This piece appears in the book ‘Footy Town’ edited by John Harms and Paul Daffey of ‘Footy Almanac’ fame. It has pieces about local footy, from New Norfolk to the Tiwi Islands and is a fantastic read. Buy it here.
The University Blacks Football Club ruined me. More specifically, it ruined my cartilages.
They were already pretty shabby when I arrived, 27 years old and safely retired, for a gentle off-season jog with my brother Ned in late 1999. I told the coach, ex-Port Melbourne wingman Kane Bowden (of the Richmond and Alice Springs Bowdens) that I ‘definitely wasn’t going to play’. ‘I’m too busy,’ I said, referring to my starring role in a soon to be deceased ABC lifestyle show known as Dimensions: On the Move. ‘And my knees are sore. I’m definitely done.’
By the start of pre-season I was ‘thinking about joining in training’. By the time the residential colleges were back I was ‘possibly up for the practice games’. And by Round 1, I was bleeding black and blue and committed for half of the next decade.
The transformation has something to do with football. I realised in a few short weeks that I’d missed the competition, the physical act of jumping for the ball in a test of skill, of winning or losing in the moment. I’d always loved the competitive aspect. Famously, I’d worn a mouthguard to a schoolyard game of kick-to-kick in my late teens. ‘Oh fuck off,’ was all Dave Lucas could say when he saw it. ‘Get that fucking thing out’. I took kick-to-kick pretty seriously. For my last two years at school, nobody over six foot came up my end.
I’d also missed team competition – winning or losing games, making the finals or missing out, the idea that for two hours each week, twenty-two men form a shape-shifting-organism and either win or lose against an enemy twenty-two. Part of the magic of the experience is that it’s relatively meaningless triumph and meaningless defeat. In real life, competition is so much more bitter and permanent. ‘She likes you ‘more as a friend’, ‘Sorry, we’re going to promote Simon’, ‘Your show’s being put back to 11.30’. Footy games are important enough to fire the adrenalin, but unimportant enough for the scars to heal.
At least that’s how it should be. For most of my career, it seemed as if I hadn’t been playing for fun. At Hawthorn (1989-92) I’d either been hoping to make it, nearly making it, or falling off a cliff. At Prahran (1993), things had gone swimmingly until the club had imploded into financial oblivion. At Preston (1995-97) we’d gone from Bullants to Knights to Northern Knights to a plaything for the newly formed TAC under-eighteens competition. For most of the time, I fantasised about making it back to the AFL. None of these places felt like ‘my club’.
When I played my first game for University Blacks in 2000, I finally discovered my football home. It’s not that the blokes are better blokes than other blokes – there’s a senseless jingoism to that sentiment that doesn’t appeal to my sense of egalitarian logic – it’s just that blokes there seem to be better blokes than other blokes. It works almost like a crazy mirror at the fair. Come into the place as a bit of a dickhead. Stay for a few training sessions and you’ll wobble into some semblance of good bloke-dom.
It has something to do with that most hackneyed of post-millennium phrases, ‘club culture’.The surrounding colleges, as well as lending heavenly spires and church chimes and sandstone backdrops to the picket-fence perfection of the Main Oval, also provide a steady flow of educated country kids who understand strength in community. University also has a ‘time of life’ glow, so the current undergrads tend to be happy, because they get to drink beer, fall in lust, and sleep in until just before training, and the ex-students tend to be happy, because they get to return three times a week to the place where they used to drink beer, fall in lust,and sleep in until just before training.
There’s an atmosphere of tolerance and respect. A back pocket like Kent ‘Bricka’ Begley, who set a Club XVIII games record while looking and moving something like a brick, is as welcome and important as an ex-AFL player like Mark Bolton. The reserves watch the seniors and vice versa because off the field, there’s no separation. Indeed, if depth of talent and player satisfaction is best indicated by the performance of those not in the senior team, the Blacks are a happiness colossus. The reserves have won sixteen flags in twenty-eight years.
The seniors have done well, too. Four senior premierships in eleven years have restored the club to the VAFA’s Premier Division (the old A-Grade). On 22 September 2012, AFL footy legend and Uni Blacks director of coaching, David Parkin, was quoted in The Age as saying ‘I’d have to say that the culture at the Blacks is the best culture of any football club I’ve been involved with — even Hawthorn.”
During my VFA career, I’m ashamed to admit I once attended a ‘camel night’, an event to which each player was asked to invite two women who were not his wife or girlfriend. Alcohol was cheap for the guys, but free for the girls. The word association stars amongst you will work out what part of the camel’s anatomy was the objective. At the Blacks, that idea would get the treatment it deserves. Indeed our social club would be more likely to structure an event around actual camels. It took a decade, but for the last four years of my career, I stopped cringing at my teammates and started laughing along with them.
