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Its more than a game: a history of the Ashy Redbacks Junior Football Club

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

Part I (1971- 1992)

Before we begin: a disclaimer. I remain eternally grateful that my kids are not interested in playing Australian Rules football competitively. This is because I’m a fair weather supporter at the best of times – I’ll watch the game live only if the weather is fair – so I am fortunately spared from freezing my ample arse on a muddy football field in the depths of a Melbourne winter every Sunday morning. This does not lessen my admiration for those who do.

I’m also not a sports historian. So this is not going to be a post about the ins and outs of who won when and by what margin. Instead, it’s an overview of the story of the playing of a beloved sport at the junior level in Ashburton and the dedicated people behind it.

Fortunately for me and you, lovely readers, a very thorough life member of the Ashy Redbacks, Bruce Phillips, already wrote a comprehensive history of the team for the club’s 40th anniversary in 2011: Ashy Always, the Story of the Ashburton United Junior Football Club. Rather curiously, it can only be viewed in the special collections of Camberwell Library. Of course, since an historian loves nothing more than when someone has already done the research for them, I got my hands on it. So for this post, I acknowledge and am indebted to Bruce’s extensive research and love of the game.

A little background about Australian Rules Football

There is no consensus on the exact origins of Australian Rules Football. Some historians presumed it to be inspired by Gaelic football, others an Aboriginal game called ‘marngrook’. It’s generally agreed the game first emerged from Melbourne’s south-eastern private schools in the 1870s.

In the beginning, the players of each school set the rules for their own games. This meant that when it came time to play against each other, both teams needed to sit down together beforehand and negotiate the ‘Rules’ for the match. This could sometimes be quite time-consuming, so eventually a committee convened to formalise a consistent set of rules of play across the schools. This became known as the Australian Rules of Football. The Rules were constantly modified and updated from the very beginning and even today, are not set in stone.

As the 19th century came to a close, the game developed along distinct Protestant and Catholic lines of the community. It can not be over-stated how much division there was between practitioners of the Protestant and Catholic faiths in Victoria in those early days. The Catholics, who represented around 23 to 25% of Victoria’s population, were deliberately kept as an underclass by the Protestant majority.

In football, this divide is predominantly represented by the intense rivalry between the affluent Protestant suburb of Carlton and the working class Irish-Catholic suburb of Collingwood. Of course, now everyone in both suburbs lives in million dollar houses and no-one cares much about the whole Catholic vs Protestant thing. Nevertheless, as even the casual AFL observer knows, the loyal supporters maintain their rage.

As Australian Rules began to gain in popularity, school, church and community groups began to organise teams to play each other. While the sport developed primarily along Protestant lines, it was not always played by men. Women are on record as playing from at least 1915, even though it was often frowned upon as ‘unladylike’ by members of the community.

The first international game of Australian Rules Football was played in London at the start of World War I. A contingent of Melbournians pulled together a game as the last fun they would have before being shipped out and slaughtered at Gallipoli.

Australian Rules in Ashburton

Records show that Ashburton residents played Australian Rules Football in an organised way soon after the area transitioned from rural to suburban in the 1920s. An Ashburton team based at Watson Park participated in the ‘Protestant League’ in the 1930s. This team sprung from the Ashburton Methodist Church in Auburn Grove. It was known as ‘The Meths’; a name highly problematic for a football team today.

By the 1970s, decades of post-World War II emigration from Europe and Asia helped heal the Catholic-Protestant divide among the Australian-born. In 1971, the ‘Ashy Meths’ under-17 side folded so local football identity Geoff Ferguson, his son Robin and friend Phil Dwyer decided to start their own junior football club.

Geoff Ferguson was the driving force behind the club for the next decade. ‘When he set his mind to something, that was it,’ his son Robin recollected in Ashy Always. ‘He was so charismatic he could talk you into anything.’

‘He could pull strings and get things done,’ Robin’s childhood friend Phil Hanna concurred.

