Hitching footy to the bandwagon of war
There were no Anzac Day matches at the MCG when I was coaching. The first was played three years after my 9-year VFA coaching career came to an end in 1992. And the Coburg vs Box Hill VFL Anzac Day games have only been around for a handful of years.
Last year Coburg won a thriller at home, but on Saturday it was Box Hill’s turn. There were no reports in the newspapers of Coburg coach Jade Rawlings walking Mick Malthouse’s path and admonishing his players for failing to adhere to the Anzac spirit. To be fair, losing in front of 2 000 people (a good VFL crowd) at Box Hill is markedly different from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as Collingwood did at the packed MCG.
Letting down the Anzacs?
Still, you have to wonder what prompted Mick Malthouse to accuse his players of ‘letting down the Anzacs’. Letting down themselves and the club, yes. But the Anzacs? This wasn’t war. It was a game of football and there can only be one winner. Anyone who has coached understands how the emotions can engulf you and leave you making comments you regret. I still bristle at the thought of some bureaucrat in the AFL coaching regime using a video of me in the huddle making scathing comments to my players as an example of how not to coach. There are times when a coach does lose it. But who wants to be judged on one bad moment? Maybe Mick’s comments are just that, one bad moment.
Nevertheless, football people need to ensure they’re not complicit in a questionable rewriting of history. Any number of veterans and reputable historians believe Australian soldiers were mercilessly sacrificed at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. Of course they were brave and paid the ultimate sacrifice. But that shouldn’t mean turning a blind eye to the futility and injustice of war or its real purposes. After all we did invade Turkey and were forced to evacuate from Gallipoli.
What homilies, for example, might a coach with a more critical view of the Great War and the connection of the heroics of war to football offer his players? Isn’t this what Graham Cornes was alluding to when he raised concerns about the concept of the Anzac Medal? If I were coaching Coburg in the Anzac Day match I couldn’t possibly compare the performance of the best player with men being cut down by machine gun fire. Nor could I evoke images of the slaughter at the Somme to fire my players.
This isn’t to say that history and myth making shouldn’t be part of a coach’s motivation package. When we won consecutive flags at Coburg in 1988/89 we became the first side to do so since the all- conquering 1926/27/28 sides. It was mentioned ad nauseam in the lead up to the 1989 grand final. Every footballer should have a grasp of his club’s history. How could a Coburg player not be proud that the great Bob Pratt had worn the red and blue in 1940/41?
It wasn’t until 1990 that I met Pratt, at a centenary luncheon at Coburg. That moment and shaking hands with possibly the club’s greatest ever player, Lance Collins – captain-coach of the 1941 grand final side - a decade earlier are precious moments. A sublimely brilliant left foot goalkicker, Collins went on to play in Carlton’s 1945 premiership. He saw active service in the preceding years.
|Bob Pratt - third from left, back row. Lance Collins, middle of middle row.
History should inform us, even in football. That’s why I’ve never accepted the change of name from VFA to VFL. The change compromised one of our greatest assets, our rich and exciting history and let down those players, volunteers and officials who made the competition great.
On Saturday Coburg is at home to the Casey Scorpions – Springvale in the premiership days of the ‘80s and ‘90s – in the ABC match of the round. Those who know their history would be aware that twenty years ago games between the Coburg Lions and the Vales were hard fought, sometimes bitter affairs. Remember that muddy day when Billy Kaakour, our first Muslim premiership player, ran from the middle of the ground in an ABC TV match handballing along the way to kick the goal of the year? Maybe Ben Cousins will treat us to a replica!
Yes, history is a beautiful thing. I just don’t know that the history of war has much to do with football.