The Krakouers

In 1982, I was in Grade 6 at St. Pius X West Warrnambool and obsessed with the Krakouer brothers.

I kept scrapbooks of newspaper clippings that said ‘BLACK MAGIC!’ and ‘KRAKOUER MAGIC!’ I wrote ‘JIM 3 KRAKOUER’ and ‘PHIL 8 KRAKOUER’ all over my books and pencil case.  I sat in the filtered sun in the school library and told everyone how good they were.

The excitement pulsed through me.  I was intrigued with the newness of the Krakouers. 

We didn’t have Aboriginal kids at our school.  They went to the State school across the road.  State school kids didn’t wear uniforms.  They were ‘poor’.  Edgier. Tougher.

After school, I’d walk home with the Marris boys.  We’d cross the road so we didn’t have to pass by the Black House.  We used other words as well.  We were frightened.  Ignorant.  Uneducated.  Sometimes Joey would come outside and laugh at us St. Pius kids.  He was half our size, but scared the shit out of us.

Different times.

During school holidays, Dad and Uncle Allan took me to a Tuesday night training session at Arden Street.  We stood on the terrace between the players’ tunnel and wooden grandstand.

Crazy Horse Cassin parked his Kingswood and signed my autograph book.  I remember his flares, cheeky laugh and long blonde hair.  Keith Greig walked around in brown corduroys, carrying that strange mix of detachment, serenity and intensity I have always associated him with.  Why isn’t he training? I asked.  He’s too good to train on a Tuesday, Dad replied.

I nervously approached Phil in the carpark and asked him for an autograph.  He mumbled shyly, looked at the ground, scribbled in my book and moved on silently.

On the way home through the dark, wet streets we pulled up at traffic lights.  A woman with long curly hair walked past and Dad said, She’d be on the job, wouldn’t she?  Uncle Allan laughed his Barney Rubble laugh.  It took me a few years to work that one out.

That Saturday, we went to the game.  The Geelong cheer squad chanted, Chocolate Chip Krakouer Bread!  Jim dug the ball out of the pack.  Phil flew by, stuck out a hand, grabbed it and goaled.

There were so many games, so many instances of Krakouer brilliance.  Game changing, jaw dropping, innate skill.  A freakish goal.  A darting run, a handball, a missile pass.

Jim and Phil made our game the best it can be.

Jim was a predator:  surly, preying, suspicious.  He roved flat out, off the pack to kick the winner at Princes Park against Carlton in the 34th minute.  I listened to the call on the radio and jumped and screamed like an idiot.

He had a short fuse.  Can’t handle the pressure, people would say.  Of his problems with the law: Typical.  Can’t handle the money, the fame.

Phil was shy, quiet, downcast.  I always sensed he wanted to be somewhere else.  Back in Mount Barker.  In the first quarter of the ’87 Elimination Final at Waverley, again against the Blues, he ran Tommy Alvin up the ground, palmed the ball gently to a passing teammate, setting up our first goal.

Seven goals down at half-time, John Kennedy ordered play on at all times.  We were back to three goals at three-quarter time.  An old bloke near us sledged Phil.  Dad told him to shut up.

Schimma willed us across the line then collapsed with exhaustion.  Phil kicked the winner.  Demetriou lifted him into the air.

Jim didn’t play that day, he was suspended again.  He returned the next week for the semi and was our best player in the thumping we received from Footscray at the ‘G.  Dougie glided through the middle and carved us up.

When Jim and Phil left North and played elsewhere, I was sad.  They looked like lonely, desperate, punch drunk boxers.  Not being able to do what he was once capable of, Jim grew angrier,  paranoid.  Phil got slower and rickety.  I just wanted them to retire to protect their legacy.  Like Carey.  I didn’t know they had to play.  They knew nothing else.  And Jim had his debts.

Years later, when Jim was released from jail, he was met at the front gates by The Footy Show.  It reminded me of the day Mike Tyson got out: ushered away by Don King into a waiting limo.  As if that would solve their problems. 

I saw Jim at Docklands and approached him with my hand extended.  He had that customary suspicion and also wariness and hurt in his eyes.  After studying me for a bit, he smiled from the corner of his mouth and shook my hand.  He looked as fit as a bantamweight.

