The History of the Ashy Redbacks: Part II
Updated: Aug 4, 2021
In Part I: I took a few thousand words to say the illegal sale of alcohol saved the Ashy Redbacks from financial ruin...
Before we begin, once again I must acknowledge Bruce Phillips’ Ashy Always book as a source for this post.
Let’s pick up the Ashy Redbacks story in the early 1990s and the aftermath of the ‘recession we had to have’ .
This is a time when there were still milk bars and 20c bags of mixed lollies; fish and chips shops and all-you-can-eat Pizza Huts; Safeway; tram conductors; station wagons; pay phones; leaded petrol and smokers everywhere. This is Melbourne before the Monash Freeway made it to High Street Road, before there was American fast food on every corner, and before people bought coffee with a name other than ‘instant’.
The recession hit the state hard. Government debt went through the ceiling, unemployment spiked, a state-owned bank and a major building society collapsed, the population shrunk and all manner of services were crippled by rolling industrial action. In 1992, the local Burwood MP, Jeff Kennett became the Victorian premier. Kennett began implementing unrelenting neoliberal reforms of down-sizing, deregulation and privatisation.
The birth of the AFL
Things had also changed considerably in the Australian Rules football world. For its supporters, disillusionment with the Victorian Football League (VFL) had taken root early in the eighties. They deplored the constant escalation of admission prices and detested the perceived greediness of Victorian clubs. They felt players were too readily lured away by financial incentives to show loyalty to the team. As supporters withdrew in droves, the financial viability of VFL clubs deteriorated alarmingly.
By 1984, Carlton President John Elliott and general manager Ian Collins realised continuing Australian Rules as a sport at the highest level depended on expanding into an Australia-wide Football League. They secured lucrative sponsorship deals and television rights, and helped create the Australian Football League (AFL). Within a decade, thanks to the relentless and ruthless businessmen driving it, the AFL was the richest and most powerful national sport in Australia.
Ashburton in the 1990s
The Kennett years affected the Ashy Redbacks almost immediately with the closure of Alamein Primary School. Reforms that allowed parents to choose a public school for their children and rezoning of the area, combined with the school’s rough reputation, had already caused enrolments to drop off considerably. The school was formally closed in 1993, one of 351 closed during the Kennett years.
Kennett’s decision to introduce global budgeting for schools meant the fun community activities schools ran in the 1980s turned into fundraising efforts, often staffed by parents. Parents were also now expected to pay ‘voluntary’ levies to ensure their children participated in core and non-core education programs at the school. The increasing demands on parents’ time and money sucked away volunteers for local community clubs.
However, for the first time in the history of Australian Rules, the AFL offered ambitious and talented young boys (because it was only boys back then – more on that in the next post) a potential career path in the world of professional football. This meant that despite the financial struggles and demands on parents’ time, by the 1990s, the St Michaels/Ashburton Primary School VicKick (morning football clinic) registered an unprecedented 235 children. For the first time in the Ashy Redbacks’ history, there was an immense pool of potential recruits to draw from. By 1993, the club drew in 213 registered players and fielded 10 teams. Two players were girls.
A tragic loss
As the Club managed to buck the economic trends of Melbourne, it also experienced its own tragedy. In 1993, the Ashy Redbacks and the Ashburton community were rocked by the sudden death of player Peter Rice during a cricket match. A promising athlete and footballer, Peter had placed third in the WJFA’s best and fairest for Under 11s in 1990. He was only 13.
To honour the young man’s memory, the club created the Peter Rice Memorial Trophy for outstanding achievement.
The Move to Burwood
With so many players on its books, the Committee decided it needed to expand its premises beyond Watson and Ferndale Parks. They decided to approach Burwood Football Club and ask for the use of Burwood Reserve for a new morning clinic. Knowing Burwood was in serious danger of folding, they correctly sensed its committee would welcome the approach.
This forward-thinking expansion idea recognised the shifting demographics of the local Ashburton area. In the west of the suburb, the shallower pool of recruits meant the Redbacks competed with junior clubs in East Malvern. Junior football did not have much presence at the Burwood end of the neighbourhood: the area east of Warrigal Road and bounded by Burwood Highway.
