Grassroots footy: A mirror for our national existence
IT was the great Bernie “Superboot’’ Quinlan who told me at a 1992 Fitzroy Football Club fundraiser that grassroots football will always be the lifeblood of the game.
It was inside the hallowed changerooms of Princes Park in Melbourne, where Quinlan played a lot of his career in a Fitzroy jumper.
A joint Brownlow medallist with South Melbourne’s Barry Round in 1981, Quinlan hailed from Traralgon in East Gippsland, about 160km from Melbourne.
That chat with Quinlan more than 25 years ago came back to me this week while watching the Eastside-Katherine Camels Big Rivers grand final in Katherine.
The grand final was nothing spectacular, a game dominated by Eastside who won their fifth BRFL flag in succession to create a new league record.
But it reminded me again of the raw excitement generated in small communities by the great Australian game and what it means to the lives of the people who live there.
A regular competition in Katherine did not happen when I was a schoolboy there in the 1960s and ‘70s.
There was the annual CSIRO v Schoolteachers game on the old oval near the town’s powerhouse and of course Katherine had the great Doug Kelly, who plied his trade in Darwin’s NTFL from the 1960s to the ‘80s.
But when Katherine entered the NTFL reserves competition in 1985 a whole new world of footy opened for kids in the town and communities 500km east and west of the town.
A glance at the record books will tell you Kirby’s Agents and Rowlands met in the first grand final in early 1989, with Kirby’s winning by 83 points.
It was the same in Tennant Creek’s Barkly league, where Sporties Spitfires beat Memo Magpies in 1991 to begin a tradition in the gold town that continues today.
In the communities it is the same, Maningrida, Jilkminggan, Wadeye, Elcho Island, Papunya, Santa Teresa and Lajamanu live and die by the sound of a football being kicked.
As the late Ron Casey, the doyen of radio sport in Australia through the 1960s and ‘70s said of the Australian game, “it brings people together and puts everything else into perspective, it is the mirror of our live”.
A 16-year-old kid from Jilkminggan, a road trip about 150km southeast of Katherine, won the Morris Medal as the best player on the ground in the grand final.
Stephen Rory, already an under-16 representative with Territory Thunder and a regular with NTFL U18 side Big River Hawks, is a star in the making.
Typical of the shy youngsters that emerge from remote communities with a football in one hand and a pair of boots in the other, Rory let his football do the talking for him on a day when he covered ruck, wing and goalkicking duties.
The AFLNT was well organised off the field. Umpires boss Mark Noonan had his crew up and running and his fingers on the buttons that controlled the new electronic scoreboard.
The Katherine Showgrounds (Nitmiluk Oval) is an ideal ground for day and night football, though the AFLNT and probably the Town Council need to look closely at installing more lights and a permanent loudspeaker system at the ground.
Trying to identify players on the far side of the ground was almost impossible and for the third in four years, a spectator was forced to sing the national anthem pre-game when the electronics broke down.
But isn’t that footy in the bush, a unique and vital part of Australia’s sporting legacy?
Action from the Katherine-based Big Rivers Football League between Eastside and Beswick. Inset: Stephen Rory won the Morris Medal after helping to inspire Eastside to the 2017 Big Rivers Football League premiership against Katherine Camels at Nitmiluk Oval on Saturday night