The agon and AFL footy.

Every Saturday, around lunch-time, I do a spot on ABC Grandstand’s South Australian edition. It’ss a lot of fun.

Roger Wills holds the show together in the way that only Roger can. He has a unique mind. It reminds of one of those rooms in an rambling old country dwelling; one that is full of stuff gathered over the century-long life of the house. Nothing can be thrown out. And there are so many treasures, Rog has to tell you about them excitedly and somewhat eccentrically.

Rod Jameson, the Crows premiership player, is also behind the mic. He offers the voice of footy reason, and gives an insider’s view. Before the start of the season he warned us (none-too-subtly) that the Crows already had a lot of injuries and sore bodies, and that Crows’ fans shouldn’t expect too much. Sage.

At the next mic is Walshy of the loud shirt. There are a number of certainties in life: death, taxes, and that Peter Walsh will flirt shamelessly with any woman he’s interviewing (but will reserve his best work for basketballers, hockey players, and emerging athletes).

Usually we talk country and suburban footy. Last Saturday I mentioned that the people of Kangaroo Island weren’t happy because, instead of returning to the struggling Wisanger club, retired Port Adelaide stalwart Brendon Lade has taken up a position as an assistant coach at the Richmond Football Club. Clearly he has more regard for the friendship he shares with Damien Hardwick than he has for his CV.

I also mentioned on Saturday that there is a solid racing culture on Kangaroo Island and that recently one of the island’s best horses produced some great Adelaide form. After his horse won four in a row, the KI trainer decided he’d give him a swim off the beach, just like Bart used to do at Glenelg. However this emerging champion thoroughbred decided that swimming parallel to the beach was not for him. He preferred the right-angle and took off at 90 degrees to the shore-line and headed for the Florieau Peninsula. The nag swam forever, but thankfully turned around eventually and swam back.

It is heavy-hitting stuff we deal with.

But last Saturday Walshy was about to call his 1000th game – and he will show you the scrap books, page-by-page (“and that was when I called the Redan versus Sunbury. Thirds. Geez it was windy that day”). Given the timespan of this illustrious career (although Roger goes back even further: he remembers when Christ played second rover in the Judean rep side) our minds turned to footy philosophy.

St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs had just played one of the most ridiculous games of footy of all time. Where the ball was chipped across the back of the zone like they were the German World Cup side. Usually, that was across the centre because the zones were setting up in the back half. Lindsay Gilbee had so many possessions that he racked up 167 Dream-Team points.

This led to the important philosophical question: is Dream-Team become the raison-detre for the existence of football?

Roger couldn’t comment because Deb the producer was whispering quietly in his ear explaining what Dream-Team was. It was a long explanation which started with the producer explaining what a computer was, and I’m told at one point she was pointing to the socket in the wall, and even then at the light bulb swinging above.

I was losing it on the phone from my Canberra back yard, saying that football played in that way was compromising one of the reasons the game appeals to us at the deepest of levels. In doing so I said, “When the game is played like that, the agonistic element disappears.”

I heard Walshy splutter:“I had one of those once but the wheels fell off.”

I think I should explain.

You have to look at why footy has such broad and deep appeal. Yes, there is the hope that your side will win the cup, and so it becomes a quest for the holy grail. Yes, there is the sense that a footy club is a community to which we belong (and that we belong to the football community broadly as well), or feel we belong. Yes, there is the sense that action (and skill) is desirable: that we continue to live and fight in the face of the human condition.

But it is a physical contest and human beings have been involving themselves in contests – physical and verbal – since Adam was in the draft.

When the siren goes, the footy is bounced, and blokes battle with each other for the sack of air that is a Sherrin, they tap into a deep human reality: the agon. This is an ancient Greek term which refers to ‘the contest’. It has two dimensions to it: the contest with the opponent, and the contest with the self.

It happens in war, in games, in drama (think protagonist and antagonist), in any pursuit which involves struggle. People have felt the agon forever.

It is about finding the physical and mental courage to act, to overcome fear, and to face the opponent. From it we get the words agony and agonise. Certainly players would know about the physical agony, and also the mental anguish regarding the ability to find the strength and courage from within.

Even writers feel the agon. And kids doing homework. The easy way is not to act, not to write. But you have to write to produce the piece of writing. And so you agonise, and if you win your own struggle, you write, and you hope you write well, so there is joy in the final piece and in people’s reading of it.

