Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Friday, 27 April 2012

When footy turned into soccer?

[an article in progress; revisit from time to time and see this piece grow as I find more material] 


South Fremantle players employed soccer tactics to relieve West Perth pressure in this semi-final
Steve Marsh (left) is soccering the ball off the ground and Des Kelly is about to have a
kick too.
As a last line of defence, Des Reed (behind Marsh) completes the South Fremantle
The West Australian, 28 September 1953, page 29

Australian rules and association football have engaged in an intimate dance for nearly 150 years. Virtually identical in genetic terms, they are like brothers who grew up in different physical and cultural environments. Footy has always been the bigger brother in Australia's southern states. But like all big brothers it has, from time to time, been able to learn from the younger sibling.

There's a term that has been used in Australian rules commentary for many years to describe a kick off the ground, 'soccering'. Deriving from soccer, it describes a moment when something unusual happens. More often than not soccering is quite effective because it happens out of the blue and changes the rhythm of the game and some spectactular goals have been scored that way. But sometimes it produces an air-swing, a mis-kick or a kick out-on-the-full and results in great embarrassment for the player concerned and great rebuke from his own and opposition supporters alike.

We could get all psychoanalytic and suggest that 'soccering' is the moment the repressed other revisits footy. Or we could get all post-structuralist and say that these are the moments when footy's web of mythology and history risks being undermined by the very thing it excludes. Or perhaps we could just say: it's just not footy!

Whatever the case, there is a serious prohibition on kicking off the ground in Aussie rules. When kids are learning the game it's a big no-no. 'Pick it up!' is the oft-heard cry of the grumpy coach. Indeed, umpires pay a free kick for kicking off the ground in many junior competitions, even when there is no danger of injury to other players. In the past senior competitions have canvassed the idea of outlawing 'soccering'. Given that at one stage in the game's history the only thing you could do to a ball on the ground was kick it, this prohibition represents a serious departure from the game's foundations.

Of course, at the senior level today players are at liberty to 'soccer' to their heart's content as they have been throughout the game's history. Whether their coaches will forgive their 'soccered' errors is another matter.

What follows is an attempt to trace some uses of terms derived from soccer (or British Association football in the early days) in Australian rules discourse.

* * *

One of the earliest comparative references to soccer in a footy match I have found is in the report on a game in 1896 that is one of the watershed moments in the evolution of Australian rules. The game was utterly dominated by Geelong and yet they had to share the points. Not long after this behinds were included as part of the scoring system in footy.

While we are familiar with the idea of footy players 'soccering' off the ground, this piece refers to a change in system of play in which the players gave up trying to mark and carry the ball and played it off the ground -- in many ways a return to the older form of Victorian football played in the 1850-70s.
Geelong and Carlton had a fast game on the M.C.C. ground, because both sides determined to play the British Association game - no handling - as soon as the rain came, and it was marvellous to see the ball sliding and shooting everywhere as delusive as a greasy pig, with the bulk of the players apparently never able to catch up to it, although the whole 40 were at times trying to do so. The first quarter was fairly even and fast, but in the second Geelong had a good deal the best of it and scored their only goal. Carlton getting their solitary one in the last quarter. A goal apiece made it a draw, with every appearance of a good game, until you glance at the behinds column, and note that Geelong scored 13 behinds to 1, and had very bad luck indeed in having to share the points when having so much the best of the field work. Taking it all through they had 19 shots for goal and Carlton 4 . . . (The Argus 22 June 1896)
Also of interest is the fact that soccer is not played at this juncture in Melbourne history so it raises the question of how familiar the journalist is with the British Association game (though I guess lack of familiarity is not something that has ever stopped footy commentators and journalists rabbiting on about the game).

Twelve years later in Western Australia, rainy conditions produced a similar 'conversion' to soccer. A couple of moments in this piece give rise to the suggestion that the teams actually did play soccer (albeit with goals and behinds being recorded). The first is the fact that Unions turned up with only 13 players. The second is that the writer refers to the umpire being familiar with soccer rules -- though in all likelihood the latter is merely a case of journalistic licence.
Unions, with their usual persistency, arrived short of players, having but 13 men to don their colours. The play resolved itself alternately into a game of soccer and a wading match, it being a common sight to see a knot of players crowded together on one of the few dry spots until the leather happened along, when they would leave with a splash and frequently measured their length in the water. As regards the scoring, Honours were even at the half time interval, but from this out Leederville waded ahead and finished with a lead of 26 points. Final scores, 4.15 to 1.7. Those players who best adapted themselves to the slippery conditions were Garmston, Crawford, Kennedy, McKinnon, and Caporn, for the winners; while Harris, Fullerton, Coomer, Reynolds, Connolly, and Prout were responsible for some energetic work on behalf of the losers. Umpire Breen showed splendid knowledge of soccer rules, and always had the players well under control. A noticeable feature of this match was the friendly spirit shown on both sides during the progress of the play, there being an entire absence of that ill-feeling which showed itself at the last meeting of these two clubs when several players came to blows. This is as it should be. (The West Australian, Saturday 20 June 1908)
A year later, still in Perth:
Easts made the mistake of trying to hold the ball instead of kicking off the ground. The day and the ground both demanded soccer tactics. (Sunday Times, 20 June 1909)
There's a growing sense in footy writing that certain conditions determine an obvious tactical choice, the conscious adoption of 'soccer tactics' and perhaps even a soccer-based system of play on a given ground and/or day.

But there is also a growing sense that soccer has something to teach footy irrespective of the conditions. This report from the Hobart Mercury suggests that footy has much to learn from soccer's "brilliant foot manipulation", though what is meant by this is not clear.
The Boulder City (W.A.) team suffered the first reverse of their tour at the Adelaide Oval on Saturday afternoon, when,West Adelaide registered 6 goals 13 behinds, compared with their 4 goals 8 behinds. A noteworthy characteristic of the exposition was their brilliant foot manipulation of the ball. In this they appeared to have taken a leaf out of the book of a crack "soccer" team, and (says an Adelaide daily) set a fine example to Adelaide footballers. (17 July 1909)
On 23 July 1910 the Mercury reported on another game in SA:
Golding particularly,was in remarkable form, and one of his successful efforts was a crowning achievement. Running in from the wing, he met the ball with his foot as it landed in front of him from the other wing, and exerting all the skill of an old "soccer" player, he screwed it with a brilliant effort right through the posts.
 [More will be added as material comes to hand]

And, just for a bit of fun: the below image creates the illusion that this Australian rules footballer has just headed the ball when in fact the ball's trajectory resulted from an attempted smother. But it raises the question: has a header even been deliberately used in Aussie rules to good effect?

Western Mail , Thursday 22 April 1954, page 17

1 comment:

  1. I think I’ve worked out a solution to the football naming wars. Only one game contains an action called ‘soccering’. In only that game can you ‘soccer’ a ball. Maybe we should call that game soccer. Then association football can reclaim it’s rightful title of football. Only joking -- I actually prefer the term soccer.