The time I found they shrank the Sherrin

This is a tale about two footies. The first one dates back to the late 1970’s when I worked as a storeman at Dental Houses of Australia in Alfred Place, which was then, and still is, a small laneway off the top end of Collins Street; though braces and bites have been replaced by beds and bathrooms, as the old worksite became a boutique hotel in a revamped inner-city.

Dental supplies aren’t exactly the most exciting product line; an endless array of burs, mandrels and probes were just part of a greater dental milieu that always seemed to be on backorder due to shipping delays, and often made for dull and frustrating labour. But beggars couldn’t be choosers and more attractive positions were denied me then due to the old Furphy – lack of experience.

Doug, our delivery driver, was deaf (‘hearing impaired’ is an ambiguous description I doubt he’d have brooked). He was of a bull terrier-like build and spoke in the animated, hearing affected way that could be interpreted as effeminate, but he was far from it. He wore a toupee due to a youthful misadventure when acid was spilt on his scalp. Doug’s deafness was no impediment to his working ability either, and is only referenced here because he used to be employed by T.W. Sherrin, which often hired those who might have difficulty getting work elsewhere due to what was then deemed a handicap. When I expressed a desire to buy a footy, he was quick to reveal he still had friends working at the Sherrin factory and offered to be the middle man and procure a good one.

A week or so later he turned up at Alfred Place to collect his daily deliveries, and on the way dropped off a brand new gleaming red Sherrin proudly showing me a small black cross; a mark that indicated this one had been stitched by the very best – a VFL match quality ball.

It was a beauty. It immediately took up residence in the house I shared in Windsor. When we weren’t handpassing or short-kicking it along the passage (which also had a dog-leg to add a degree of difficulty) we’d take it down to a nearby park and run around like lunatics kicking booming drop punts and grass-cutting stab-passes, and taking exaggerated screamers in our attempt to substitute being on the big stage. Or we’d call, quickly sprint, mark, pass to a lead, and call again and so on, zigzagging with endless energy all around the oval, and only stopping when a kick went astray; raising a hand: “Sorry, mate”. Meanwhile, the Sandringham red rattler trundled back and forth via an adjacent cutting.

One day Democrat leader Don Chipp jogged by and asked if he could join us. He was from the old school, and had a preference for the drop kick. They were good exponents too, and the Sherrin lobbed obediently into the air, spinning it’s redness in perfect symmetry. As he farewelled and jogged off into the distance to keep the bastards honest I like to think he said to himself: “Nice footy.”

Then I went overseas for a couple of years, but returned to the same share-house above the chemist on the corner of Chapel and Vine. The Sherrin was still there like a faithful pet, wearing an extra scratch or two, and evoking an affection akin to love that probably resides in distant memories about the first footy ever owned; in my case a childhood birthday present found at the end of a meandering length of string mum laid out in our backyard.

That was a preferred gift to the previous year’s when bedridden with one of the mumps or measles that where part of a growing-up rite of passage then. I was still in pyjamas when dad asked what I wanted for my birthday. “A football,” I replied drowsily, but without hesitation. Dad laughed, “You’re too young for a football”. He bought a battery operated police car instead. Mothers knew best. But I digress, this isn’t meant to be a story about three footies.

From Windsor I moved to another shared house in North Balwyn. Not sure why; for a change probably. I was now doing degree studies, and this was a student house, but less familiar than the Chapel Street abode. I had a bungalow out the back and kept the Sherrin inside. Though, let me be clear: the relationship was purely sporting.

One day a housemate, Neil, borrowed the Sherrin while I was out. That was okay because we used to take it down to a local park and do our own version of running amok. Neil was a lanky six foot two and once played for St Kilda thirds, though was always a mad Collingwood supporter (if you’ll excuse the tautology). But from now on the Sherrin was out of sight in the house, mostly on the floor tucked under the kitchen table that leant against a wall. I suppose I didn’t want to appear possessive or selfish by returning it to my bungalow so allowed it to be communal.

I became preoccupied with studies and the never-ending succession of parties. Then suddenly, one day, I noticed the Sherrin wasn’t in its usual spot. I asked Neil if he knew its whereabouts. He didn’t, but said the last time he saw it another acquaintance had it – this other friend had a drug problem and an increasing reputation for unreliability. Enquires proved fruitless. I never saw the Sherrin again. I guess that’s what you get for deciding to live in a dry area

Fast forward a decade or so. The Geelong Footy Club was offering, with membership, a free Sherrin autographed by the then captain, Barry Stoneham. A great deal given a new footy was almost worth the cost of membership. It duly arrived in the mail. The first thing I noticed about it was the size. It was smaller, the ends pointier. I didn’t relish the prospect of kicking this ball bare-footed. And I could pick it up with one hand, something I always struggled to do with the previous Sherrin. Like an unfavoured child it didn’t quite evoke equal affection.