Steve Renouf and I talked for a long time about the mind and soul of a rugby league player, when we were working together on his biography. He didn’t know the term agon but he experienced it every week.

He said players prepared all week for the game, and in the hours leading up to it, got themselves into the state that allowed them to enter the battle. They knew the physical dangers; they knew the risks; they knew the rewards. They also knew that this personal test would be observed and scrutinized – sometimes lauded, sometimes condemned. He said that players in those moments had fear, but not in the sense of cowardice, fear in the sense of respect for what could happen. Wayne Bennett understood it. After his penultimate words Bennett would ask the players to be silent and think and reflect for a couple of minutes. Steve described it as being ‘like a moment of prayer’.

Steve also was adamant that the camaraderie among team-mates and opponents after a game was, for many of the players, profound. Because they had come through the test together, and even though there was the victor and the vanquished, both embraced in acknowledgement of the effort and deliverance after the final siren.

The agon is a key to the footy codes. It is one of the reasons we love them. This is a contemporary expression of something that Man has experienced forever.

And this is why there has to be limited interchange in AFL footy.

Unlimited interchange means, as I keep banging on about, players can defend space. They can run and run and run, and play ring-a-ring-a-rosy footy. Only when they are tired do they need to find their opponents and stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Only then will the game fall into the structure of positions that has characterized the game. Only then will we see magnificent personal duels, and battles between teams.

Only then will we see the delicious combination of one-on-one battles and teamwork.

Only then will we see a better expression of the agon.

About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears (appeared?) on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three school-age kids - Theo, Anna, Evie. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst four. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.


  1. German national soccer team referred to as “The Robots”.

  2. Ian Syson says

    John, I don’t think the reversion will do it. The coaches have tried the catenaccio and it works. They way around it is to go forward and counter it within the present framework of the game and not re-legislate by going back to some mythical time. I know I’m on shaky ground here because I don’t come from much of a knowledge base, so take what follows with a grain of salt: I had a chat recently with some mates who know footy (unlike me) and they suggested that footy thirty or forty years ago was pretty ordinary when compared with some of today’s games. When I see old games on television it sometimes looks like well-built slow blokes sauntering around taking marks and kicking long to other sauntering well-built slow blokes. The game is very slow but made up for pyrotechnically by the deliberate and nasty violence that breaks out occasionally.

    It seems to me that there is no golden age, just a time when a few boofheads whose lack of technical skill was compensated for by their capacity to be cruel and violent to people locked into a formation that demanded manning up in set positions. Were those moments of the agon merely pretty ordinary (morally and aesthetically) brawls?

    I may be way off beam here but I’d be interested to see why I’m off beam.

  3. Phantom says


    if youse keeps refer’n to us saunterers from last century as cruel violent boof-heads we’s gunna havta sort youse out behind the lockers wiv the coach on th’uvver side listn’n for yers response.

    Signed, Mozza.

    PS. If youse can git a copy ov that great vidgeo called “Violent Satardee” can yers send me a copy. Mine’s worn out. I’m in it each year.

  4. Ian Syson says

    Phantom, I take it all back. I bow to your wit and wisdom.

  5. JTH – wonderful read. I feel enlightened. The agon does seem to sum it up. I think (and I’m biased) that Aussie Rules is the best example of the beauty and dread and fear of the agon because it is the most unpredictable. In Aussie Rules the oval ball is projected off the uneven foot and spends a lot of time in the air. There can never be any certainty about where it will land and thus the agon is increased in intensity. Soccer has a predictable round ball as does basketball (yuck). The agon is reduced somewhat. (I hope I have interpreted its meaning correctly). The uneven bounce, the skewed kick, the handball that falls short – what great aspects to our game.

    On another point we should be wary of looking back at footy in decades past with misty eyes. Most footy these days is played at a far superior level. “Saints footy” as it is called (yuck) will see its demise, hopefully and probably, this season.

    I do agree with your argument about interchange. I like the interchange but we do probably need to restrict it somewhat. If a player gets injured then bad luck. The sooner footy (and society in general) forgets about this ridiculous concept of “a level playing field” the better.

    John Schultz, (perhaps unwittingly) spoke of the agon at last week’s Almanac lunch we he spoke of the camaraderie of the players from both camps, the mutual respect, the appreciation of the contest, and the appreciation of each other. I think that has dropped off in modern footy somewhat.

