. The rolling green vales takes the edge off what can sometimes be a rough part of town.)

Being a South Australian suburbia, it meant affordable homes and Housing Trust homes. That meant young families. Young working class and dole class families. This required a rather large shopping centre. It is also required many, many schools. You could say it required its own SANFL club as well but that had to wait until having a SANFL club meant something entirely different.

Morphett Vale South Primary School opened in 1978 and from its first day, would always be surplus to requirements. The local neighbourhoods would contain Flaxmill, Morphett Vale West, Morphett Vale East, Morphett Vale North, Hackham East, Hackham West, Christie Downs and so on. It never had more than around 150-200 students from Reception through to Year 7. It was supposed to be built in two stages and it never got past stage one – the ‘temporary buildings’ always remained in place – due to lack of demand.

It was early 90s and I was a young boy of single digits. Morphett Vale South was my Primary School. Dad was from the Port, from the most diehard Magpies family you could ever meet. Mum emigrated in the 70s from that great footy town, Bendigo.

Of course, I was keen on the footy. From as long as I can remember, it was there. I was kicking a footy around. Dad gave me a Port Magpies footy – to the amusement of one Glenelg-supporting teacher who told me that “if you want to kick that ball around at school, you’ll need to paint the white parts yellow…we’re in the Tigers zone.” I grew up eventually to become a Panthers man.

As was almost every other single boy and the parents at our school. As was almost every other single boy and the parents at the primary schools sitting south of the hill. Whatever you call the hills and valleys of the south – the Southern suburbs, the Southern Vales or the romantic Hurtle Vale – it is the football heartland.

Football was, is, and will always remain the national pastime of South Australia. Especially for the working class families on the fringes of Adelaide’s suburban sprawl. Footy is just there. What else would you have to talk about from March to October? There’s blokes who’ll care about the SFL, the SANFL and the AFL. And to think most people reckon the heart is in Melbourne.

In the most misunderstood part of the misunderstood city in Australia, footy is the lifeblood. As you would fully expect from a most South Australian suburbia.

It meant every school would have footy teams. Morphett Vale South would have a footy team.

Year 3 would meant certain rites of initiation, now I was eight and a big boy. For those in Mrs Pettingill’s class, it meant graduating from pencil writing and going for your pen licenses. It took me about four attempts to get that pen license and my handwriting is still terrible as a grown man. For the boys, it meant playing your first winter of footy for Morphett Vale South. I would be playing for Morphett Vale South.

Well, technically, I wasn’t…

You’ve probably never seen a double green footy jumper in your life. Dark forest green and bright grass green stripes. There’s a good reason why you’ve never seen it. Because it’s bloody ugly. But green and green were the colours of Morphett Vale South and so we proudly played in green. That’s us, The Greens. The Double Greens. The Green Machine and so forth.

But the first year that I wore the two greens of Morphett Vale South with the boys of Morphett Vale South for… Willunga.

As a very small school, there wasn’t enough boys to field a team for every year. In fact, for that first year, us Year 3s were the only year to have a team. Despite the school’s vast wide green oval (where some of those Stage 2 buildings should have been erected), having just the one team meant that we couldn’t technically represent Morphett Vale South. We had to cover for another school that didn’t have a Year 3 team – which just so happened to be Willunga.

Being Willunga meant our home games were at Willunga – about 20 kilometres south.

Seven thirty am, saturday morning. A convoy of parents driving us boys south, through the rolling hills and valleys. Autumn sun straining through morning fog rising over the harvested vineyards, bare for the forthcoming winter. Far too young to understand and appreciate that we’re going through McLaren Vale, one of the most beautiful wine regions to be found anywhere. That would have to wait until my twenties. Right now, I’ve only got the footy and a pulled hamstring on my mind.

For us, the eight year old boys of Morphett Vale South, the week before our first ever proper game of football was one of incredible excitement. Anytime we could, a footy would be kicked over the vast green oval. The minutes before the bell on Tuesday morning was no exception. Most typically, a game of marks up had broken out. And sure enough, I was in the middle of the all going up for the ball and… ouch. There goes the hammy. My first footy injury. Before my first official game of footy!