While the organisers called the new club the Ashburton Methodists Junior Football Club, they recruited from all the local schools, regardless of religious denomination or socioeconomic demographics. ‘The first Sunday we had about 35 to 40 kids and we decided to enter Under 11s and 13s in the new Hawthorn District Junior Football League,’ said Robin. Players came from Ashburton, Solway and Glen Iris schools but also the Catholic St Michaels and the Alamein School primarily populated by the children of the housing commission residents.

‘In those days the housing commission was full of skinheads and sharpies*,’ Greg Parsons, one of the founding members said. ‘Unless you knew someone you would never wander through there after dark on your way home. The club was really on the border of this area and would have some of those sorts of kids, who would come and go.’

* Bruce translates ‘sharpies’ as ‘rough youth gangs’ but according to the link it seems to be kids who wore tight jeans, checked shirts and liked AC/DC and The Angels.

The early years

The Junior Club preferred to identify themselves as ‘Ashy’ rather than ‘Meths’. The Seniors already had little to do with the Methodist Church. This seemed to have more to do with how the Church frowned upon the consumption of alcohol, especially after wins on the field, rather than any loss of religious faith.

Nevertheless, the custom was for the local minister to be chair of any sporting club bearing the Methodist name. For the Ashy Meths, it was Reverend Trevor “Rev Trev” Byard. ‘He was always extremely supportive of local youth,’ remembered one elderly parishioner in 2006. ‘Rev Trev was informal and quite modern in his thinking.’ Rev Trev attended a few games but otherwise did not involve himself in the club’s operations.

In 1979, two divergent events occurred that worked against each other for the club. Club involvement received a boost when St Michaels parents Daryl Goodwin and John Francis established a Saturday morning clinic in the grounds of Alamein Primary School (near Samarinda Avenue) that attracted a steady stream of young recruits. This style of clinic would go on to be formalised as Vickick, the precursor to Auskick. Within a few years, the clinic grew so large it took over neighbouring Warner Reserve.

The development of players by the founding member Phil Dwyer finally paid off: the Under 11’s beat Koonung-East Kew to win the Club’s first grand final.

‘Phil was a highly-respected coach and a mentor for other coaches,’ former player Ken Liddicoat said. Former Hawthorn player Paul Cooper concurred, ‘Phil was by far the most influential coach I had in my junior years.’

This was a time when there were no manuals or guides to coach players, just passion, a love of the game, and a strong desire to nurture children’s abilities.

However, around the same time, competition for recruits arose. The Ashburton Baptist Church established a soccer club (now Ashburton United) that drew some children and actively involved parents away from Australian Rules football.

The club takes shape

In 1980, the Junior Club began to pull away from the Senior Club by forming its own administrative structure and holding its own, separate meetings. The club’s first official President was a banker, the late John Mulcahy.

In a time when Australian Rules Football was becoming increasingly commercially oriented, Mulcahy immediately outlined the simple rules of the Junior Club.

‘Our aim is to give as many children as possible a game of football and teach them the skills of the game’, he wrote in the Club’s first Annual Report.

Yet by 1984, the club’s second President, Ian Adamson left the position because he believed the ‘emphasis of the club had shifted from giving kids a fair go and allowing them to enjoy their footy to a more competitive focus. The prime concern in some quarters was getting a premiership and we didn’t need that. As it turned out, we did pretty well in any case.’

This conflict of ideology created a difficult undercurrent in the Club. Everyone agreed the primary goal was for kids to learn skills and have fun. But, as the next decade would attest, without some successes via premierships, the Club struggled to compete for recruits in the rapidly changing demographics of the eastern suburbs.

The Club’s soon-to-be megastar supporter

The Club attracted an unlikely supporter. Those readers of a certain vintage may remember an early 1980s television show called Young Talent Time and a young singer in the cast called Dannii Minogue. At the time, Danni’s sister, Kylie, attended Camberwell High.

Kylie drew the eye of one of the Under 14s players, Nick Humphreys, who went to the notorious Ashwood High. Nick was, according to Bruce Phillips, a ‘good-looking rooster’ but us girls know nobody ever said that and Kylie would have considered him a ‘total spunk-rat’.