And I absolutely fucked my knees.
My first game for the club was played on the Brunswick Street Oval. The Blacks were playing in the newly named D2 division of the Amateurs, a trick of nomenclature designed to fool E-Grade footballers into thinking they could hit targets.
It was a special day for our opposition, the Fitzroy Reds, as the club was returning to hallowed turf for the first time since ‘Old Fitzroy’ trod these clods in 1966. It was also a special day for the Wilson family, as I was joining my father Ray and younger brother Ned at the club they loved. Ned had played under-nineteens and reserves since he left school in 1996, but today, he was selected in the seniors as part of a double-pronged Wilson forward line.
Dad had captained back-to-back premierships at the Blacks in 1964-65, a stint that had attracted the interest of VFL clubs. In 1966 he crossed to Glenferrie, and played in Hawthorn’s last ever game against Fitzroy at Brunswick Street, a fact he shared with his sons in the hour or so before the game.
‘I got the three Brownlow votes that day,’ he said, a little mistily as the rain set in.
‘And didn’t you win a bed for getting most club votes in the Brownlow that year?’ I replied.
Dad confirmed that he did, and Ned and I departed to pace the ground, speculating quietly as to whether there might be a direct link between this very turf and the sleeping apparatus that eventually contributed to our existence.
It ended up being a classic game. The Reds slipped to a five-goal deficit, but in the last quarter they were blown towards the line by a howling gale and a raucous home crowd. I remember Ned winning the ball in the forward pocket, drawing a player, and handballing to Simon Smith for a spectacular goal. I remember lining up for goal as an opposition defender shared his thoughts about the Kareem Abdul Jabaar glasses I’d donned to protect my eyes from possible lacerations from the hard contact lens I had to wear to see even moderately well.‘You look like a joke, Wilson. A stupid, goggly-eyed, fat-headed joke! And your Channel 7 show was awful.’
‘But I suffer from keratoconus,’ is what I should have said. ‘You are making fun of somebody who has mis-shaped corneas and has to wear glass in his eyes.’ Instead I said nothing. But I did kick the goal. And I did do a guttural celebratory shout right in the guy’s face, even though I agreed with him that the Channel 7 show was awful. And we did win by five points.
Leaving the ground, reserves goal umpire George Bearham assembled the players for a photo. ‘And another!’ he beamed, tilting his head back and expanding his arms, the very definition of camera flair.
George always took two photos after every victory. His wild enthusiasm for the ‘and another’ was infectious and became something of a catchcry. He was hobbit-like in appearance, think Bilbo but with a white Panama hat and an authentic circa-1965 pressed white coat. The coat was never buttoned, thus allowing black pants, bulging business shirt and Pink Panther braces to be admired by all.
Of the 200 photos taken of me during my football career, 195 were taken by George. Of these, maybe four or five has everyone in frame and in focus. Nevertheless, George had an eye for history, and nowadays George’s lovingly crafted Blacks yearbooks are revered documents, handed around past players as part of club lore.
He worked with mixed media, blue biro on A4 page, photos stuck down with Clag. He had a page dedicated to honouring the injured that was entitled ‘The Price of Victory’. Everyone from the president to the canteen volunteers received a page. He logged nicknames, and in 2000 we had Moose, Gobbles, Claw, Scooter, Cacca, Reverend, Juicy and Tickets. His player profiles were filled with a comma-less ebullience:
‘Rob Mackie is centre half back at the heart of the senior’s indomitable defence where he plays with such a steel hard performance that the opposition ability to score is held to a minimum.’
‘When you observe Ned Wilson’s play he laconically annihilates any opposition forward drive and returns play to our attack.’
‘Jon Ralph is a wonderful ruckman with the strength and solid build to withstand severe body crashes at the bounce and drive the Blacks into attack.’
‘Tony Wilson is our gymnastic full forward whose marking ability using amazing body contortions appears like an Olympic athlete flying without the use of a pole in the pole vault and never a safety cushion to land on.’
He tolerated the seniors but loved the reserves. He offered commiserations to seconds players who’d received a call-up and congratulations to senior players who’d been demoted. George’s son Sandy had played reserves in the ’80s and George outstayed him by two decades. He was a fixture between the sticks, signalling Blacks goals like a gospel choirmaster raising two arms to the heavens. Opposition goals were met with a disconsolate shrug and a brief twitching of forearms.
