Almanac Footy: The Unconformity Cup – Nowhere Footy



Matt Zurbo Zab

Zab. Brave. At Queenstown.




After 3 ½ years working on a book that took one month to fail I set about reclaiming my life. Re-finding music, adventure, the wilderness. Rare friends. Everything has been footy as long as I can remember. Playing it, serious in Tassie on Saturdays, then, a plane across the pond, just for the joy of pub footy on Sundays. Loose crew, like minds. Then back to the bush, hard work, country people, footy training, wood cutting, manure bagging, whatever it took to afford the next round of book interviews. Bourke, Black, Billy Williams…


In between there were off season odysseys. A lap of the country beginning two weeks after the last final, starting with barely $200, a work ute and dog. Only staying with or getting work through people you’ve played footy alongside. Just to prove it could be done. In those 4 ½ months I lived some mighty stories, from desert to snow-covered mountains, to mining towns, to the tropics. All through footy.


The other off seasons were dominated by interviews for the book, sleeping in the ute, at train stations, on couches, eating what I could, when I could. Working half a day digging ditches, then washing using a hose and a sock before heading off to billionaire Lindsay Fox’s office. (I found him a corker) Bluffing my way through WA, Sydney, the SA desert. Each day away from the bush, surrounded by cities, I’d be stir crazy, my body would be stir crazy, so I’d always bring a footy. When there was no-one to kick with there was always something to crash – touch footy, summer footy, beach footy. With musos, with loggers, with strangers. Writing for the Almanac 12 months of the year.


Now I wanted a break. If only to prove to myself there’s more to me than chasing pigskins.


Nick and Dr J, ironically, teammates from the Bats in pub footy, have formed a two-piece band. Ice Claw. They were playing in the remote mining community of Queenstown. “Somewhere in the West Tassie mountains, The Unconformity Festival…” Nick said, over the phone.


“Don’t tell me another thing,” I insisted. It was everything I needed. A place to be lost in. No footy, just music and rain and mist covered mountains.


The drive, straight from work in the gullies of the North East, took 4 ½ hours of breathtaking rocky peeks, plateaus, tabletops, boulders as big as skyscrapers, small rusty farming towns and prehistoric skylines.


No-one else was on the road, not for any of it. No-one. It felt brilliant.


Nick and Dr J aren’t footyheads. They barely follow the AFL, only play pub footy when they can, talk about music and the world, never draft picks or ladder positions. One’s a landscape gardener, the other a psychiatrist. One handsome, the other the most friendly beard with a person attached. I arrived five minutes into their set. They’d dressed in a white fur suit and beady-eyed robot helmet and made electronic soundscapes, moods, and walls of noise not unlike a whale’s song, that had little and everything to do with music.


I was as far from footy as I could get. A pig in shit in a small art gallery, safe from the rain of nowhere. The dog and swag waiting in the ute. It was going to come down all night, so I made sure I had my bourbon coat on.


Next day, dawn rose on my first real view of Queenstown. It was goddamn perfect. Wet, grey, with rocky, cloud-stained peeks everywhere. The first hotel I saw almost collapsing in on itself. A fair bit of the main street old and crocked. Every shack told a story of hard yakka and it’s romance, but they worked. The town worked. Less rules, less inspectors, just what matters. Even though times are hard, and most of the mining is gone.


Someone told me the copper mine opens and closes depending on the prices, and in between everybody scrambles.




I struggled with the day, though, the indulgence of it. I’m shit at being idle. How do people do it? Go to festivals for three, four days and just consume? Don’t they want to get their hands dirty, have reason? Music and football. I’m always jealous of either vocation, those good at it. The purpose it gives them to be on a road somewhere. The do-ers over the watchers.


Then, on dusk, word spread there was going to be a footy game on Sunday. The West versus the Rest.


The Queenstown oval is a thing of hard beauty. Maybe the most iconic Australian Football oval this side of the MCG. In a mining town that rains 280 days of the year, its surface has always been gravel. Not a blade of grass. An oval of its environment. I arrived early, delirious with joy to play on it. This surface whispered of a nation over. Everything about it was different. The camber was inward, so the sand wouldn’t wash away. The boundary and center markings were drawn in using a stick.