‘We ‘went out’ - if that’s what you call it – for about three months’, Nick told Bruce in Ashy Always. ‘At that time Dannii had a bigger media profile and Kylie was referred to as Dannii Minogue’s sister.’ For a short time, Kylie came down to watch the Ashy team train – because that’s what girls did back then when they liked a boy – and even travelled on the bus to a few games.

Nick Humphries went on to be a guy whose entire childhood was defined by a few short months when he was 14. Dannii's sister Kylie went on to become Kylie Minogue.

The struggle to stay afloat

According to Ashy Always, financial struggle defined the first two decades of the Ashy Junior Club.

The ‘canteen’ – a major source of revenue for the Club – was a makeshift lean-to against the side of the clubroom in Watson Park. Kathryn MacKinnon volunteered in it. ‘It had room for only one person and contained bubbling urns, bread in plastic wraps and bottles of sauce,' she said. 'They sold tea, cordial and saveloys [sausages] wrapped in bread. Now I think the role of most mothers was to buy items each week and help whoever was serving.’

By 1986, player numbers had dwindled and the Club’s financial circumstances were so dire parents were putting their own money in to keep it afloat. The Club would not have survived without the dedication of a select group of highly supportive parents. ‘There were some great people, but some parents just sat in their cars and watched. We had so few players you had to be nice to them – even though some were unpleasant little fellows – because they might not play and we couldn’t make up teams,’ said Ian Campbell, a former Secretary.

‘I remember once having to goal umpire because no-one turned up,’ recalled Kathryn MacKinnon. ‘And I know nothing about football and never have.’

Watson Park: ‘it smelt like a sewer’

The Club’s situation was made even worse by the deplorable condition of the home ground. If there was internal dispute over the direction of the Club, there was no question that everyone hated Watson Park. The poor facilities and lack of drainage turned the field into a muddy bog every weekend.

Everyone complained about the mess in the clubroom left by the Senior team. The canteen was no better. ‘We put flattened cardboard boxes on the ground [in the canteen] so the volunteers’ feet didn’t get wet,’ said former registrar Cam Johnstone. ‘It was absolutely shocking.’

Mowing the grass only resulted in the lawnmower becoming bogged and rendered the ground unplayable. The area outside the clubhouse smelt like a sewer, causing parents to freak out every time one of the kids dropped their mouthguard in the mud and put it back into their mouth.

The saving grace for the stalwart parents came in the form of Harry Hitchens, a passionate football supporter who lived across the road from Watson Park. Every Sunday evening, as the parents huddled around the one-bar electric radiator in an attempt to socialise in the dreary clubroom, Harry showed up with a slab of beer. The Club honoured Harry’s support by bestowing on him one of the first lifetime memberships at the end of the 1991 season.

During this time, the Club lobbied Camberwell Council (now Boroondara Council) for an upgrade to the facilities. By the end of 1986, outgoing President John MacKinnon – who was a rugby man at heart but knew how to run a committee - reported a major overhaul of the Watson Park facilities had begun.

The birth of the Ashy Redbacks

The first club colours were entirely red but would quickly fade to pink after a few washes. Over time, the club adopted the red and green “toffee apple” colours worn today.

By the mid-1980s, the Australian Rules Football clubs of Ashburton had begun to sever ties with the Methodist Church. There was no formal announcement, just the selling of beer in the newly renovated facilities of Watson Park. There was no liquor license of course, because this was dry Ashburton. Not surprisingly, the sale of alcohol significantly improved the social interactivity of the parents of the Club. However, it also contributed to the downhill reputation of the Seniors club and its eventual decline.

In 1987, to finally stand alone from both the Seniors and the Church, the Committee decided to change the Club’s colloquial name. Officially called the Ashburton Uniting Junior Football Club, after the union of Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational Union churches turned them into the “Uniting Church”, the Committee ran a competition among the children for a new nickname. Among the options was the ‘Sharks’, ‘Ultras’, and ‘Redbacks’. The ‘Ashy Redbacks’ won in a landslide and the Club’s name as it stands today was born.

The Junior League

The Redbacks initially participated in the Hawthorn District Junior Football League.

‘They were a particularly authoritarian organisation,’ remembered former president George McGrath. ‘We used to incur a lot of fines for not having proper socks, wrong team numbers and team sheets not signed. The lady in charge ran it with an iron hand and iron will. We were regarded as poor cousins.’

