There Was a Striker From Ironbark…(or What’s Bush Football’s Story?)

For all its sporting history Australia has been renowned for throwing up some of its greatest sports stars from the farming communities, the mining towns, the railway sidings and the flyblown specks on the map that dot the great expanse of the nation’s rural and regional heartland. Rod Laver came from Rockhampton, whilst up the Bruce Highway Cathy Freeman was a Mackay girl. In cricket the legendary Don Bradman made his way from Cootamundra to Bowral where he flourished as a prodigal young talent, and thence journeyed to Sydney and immortality. Cadel Evans started life in Katherine in the Northern Territory before heading to Armidale in the New England region. League great Arthur Beetson came from Roma in Queensland, Greg Norman was from Mount Isa and squash great Heather McKay was a Queanbeyan girl. You can’t mention the name of our first great female Olympic sprinter Marjorie Jackson without appending the nickname ‘The Lithgow Flash’, whilst ‘the Maitland Wonder’ was boxer Les Darcy.

Meanwhile, in football the catalogue of country born and bred heroes and heroines is stark in its emptiness.

Yes, Ray Baartz (who probably deserves the accolade of being our greatest football player of the last century) was a Newcastle lad, and Archie Thompson spent time as a junior around Lithgow, Bathurst and Albury. The industrial centre of Whyalla, on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula has been a productive regional point of origin for footballers such as Robert Bajic, Carl Veart and Alistair Edwards (though Edwards actually began his career in Perth). However when we talk about the greats of our code in this country, the same major urban geographies crop up. For Tim Cahill, Mark Schwarzer and Harry Kewell it’s Sydney’s western suburbs. John Kosmina and the Vidmar brothers were from Adelaide, whilst the two Pauls (Trimboli and Wade) were young players from Melbourne. Mark Viduka was another Melburnian, whilst Stan Laziridis is a Perth lad.

If one was to look at the Socceroos squad that triumphed in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup only two of the players selected by Ange Postecoglou came from a truly bush background, these being reserve goalkeeper Mitch Langerack (who hails from the Queensland coal mining town of Emerald) and Nathan Burns (like Archie Thompson, Burns is of mid-western NSW provenance, also playing as a junior with Bathurst ’75 Western). Contrasted to the Australian cricket squad that has completed its most recent test series against India with five key players coming from the scrub (Brad Haddin, Josh Hazelwood, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh and Mitchell Johnson), I think it’s only fair to ask the FFA and indeed the wider football community what the f@ck are we doing to encourage our game outside the big cities?

Obviously the strong links between football’s history in Australia and the post-World War II immigrant boom is of vital importance. Whilst certain parts of regional and rural Australia have some degree of a multicultural population (e.g. Griffith in NSW’s Riverina with its large Italian community, or Woolgoolga near Coffs Harbour with its Sikh Indian populace), there has been nowhere near the congregation or concentration of those who came from the Balkans, from Greece, from Spain, from Germany or more recently from South America, Asia or Africa in Australia’s bush towns as have stayed in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth or Adelaide. The major regional centres of Wollongong and Newcastle have benefited from the large number of Europeans who came to these steel and coal cities before and after World War II, thus increasing their prominence in football’s Australian history. However I would argue that as both these cities are within two-three hours of Sydney they are not so much part of the bush, but more an extension of the great conurbation of our biggest Australian city. The immigrants who were behind the Hungarian St George Budapest, the Greek South Melbourne Hellas, or the Polish Adelaide Polonia didn’t emigrate in similar numbers with a similar impact to Mudgee or Shepparton, to Port Lincoln or Alice Springs.

This is not meant to deny the importance of those people who either emigrated to Australia or were born here and then have tried to develop bush soccer. I’ve recently come across the story of one of those so-called ‘wogs’ from a country town that I have deep personal links with. Broken Hill is possibly one of the most famous small bush cities in this country, and the recently departed Rudolph Alagich has been lauded by many for his efforts in the community to promote football. A pre-war emigre from the old Yugoslavia, there is abundant evidence for Alagich’s impact on the Hill and its sporting profile. The grand old man of SBS’s football commentators Les Murray had this to say about Rudolph:

I also understood him because our lives followed a similar narrative. He came to Australia as a penniless boy at a similar age, from a similar part of the world. And, like me, he and his brothers came bearing gifts – bearing the gift of football to an unsuspecting Australian community.

Among the gifts the Alagich family was to yield were three members who were to represent Australia in football at various levels: Joe, Richie and Dianne. I am sure there will be more in future generations. Rudi’s son, my very good friend Richard, is the most accomplished junior development coach in Australian football. (source)

Roy Hay has written a more detailed but still laudatory article about the Alagich’s however what I find most telling is another item mentioned by Les Murray in his epitaph for Rudolph:

Rudi was a fine citizen and a very popular man in Broken Hill, even if that wasn’t always unanimous in the local community. I remember him telling me the story of how, when he was made captain of a school Aussie Rules team, an angry parent wrote to the school saying “I will not have my son playing under a dago”

Whilst Broken Hill was and still is a reasonably cosmopolitan mining town (for example, one of my great-grandfathers from the Hill was Norwegian), there is no doubt that like so much of regional Australia parochialism in sport and race meant that those who wanted to play and propagate ‘wogball’ were often either vilified because of their non-Anglo background, or expected to play the local code. The smaller the town, the more remote and less ethnically diverse its community, the more pressure would be placed on the soccer/football partisans in such country towns and villages.