To stand on it was to see 100,000 bloodied knees and shoulders, popped elbows, missing layers of skin. 130 years of fear, intimidation, and killer stories. If you squint you can see the horses people once rode to the game on, the woodfire hot water, old steam-powered mining machinery. The history of our nation, as seen through its furnaces. Jesus fucking Christ, I could have been standing in the 50s, the 40s, 1902. From the middle, only cars gave away the modern world. And even they were pretty basic.


I was glad it was raining. It had to be. Just had to.


The Rest were brilliant. We wore the Community Cup jumpers, the radiohead’s team, the Megahertz. Such a clever name; Mega Hurtz. A mish-mash of musos, girlfriends, boyfriends, drifters and scene grooves and loners. Dr John and I got changed beside each other as the rain came down outside.


“Remember that scene in the Blues Brothers?” I asked. “Where they get into their car and say ‘300 miles, 100 state troupes, it’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses’?”


He looked around the room and smiled.


I’d done no training since the footy season, was old, hungover, wearing Dunlop Volleys, teamed with Murph and the Magic Tones – ripper spindly musos and spoken word performers and a great, happy dude from Queensland who’d only ever played rugby, about to run out onto gravel against hardened miners, most of them players from local competitions. It felt right, it fit, all of it.


The miners, it tuned out, were human. They had their big donks, but also their girls, and skinny ten year old kid in the forward pocket. They had their jets – one bloke was brilliant; fast, flexible, sure hands in the wet, great vision. Time and again he made a monkey of me, of all of us, really. I wanted to kill him. But that’s not social football. Their back flank had played over 300 games locally, and showed it. A hungover kid in a helmet ran and dodged like a rabbit.


Our bench had an old man, rover’s build, white beard and balding hair that pointed everywhere, looking a sight in a footy jumper, jeans, and sodden sneakers. About 60 and didn’t give a damn. Keen as mustard! Even our own teammates were dubious. “What’s the point? He’s gunna end up on a stretcher,” one of them mumbled. But, when the bloke finally got a run, with nobody manning him he took a diving mark into a gravel-filled puddle, kicked a hook goal, casual as, and everyone went berserk for him. “The wild man from Borneo!”


   He barged into packs, laid a ripper tackle…


Our coach kept things happy, kept us spinning. All 35 players got good game time somehow. He understood exactly what it was about, a corker of a person. I was in a three way rotation and had a good one, even though my kicking was terrible. Every time I got the sandy, waterlogged ball anywhere anything like in the clear, I tried to do a torpedo. Just had to. I mean, if I was going to go back in time, I may as well have kicked like it.


Not one of them connected sweetly. There was my chance to be Malcolm Blight, charging through the middle from the bounce, letting loose from 60. To be Bernie Quinlan. To be Jimmy goddamn Jess! Even if only for a minute. It was heartbreaking.


“Old Dog!” the crowd roared and laughed each time I went for a grab. “Old Dog!’ with genuine affection, as if we’d known each other forever.


One of ours, a young bloke who could really play, got the ball on the wing. Two hot on his hammer, he ran and tried to bounce. Who knows why – instinct? To see what would happen? To be a legend? It landed flat in the water, the crowd went troppo with laughter, and cheered as he got hammered, soccered it on 30 meters, sprung up, followed on, contested where it stopped and got hammered again, and kept going. He was something special.


The gravel and sand did their job. There was blood everywhere, without violence. The game was fun, but football. Both teams sized up who could or couldn’t take a hit, went hard, it was willing.


The Rest had our jets, too. Zab’s only eighteen, from down South. She plays in the Statewide Woman’s League, and obviously kills it. In the second quarter, running back with the flight, she knew her opponent was coming the other way, in the slot for a solid grab. The bloke was big, had good weight and all the right tats. Zab leaped… as much to squash him as to take the mark, and got up from the tangle of legs and arms grinning like a loon, giving him lip.


My hero.


My total goddamn hero!


Boy or girl, woman or man, it was David and Goliath.


It never once stopped raining, yet as Zab ran off for the ball again I listened to the crowd chuckling, talking, drinking. Men and women and kids and stray town dogs, packed into the tall, thin, old school grandstand, having a corker time. Then noticed there were cars every damn where, spotted the radio commentators up in the booth above the old timber clubrooms. Noticed the height of our surroundings. The way the oval was the only flat for kilometres. Everything else was winding tracks into strip mined hills, steep bush and grey, shifting weather. Everything else rose and towered.