On Saturday night, I watched Krakouer!, the play based on Sean Gorman’s book, Brotherboys (one of the best sports books I’ve ever read and I’ve read a few).

The audience was taken on Jim and Phil’s journeys, from Mount Barker, to Perth, to North Melbourne and beyond.  Hunting ‘roo and dodging tiger snakes, the reptilian and human kind.  Fame and notoriety came early and football offered a way out of racism and strife.  And it was rife with both.

It’s been a journey from rags to riches and back to rags.

I sat amongst silver haired women wearing their Kangaroo scarves.  Phil sat towards the rear of the half-filled theatre, laughing heartily at the humorous parts and falling silent when Jim’s off-field problems and their mother’s death featured.

At play’s end, Phil stepped on stage for a Q&A session.  Obviously uncomfortable, he squinted into the lights and avoided looking at the audience.  He paid respect to deceased family members, including two siblings taken early by illness caused by harsh living conditions.

Phil was born in ’67, the year Indigenous Australians ceased being ‘flora and fauna’ and were granted citizenship.  He recalled the excitement moving from the bush, where their father worked as a shearer, into Mount Barker brought for the family.  It was the Krakouers’ first experience with electricity and running water.

Since being released, Jim’s led a quiet life.  He’s working in the mines while keeping an eye on son Andrew at Collingwood.  Jim’s a quiet bloke, Phil said.  Real quiet.  Loyal.

Phil doesn’t know if the Krakouer brothers changed football.  Maybe they just allowed later Indigenous players to dream.  He still loves North Melbourne.

Afterwards, in the foyer, I shook Phil’s hand.  We both mumbled something and looked at the floor.  Like all those years ago at Arden Street.

These days I teach Indigenous history in Melbourne’s northern suburbs to students from various backgrounds.  So they won’t need to cross the road.

Comments

  1. John Butler says

    Brilliant stuff Andrew.

  2. Dave Nadel says

    Excellent article Andrew. I was at the play on Saturday night and thought Phil’s Q and A session was courageous. He was obviously uncomfortable and some of the questions asked by well meaning people were a bit silly but Phil dealt with them appropriately.

    Your memory of race relations growing up in Warrnambool rings true, but when you say “different times”, it probably ought to be noted that Warrnambool ran on a different time scale to Melbourne. When I arrived there in 1983 I was amazed by some of the things I heard from supposedly educated people including some working in educational institutions. I’m not saying that you couldn’t hear racists in Melbourne in the 80s (just go to the footy) but not from people under 35 working in libraries in tertiary educational institutions.

    The rumours around town were amazing. Colleagues assured me that local aborigines had been involved in rape, dangerous driving involving deaths and various crimes but got off because “they were aboriginals” Others told of bad behaviour by aboriginal neighbours. Many of the people with the biggest horror stories about indigenous locals had never actual talked to them. They had just seen them outside the pub and outside the courthouse.

    I don’t want this to be seen as an attack on Warrnambool people. I had and still have a lot of friends in Warrnambool and there are some terrific people down there. I am sure other country towns were the same or worse when it came to race relations in the 1980s but rural and regional Australia in the 1980s was a different country to urban Australian when it came to questions of race and culture.

  3. Andrew Starkie says

    Dave, all you say rings true.My memories of Wbool read like Boys’ Own Adventure stuff: footy in Winter, cricket, beach, tennis, golf in Summer. Great times, great place to grow up. A life of privilege.

    Growing up, I always felt as if I lived in a cocoon, protected from the outside world and society’s issues. I’ve alway felt as a nation we are very good at looking outside and commenting, but not too good at looking at our own problems. blah, blah, blah…

    I think we’ve always attempted to hide our problems. This is changing, thankfully. And as a result, I’m reflecting more and more on my own upbringing.

    I’ve always been an observant person who has questioned things. Not always constructively, I’m sure.

    We are (obviously) products of our upbringing, background, culture, religion etc. And this fascinates me. Growing up in a country town leaves an unerasable imprint on someone. Even though I have lived out of Wbool for approximately half my life, when asked ‘Where are you from?’ I instinctively answer, ‘Warrnambool’. Proudly.

    Once a country boy, always a country boy.