A visit to Dr Lin at his Flaxmill Road office (sadly, not his Doctors Road office) confirms that the hamstring has been pulled and no, I shouldn’t be playing footy on Saturday. Not that would stop me. Even if the doctor said he’d have to cut off the leg, it would never stop any eight year old South Australian boy like myself from playing in his footy game.

Willunga Oval on Saturday morning it is then. Yes, not the school oval, the proper big boy oval. It had rained overnight, it was a bit damp, the almond trees and the big gum trees dripping. Mud on the ground. We might have been Willunga in the umpire’s official books but we were Morphett Vale South in reality. I was wearing the double green. I even had a green mouthguard.

Well, I played like an eight year old with a hamstring in the forward pocket. I wasn’t great – I never was that good, to be honest – but I remember a few touches at the footy. And my dad having a bit of a go at me playing with a pulled hammy. And the size of the ground. And the almond trees of Willunga. And the oval’s big old scoreboard. And winning. We won. It was the greatest feeling in the world. My first taste of winning anything. With my first team. With my mates, like Tim and Michael and all the other boys.

South Australia in the early-90s was a somewhat sad place. Not that as an eight year old, you’d noticed. You don’t know any better as a child, you don’t see the big picture and the adult things. You only see what’s in front of you, that’s reality. Even as a slightly strange child who read the newspaper at that age.

Not only did you have the recession, South Australia was in the fallout of the State Bank collapse, its very own Darien scheme. Things were dying, even in this most unique state, as the Sydney-and-Melbourne-isation of Australia carried apace. Cultural independence was slowly being drained away; and the most crucial and importance loss was the death of the old SANFL and the birth of something known as the Camry Crows.

Morphett Vale South Primary School was affected in ways. Someone at the SANFL had the great idea of giving away some prizes; to enter, the kids had to write-in, nominating their favourite SANFL team. Depressingly, in retrospect, a large number of entries had “The Crows” written on them. Rather more importantly, the wider community down south was hit hard by the economic troubles, of the early-90s recession, already quite fragile in the first place due to its working class and dole class nature.

This and the brutal fact that the streets after streets of nearby Housing Trust contains more than its fair share of broken homes inevitably affected the young kids of Morphett Vale South. It was discovered that the some children were not fed breakfast and were going through the morning hungry.

It would lead to Morphett Vale South’s finest hour: the breakfast bar. Every morning in the canteen, a number of volunteers (including my mum) would hand out free toast scraped with Vegemite to all the kids. Even myself, who was always well fed and even had the treat of a hot dog and a Sno-Top from the canteen, sometimes before my anarchic semi-improv stand up performances in the Friday afternoon school assembly. (Turns out that I was playing a form of Threatresports as a kid too.)

A success in that every kid was guaranteed a feed before school, but a controversial one. Of course, the local Salvos waded in, not to praise but damn the school’s efforts. For the argument was that feeding the child was the parent’s responsibility, and not the school’s – an argument that was breathtaking in its lack of understanding and concern for children from homes on the edge of society. A bit of Vegemite on toast might have made the difference between generational poverty and engaging in society later one. Both the principal and the Salvos would eventually make their arguments on The 7.30 Report, South Australia edition.

Despite the tough economic times and struggling families, it was always a given that a convoy of parents and kids would make the trek from Elizabeth Road every Saturday morning to Willunga or points elsewhere. A testament to the dedication of devoted parents and footy. A most South Australian community.

Representing Willunga meant that we didn’t just play in the Southern suburbs. There were rural excursions for the double greens. Our longest away trip was all the way to Meadows, a 60km round trip.

As an eight year old, I couldn’t help but be impressed. It was a great trip up the hills, through the tunnels of great big gum trees, in my mum’s yellow used Datsun (bought from Bob Moran Motors at Reynella). We were playing on what I’d much later appreciate as a real country footy oval. And it had rained a lot on Friday night…

The mums and dads had been used to the mud baths at Willunga and having to drive their dirty boys the long way home to Morphett Vale South, making sure that we sat on towels in the back seat. You could only imagine what they thought of Willunga Oval that morning – it was sunny, but the ground was nothing but mud.