These things, days like this, don’t just happen. The people behind the scenes deserved medals.


By half time it was obvious the miners were going to win, but we were kicking goals, making it both a game and a shitfight.


Stuff the bloodied knees, I was playing on the Queenstown oval! With the best crew of nomads, against people of legend, who lived there. Who trained and played on that surface, in rain and snow, their whole careers.


What a goddamn privilege.



  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Can’t believe that you think your book has failed Matt. On what basis?

    Don’t ever stop this stuff.

  2. I had a shit work day yesterday. Full of troubled minds and souls. Flat as a pancake on my day off today.
    But I’m sitting here laughing like a loon at your mind pictures, and smiling in affirmation at the crazy joy you describe so magnificently.
    You’re not a pigskin chaser Matt – just a dream chaser. Long may you run.
    As a recent Nobel Laureate commented to me a few years back:
    “There’s no success like failure,
    And failure’s no success at all.”
    By the way – “the crowd chucking, talking, drinking” wins the Almanac Freudian Slip Typo of the Year Award by the length of the Flemington Straight.

  3. Onya Matt. As you observe, what a place to play footy. Most enjoyable (and, yes, chuckled at the mental image of the chucking).

  4. Nice observations..

    Chucking less Freudian now as chuckling PB.

    Love the organic nature of writing.

  5. Malby Dangles says

    Sounds like a magical weekend, Matty! Would love to do that drive to Queenstown (from Lonnie or wherever!) and kick the footy on the oval. Thanks for this top story.

  6. Matt Zurbo says

    Thought about you, Malby. Shame you weren’t there.

  7. John Green says

    I love your stories Matt, but I think you spoiled this one with the bad language. There was no need for it. I think you’re a gifted writer, but I found it offensive and couldn’t read it to the end.

  8. Matt Zurbo says

    John, yes, I swear a lot in life, I guess, and write as I speak. But re-reading it with what you said in mind, I think you’re not far wrong. I’ll be more aware of this on the future. Thank you for your words.

  9. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Terrific stuff Matt,
    Lived in Queenie 1976-78. Bloody cold and wet, but always felt safe as a kid, even after getting the inevitable gravel rash rough and tumbling as an 8 year old. Kicked the footy with my daughter on the gravel in 2011(Late January and still cold) and then we climbed up the sand hill together.
    Did you get a chance to knock back a few noggins at the Empire Hotel or go inside the Paragon Cinema?

  10. Great stuff,Old dog just about another dimension of grass roots footy and what do you mean re the book failing ? ( I agree with John Green re the swearing )? Overall great stuff,Matt

  11. Thanks for your response, Matt. I appreciate your honesty.

  12. Matt Zurbo says

    No, thank you, John. I do, indeed, agree.

    Phil, of course! You Almanacers get around, don’t you! Great stuff.

  13. Chris Aulich says

    Loved your story, Matt. Sorry it took so long for me to respond (the pony express to Canberra takes a while). Reminded me of the stories Dad told me of the time when he was a miner in Tullah and played on the gravel in ‘Queeny’. The trainers were armed with tweezers to extract the bits of gravel and a bottle of mercurochrome to prevent infection – the players with strips of car tyres nailed to their boots instead of stops, so they could slide across the surface.

  14. Matt Zurbo says

    Chris, mate, pure gold!!! I’d be happy to be told that story, let alone live it! Cheers!

  15. Paul Young says

    Hi Matt,
    Just happened upon this article when I was looking for some info on the infamous gravel rash ground at Queenstown.

    A guy in the office has a mate who is looking to move to Queenstown for work. His mate plays a bit of footy and when I told my work colleague that the Queenstown ground is gravel, he couldn’t wait to tell the guy. We had a look at the photos of the gravel ground including the one you have of Zab. Amazing!

    Must get there one day.

    Great read, really enjoyed it. Fascinating way to get around – just go and play footy and doing odd jobs. Well done.

  16. Matt Zurbo says

    Thanks heaps Paul! Yeah, I loved everything about Queenstown. Four hours from any major city, sounds pretty good to me!”

  17. Daryl Schramm says

    Just . . . Brilliant . . .All . . .. Round . . . Again . .!

  18. Went there in about October 2018 or so. Saw the sprig marks in the gravel and still cannot believe they have played on this for yonks. Just incredible. Thanks for the story, too, Old Dog, can conjure up the mind pictures easily.

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