  6. Andrew Starkie says

    A crucial element of the agon, or contest, is the risk. The risk to win and lose. It’s gone from the game the way it’s played now. Those wonderful, suspenseful few seconds when a torp is bashed desperatey out of defence or speculatively into the forward line, when the ball is flying and hanging in the air and we just don’t know where it will land. Will it land in our hands or theirs? Will the bounce be contrary or friendly?

    I turned on Friday night’s game for about a quarter and couldn’t stand it any longer. When I saw two perfect lines of five Saint players dropping off a Bulldog forward move, I flicked over to the ABC1 crime night (which is Gold).

  7. Phantom says


    a mate of mine Ian (General) Paton who played footy with Hawthorn said his most vivid memory of the post match camaraderie with the Footscray FC was the h’orderves while having a drink with the opposition, in the inner sanctum (change rooms) after the game.

    He said his initial reaction was shock (the argon JTH refers to)when trainers would bring out a big tub of jellied pig’s trotters for people to dip their hands into to secure a morsel of culenary bliss.

    He did say that after a few ambers (not kosher for today’s post joust refreshment) they didn’t taste too bad and he ended up looking forward to the feast.(Possibly because the Hawks would have always won during that non argon period in the clubs history)

  8. Pamela Sherpa says

    The essence of footy to me is the actual contest- and in my humble opinion there aren’t enough in today’s games. Coaches do not want to take risks and therefore have game plans that avoid them. No wonder players get frustrated. Like Andrew -when a game on TV is rubbish I switch over to something else.
    As for the skill argument.Some of the skills on display this year have been shocking. At least the old timers knew how to kick.
    How refreshing was Daniel Bradshaw’s long bomb?

    Enjoyable read John.

  9. johnharms says


    This is not about looking back to a glorious time. Those days had good and bad games.

    It’s about looking at the game now. And the different types of footy that are played within an individual game. Geelong v Melbourne, v Carlton and v Richmond early in 2007 did much to affirm a traditional attacking style, which came to a crescendo in the second quarter of the Grand Final that year.

    Zones have evolved over the last few years. Previously they weren’t called zones in the public (non-expert)domain. They were called floods. But zones are more organised and practised and it seems sides have various manifestations of them. They can also be put in place anywhere on the ground. They have changed footy. (Remember when US basketball legislated against zone defence)

    The best games, in my mind, are when the coach-imposed structures fall away, and the zones cannot be kept. Players are forced to find their opponents and try to run with them, or away from them, depending on which team has the ball. Who can get free? Who can find the will to make position? Who can make the one-on-one tackle?

    This has nothing to do with the good, old days. But if you are considering footy past, it is worth watching the tapes of 1975-1989. While your mate’s view is worth considering I can think of many brilliant games and periods within games. And footy, good or bad, was different then – because blokes weren’t as fit or as big. It was actually significantly different to what I call ‘thoroughly modern games’. Have a look. I suggest Round 22 1987 as a starting point. especially Melb v Foots and Geel v Haw.

    In watching those games it is worth considering how big the MCG looks – huge compared with today. Then have a look at the 1909 Grand Final footage – the MCG looks massive. Also note how the players run around in pairs a la that beautiful Leunig cartoon.

    I think the agonistic sense of contest, of contest with opponent and with self, is beautifully served by the dying minutes of a classic modern encounter,and at other times as well. But it wouldn’t take much to have much longer periods of that type of contest. Three choices: bigger grounds (no chance), less players (which may well work, although for some reason I suspect not) or limited interchange (the easiest parameter to tinker with).

    The bigger question is the nature of footy’s appeal and the depth of meaning we find in it. Or you find in soccer (or whatever).

    Sport and meaning is the topic which most interests me. INdeed, meaning generally.

    Thanks for your comment

    PS I concur with Andrew Starkie’s re risk.

  10. John Butler says


    There’s so much in this discussion that a comment feels sadly inadequate.

    To give you all fair warning, I feel an article coming on. I suspect I won’t be the only one.

    This is why we love the Almanac. Great stuff.

  11. John Butler says

    PS: Having spent many years assisting folks with IT, I feel that producer’s pain.

  12. Phil Dimitriadis says


    I love it when you get philosophical.

    I think alot depends on the standard of teams rather than the era. Sydney in the mid 80s under Hafey and Geelong under Blighty were the most entertaining sides I’ve watched play because of their attacking flair. Alas, they fell short when it counted.

    I enjoy watching a tightly zoned games when played by the best teams because every possesion becomes crucial and the agon turns to one where the mind and awareness override the physical agon. When poor teams try to emulate this it looks awful.