    Did you feel like an outsider when you were there? I know people who have moved to Wbool and have lived there for years, still feel that way.

    My Wbool experience doesn’t have to be the same as the next persons. As I child i never considered that the next person wasn’t living the same existence as mine. If you get my drift.

    A mate gave me a book about Wbool’s race relations during the ’80s. I know I should read it, but I fear I’d find it too confronting. One day I will.

  4. Brilliant, Starks

    Shattered I missed this — the play, the Q&A with Phil and a catch up and a few beers with Sean Gorman.

  5. Mark Doyle says

    Good article Andrew! Hopefully the Age might reprint it as they did with another piece from this website. I also concur with your comments Dave. Warrnambool is no different to most other places in Australia, including regional cities, rural areas and suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne such as Redfern and Fitzroy respectively. My experience of Warrnambool is that it has a similar culture to my home town of Albury. Both places have a very active conservative catholic community and are two of the last bastions of the DLP. Even today I regularly hear racist and ignorant comments in my community as well as at my golf club and at the footy; my blood boils when I hear comments that aboriginal blokes are more likely to be involved in drunken and sexist behavior and crimes. I recently heard a comment from a person who when discussing the film ‘Mad Bastards’ said that domestic violence was more common in aboriginal communities. This person is upper middle class and affluent and whose only travel experience has been to expensive resorts. My experience is that young blokes from all backgrounds and ethnicity are prone to such behavior after a few beers; this experience different parts of Australia and Europe. I also recently heard of a recreation of Charlie Perkin’s 1960’s ‘Freedom Ride’ and attitudes are much the same. I think most of us live in a cocoon and we do not make enough effort to mix with local people when travelling and to learn of their lives. The popular mainstream media does nothing to improve people’s knowledge and understanding of the whole society. Thank God for Radio National, 3CR and Channell 31

  6. Great stuff, Andrew. I too was disappointed to miss Saturday night.
    This all brings the memories flooding back for me.
    Saturday April 3, 1982. Standing on the Arden St terrace.
    Watching Jim and Phil live for the first time.
    Feeling the excitement in the crowd build whenever they went near the ball.
    The Swans being totally dismantled.
    And me. Standing there knowing that i was witnessing something special.
    That day, footy changed for me.

  7. Dave Nadel says

    Andrew,
    Yes I did feel like an outsider when I lived there. The only Warrnambool-born people who ever really invited me to their homes were people who had gone to Melbourne for their secondary and tertiary education. I was involved in political organisations (ALP and anti-nuclear) and later the community radio station and attended a lot of sporting and music activities. I ended up with a circle of friends that spanned Warrnambool Institute and Tafe staff, hospital nursing and para medical staff, teachers and public servants. Some of them had lived in Warrnambool for more than two decades, virtually all of them had been born and educated elsewhere in Victoria or Australia.

    I had the feeling that you had to live in Warrnambool for three generations to be recognised as a local. Unlike Shepparton or the Latrobe Valley, Warrnambool had had little post-War European migration so that Italians and Greeks tended to be associated with fish and fruit shops. most of the population seemed to be of Irish and Scottish descent, which may explain the strong musical and sporting cultures of the region but certainly did nothing for multiculturalism.

    On the other hand, you are also right that it would have been a terrific place to grow up. Provided you conformed to the local stereotype. I know at least one family whose kids got quite a hard time at school because their parents were seen as stirrers. In other ways though it would have been terrific. It was also a good place to come to as a single man in my mid thirties. But after a few years I realised that I was either going to have to change my ideas and aspirations or return to Melbourne.

  8. Damo Balassone says

    Wonderful piece Andrew (though I think it was the ’85 Elimination Final you meant) and fascinating thread afterwards. Just wondered Dave what you meant by: “I was either going to have to change my ideas and aspirations or return to Melbourne”?

  9. Andrew Starkie says

    dave, when I was in primary school, Wbool was the largest Catholic city in Austrlia (Per head…). I didn’t meet a proddo unti lfell in love with Prue Taylor in yr10. She went to the govt high school. but that’s another story…….

    And the Greeks did own the fish and chip shop and fruit shop. very stereotypical

  10. Andrew Starkie says

    Damo, yes ’85. sorry

  11. Dave Nadel says

    Andrew.

