Almanac Rugby League – The making of a Swannies fan

by David Butler

I am the Sydney equivalent of a “Broadie Boy”, brought up amongst the factories and workshops of western Sydney. I spent the seventies negotiating the bland tarmac between  brutal suburban Rugby League grounds. Belmore Oval, Leichhardt Oval, Redfern Oval and Cumberland Oval.

I watched as the first scrum erupted, as always, with uppercuts and haymakers. Violence and  parochialism were the currency of the game. The referees were part-timers, including the likes of NSW Police detectives, and enforcement of the game’s rules involved turning a blind eye to Actual Bodily Harm, and often to Grievous Bodily Harm. This is not a game to be watched for the game’s sake.

Rugby League grounds in the seventies  and in the early eighties  were smothered in Winfield , KB and Tooheys propaganda. When Tooheys sponsorship was at its highest my dad and all of his friends drank Tooheys ,and those who smoked chose Winfield Reds. I most often attended Cumberland Oval, now re-developed as Parramatta Stadium. In those days there were three games starting with the under 23’s at 12.15. We often arrived at 12 noon  and never ever  secured a seat in the tiny wooden grandstand.

It was a long afternoon for those on the drink  and the violence on the field was more often than not mirrored on the hill . Fistfights  were as common as bums and people abandoned their picnic blankets to make room for the combatants. Many patrons lost full buckets of chips and pies in the mad scramble. Many pugilists lost thongs in the stuttering drag back to the Paddy Wagon.

Against this backdrop  AFL  came courting me and eventually we climbed into the back seat together. In 1994 I fully embraced the Swans. I am the one the traditionalists did not want. I am the one that struggled with the holding the ball rule only to find that  its interpretation changes twice a year in any event. You didn’t want me but here I am and there are more where I came from and even more further west. In truth I am in the minority of Swans supporters as the demographic skews more towards those from north of the Harbour, conservative voters alike , known more for god, gardens and golf.

A lot of women who were indifferent to the thuggish, no neck qualities of the ‘leagueys’ also became Swans supporters and at one time the Swannies had Revlon in its sponsorship portfolio.

History starts somewhere and I have formed my own narrative of life as a Swannie’s fan. I too sit down with a notebook in December and sketch out our best 22 for next year. I too get  that warm feeling when I think about what Mickey O, or Jude Bolton or Kirky have done for the club. I feel sick when I think about Roosy coaching another club and I laugh when I think what an awful kick Andrew Dunkley was.

There are more where I came from and as Sydney expands at a terrifying rate even more to come from house and land packages where the paint is still fresh on the names of the suburbs.

Fly like the wind you Swannies  and bring on the season. We have been in the spelling paddock for  too long !


  1. Alovesupreme says

    You’re very welcome to our game; “there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, than in ninety-nine who hath no need of repentance.” I stress that I’m not a Swannie, but I do have some family who are, and I have some residual sympathy for them.
    I don’t know if it was just a pretext of other teams’ supporters homophobia, but I understood that there was an enthusiasm among Sydney’s gay community for the team (and the sport); I was wondering if that is a legitimate inclusion in your demographic analysis of the support. I also thought it was the eastern ‘burbs as much or more than the northside, although I can understand they’re much of a muchness to a proud westie.

  2. david butler says

    Thanks for your comment Alovesupreme. You may be correct about the Eastern Suburbs being a strong supporter base for the Swans as well. However, I do discriminate between the Eastern Suburbs and the North Shore. For example, there are some Labor voters in the Eastern Suburbs. I think that tall, bald, green leaning Labor chappie has taken the Bus to Bondi and is a member of an eastern suburbs electorate.
    As to the gay demographic, that fits with the Eastern Suburbs in any event and the club would be mad not to court that market. I guess I am saying that the demographic that GWS seeks remains largely untapped by the Swans. Ironically I now live in Canberra and am happy to say that we will get to see plenty of GWS.

  3. Adam Muyt says


    Like you I grew up on Sydney rugby league in the late sixties, seventies and early eighties. I was spoilt rotten, growing up on the northern beaches, living, breathing and barracking madly for the Sea Eagles. Four premierships in eight years – what a joy! (I still remember copping a bloodied lip from a Parra supporter at Cumberland in one of the big matches played between the two sides in the mid 70s – a girl of about 13 gave it to me for blowing a trumpet too close to her ear. Ah, those were the days!)

    As a little tacker I loved the fact the players mostly lived and worked locally and came to our school or took us for training sessions, loved getting the yearly free pass to the home games, loved sitting under the scoreboard at Brookie, loved the way the whole district turned maroon and white come grand final week. And I loved the look, smell and feel of every rugby league ground I went to. Footy was largely about sitting on a grassy knoll or hill…until I moved to Melbourne in the early eighties. And then I discovered terraces. And Fitzroy.

    I’d never played or been to a rules game yet it grabbed me big time in the form of the Fitzroy Lions, the VFL equivalent of the North Sydney Bears or Newtown Bluebaggers. They were my way into the beauty of aussie rules, the way into footy agony and ecstacy (I was bought up a Catholic so we like some pain with our passions and joy).

    Good to hear of another convert!

    PS. I still follow league – and Manly, most of all. Being with my sister at the 2008 grand final was one of the happiest footy days of my life.

  4. johnharms says


    You don’t seem to have much luck with facial injuries insofar as footy spectating is concerned.

  5. Adam Muyt says

    LOL! John, one bruising was joyous though!

    You ever read Peter Lewis’ book, ‘The Convert – A Fan’s Jourbney from league to AFL’. Published in 1997 and written by a Bears tragic who came to the Swans after the Super League war / fiasco. Not a bad account, although his footy terminology is a bit dodgy in places. A copy is available secondhand here:

    You could review it for the Almanac. Your perspective would make for an interesting review, I’m sure.


