I’ve decided to kick off my book reviews with one of my very favourite football books, Garrie Hutchinson’s “From the Outer-Watching Football in the 80’s.” This publication is a collection of pieces from his column in the Age at the time called “Watcher.” The book takes place during a time of great upheaval for football in Melbourne, with the impending national game and ground rationalisation some of the key themes that run throughout.
I found this gem at a second hand shop a number of years ago though I can’t remember which one, as I’ve frequented many. However I can recall coming across this particular book with it’s front cover standing out like a beacon amongst and microwave cookery manuals and Max Walker titles that filled the shelves around it. It must have been the image of the old Southern Stand (see pic below), such a dark and wondrous place full of atmosphere, where I cut my football-watching teeth, that grabbed my attention.
The book has been put together in such a way that you can read it straight through, or you can pick and choose what chapter matches your mood. The section I first gravitated towards was the chapter titled “Playing at Home”, where Hutchinson, a Carlton supporter, talks of watching footy from the terraces at Princes Park, of the flukey winds each ground possessed and how the home team “just knew where to put the ball”, and the disappointment of a home game allocated for VFL Park.
In a prophetic moment Hutchinson bemoans the likely rationalisation of the suburban grounds. “So we’ll end up with covered entertainment centres, in Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast and Perth, where football is played under equal, identical conditions by colourful teams in carpet slippers on television two nights a week, nationally.” This was written in 1982. While not entirely accurate, he’s essentially hit the nail on the head in terms of the footy today and the expectations of fans.
Other chapters include ‘Before the Bounce of the Ball’, a look at the anticipation of a season about to begin while ‘In the Outer,’ a look at the nature and behaviour of footy crowds, kicks off with this monologue of sorts…
“The outer- The place to stand: a combination of boxing tent, revival meeting, carnival, zoo and outdoor radio-station, a place threatened by progress and wowerism. What goes on and why?”
‘Teams of Character’ offers insight into most of the old VFL clubs, looking at their rituals and idiosyncrasies. Featured is Fitzroy’s pre-season march from the pub where they were formed to the old Brunswick Street Oval, a day spent on the terraces at the Western Oval, the character of footy down at Sleepy Hollow and what it’s like to support the Dee’s from the MCC’s Long Room.
Other chapters include ‘Footy Heroes’, ‘Rules, Styles and Conventions’ and an ‘Introduction to Football.’ The fitting final chapter is titled ‘The Finals’, which looks at the problems of ‘getting a ticket’, observes the tears shed at Fitzroy’s narrow defeat of Essendon in the 1981 Elimination Final, how to deal with finals nerves and of course ‘The Big One’.
‘From the Outer’ rounds things off with a passionate plea to keep the Grand Final at the MCG. The 1983 grand final had been touted as the the grounds final ‘last day in September’, as the VFL threatened to move it’s big day to it’s own VFL Park, in a stand-off between the VFL power brokers and the stubborn Melbourne City Council of the day
“The idea, and this is sentimental, that the final game of the season be taken away from the very spot, more of less, where it was invented is the worst kind of sacrilege. There are descendants of possums up the very gum trees outside the MCG that Tom Wills and Henry Harrison kicked footies into 125 years ago.”
Thankfully, sanity prevailed.
Hutchinson writes his articles not as a journalist writing for the Age, rather as a regular footy fan with a nice turn-of-phrase, much in the style that Martin Flanagan also writes for the Age these days. He delves below the surface of football in Melbourne to look at the patch-work quilt that it is, interwoven in the fabric of much of our being.
The times have changed, much as Hutchinson predicted, and this book serves as a reminder of what has been lost along the way. Yet if you don’t fancy standing shoulder to shoulder in the pouring rain with a poor view of the ground, then my guess is that you’ll happily take your reserved seat at the MCG or Docklands next year!
The book is out-of print, but keep your eyes peeled at second-hand stores. Melbourne Sports Books also carries an old copy from time to time.