The demographics of the Camberwell Council area were rapidly ageing. The young families that originally populated the area had now grown up and out of junior football and they were not being replaced at a pace to support junior clubs. The Redbacks were no exception.

The Club began running additional clinics at St Marys Primary School to draw in kids from Malvern East. But by 1989, the Club had registered only six boys for Under 10s.

To survive, the Redbacks decided to switch to the Waverley Junior Football Association. Conversely to the Camberwell area, the newer suburbs of Mount Waverley and Glen Waverley had received a massive influx of kids and ran a tight and efficient League. This factor, combined with the poor standard of Watson Park and its facilities, were the key reasons the Club struggled.

It was a tough time. ‘Luckily for them, we weren’t much good,’ said George. ‘I don’t think they wanted a new club coming in and winning flags immediately. They wanted to keep all that for themselves. So in the initial years we struggled to make any impact.’

It was hard on parents too. The 1990 recession caused unemployment to rise to 11 per cent and many found themselves out of work. The Club’s president, “Knobby” Clarke resigned suddenly after he lost his job and was forced to sell his home.

The turnaround

Despite the eternal dislike of Watson Park, the ground was part of the Ashy Redbacks identity as a team. In 1990, the new committee received permission to move the club to Ferndale Park on Glen Iris Road. No-one really regretted that the decision to leave severed the connection to the almost defunct Seniors Team. But they did feel that moving away from it would affect their long-running connection to Ashburton, St Michaels and Solway Schools. So they decided to run two clinics: one at Watson Park and one at Ferndale Park. Unfortunately, the connection to St Marys Primary School died as a result.

If there were apprehensions about the move, these abated very quickly. ‘Ferndale had lovely refurbished club rooms, a great big clean canteen and all sorts of things which made it a much better place to be,’ said George McGrath. The new location almost immediately revitalised the parental involvement in the club. Now they could run events, host dinners and illegally serve alcohol.

Next, the club needed to lift its rankings to try and recruit young players in a hotly competitive market. It had not won a premiership in any age group since 1983. They joined up with the now-defunct Ashwood Juniors to form an Under 13s team. This afforded them an impressive coach named Bernie O’Brien, a former all-Australian amateur footballer.

The association with Ashwood Juniors paid off financially too. From them, the Committee discovered that if a former player made the AFL list, the Club could receive some money. Everyone racked their brains.

One woman, Loretta Hosking, remembered a boy called Paul Cooper had gone on to play 81 games for Hawthorn. He had played with the Ashy Meths from 1982 to 1984. In fact, he’d played in the last premiership the Club had won. When the Committee took this information to the AFL, they came back with $5,000.

‘It was the first big money we got and we put it straight into a term deposit,’ said Cam Johnstone. If you’re scoffing at this, remember this was 1990 when interest rates were 17 per cent. The windfall almost single-handedly saved the Club. The fancy new canteen at Ferndale helped with the rest.

The 1990s also saw people joining the Committee who may not have known much about coaching football but did have highly valuable professional skills. Damian McManus, who proved instrumental in gaining sponsorship and fundraising for the Club noted, ‘I think the first effort in fundraising was to get money to buy singlets for the clinics so we could distinguish one side from another.’

He and his wife Jeanie took over the canteen.

‘We had to sell beer to make a dollar,’ he said. ‘If business at the bar slowed down, I’d pull the roller-shutter door half way down over the counter, bang on it, and say ‘Last drinks!’ and it would then go on for another couple of hours.’

Jeanie, a professional bookkeeper, religiously banked all the proceeds.

Jeanie McManus also orchestrated the Redbacks key social event, the AUJFC Ball. ‘I thought it was just a great piece of social machinery that brought people together,’ said George McGrath. ‘People talked about it for months before it happened and months after it happened. It was just fabulous.’

After a nine year drought, by 1992, the Ashy Redbacks won three flags in two years. But, as George noted in the Annual Report that year, ‘the true measure of success of a junior football club is the number of children it gives the chance to received instruction in Aussie Rules, play competitively, and above all... enjoy the game.’

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