He was also responsible for more hometown decisions than any goal umpire in history. Jim Trevaskis remembers a ball striking his boot and pinballing off four opposition shins before crossing the line and receiving the George Bearham straight armed salute.“Close enough is good enough” was his motto for a Blacks goal, a philosophy that worked in reverse when the teams changed ends. When opposition players complained, George’s sunny disposition flickered only for a moment, as he’d tell the complainants in no uncertain terms to where they should take their grievances. After home-game duties, he’d sit on the Queens College hill watching the seniors, eating home-packed sandwiches and sipping from his thermos. The sandwiches were always gone by quarter-time. His saddest day was when the VAFA introduced official goal umpires for reserves finals. He never removed his coat.
For both seniors and reserves, George had many opportunities to ‘and another’ in the first half of 2000. In Round 2 against West Brunswick, ‘Gobbles’ Hannan booted ten, four words that are as preposterous and delightful today as they were twelve years ago. In Round 5 against Peninsula Old Boys, we won the game but lost Benny Cunningham to concussion and Herald Sun cadet Jon Ralph to an interchange gate error that would have been easily worth three paragraphs if he were covering it himself. In Round 6 against Kew, Moose marked everything and Paddy O’Beirne was great in tight. In Round 7, shaven-headed Cacca could have been mistaken for a lower-grade Andrew McLeod, or at the very least, a lower-grade Peter Filandia. In Round 8, we lost by two points to Thomastown and I missed so many shots that absolutely nobody came up to comfort me afterwards with, ‘Don’t worry, it wasn’t your fault.’ It was my fault.
At the turn, we were on top of the ladder, seven and two. We lost Rounds 11 and 12, bullied into submission by West Brunswick (one point) and Parkside (forty-two points) respectively. Against West Brunswick, my Kareem Abdul Jabaar goggles fell to the turf in a marking contest and the opposing centre half-back calmly trod them into plastic-y oblivion. He deviated half a metre to make sure he nailed them. As the Perspex cracked, so too did I, descending into a mad, screaming, spitting, arm-swinging lunacy. Whenever I meet an old teammate, my career at the club essentially boils down to this moment. ‘It was like Doull and Buhagiar,’ they say referring to the famous headband-over-the-fence incident of 1983. I never replaced the goggles, but I have kept them, in case there’s a spot for them on the coffin when my time comes.
We won the next five. Nevs was the grunt, winning hard balls and tackling everything. Cunningham and Bowden racked up possessions. Moods was tight at full-back and Bowler yapped at opposition heels like something that ends in ‘-oodle’. On a back flank, we had a balding trainee teacher, ‘Reverend’ Nihill, who had sure hands and an ability to recite Old Man Emu in the front bar of the Clyde. Skipper Pekes exuded quiet determination. In the forward pocket was Danny ‘Gomer’ Files, black of tooth and crooked of fringe, but with that country footballer knack of whispering the ball his way, and executing difficult skills while looking like he might have a pot of beer in the other hand. I kicked bags of six, six, five and five, and they were just the behinds.
But our most important player was Michael Laffy. Laff played twenty-six games for Richmond in the late ’80s. At Punt Road he wore wild locks tied up in a headband, which made him an easy target for Tiger fans in a defence that leaked like a sieve. When he dropped back to Port Melbourne in the VFA/VFL, he was a star – an athletic, tactically astute, tap ruckman who was the pick for his position across the competition. He was also Kane Bowden’s best mate at Port, tied to the Bowden clan by virtue of being life partner to Sue Barton, an amazing woman who not only founded the Lighthouse homelessness project, but who would later become Kane’s mother in law. That connection meant that our coach set about ruining Laff’s knees too, to the considerable betterment of the 2000 team.
In true university style, we sharpened up for the finals with a Round 18 loss to the second bottom team.
One, two, three
The Blackers boys are we
Four, Five, Six
We’ve got ’em in a fix
Seven, eight, nine
We’ll beat ‘em every time
There’ll be a hot time on the ole’ town tonight
The Melbourne University Football Club, consisting of both Uni Blacks and our rivals the Blues, is the same University Football Club that presented its overeducated backside for VFL whippings between 1908 and 1914. This is the song that wasn’t sung after the last fifty-one of those games, which University lost consecutively.
I love this song. Be careful opposition! We’ll have you in a ‘fix’. Be careful ‘ole town’! We’re out for a ‘hot time’. Usually our ‘hot time’ was at the Clyde Hotel in Carlton. We’d generally know we were warm when every player born west of Colac would start peppering ‘Coward of the County’ on the jukebox. Sometimes our ‘hot time’ would be at the Pavvy, with themed dress up nights, cheap Tooheys, and strange ritualistic appearances by the Beaton brothers — spinning around under a broom until they fell over.