My curiosity was aroused, though. I rang the club. Is this a junior footy? The enquiry was passed down the line. No, they said, as far as they knew it was a full-size match ball. Was I just suffering a misconception? I tried phoning Sherrin, but found the Collingwood factory no longer existed. Eventually, after a series of calls, I discovered Spalding were the manufacturers and I spoke to a representative there who said, yes, at the direction of football administrators, the ball had been reshaped. The exact when and why-for’s were unclear, but it was in fairly recent years (possibly during the latter days of the VFL).

It struck as odd and a little worrisome that something as fundamental as the shape of the ball could be tinkered with and slip-by so unnoticed. Maybe it happened while I was overseas and was common knowledge, but no friend I spoke to knew of it. Surely coaches and players would’ve been aware because they’d be most affected? How would changing the shape of the ball affect its trajectory? Does goal kicking require more precision? Were tests done beforehand? Did this help explain why G. Ablett Snr was able to master the one­-handed mark, or why Koutta could pluck the pill off the ground at full pace as though it were a cricket ball?

Of course, a modified design didn’t stop us accepting this Sherrin and taking it down to a park or oval for a diminishingly robust version of kick-to-kick. I still have it in my possession, though Barry Stoneham’s moniker has virtually faded into the scuffed leather blush.

Years later I heard Kevin Bartlett asking listeners whether Sherrins were smaller, on SEN following a talk-back enquiry. If KB didn’t know about an alteration then it truly was clandestine.

So what, you may say? The shape has changed before. Initially, it was round then a rugby ball used until modified by T. W. Sherrin and introduced in 1880 to become the much-loved template. But in those days Aussie Rules was still establishing its identity.

To me it matters because it’s an issue about ownership. Who does the game belong to; who has the right to fiddle with heritage?

Nowadays, the AFL is changing the game at a pace that is compulsive bordering on obsessive with a concerning inability to foresee the consequences of what they propose. The main difference now is that we’re made more aware of the process, but the fans, the members, the major stakeholders still have no control. We can express our displeasure, but that’s about it.

Shrinking the Sherrin was just a precursor.

END

POSTSCRIPT: While writing this I sent an email to the AFL to confirm modification had indeed been made, but at time of posting had yet to receive an answer.

Comments

  1. Reminds me of when Boags were giving away a free Sherrin with each slab. My mates and I sat there, drinking a beer and looking at this Sherrin. How do they do it? We asked, incredulous. Bogue County (winner of the Tip the Top 8) told us it wasn’t an official Sherrin, it was a touch smaller. Maybe he was wrong, maybe they’re all smaller. Still a great ball to kick around, nothing like kicking a new Sherrin for the first time.

  2. Paul – its a big concern. The tip of the iceberg. When you watch election campaigns these days all politicians try to argue that they’re the ones for change – as if it is inherently good. The AFL is the same. This mad, headlong spiral into change for the sake of it. I say its a conspiracy. Keep the people confused and therefore keep them subjugated. And start with small detail, that way no one will argue. Time for a revolution.

    Cookie – On a lighter note – how’s your magnolia tree going? Should be going nuts with all this sun and rain.

  3. Dips, magnolia? Dead. Dead through a combination of our heavy clay soils and my ineptitude. Got some much hardier plants in there now and all going well.

  4. Cookie – don’t give up. They’re worth it.

    Next time, plenty of cow pooh and potting mix. And don’t plant it deep.

  5. A good football, like a good story, is somethng to behold. A fine piece, Paul , that opens out to broader issues. If you’re ever in Williamstown on a Sunday morning join the ‘Sherrin at the Fearon’ group for a few torpedoes and drop-kicks.

  6. Barkly St End says:

    God I miss kicking the footy.

  7. nathan jarvis says:

    One of my sons has a size 4 Sherrin and it is so pointy it may as well be a gridiron ball. It is an abomination.

    A fine piece, Paul – much to admire there. There is a melancholia and longing for a genuine football only one thing can fix:

    http://www.sekem.com.au/pdfs/Burley_Chart_lores_28-4-10.pdf

    Burley – they’re the right shape.