Unlike the identity crisis that occurred with the shift to Ferndale Park, everyone agreed on the excellence of the facilities at Burwood Reserve: two ovals and modern club rooms.
In 1994, the Burwood Football Club folded and the Ashy Redbacks swept in. The two grounds proved a revelation. ‘We had so much space, it was marvellous,’ George McGrath told Ashy Always. ‘We had grown to the point where we didn’t have enough room to play our own matches. It was impossible to fixture us, we had so many teams we didn’t know what to do with them. It was such a bonanza to have those two grounds.’
The next year, the AFL took over the branding of the morning clinics, creating Auskick.
Pat McConville, who proved fundamental to the acquisition of Burwood Reserve, recognised the significance of geography for retaining players. ‘It was important that we retain the area we’d come from but not give up that new area,’ he said. ‘We wanted to service the whole area and avoid having two or three junior clubs competing with us.’
I have tried to capture this point in this very bad map below:
Tidiness was the heart of the management philosophy at the new venue. There was to be no sign of alcohol from the night before in the Club’s rooms and the place was to be kept clean at all times.
‘On our club nights, we had the lights on, the kids kicking balls and the parents enjoying a barbeque and a few drinks,’ said Club President Ashley Summerfield. ‘I always said there were millionaires and paupers in the club. They all mixed shoulder-to-shoulder because they were there for one reason: football.’
The rise of the Overly Invested Sporting Parent
In a few short years, there were 298 registered players in Ashy Redbacks. That’s lots of kids who just wanted to hang with their friends, run around and have fun. Unfortunately, with more children in the Club, there came more parents who confused their thwarted dreams of football stardom with the reality of junior sport.
A small selection of parents became abusive, controlling and aggressive on the sidelines. Committee members had to walk around the ground pulling any parent mouthing off into line. ‘We had parents tell us if we just had a first and second team, we would beat Glen Iris because they would always beat us,’ said Committee member Ian Lee.
But this division was not in the Club’s philosophy. Despite its rapid growth, organisational restructure and expansion of its branded merchandise, the Club stood by its principles of football as a source of fun for kids, regardless of their skill level. ‘We put the kids together according to the school they went to. If a kid wanted to play we’d play him. We never had a ‘firsts’ and ‘seconds’ team, just Red and Green,’ said Ian.
The real deal: Luke Ball, an Ashy Redback turned pro
As an Ashy Redback player, former AFL footballer Luke Ball embodied the spirit of the Club. ‘Luke would get the ball and give it off to any Ashy player regardless of their ability,’ Ian Lee remembered. ‘It was great for these kids to play with someone of that standard who also wasn’t full of himself.’
Luke Ball (on the right) and his older brother Matthew (on the left - picture courtesy of Herald Sun) attended St Roch’s Primary in Glen Iris. They came from distinguished football stock, with their grandfather, father, and uncle all playing VFL.
‘[Luke was] a terrific young fellow,’ agreed his old coach Rob Smith. ‘He didn’t have a bad word to say about anyone. Even now when I see him he always asks about my family.’
In a 1995 interview with the Club magazine, 11-year old Luke stated his ultimate sporting fantasy was ‘kicking the winning goal in a grand final.’ ‘I remember my age group being split into two teams: Reds and Greens,’ remembered Ball years later in Ashy Always. ‘We lost the derbies in the first few years. Then in 1997, the two teams merged to create a very strong Under 13s team. We had some great players and went on to win the premiership that year.’
Both Ball boys won club and league best and fairest awards and went on to play AFL: Matthew for Hawthorn; and Luke for St Kilda. Luke eventually became captain before nominating himself for a move to Collingwood in 2009. [Correction] He played in three grand finals not the originally stated two: for St Kilda in 2009 and Collingwood in 2010 and 2011. Collingwood won in 2010 - against St Kilda.
In 2011, Luke Ball returned to the Club as a very special guest for the 40th anniversary celebration. While wading through a sea of hysterical children clinging onto him like barnacles, Ashy Always author Bruce Phillips reminded Luke of his childhood interview and his favourite food and drink: pasta and Fanta. Luke confessed he still loved pasta, especially before a game but sadly, the Collingwood dieticians decided there were more beneficial drinks than Fanta, ‘so [now] it’s a case of Powerade or water.’
