Review: Behind the Play: Football in Australia, ed. by Peter Burke and Julie Senyard

This is the text of the pre-publication print of: Matthew L. McDowell, Review: Behind the Play: Football in Australia, ed. by Peter Burke and June Senyard, Sport in History 30 (4) (December 2010): 600-03. There may be small textual differences between this version and the published version. Any reference made to this paper should refer to the published version.

Peter Burke and Julie Senyard (eds.), Behind the Play:  Football in Australia, (Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia:  Maribyrnong Press, 2008), Pp. viii + 276.  ISBN 978-0-9752384-4-8.

Sport is intrinsically linked to memories of both time and space, not only in its participants, but also its spectators and devotees.  The identity formed by these memories, rather than being a static one, is constantly changing and evolving along with the society which it inhibits.  The editors of Behind the Play:  Football in Australia pay lip service to these statements in their introduction, while admitting that when they say it, they are engaging in ‘something of a cliché’ (p. 1).  The old chestnuts, however, still maintain their power, and this new collection examines how the different codes of football represent, at different times of history and present, the changing face of Australia, and the contradictions within it.

Behind the Play’s contents are based on conference papers given at Identities and Allegiances, the fourth of the ‘Football Fever’ series of gatherings organised by the University of Victoria since 2003.  The collection’s editors are Peter Burke, an RMIT University student completing his doctorate on the social history of workplace Australian football, and Julie Senyard, a senior honorary fellow in the School of Historical Studies at the University of Melbourne, and a sport historian whose many interests include Australian football.  Given the two editors’ research interests, and given that this collection’s 2008 release marked the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Australian football’s codification, it comes as no shock that ‘Aussie rules’ gets its fair share of exposure.  But the sport itself, along with rugby league, rugby union and association football, is merely used as a jumping-off point for something far more insightful than a mere commemoration of sport’s exalted place in Australian popular culture.

This is a wide-ranging, inter-disciplinary compilation, one whose subheadings only partially ‘classify’ the essays into four separate categories.  Of the four, it is the first and last sections that deal heavily with the time of writing.  Part 4 examines soccer exclusively, with Australia’s defining football moment ­– the 2006 FIFA World Cup – being viewed through J. Neville Turner’s almost-ubiquitous attendance at the tournament (in a first-person article which makes no attempts at impartiality).  But even Parts 1 and 4, in their efforts to discuss contemporary Australian sport, necessarily view the present through the prism of history.  Tilda Khoshaba’s essay on the National Rugby League’s response to the alleged gang rape committed by six members of the Canterbury Bulldogs Football Club in February 2004 views this response, and the anti-violence prevention schemes launched by the league and its players’ association afterwards, as a form of evolution in the league code’s historical glorification of violence and machismo.  Nathan Price, meanwhile, examines the modern elite rugby union player, and how professional specialisation of the once-amateur code has led to the dilution of players’ three-dimensional identities off of the pitch – as well as a decline of quality on it.

Parts 2 and 3, meanwhile, deal with Australian football’s changing place in the social and commercial milieu of the nation since codification.  Lionel Frost and Abdel K. Halabi examine Australian football’s ‘country’ clubs’ success from the outset to the time of writing.  This success is not measured only through these organisations’ positions in the league tables, but also through their situation as agents of community in isolated locales.  Burke’s discussion of interwar workplace Australian football, meanwhile, shows that tensions existed not only between employers’ and workers’ ideas of sporting ideals, but also between the workers themselves.  Both Sean Gorman and Trevor Ruddell believe that Australia’s frontier history, interrelated with the treatment of Indigenous Australians, displays more uncomfortable truths about Australian sport.  Ruddell discusses the life and one-game career of Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin, whose one appearance for Geelong Football Club in 1872 was the first recorded appearance of an Aborigine at the senior level of Australian football.  Austin was known as a great athlete, but was cast adrift in the ‘Aussie rules’ code because of his unfamiliarity with it.  Gorman, meanwhile, shows that the myth of the exotic, ‘instinctive’ nature of Indigenous Australians who played in the Victorian Football League (now the Australian Football League) was still being perpetuated well into the 1980s (p. 194).

Inclusive of Gorman’s, the essays of Part 3 are especially insightful as they discuss how the history of Australian football and its supporters is – and was – written.  Melissa Walsh discusses the construction of different kinds of St. Kilda supporters by the pseudonymic journalists of Football Record from 1912 to 1961, with one group thought of as partisans, and the other as connoisseurs, ones who shared the ‘critical disengagement’ of the middle-class press (p. 170).  Nick Richardson, meanwhile, examines the period immediately afterwards, a time when sport journalists gained a name and a face.  He looks at the practice of ghost-writing, especially as it pertained to former Collingwood footballer Lou Richards and his ‘Kiss of Death’ column, which ran in the Melbourne Sun News-Pictorial from the 1950s through to the 1990s.  Richardson shows how several different journalists utilised their skill and talent in the creation of an ‘authentic’ voice for one of Australian football’s larger-than-life personalities; and, more importantly, how Richards used his ‘column’ as a means of furthering his own considerable media career.  Events on the pitch will always be relevant, but they too are subject to the maintenance and transmission of amateur and professional prognosticators, from club supporters to academic sport historians.  When one looks at the sum total of the local and national experiences of sport, what happens on the pitch is far from the only memory.  In other words, the old clichés still apply:  time and space remain relevant.

In that regard, the editors and authors of Behind the Play have created a meaningful volume on how sport in Australia continues to evolve in response to the changes and attitudes in society.  One can find a few flaws in presentation, but they are minor.  Maribyrnong Press, still a small publisher in Australia, in particular needs to make future edited collections more accessible, with an index and selected bibliography required for easy reference (although each essay’s endnotes are certainly thorough enough).  The broad remit of the collection ensures that some of the essays will vary in terms of their interest to certain readers; but, as with any edited collection, this is surely to be expected.  Behind the Play’s contents provide both breadth and depth to those looking to further their knowledge of the historical and contemporary issues involved in Australian sport.


University of Glasgow


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