  6. Adam Muyt says

    In fact both bruisings were joyous – we beat Parra at Cumberland that day, a rare treat!

  7. david butler says


    You do realise that everybody had 2 teams in those days including whoever was playing Manly. I think the Manly hatred started in earnest when Manly poached a lot of players in the seventies. I can remember at one stage Manly poaching Les Boyd, Ray Brown , and I think John Dorahy from Wests. Those were also the days of Roy Masters’ famous fibros and silvertails. I always thought broadly of Rugby League fans as Labor voters and Rugby Union fans as Liberal voters. Presumably the Brookvale area has a lot of lower income earners, but is surrounded by more affluent types.

    I was acting for a young bloke about 10 years ago who became a quadriplegic as a result of a car accident. Pete was in the spinal unit at Royal North Shore flat on his back not having sat up since the accident. A Manly player called Nik Kosef ( played for Australia I think ) was cheering up folks in the Spinal Unit. When Pete’s dad told him that Kosef was approaching the young fella said ” tell him to piss off….. we don’t want no Manly around here “. Pete was a Wests fan !

    I think it is fair to say that with Manly winning the day you ventured out to Cumberland you got off lightly with a Grade 1 lip injury.No doubt you drove out with your folks…… because it was a long walk back to Parra Station!

    I haven’t read the book that you refer to but it sounds interesting.

    I worked in the Newslink at Sydney Airport in 1994 and 1995 while I was finishing university and noticed that there was an interesting dichotomy between the AFL and NRL teams that came through the airport on Saturdays and Sundays. In a sweeping generalisation I would say that the AFL players bought books and the NRL players did not. Both lots went to Macca’s before boarding their planes home. I can even recall selling a few books to Plugger!

    By the way I have never been to Brookvale Oval, the only ground I have never attended. Too far !

  8. Adam Muyt says


    Like the Kosef story! And yep, she was a mean Parra girl but admittedly my trumpet was rather annoying. I once stopped an Under 23’s game at Brookie with it when the ref mistook it for the halftime siren. And then the Police came around and told me I couldn’t blow it any more :)

    As for the old Silvertails and Fibros chestnut, it was invented by Roy Masters as part of his ‘Us against the World’ strategy at Wests in the mid-70s, as he pointed out in the recent ABC doco.

    Masters strategy worked, up to a point. He made a bunch of reasonably talented players feel 10 feet tall as they took on the might of the Sydney RL. A teacher, he used classic psychology to instil a team ethic. But it didn’t win the club a premiership. Mind you, plenty of blood flowed, which entertained rugby league crowds endlessly in those days – it was brutal football. And he saved his greatest ‘rev-ups’ for the ‘Silvertails’ from Manly. Ho hum!

    Reality was, Manly’s players came from the same background as the Wests players. If my memory serves me right, Max Krilich was a plumber, Terry Randall a brickie, there were a couple of cops in there, a taxi driver, a few barmen at the Leagues club– you get the picture.

    Manly was a wealthy footy club, no doubt. Astute Ken Arthurson brought the dollars in and the Leagues club boomed as the district grew and locals poured into Brookie Oval attracted by a brilliant balance of strong hard defence and attacking flair. I recall several crowds over 25,000 through the seventies; think the ground record is over 28,000 – try getting that in today! And with the wealth came the raids on other team’s players: Branighan and O’Neill from Souths, Johnny Gray from Norths, Dorahy from Wests, etc. But the club always fostered plenty of junior talent and also recruited cleverly from Britain (remember Reilly and Lowe?)

    As for the district itself, yes it’s always had middle class areas but it once had a share of working class areas – and not just around Brookvale. Lots of weatherboard houses, with brick only becoming popular in the 70s. Take a drive around Narrabeen, Nth Balgowlah, Forestville, Beacon Hill or Collaroy today and you’ll still see the pockets of ‘everyday’ 60s and 70s housing. (First house I lived in in Manly had an outside dunny). Suppose though, unlike the western suburbs and Parramatta and Canterbury, or old inner city areas like Balmain, Newtown or South Sydney, we didn’t have much industry and had easy access to plenty of bush and beaches to muck about in – but that’s not inherently snobbish, just shit city planning, and a physical fact.

    Unfortunately the district’s demographics have changed for the worst, along with everywhere else in Sydney with water nearby and views. Rugby League is still the most popular game there but rugby union has become increasingly popular at the junior and district level, always a sign that the rich bastards have moved in big time. I worry about my Sea Eagles…

  9. david butler says


    You still didn’t tell us how you got to Cumberland!

    Yes I remember all of those poms that played for Manly and they were all good cattle. John Gray was a pom as well and he was the first “round the corner” kicker I ever saw. Are you going to the lunch tomorrow I am coming down from Canberra for the weekend ?

  10. Adam Muyt says


    Won’t be going – I live in Hobart.

    The old man drove us round the Sydney grounds sometimes (including that day) but by the age of about 12-13, I was catching PT to away games. Mostly to North Sydney Oval and the Sports Ground and SCG. Often caught Norths games when Manly was playing too far away. They became my second team – family on my ma’s side all went for them, going back to the olden days.

    Only went to Cumberland once; that girl might have put me off going again. Cumberland was an amazing spectacle, a country showground in effect, a little, rickety grandstand and wooden slat seats backed by small knolls. Think there were 16,000 that day and you couldn’t move…except to blow a trumpet or two.

    Close to my favourite league story is what Parra fans did to Cumberland after the 81 grand final victory. Great way to celebrate! You there wehen the ground burned down?


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