‘You don’t appreciate it at the time but looking back I realise how lucky I was to be part of such a strong and well-run junior football club,’ Ball remarked. ‘A host of people gave up so much of their time and effort so that us kids could enjoy our footy. The importance of being a team member and never giving up – no matter what the stage or state of the game – were always stressed at Ashy. I think this held me in good stead with my footy over the years. I’m rapt the AFL still acknowledges the junior club of any player who is lucky enough to be drafted.’
Into the 21st century
As the Club moved into the 21st century, its enrolments exploded. By 2004, it had 400 kids and 17 teams and was one of the biggest junior clubs in Victoria. The Club won five premierships, including the Under 16s, who had just scraped into the final. The winning side against East Sandringham included Scott Sherwen, future captain of the Scotch College team, and two future AFL draft picks, Nick Smith and Josh Kennedy. Kennedy (pictured below) kicked four goals and was voted best on ground by the umpires. He was drafted by Hawthorn under the father-son rule and now plays for Sydney Swans.
‘Many of these boys came through our Auskick program,’ said Summerfield. ‘There was not a dry eye in the house when we realised that this was the end of their careers at our club.’
As the Club moved from strength to strength, it also suffered another tragedy. In 2006, another young Redbacks player died unexpectedly. At only 14 years old, Daniel Lagastes collapsed at home after returning from a run. The Redbacks hosted the wake in the Burwood club rooms. As they had 13 years earlier for Peter Rice, the Club honoured Daniel’s memory and legacy.
By this time, the size of the Club created a significant challenge for its Committee. The workload for volunteers was becoming untenable. To compound this issue, the Waverley Junior Football League was starting to unravel. The League had been shrinking for years as again, the demographics of its catchment area shifted away from young families.
The Committee decided to enrol the Club in the Yarra League. For a few years, the kids over 14 played under a joint Waverley-Yarra banner and the 9s to 13s played in the Waverley League.
A shift in the Club’s philosophy
In 2008, the Waverley League folded and the Ashy Redbacks remained with the Yarra League. Unlike the Waverley League, the Yarra League played teams in a graded competition: kids played according to their ability. This was a departure from nearly 40 years of the Club’s philosophy to keep kids with their friends and give them a game. It seemed the Club was now big enough to offer some competition within its ranks.
The move to the Yarra League meant parents needed to travel far more for their kids’ matches than ever before. ‘When we played in the Waverley League everything was nice and local and travel was only 15 or 20 minutes away,’ Club Vice-president told the Progress Leader in 2009. It didn't matter. Two matches in, the parents were happy with the competition and felt it gave boys the opportunity to play according to their skills. ‘They can get a kick a lot easier because they’re playing against kids that are like them in ability,’ Brownhill said.
With 400 players in the Club, it was only a matter of time before the Ashy Redbacks produced more AFL draft picks.
The Big Four: Jack Viney, Tom Mitchell, Tom Curran and Toby Greene
Former Ashy Redback players Jack Viney, Tom Mitchell (not pictured), Tom Curran and Toby Greene were among the first generation of players to grow up entirely in the AFL era. By the 2010s, a clear pathway was laid out for boys aspiring to the AFL. Participation in a junior club was an essential stepping stone.
Courtesy of The Age
In 2008, the four friends played together in the under 15s Gold Division grand final but lost to Fitzroy. Maybe Fitzroy were fielding very young-looking actual AFL players that day? ‘We still can’t work out why [we lost],’ Tom Curran told The Age in 2011. ‘We beat them twice that season.’ ‘We had a ripper year that year,’ agreed Jack Viney. ‘But they had the big home crowd there. We didn’t finish it off, and that was it. That was the last time we played together.’