  8. Paul Spinks says:

    Thanks for all the fine comments.
    COOKIE: yes we adapt – I recall happily kicking a plastic footy in the street – you eventually learned how to get the best out of them. And you didn’t need to worry about the bitumen tearing up the leather. Though I don’t think that allows administrative carte blanche.
    DIPS: a revolution sounds great. Re the AFL, I’d probably settle for better representation and more accountability. Maybe I should dig up that petition draft post from a couple of months back.
    Can’t help either of you with magnolias. Have enough trouble keeping parsley alive.
    VIN: thanks, mate. I will endeavour to make it to Willy for a kick one day. At the moment I’m a few torps away, beside the Mekong River, and unable to even float down a wobbly one. No Aussie Rules here, but locals say they play soccer on the river bed as the drier months progress.
    BARKLY ST: get ye down to Willy on a Sundy morn?
    NATHON: Thanks for that. The Burley Premier looks like the real deal. Will have to chase one up and do a kick-to-kick comparison.
    Sawatdee Khap
    Paul

  9. Barkly St End says:

    Paul
    do you continue right through the Summer?

    Are 50 year olds welcome?

  10. Barkly St End says:

    Do you have insurance? The last time I attempted a 50m torp, nearly put my back out.

  11. Paul Spinks says:

    Barkly St End: sorry, my comment was a bit unclear. I was referring to the post just before yours – Vin Maskel’s comment/invite “Sherrin at the Fearon’. It sounds like it’s a regular event. 50 year old’s would be aplenty I’d imagine – kicking the footy has no age limit. We all get a bit rusty with lack of practice. I once did my hammy trying an old fashioned stab pass with the pointy Sherrin.

  12. Dear Barkly St End (and others!),
    The ‘Sherrin at the Fearon’ sessions are 9.30 – 10.30 Sunday mornings at Fearon Reserve, Osborne St, Williamstown. (Home ground of the Willi CYs.) At most there’s about half-a-dozen of us – so the ball comes around pretty regularly during circle work. Most of us are just on the wrong side of 50. None of us do warm-ups/laps. There’s been one bung hamstring in seven years. BYO shorts, runners, boots, sliced oranges. Skills are optional. Beach just over the road.

  13. Barkly St End says:

    heh, heh, no warm-ups or laps – now that’s my idea of a training run!! Is Fearon where the Willy Lacrosse club is located?

  14. No warm-ups, no laps – and no insurance.

    Yep, the Fearon Reserve is home to the Willy Lacrosse Club, plus cricket and footy clubs. Hope to see you there.

    Vin.

  15. John Butler says:

    Lovely piece Paul.

    Vin, just might have to make it to one of those sessions. Though I might raise your hammy stats. Might bring couple of ring-ins as well.

  16. Paul Spinks says:

    Thanks, John:
    And also, Vin, for the additional info.
    And great photo too …nothing like a well worn, recently polished footy.

  17. Barkly St End says:

    Nice pic of an old footy.

    I have a huge collection of footies at home, going back many years, I think all of them have been christened at least once, some in much better nick than others.

    Why are some hardly touched, well, I’m a great believer in completely using up one thing before using up another – must have got it from my parents.

    So for most regular kick arounds, it’s my old Kookaburra which is first choice, must be over 25 years old now, the markings on it are barely legible, a bit like the photo.

    The thing about this footy is that, also like the photo, it’s as shiny as all hell, meaning ball handling, including the drop from hand to foot is a very dicey affair because the ball is so slippery.

    But there is no getting round it – the Kookaburra must be fully spent before I start to take out the better quality Sherrins, at which point my son might be fully grown and capable of matching is old man in kicking a footy. But he’s got a way to go yet. I’m not sure if he’ll ever get there – I’d wager he’ll never match one of my drop kicks!

  18. Barkly St End says:

    Forget to mention – I’m definitely planning to make one Fearon Sherrin Session before Christmas.

  19. Peter Fuller says:

    A very belated response on the matter of the diminishing Sherrin. I have no direct experience/knowledge, but recall Thorold Merrett being interviewed in an ABC pre-match on the subject, probably early-1980s. Older Almanackers will know that Thorold had a long involvement in the sporting goods industry. I recall Dave Nadal and I debating the exact nature of Thorold’s association with Lindsay Hassett’s sports store business).
    In answer to a question, Thorold confirmed that the ball had become smaller. His explanation was down to the old convention of the visiting club having the choice of two footballs, supplied by the home team (I don’t know when this died out as the method for determining the match ball – it survived in local club footy in my playing days, 1960s-’70s). Thorold argued that the full-forward’s view often prevailed, and that the preference was invariably for the (perceived or actual) smaller ball,as being easier to kick. Over time, this had caused a shift.

  20. Paul Spinks says:

    Peter: Thanks for shining more light on the subject. I’d have thought by the 1970’s ball size would’ve become well and truly standardized, especially at VFL level, but maybe not. Though, the Spalding representative seemed to suggest a specific direction rather than a gradual evolution. I know Sherrin had the Match 11 and the Kangaroo Brand as their senior ball, with the KB being of superior quality – I presume their dimensions were/are the same, however.

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