I remember it being less a game of footy and more of a mud sliding demonstration. And then after washing my hands with the coldest tap water ever in the change room (was only ever beaten by a tap in Philadelphia, one cold February morning about fourteen years later), being treated to Meadows’ excellent bakery. Over twenty years later, I still remember it as one of the best pasties that I’ve ever had.

Food and footy wasn’t as entwined as food and cricket – if we were batting second at home, that meant a walk to the Serv-Wel next door to school after your allotted batting overs or if it was an away game, at least a few parents would take a picnic along. Sometimes I’d be lucky and got treated with Maccas or KFC for Saturday lunch but this was well after the game was done, gone home, had a shower or bath to take the inevitable mud off, changed into proper clothing and possibly taken to Colonnades for shopping with mum before even getting into some take-away.

One exception was the time we played a Sunday lightning carnival at Reynella East Primary. It must have been the biggest day ever for their school canteen as boys over the southern suburbs converged to play footy and in between games, pick up cartons of Big M (not FUIC? – Ed) and bags of Twisties. But even better, there was a sausage sizzle!

Even at eight, I knew everything can be improved by a sausage sizzle. That must have helped develop my respect for Australian democracy. Slightly burnt snags, bit of onion, tomato sauce and the whitest of white bread. I wish every footy ground would have a sausage sizzle running. My dad was a Football Park member at the time and in the members stand was a sausage sizzle/barbecue running. I really remember those. Now those were the best.

The lightning carnival also involved a very heated clash against the hosts. And by that, I mean there were many more taunts than usual aimed at the opposing team. Then someone swayed the behind post. And then the parents got involved. No, it wasn’t bad and angry parents. Both sets of parents proceeding to give each team on hell of a telling off. As usual, I was singled out for my big mouth.

OK, I was a bit rubbish at footy. Better at cricket but I certainly didn’t even have Bice Oval on the horizon, let alone Adelaide Oval. However, I could sledge for Australia. And even at the age of eight, I always had the white line fever. Combined with my big mouth, I was trouble on the oval.

There was always one umpire who I thought at the time was a fully grown man but now realised was about seventeen who didn’t appreciate my talking back or willingness to engage in any brawl (well, a bit of pushing around). As it was schoolboy footy, I wasn’t hauled to the tribunal but rather was sent off the field for five minutes. Which led to the inevitable dressing down by every parent in attendance that my big mouth had let the team down again. Yatala, here we come.

Year 4 meant changes. Everyone had pen licenses now and a new teacher meant new wacky ideas of teaching us to eventually become somewhat productive members of society. Our Year 4 teacher had the genius idea of introducing classroom money, to teach us about buying and selling and the free market. Until the boy in our school from the most deprived and broken home possible, and therefore the most street smart of us all, had earned himself significantly more money than the rest of the class. Then we found out about government intervention…

On the winter sporting front, the pirate flag of the round ball code was on the horizon. Turns out that one of the boys had inherited a new dad over the summer, who happened to be a bit of a local Pele. That and our good friends at SBS kicked off a brief soccer craze in the pre-season that everyone, including me, got swept up in, culminating in an unofficial after school training session with the new dad.

But there was going to be no way in hell that Morphett Vale South would play soccer. The parents would never stand for this. And the school principal just happened to be the father of a 90s AFL journeyman (plying his trade at the Crows, Dockers and Kangaroos over the middle years of the decade.)

Sure enough, just over half an hour into this training session, we happened to be rudely interrupted by the principal to advise us boys that our training run with the Alex Ferguson of Allinga Road was not sanctioned by the school and half the parents had rung up asking for their boys to be sent home.

One parent who didn’t was my mum, who happened to be volunteering on the school sports board at the time. In the end, she ended up resigning over the footy versus soccer war… I note that I don’t harbour any negative feeling towards the principal, as he made sure I played in the school’s first XI during summer (and that’s another story entirely, involving a swarm of bees.)

While some kids held out hope of playing soccer, they crucially wanted to play footy as well. Rather unrealistically, one of my classmates was of the belief that we could play footy on Saturday and soccer on Sunday. I knew that was never going to happen. I was already jaded and pessimistic in Year 4.