In comparison to Luke Ball’s ‘good guy’ status at the Ashy Redbacks, Jack Viney had a reputation as a tough competitor. He would get into trouble for being too rough and aggressive in matches. ‘I remember a day with the Redbacks under-12s when another parent came on the ground at half time and gave him a bit of a hip and shoulder because he thought he was too rough,’ Jack’s father Todd, a former Melbourne captain told the Herald Sun in 2010. ‘So we always played him in a higher age group.’
He described himself as the hyperactive member of his Ashy Redbacks side, and his tackles – fair but perfectly executed – had a way of sticking. ‘My physicality was a bit of an issue’, he told The Age in 2011.
At 16, Jack Viney secured a five year contract with his father’s club Melbourne, two years before being eligible for the draft. When the reporter asked if he would be as hard as his famously tough father, Jack replied cockily, ‘harder’.
Jack Viney is now co-Captain of the 2021 Melbourne side.
Tom Mitchell also had a reputation at the Redbacks. When he was six, he found the ball so often that it was politely suggested maybe he should sit out so the rest of the players could get a touch. By age nine, he was a serious player, always running, rarely saying too much and never mucking around. Mitchell hated being beaten and even then he was known to have a phenomenal ability for finding the ball. ‘He always played the same way, quick with his hands and rarely fumbling,’ his All-Australian player father told the Herald Sun in 2017.
Mitchell’s AFL career suffered from injury in its early days at his father’s club, the Sydney Swans but he now plays for Hawthorn. He won the Brownlow Medal in 2018 and his younger sister Chelsea plays in the AFLW.
Tom Curran was the all-rounder of the group. ‘Everything Tom did,’ said his friend Toby Greene, ‘was for the team. He always played where the team needed him. He doesn’t put himself first.’
Curran spent the years after leaving the Redbacks playing for his school, Wesley College and hoping to impress his father’s former club, Hawthorn. He was ultimately not nominated as a father-son pick and entered the 2011 draft. Picked by St Kilda, he played 25 games for the club before being delisted in 2016.
Of the four friends, it is Toby Greene who has seen the most turmoil in his AFL career. As a kid, Greene ran eight kilometres to school every second day. His friends always thought he was good enough to be drafted. They remember him as quiet but feisty, and able to read the play extremely well. ‘Every time the opposition kicked it in, Toby would just be there, with the huge fist over the boundary,’ Viney said.
Greene found his way to the Western Sydney Giants in 2018. He has been in semi-regular trouble for striking other players ever since. His mother said he’s just misunderstood. ‘We know what he’s like as a person’, she told the Herald Sun in 2019 on the eve of the Giants loss in the Grand Final. ‘And that’s all that matters. He’s worked very hard to get here. Hours spent at Auskick down at Watson Park and then on to Ashy Redbacks. He made great friends there.’
All four of the men remember their time at the Ashy Redbacks fondly. ‘I started at that club when I was eight or nine years old. I grew up there and I met all these different kids and they’re the people that are my mates,’ said Mitchell. ‘It’s all so serious now but back then, all we really did was have fun.’
Next time: Girls join the Ashy Redbacks in droves and the challenge of Covid-19.
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 See Costar, Brian and Nicholas Economou, eds., The Kennett Revolution: Victorian Politics in the 1990s (Sydney: UNSW Press, 1999).  See Linnell, Garry, Football Ltd: The inside Story of the Afl (Sydney: Ironbark, 1995).  McFarlane, Geraldine, ed. Voices of Camberwell: Alamein to North Balwyn (1999), 58.  Costar and Economou, The Kennett Revolution: Victorian Politics in the 1990s, 218.  Krester, Chris de, "Winning Form," Herald Sun, 27 September 2012.  Vernuccio, Chris, "Move Is a Great Success," Progress Leader, 20 October 2009.  Quayle, Emma, "Ash Thursday," The Age, 21 November 2011.  Sheahan, Mike, "Dees Secure Viney Jr with Five Year Contract," Herald Sun, 24 November 2010.  Quayle, "Ash Thursday."  Ibid.  Anderson, Jon, "Gene Genie," Herald Sun, 28 July 2017.  Quayle, "Ash Thursday."  Horne, Ben, "Mum Defends 'Polarising' Toby," Herald Sun, 24 September 2019.  Quayle, "Ash Thursday."