    Two of the best games I’ve seen in recent years were last years Prelim which wasn’t all that different tactically to last Friday’s game. It was just that there was more at stake. Both Geelong v Saints games last year were enthralling contests.

    I’m one of the ‘mates’ that Ian speaks of because I did see many crap games in the 80s and 90s, particularly going to Fitzroy and Richmond games with my friends. Conversely, I agree that one on one contests have disappeared to the detriment of the game, especially key position contests and battles between the great wingmen, rovers and centremen (remember them?)

    The contest is now about how players execute offensive and defensive skills at the appropriate moments within pre-arranged structures. When it works, we marvel at how disciplined the team is, when it doesn’t we lament the poor decision making.

    Footy has borrowed from other codes, but I reckon the main determiner has been the many fans who now don’t stand for mere entertainment and pure attacking footy. The demand for Premiership success and the prevailing insistence on ‘outcomes’ pervades our lives at many levels. The pressure from fans starved of success forces teams to enter the risk minimization mentality. Trust me, I have been watching it closely under Mick at Collingwood for the last 11 years. Perhaps us fans are more responsible for the evolution than we think.

    Flooding is not new. The centre diamond and later square had to be brought in to offset the crowding tactics of Kennedy’s Commandos in the early 70s. Against the wind many coaches would ‘stack the backs’ to defend their leads.

    One solution might be to dispense with the wings ala old VFA days and have 16 a side on the field with 6 interchange players. That might open the game up. Or cap the interchange at 100.

    It is these sort of debates that keep footy interesting and worthy of discussion. Thought provoking stuff JTH. I wish you could be philosophical more often!

  13. Tony Robb says

    Great read John,
    I had my personal agon yesterday. It was me against my putter and the me against the scorecard. The Putter won easily to the tune of 37 putts against a score card that read 30 points. The Tom Watson is me says stick with the mallet putter. The Sam Torrence in me says throught the thing in the lake and get the broom stick.
    Hopefuly catch you soon



  14. Soccer defines agony. Watching two teams intent on maintaining possession without any intention of scoring is as boring as life can get. I have seen entertaining 0-0 draws, however it requires a positive approach. Rare when the away team prefers to achieve 1 point instead of 3, and the home team reacts to the negative tactics by taking the same approach.

    Which seemed to be the essence of the StK vs WB game last Friday. Lyon recognised the lack of scoring options and set a defensive/flooding/zone plan in action when early attacking probes were nullified. However the Bulldogs played into their hands by chipping around the last line to find the point of weakness.

    Essentially the game became an extended stoppage despite the ball not being in dispute, which defeats part of the agon. However not entirely, as the camraderie(sp?)/sense of ‘team’ in the Saints rooms would have been substantial.

    As a Saints fan, I was able to enjoy the game from an emotional point of view. For all money they were outplayed for all but 10 minutes. I’m of the belief that “Saints Footy” (TradeMark) means doing whatever is necessary to get the win. Unfortunately, in this case, it resembled soccer and did not deserve to be one of the only 2 games I get to watch each weekend. (Usually the Sunday Fox game is even more tragic because it is the second or third best game of the day).

    Strategy? Numbers to the ball. Kick to contests where the numbers are to your advantage. Send ‘dummy’ runners to stretch the zones, while having an area of focus for the ball and your team numbers to get to.

    All comments in this missive, and particularly coaching advice, may be completely wrong…

  15. How does the agon view dreamteam obsession? The following is by Ashley Browne at Back Page Lead:

    2009’s No.1 draft selection Tom Scully played as though he was born to play on Friday nights with 39 touches and perhaps more importantly, 134 DreamTeam points.

  16. Jonathan says

    Another fine article John and I concur with those that luxuriate in the uniqueness of footy’s unpredictability. The move in any direction, the weird bounce of the ball, two bloke’s wrestling and grappling as the ball sails towards them, deep in the forward line. The sheer bloody majesty of football. I’m not one for nostalgia but some 1980’s football was a joy to watch; the 1986 State of Origin between WA and Victoria being a classic example.

    What the St Kilda-Bulldogs game produced was as stale and lifeless as anything I’ve ever seen. And I support Freo.

  17. I think the agon was there in spades in the first quarter of the Dogs-Saints game. It began to disappear in the second and was virtually gone after half time because Footscray forgot, or shied away from, the important element of risk (highlighted by Andrew Starkie above).

    I agree, JTH. Limiting the interchange seems like a reasonable solution. Worth trialling at least.

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