Sure enough, the fait accompli came one day after class. Footy was on offer – we’d found another school that we could cover for with the Year 4s. Soccer was not mentioned and it appeared every boy had forgotten about that entire soccer thing. I didn’t but my love of footy won out as always. Back in the double green it was. I’ve forgotten which school we technically represented – somewhere around Reynella way, it certainly wasn’t as memorable as Willunga.

What was memorable: we played against girls! These weren’t Auskick days, it was proper footy…but at our year level, a degree of gender equality was considered. But it seemed like this year that there were a few schools that would have one or two girls on the team. I remember one girl with a long blonde ponytail who ran out for Hackham East Primary, she was quite excellent. I hope she went on to play some kind of sport as an adult, and one that was quite engaging.

And so on. The autumns came and while the excitement was never quite the same, the game was played. Footy was never out of sight, from marks up at lunch to the Saturday morning match. From the beachside suburbs to the hills beyond. Slowly, we all grew (much to my mum’s annoyance, as that meant a new pair of footy boots every year) and I even got more confident with the footy. And was part of a team. That wore double green.

The only thing that we ever missed out on was playing Mini League at half time during an AFL or a SANFL game. We never got invited – in hindsight, probably because we never represented our own school anyway – but it would have been brilliant if we had. (At least we never got invited to play for the “IGA Team”, as I witnessed happening to some poor bunch of schoolboys at a SANFL game last year.)

The season always ended at Junk Food Corner. On the corner of Main South, Sheriffs and Pimpala Roads, a shrine to saturated fats, convenience and good times. The ceremony known as award days meant a celebration at Hungry Jack’s or, glory of all glories, a sit down Pizza Hut in its fading years. I’d always get two awards: a medal for being on the team and a faux-marble plastic mini-trophy for making it to every training session.

The end of the Year 6 season demanded Pizza Hut – we were too old to be satisfied with a cheeseburger and the playground, only all-you-can eat pizza and dessert bar would do now. It was the end of my childhood and the beginning of the end of my footy days. I would be saying goodbye to the Morphett Vale South boys – forever.

Over the summer, we moved over to Bendigo.

My first game for White Hills Junior Football Club was, in a sense, the first day of my utterly awkward and spiteful teenage years. Moving to Bendigo meant discovering girls and there were some very pretty girls around, and shockingly, I was rather confident then around them for a glorious summer ‘round the White Hills swimming pool. I don’t recall them at the game and that was quite unfortunate – I kicked two goals that day.

Apart from the goals, i remember two things about that game: the other boys claiming that I had ‘stolen’ goals from them and one random bloke having a go at me for wearing a long-sleeved white shirt under my incredibly itchy woollen jumper because White Hills Oval was a total mudpit. (A hateful red slash on black, no less). Welcome to White Hills.

White Hills Junior Football Club ended up being a terrible experience, as was most of my time in Bendigo. While I really got on well with the local girls – and at that age, that was sensational, I was hated by the boys. And the dickhead coaches that ran the club. Reflecting on this, it was because I was the outsider. From Adelaide, no less!

I was hated by the rest of my team and by the coach. The polar opposite of my mates and the parent coach at Morphett Vale South Primary. Yes, I never was the best but I did okay. Yet, there I was…sitting on the bench for an awfully long time. Why? Was it to prove a point? Maybe I was rubbish? Yes, my goal kicking against North Bendigo on a windy day at Weeroona was terrible. Even so – it’s still only young boys playing footy, it wasn’t the f***ing AFL.

They drove me out of the club. They drove me out of footy. We returned to Adelaide after finding Bendigo so awfully hostile. I became a moody teenager. I never played footy again.

It was always going to be too small. Morphett Vale South Primary School closed in the year 2000 and inevitably, the temporary buildings were demolished and with the wide green oval, turned into a housing development. Where it once was is now where young families live. The kids have to make their way to Flaxmill Primary School instead. The Serv-Wel next door is now an IGA.