In 2000, we didn’t sing ‘One, Two, Three’ after the second semi-final against Yarra Valley. One reason for this was that the song was in a brief hibernation during my era, powers that be opting for a bastardisation of ‘It’s a Grand old Flag’ rather than a chorus that predicts ‘one keg of beer between the four of us’ and some trouser hi-jinks. The other reason was that Yarra handed our arses to us on a plate, 1914 style, to the tune of twenty-eight points.
The preliminary final was out at the old VFA ground in Springvale Road, Mulgrave. We were playing Parkside, which, as any Amateur player will tell you, meant one of us was going off to hospital to get his jaw wired at some stage.
That sounds melodramatic, but every season Parkside beat up on clubs, and every season there was a call for it to be thrown out of the VAFA. In 2002, this eventually occurred and Parkside joined the Diamond Valley league (now Northern Football League). The suburb of Alphington, where Parkside is based, has now gentrified, and I’m told the club has a lovely little sausage-sizzling junior club on the banks of the Yarra. This, to me, is as remarkable as Mike Tyson getting parts as a male comic lead.
I remember the incident with a strange clarity, almost as if it happened in slow motion. The Parkside captain had the ball. He was running at me, preparing to handball over my head, and with Bowdo’s pre-game address still ringing in my ears — ‘we contest every ball that can possibly be contested’ — I leapt to full extension to try to block the handball and win a turnover. The ball cleared my head but as I landed, I faced a different problem. The Parkside captain and I were on a collision course, both travelling at speed. Instinctively, I half-turned, crossing my arms in front of my chest, attempting to protect my torso. He kept coming, his smaller frame cannoning into mine, or, more specifically, his chin connecting with my retracted forearm, knocking him out cold.
The umpire was five metres away and didn’t award a free kick. It was not a dirty act, but their supporters were going crazy. I waited for a red and white avalanche. ‘This’ll be interesting,’ I thought to myself. I hadn’t thrown a punch since Santa gave me boxing gloves as a ten-year-old. My brother, Ned, then five, remembers the TKO, and thinks it unsporting that I kept the right hand for myself. Now I was facing nineteen Parkside players, all with the ability to use their dominant fists.
Their players never came. For whatever reason, and it mainly seemed to be shock, I was allowed to continue with my face intact. That said, their supporters came, they camped behind the goals and screamed their post-game plans. ‘Watch out in the carpark, Wilson’, ‘We’re going to do to you exactly what you did to him, Number Eighteen, you cowardly fuck!’
But on the field, they weren’t performing. We led by five goals at quarter-time and won by more than ten. I kicked 4.6. With ten minutes left, the head of the VAFA suggested to the Blacks box that I be removed from the field ‘for my own safety’. I remember being escorted to my car by club president, Simon ‘Harry’ Costello, and feeling nervous but confident knowing that Harry had belted so many centre half-forwards in the ’70s,and earlier in the year as boundary umpire had run through a Williamstown player while returning the ball to the centre. It was an uneventful walk, but it was only when I made the entry ramp onto the Monash Freeway that I allowed myself to celebrate. We were in the grand final.
AFL Grand Finals always have ‘the moment’ that you know is going to be played and replayed. Heath Shaw’s smother, KB dancing around Magro, Jezza’s mark. In the VAFA D2 decider in 2000, it was Sam Beaton pinging his fourth and embarking on a celebration that contained not one but two cartwheels. Beats had some claims to being best on ground that day, if Laffy hadn’t had it twenty-five times and said goodbye to football with a near perfect game.
“And another!” George Bearham roared into the victorious scrum.
‘And another!’ we boomed. That day, he mightn’t have even stopped at two photos. The reserves were premiers too. George was beside himself.
We defeated Yarra Valley 18-13 (121) to 9-10 (64). It was my first premiership since the Balwyn Tigers took Kew Rovers 2-0 (12) to 1.3 (9) in an Hawthorn District Junior Football League lightning premiership at Glenferrie Oval in 1982. Our under-tens coach, Mick Leahy, had driven us to games in his dog-catching van. Whenever we’d stopped at the lights, twenty-odd ten-year-olds had barked at the cars behind. Footy had been so much fun. I rediscovered the joy of footy at Uni Blacks.
For the club, 2000 will not be remembered as a super talented team. In the years that preceded The Great Slide down the divisions in the ’80s and ’90s, the club won thirteen A-grade premierships, and produced Brownlow medallists and VFL stars. In the years since, the Blacks have clawed their way back to A-Grade, and won back-to-back flags in 2004-05. But the 2000 flag is remembered as the one that stopped the slide.
As I always say to our better-credentialled fellow Blackers, ‘You can’t spell “A-Grade” without an “E”’.
And as they usually reply, ‘But weren’t you in D2? You can spell “A-Grade” without a “D2”.
No wonder the Parkside players hated us.
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