So whilst our round ball code of football has always been under the pump nationally, at least in the largest cities along the coast there has been enough of a ethnically diverse supporting community to give football space to breathe and prosper up to the current era. Yes, in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth Australian Rules pressures football, and Brisbane and Sydney are more avowed rugby league and union areas. However anyone who lives in these cities have almost no understanding of the problems facing the bush footballer. Forget your David and Goliath struggles between say an A-League club and a NPL club in the FFA Cup, try being a bush footballer battling the social and community pressure exerted by a mainly Anglo, Aussie Rules or Rugby focused sporting landscape.

Then there are the day-to-day problems facing anyone in the scrub. Distance is king once you get west of the Great Dividing Range, and when community regional sport is already run on the smell of an oily rag, it must be a Sisyphean task to fund and organise a football club playing out of a place like Broken Hill, Longreach, Horsham, Ceduna, Broome, Strachan. Things are not so bad for parts of regional Victoria, the central west of NSW or the Richmond/Tweed Valley around the Queensland/NSW border. However take the example of players who represent Moree FC. They may have to travel as far afield as Tamworth, Gunnedah, Narrabri and Armidale, whose players of course may have to reciprocate with a similarly long journey. For those of us supporting an A-League club and bitch about having to cross one city, or fly interstate, I’d suggest a reality check is needed when considering our country cousins.

Returning to Broken Hill, it is interesting to see that even with such sizable numbers on their books (over 800 players were registered in 2013: source), as recently as last year they couldn’t get assistance from the local city council either logistically or financially to help refurbish their playing fields. Meanwhile, half a state away in the Riverina city of Wagga Wagga the local council there was able to find $300,000 to help support the GWS Giants. Obviously Wagga and Broken Hill are different in size and in wealth, yet these parallel stories illustrate the priorities of local councils in the bush when it comes to supporting football codes. It must be extremely disheartening for those who labour hard in the scrub for our preferred ball game to know that the AFL or to a lesser extent the NRL can garner major political and financial support whilst soccer struggles for similar patronage, similar support, let alone something along the lines of what their big smoke brethren can obtain.

I believe there is also a lethargy within the higher echelons of our own codes’ administrators to help those footballers in the bush to have something similar to the resources and impact that those based in Sydney or Melbourne etc receive. My club, the Western Sydney Wanderers, have played through choice and/or by direction from the FFA community round games in Campbelltown and Penrith, trialed in Canberra, Wollongong, Balmain, but have made no effort to take the squad out past the Nepean River unless it’s been on a jet. I’ve already written about my hope that a place like Parkes may have the option to be the venue for a community round game. Sadly that was not to be, and I may in future write a bit of a denunciation of the experience in the world of Panthers. I’m aware that the Central Coast Mariners have some links to the central west, having played a trial match in Mudgee as recently as September 20th 2014. Yes, there have been friendlies played up in Lismore involving Melbourne City and again the Mariners (viz here) , or even a community round game between the old Melbourne Heart and Perth Glory in Albury last season. However if you contrast this effort with what happens with the NRL or AFL in their pre-season, where for example the Parramatta Eels go to Alice Springs for a match against the West Tigers, having formed a relationship with the Northern Territory government, or the aforementioned links between the GWS Giants and Wagga Wagga City Council, it seems to me the FFA and the A-League clubs are both dropping behind in the race to engage with their constituency outside major urban centres.

On top of all this is the problem our code faces when it comes to an even more marginalised section of the football community outside the cities, indigenous sportsmen and women. If there is one aspect of our sport’s history that needs to be told again and again it is how a man like Charlie Perkins found an acceptance in our code, that even today is remarkable in its social, political and cultural significance.

I went out, and mixed socially without too much embarrassment – a thing I could never do amongst Australians. These migrant clubs treated me better than white Australians did. They gave a person a feeling of dignity and self-respect.” (A Bastard Like Me’ by Charlie Perkins)

Considering the tortured and troubling history of racism particularly in AFL, a sport that holds immense sway in the bush and among the indigenous community, Charlie Perkins is an example of how football can and has gone beyond its competing codes in empowering and giving dignity to the first Australians. The same can be said for 1974 Socceroo Harry Williams, who represented Australia on a global stage more widely than many other sports in this country have done before or since.

Then there is John Moriarty and his Nangala Project, which is endeavouring to create better career, education and health prospects for the indigenous people of and near the Northern Territory’s community of Borroloola. This is in itself a remarkable and noble activity, however it is focused on one very small part of a huge area of back-blocks Australia that seems to have been left behind by football’s administrators. Where are similar efforts from (hypothetically) Football NSW to assist those indigenous kids and adults into our sport in places like Walgett, Narrabri, Coonamble, Trangie, etc etc? If there is a recognition of the need for more work to be done not just in the bush for football, why isn’t it being discussed more or promoted actively? Where indeed are the players who should be coming through the ranks of scrub soccer, blackfella and gubba alike, to appear in our A-League squads?

I will cheerfully admit that I have barely scratched the surface of what is an issue I have only a smattering of knowledge on. Much of what I written is built upon anecdotal or presumed supposition. For me however I still believe I have a very real point that needs more attention, having spent many years either living in the country, spending time in places as far apart as Moree and Port Lincoln, and seen over several decades the importance of country people and towns in our national sporting culture. It would please me no end to see a small town like Yanco in the MIA, or maybe Kimba on the Eyre Highway, or perhaps Goomeri up in the South Burnett be able to say it was the town where our greatest ever Socceroo was born and learnt his trade. It’s the duty of all of us who love football in Australia’s big cities to remember those who feel the same way out in the scrub.