Apparently, next to the bike path where the school once stood and now modest McMansions do, a time capsule of the school was buried. Last time I was down south, I had a look around but found no evidence of it or any evidence there once was a school. Maybe I was looking in the wrong place. I hope it’s there and someone digs it up sometime in the future; to remind everyone of a school that educated plenty of boys and girls, that was part of the community, that had a footy team.

I just hope they didn’t put a double green jumper in the time capsule.

About The Philby

Inconsistent contrarian. Barracker of Carlton FC and South Adelaide FC. Resident of Sydney. Holder of the record of shortest umpiring career with the South Australian Cricket Association.


  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    This could be me Philby, 25 or more years later, 40ks further south, Panthers instead of Bulldogs.

    Say Hi to Mr Groom.

    Do you have any photos of the double-green Guernsey?

    Hope you’ve left some of your stories in the locker. More like this please.

  2. Philby

    A beautiful memoir, with lots that resonates. Like Swish, much of this is me but further north, and earlier.

    “Even at eight, I knew everything can be improved by a sausage sizzle. ” I reckon this is true at any age.

    You mention the vineyards with affection, and I think the Reynella Wineflies have a very good handle, although I can’t claim to have knowingly seen a winefly.

    Thanks for this.

  3. The Philby says

    Swish – …and you’re the winner of The Chris Groom Sweepstakes! (Poor old Chris got roped in to start the school fun run one year – only for a teacher to loudly claim that it was a bit weak after Nigel Smart was the guest of honour the year before.) And thanks for the terrific feedback on here and the ol’ Twitter.

    No pictures of the double green on hand but when I visit mum’s place next time I’m down, I’ll have to dig out the photos – reckon there’s a team photo in there at least.

    I’ll have to write up my primary school cricket stories one of these days. Still tell anyone who’ll listen about my hat-trick at McLaren Vale Primary…

    Mickey – Thanks for the great feedback. Being a Morphett Vale Emus man myself, I always looked down on Reynella with some disdain. Wearing Collingwood jumpers doesn’t help them. (Reynella Oval is one of my favourite footy ovals, however.) Never have been sure on their moniker – the propaganda unit of the South Australian Department of Primacy Industries always reminded us kids that South Australia will always be fruit fly free!

    Quite right about the snags – that’s why you’ll find them by the polling booth!

  4. Grand memories Philby. I remember a Dave Philby worked for the SA Health Commission 20+ years ago. Clever bloke but didn’t look the footy type. Willunga is a grand spot. Alma Hotel, Salopian Inn, Richard Hamilton WInes, Black Chook Sparkling Shiraz. But when I’m back in Adelaide in a few weeks its the Victory Hotel on top of Willunga Hill that I will be taking in.

  5. Rabid Dog says

    Panthers man eh? Now I know 4 of them.

  6. The Philby says

    Peter B – ah, the Victory Hotel, have not been there for far too long! Definitely on my top ten pubs list. Last time I was back in Adelaide, took the Sydney-bred girlfriend over Sellicks Hill and she just couldn’t believe the view. Just when she was getting over how close I grew up to McLaren Vale and its views…

    Rabid Dog – I’ll admit we’re still not that numerous…

  7. Peter Fuller says

    Well I go for the Panthers also, although my clams to being a supporter are tenuous.
    During my distant playing days, I spent an Easter holiday in Adelaide. It was one week prior to the commencement of our regular season, so I was keen to have a run. A bloke whom we knew, knew some-one connected to South, and gave me access to a practice match. South’s seniors and reserves were playing elsewhere, so this was a team of left-overs, probably appropriate to my standard. We played North at Prospect, and when I got a brief run in the final quarter, I managed to slot a goal., so my allegiance to the Panthers was decisively confirmed.
    Philby, the fact that you are also a Carlton man – although I’ve just read your post where you seem to be wavering and casting your lot in with the Orangemen – marks you as a man of culture and refinement as well as your having impeccable taste in football teams.

  8. Jason cannell says

    I was lucky enough to captain the mvsps football team in the 90″s and have very fond memories of the school. You did a great job in jogging up old memories. Great memoir

  9. Kelly Cannell says

    Amazing story.. you worded the southern suburbs perfectly.. I think there’s a chance you played/went to school with my husband Jason??

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