The ball is in dispute…

There is not a single holy grail of football; it is a different thing to each man. Some crave September silverware and the reflected glory of team success. Fathers dream of lacing up the first pair of boots on their offspring and watching them take the field. The purist, however, must one day embark on the greatest of football journeys: the pilgrimage to find footy at its purest, to find footy as it has been protected, nurtured and passed down, unaffected by the continual tampering of the AFL heavyweights.

It’s no easy task. First, you need to avoid the interfering parents of the local junior league. You must swerve the puffed-up local umpire in his shiny badge and garish boots. You need to duck past any semblance of a memorably named grandstand, miss splendid changing rooms and car parks and pay no heed to the fixtures published in the papers.

Kevin Sheedy knew it, and now so do I. Just as traditional communities have managed to preserve their culture and traditions in a social sense, so have they taken football at its truest form and resisted the urge to mould the game into a made-for-pay-TV event. As I sat atop my troop carrier on the boundary of the Angurugu football field last Saturday, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, many things came to me. Not the least of which was the realisation that the AFL is chasing its tail.

New rules designed to speed the game up, promote player welfare and enhance the publics’ do not exist here. There is no meaningless 50m arc. These people own their game. It’s not for sale. The community has shown up to watch their local lads – the crocs, rumble with Umbakumba’s Dockers. Even better, the Lions and Tigers are playing next.

Things we take for granted don’t exist in footy here, and I’m drawn, romantically I guess, to memories of my junior footy at Puckapunyal.  A lot of kids running around, car horns greeting goals and defenders, hands in pockets, chatting to forwards when the ball is far away. There are no choreographed calls of “ball”, no pouting forwards, no fists in the marking contests and there were more shepherds at Jesus’ birth than seen on this paddock all day.

If you have got the ball, you do something with it. There’s no finger pointing – it’s not up to anyone else, and the speed of some of these blokes makes timing of the essence: you will get run down. The Dockers have a long-haired leaper up forward and after he takes his fourth mark on the lead and goals from 40 its clear that his defender has abandoned his post and sought fairer pasture: I kid you not, no-one can match him for speed and skill, so he’s left to roam, his man jogging forward himself while the rest of the defenders trial ignorance as the best tactic against this gun.

There’s two main body types here; you’ve got your Zephi Skinners – they are everywhere, but then there’s a good number of (later) Maurice Riolis as well. The latter are favourites of the crowd – as they approach a contest the ladies scream in delight and the skinnier blokes scatter. Deft of foot and hand and with an economy of movement belying electrifying (short) sprints, these guys provide the perfect foil to the rangy runners who dash and swerve through general traffic, knowing full well they will be slung like a rag if caught by the big guys.

The Crocs toil against the tide as the now un-marked Docker runs riot up front and we are drawn to a minor skirmish between two younger on-ballers. Taking affront at an attempted speccie, or perhaps in response to some none-too-subtle advice, the Croc belts the Docker. The crowd yells it’s disapproval, the response is huge and both parties are banished from the field. Outrage, not laughing and cajoling, but genuine outrage, greets the offenders who may have worse than a Tuesday night appointment at AFL House to come. The game abruptly resumes as one of the protagonists runs for the scrub to avoid his fate at the hands of the crowd (while the other stews on the pine), and calm is restored.

Even when it is clear that the Crocs have no hope there is no thought of stemming the tide, just a constant focus on offence by both sides and an entertaining flow of intriguing contests, speedy runs and increasingly optimistic shots on goal. Show time up here seems little different to normal time, and the game speeds to its conclusion.

I turn around to see the Tigers warming up. They are young and slim, well-organised with a coach and many players wearing matching shorts (no home and away up here I guess) and some even in boots. I figure they will be a problem for the Lions, about ten of whom are having a last cigarette and quiet chat as their warm-up. Its hard to guess what the coach is telling the Tigers, but “get over here, we need your boots” is what I deduce the Lions players were shouting at the departing Crocs, as they comply, tossing their boots over the fence.

We watch the second game, a step up in class, and ponder at the depth and organisation of the squads. Despite the mixture of boardshorts and the low uptake of the footy boot, these teams present little trouble for the central umpire (Russell, a respected older figure): I say central because he does not leave the square for the whole game (if a square were marked). His whistle blows infrequently but is instantly acted upon by the players, showing respect for the game and its rules. Few players are caught holding the footy, fewer drop the ball: the ball is in constant motion as players run and leads present. The crowd continues to cheer and laugh at each goal or contest, and the heat of the day drains the Lions as the young Tigers run rampant.

I wonder if anyone here cares about three interchanges and a sub, or cares about the NAB Cup rules. I’d say not. They play in the wet season and they play in the dry. They run, they kick, they mark and they do it again. It’s simple. It’s footy.

About Bill Ellis

As easy to read as a Clermont green.


  1. Wellis,

    Really enjoyed your observations of football in general, and particularly how they have maintained the basics of the game up here on Groote. I have lived here for almost 6 years now, live in Alyangula and work in Angurugu. I have seen first hand the positive results of an organized competition here and the blokes just can’t play often enough. I wasn’t at the game on the weekend ( I was at the club, on the punt) but your comments were spot on. It is a different game to the one we see on TV. It’s fast, furious, and passionate.

    Well done, hope you enjoyed your stay, and if back again, let me know.

  2. Billygoat says

    Hope you did better than us on the punt: our mainstay (Billy) got us a few rounds up but our boss (Robbie) wasted it on the dishlickers in his excitement.
    See you in may, we always pack the footy.

  3. Billygoat,

    Throw in a Winning Post, a Sportsman, a Best Bets and some KFC with the footy, and you’ve got me.

  4. Great piece of work. Is this footy lost to us “in the big league”?

  5. Wellis

    Calling it as you see it.
    Love ya work….


  6. What a fantastic read! Personally, I think this just confirms how far off the mark AFL is. It could be great, it could be beautiful, but instead, it is an overpoliced schermozzle.

    I wish this kind of footy was on offer to us in the outer suburbs of Melbourne. Unfortunately, we only have leagues striving to emulate the AFL :(

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