Forgive me for rhapsodizing a while; it can’t be helped. I was born a torpedo punt from Windy Hill. My whole family bled red and black. My dad was a childhood friend of John Coleman. In our neck of the woods, Coleman is the greatest player to ever play the game. Some might argue that fact; but last time I checked, the goal-kicking title is still known as the Coleman Medal. As you can see, I didn’t really have a choice. I was and am a Bomber.
Aussie Rules, known derisively as aerial ping pong by followers of other codes, is part and parcel of growing up in Melbourne. Even those few who buck tradition and turn their back on the game must eventually choose some affiliation.
The VFL (Victorian Football League) of my youth was Melbourne’s own: eleven teams in one town and one more just around the bay in Geelong. Every game was played on Saturday afternoon. Stores closed early and by noon the streets, trains, trams and public houses were filled with multi-colored fanatics. It was a glorious rush for a young man; that is, until we passed through the turnstiles. Once inside the fun faded fast. Once inside, I knew that for the next three hours or so I would stand in the wind, rain and cold, dodging drunks and brawlers, craning around umbrellas and ranting adults, to watch my beloved Bombers slowly lose.
The early ‘70s were not great years for the team. We did make the finals twice in ‘72 and ‘73 under the tutelage of Captain/Coach and all round tough guy, Des Tuddenham. That team included the likes of the often suspended “Rugged” Ronnie Andrews, sharp-shooter Alan Noonan and wingman Ken Fletcher; but never made it past the elimination final.
For the best part of the ‘70s, the Bombers were stuck near the bottom of the ladder battling for the Wooden Spoon; but somehow during that long lost decade my devotion only grew. Maybe that was due in part to goggled goal-kicker Geoff Blethyn kicking 107 goals in ‘72, or ex-Sandgroper Graham Moss winning the Brownlow Medal in ‘76, or my favorite player of the era, the left-footed speedster “Nifty” Neville Fields; but I don’t think so.
I see now it was words not deeds that fueled my love for the game and my team. It was strange often jumbled voices delivering visions over radio waves that have played on in my mind. It was Lou “The Lip” Richards with his endless variety of ways to describe a goal. Balls never went between the goal posts, they went “through the big sticks” or “right down the high diddle diddle.”
What makes Footy so great on the radio is that there is too much is going on in the game for any commentator to accurately describe. There are 36 players running every which way almost non-stop for nearly 3 hours. It’s impossible to keep up; but so much fun to hear them try. A motor-mouth like Lou was bound to slip up; usually sooner than later, especially if there was a close finish. He once famously noted that: “Any time Carlton scores more than 100 points and holds the other team below 100 points they almost always win.”
Another of my favorites was the parched dry, Hemingway sparse, delivery of “Captain Blood” Jack Dyer. He was like listening to your tough-as-nails, perpetually grumpy Aussie uncle. Once he was told that a player was concussed and did not know who he was. His answer? “Tell him he’s John Coleman and get him back on the field.” Jack and Lou were my Saturday afternoon Abbot and Costello.
We didn’t win a lot of games but we had plenty of characters in our mob. One of my childhood favorites was Peter “Crackers” Keenan. He was near the end of his career when he signed on with the Bombers but nothing was more fun than Lou Richards describing Crackers pre-game ritual. Lou would laugh out loud and note that, even before the first whistle, Crackers was hunched over at edge of the center circle, snarling and clutching at mud and tossing tufts of turf around like a great ape. Even Jack would be amused. Sure, it was pure pro wrestling bravado but it was also great radio.
Over the radio waves I was introduced to a host of club legends. They still fly easily to mind all these years later. There were Merv Neagle and Tim Watson, the boys from Dimboola, who arrived in ‘76. Tim was just 15 when he played his first senior game and, of course, his success made me and every other young Bomber fan believe that we could do it too.
I had my mother sew a 5 on the back of my first Essendon jumper when Terry Daniher joined the team in ‘78 and briefly led the goal-kicking list. That 5 proved to be a good choice. After Terry retired, another Bomber great, James Hird, started wearing it as well.
There are so many great memories. I can still hear the broadcasted cries of utter amazement whenever “The Flying Dutchman”, Paul Vander Haar, leapt skyward and the reverent tones reserved for big men Simon and Justin Madden whenever they stepped in to take over a game. It wasn’t all pretty, far from it…and worst of all were the constant interruptions for horse racing. Out of nowhere, right in the middle of play, whatever the score or circumstance, a monotone voice would suddenly break in with “racing at Caulfield” and for two and a half minutes I would be stuck listening to Pretty Penny, Snitch and Gasometer gallop around a track. Still, thinking back, it does seem that all of my best football memories revolve around a radio. All except one.
The only game I ever saw that can compare to what I heard on the radio was Round 20, 1981. I went alone to Princes Park that day to see the Bombers take on Carlton. It started out as a typical clash and with 10 minutes to go we were down by 26 points. The Carlton fans were ecstatic. Even the players were celebrating. Then suddenly, and for no apparent reason, the Bombers came to life. Merv and Timmy seemed to have the ball on a string and Neale Daniher who had moved up to full forward from half back got the better of Carlton legend Bruce Doull twice.
It’s a grainy black and white memory now but I can replay it in my mind like it happened yesterday. I am standing in the crowd behind the goal, there is less than a minute on the clock, and the ball is in the air flying up to the forward line. Out of the corner of my eye, that famous number 6 moves into view, and perfectly framed between the goal posts I see Neale summon up his inner John Coleman, climb up back of Doull, and come down with the ball. Then, with the siren ready to blow, he kicks the oblong bladder right over my head, straight down the high diddle diddle. The Bombers win by a point! A few weeks later, after we just missed out on the finals for the last time in six years, I headed off to America rarely to return and my Aussie Rules fandom days were over for good.
It’s all different now, of course, isn’t everything? All sport these days, Aussie Rules included, is a television spectacle. Radio is only for those few who can’t afford to watch the games on their iPhones. The VFL became the AFL. South Melbourne became the Sydney Swans. The Fitzroy Lions are now from Brisbane. The Doggies of Footscray are the Western Suburb Bulldogs and these days there are teams in both Perth and Fremantle and two in Adelaide as well. They even started a team on the Gold Coast! Along with the lost teams, those wild and crazy “outers” are gone. The vast, standing room only areas of Windy Hill, Arden Street, Victoria Park and Princes Park are empty. So too are all the Ovals: Moorabbin, Brunswick Street, Glenferrie and Lake. They, like me, are gone but the memories are strong.
This weekend Essendon celebrates its 140th anniversary. Way back on June 7, 1873 the club played its first competitive match against Carlton and this Friday they will face the Blues again. I won’t be there. I won’t be watching on television. But I do plan to settle down by a radio – well, an internet radio – and listen to the game I love to hear once more. I only wish Jack and Lou were making the call.