    According to one of my colleagues at the WIAE whose kids were at one of the State Primary schools in 1983, on St Patrick’s day some of the kids wore Orange ribbons (presumably in response to the City’s Catholic majority). I doubt if that had happened in Melbourne since the end of World War 2.

  12. Andrew Starkie says

    Dave, haven’t heard that story. I can remember not being able to play an u16 final because it was scheduled for a Sunday. Game was switched, I think.

  13. Doesn’t every state have a country town like the ‘bool? It sounds much like Gympie in Qld. Just takes that little bit longer to get up to speed. But if you scratch the surface, you find good people abound.

  14. Andrew Fithall says

    Thank-you Andrew. I was there on Saturday night and really enjoyed the play. Sorry I missed you. The smell of liniment as you came into the theatre was a nice touch. I haven’t read Sean Gorman’s book but will do so (I am following his 2010 Almanac advice to first see the play and then buy the book). Regarding the other comments bove, and the treatment of Aboriginal players: a friend was talking to my wife Helen (who also came to the play) the other evening. When Helen told this man about the play, his response that he had talked to a friend of his who had played one game of football with North Melbourne and the player’s perspective was that the club had gone to great lengths to accommodate the Krakouer boys. In other words – they had things easy compared to everyone else – including this one-game player. Perceptions persist.

    I thought it interesting that frequently in the post-play Q&A, Phil referred to the Krakouer Brothers in the third person, as if they were a separate entity; as something that had existed outside his own football-playing self.

    Also post-play, on Sunday morning I spoke to a friend who had played against the Krakouer Brothers (deliberate capitalisation) and with Phil late in his career. He spoke very positively about both experiences.

  15. Thanks AS, a very touching account of growing up in a time of more overt racism and how a young boy/man has to re-think established tenets. Coming from Perth (which may still be smaller in mind than W’bool was in 1983) the Krakouers figure prominently in my recollections of footy as a teenager. They were dynamic, in a way that few footballers before them playing the WAFL had even been.

    I was planning to see the play on Saturday night but when I tried to get tickets online it kept telling me that there were none left. My heart sunk a little when I read that the theatre was only about half full.

    Can I extend to you (and all Almanacers) a reminder that we have a few tickets still available to the Marngrook Footy Show taping on 15 Sept. You can contact me on [email protected]

    Andrew Krakouer was on Marngrook earlier this year. The interview about his life and troubles was the most empathetic and revealling of all the media that has covered his return to AFL.

  16. Andrew Starkie says

    Rick, count me in for Marngrook.

  17. Thanks AS. Wonderful stuff. I grew up as an Anglo Protestant boy in country SA (largely Yorke Peninsula) where the Port Victoria mission was a strange and dangerous place. Not that any of us went there. The great Sturt footballer Rick Davies came from Port Victoria. Legend was that the Port Vic A Grade were white farmers, and the B Grade the mission aboriginal team. The B grade could have taken the A grade team any day. One club, two communities.
    I remember spending a year in the US in the late 80’s working alongside professional black people. I was in my early 30’s and while theoretically open-minded I had never dealt with people of different cultures in my professional or personal life. Big learning and growing. Easy to say much harder to do.
    My memory of the Krakouers is just being captivated by their skills on The Winners and VFL replays. I could not get enough of watching the Kangaroo teams of the 70’s and early 80’s. But the Krakouers were sublime. Made other skilled players look pedestrian by comparison. Andrew in last years WAFL grand final for Swan Districts would be in my top 10 performances in over 40 years of footy memories.
    Claremont could have beaten Swans in one of the great see-sawing contests, but they couldn’t beat AKrakouer. And there was only one of him. Jim and Phil in the flesh would have been astonishing.

  18. loretta hayes says

    The Greek Tragedy
    1.Michael Malthouse in his final coaching game “The Grand Final 2011′
    2.Collingwood top team for the entire year.
    3.Opponent for the grand finale The 2010 wooden spooners The West Coast Eagles
    4. Final siren sounds and Michael Malthouse’s former team The Mighty West Coast Eagles steps up to rip out his heart and take The Cup.

    The final scene so sweet I could tremble.

  19. Barny/Josh's dad says

    Andrew, don’t you mean “Crazy Horse” Cowton

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