Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Saturday 18 July 2015

Next goal the winner

Village football in Ayrshire, 1947 to the 1960s

Roy Hay

Our family moved to the tiny little village of Straiton, in Carrick, the southern third of the county of Ayrshire in Scotland in 1947. It lies on the fault line dividing the central lowlands from the southern highlands. My father was the headmaster of the local primary school which had a roll which varied from around fifty to just under a hundred. Numbers could be affected significantly by the arrival or departure of a large family at one of the farms in the area. At times my sister and I and one other boy were the only pupils who lived in the village itself, the rest came from the surrounding countryside. The school seldom, if ever, played football matches against other schools because there were too few pupils at any age group to field an eleven. There were only 5 boys in my class year for most of my primary education.

Straiton Primary School. The boys in my class included Ian McWhirter and Peter McMillan (back row, extreme left pair), John McWee and Michael Heaney (second row extreme left). I am on the right in the third row.
The pupils played football on the asphalt area around the school, which had a shed with a roof and two upright supports which provided one goal and a couple of dustbins or a pile of jackets would suffice at the other end. Playground ‘fitba’ rules applied.[1] Games would start before school in the morning and continue through mid-morning, lunch and afternoon breaks. After school and at weekends I would spend hours kicking and heading a ball against a blank wall at the back of the school, one of real perks of living in the schoolhouse.

Straiton Primary School. The football playing area is across the foreground. The blank wall of the main school building, the white harled one on the left, faces the other school classrooms, while the school house is on the right beyond the flagpole.
The village never had a formal football team, as far as I know, unlike the slightly larger villages of Crosshill and Kirkmichael which were about four miles away to the west and north respectively. Their teams played in the south Ayrshire amateur leagues. Maybole was larger still, around 4–4,500 people. Maybole Juniors played in the semi-professional lower tier Ayrshire leagues. Junior football in Scotland is not a youth competition, but an open age competition below what is called senior football. Talented young players in the senior ranks are often farmed out to junior clubs to toughen up, while senior players on the way down may spend some seasons in the junior ranks at the end of their careers. It makes for a very physical and competitive environment. It would be somewhat similar to the relationship between the VFA and the VFL in Australian football in the old days. Ayr United and Kilmarnock represented the county of Ayrshire at the professional senior level of Scottish football. None of my generation from the village went on to play football at senior level in Scotland.
Later at secondary school, Carrick Academy, we would play before getting on the bus in the morning, before school started, at most playtimes and lunch breaks. Playground fitba rules applied here too. In one notorious period of about eight weeks one or other of our number broke a window of the school during our kickabouts in the playground, but since I was number eight on the list and the headmaster had had enough, I remember being the one who was belted for the misdemeanor. Not only that but the headmaster told my father and I was on the end of another licking when I got home.
No football was played in the winter evenings because it was dark between four and five pm by the time we got home from school. On Saturday mornings some of the older boys from the villages might turn out for their secondary school team, as I did, but that was in Maybole, seven miles away. In the afternoon, those who were interested would travel by bus, bicycle, minibus or rarely by car to Somerset Park in the county town of Ayr to support ‘the Honest Men’ of Ayr United.
In the summer it was very different. Between 5 and 7 pm a small knot of youngsters would be found around one of the goals in the village football field playing with a dilapidated leather ball. The game would probably be ‘three-and-in’ to start with. One lad was in goals, and the rest played as individuals trying to score, and when you got three you swapped with the keeper. Soon the numbers would grow, eventually sides would be picked and jackets might be deposited about the half way line to form a second goal. Gradually the whole field would be brought into use. By 10 pm there might be upwards of 50 players, roughly, very roughly, divided into two halves, though two less competent or younger players might be balanced by a talented or older one. Late arrivals would join in on the same principles.

Straiton football field under water during a flood of the River Girvan. It was not usually this wet when we played in summer.
Offside would be variable, there being no referee most of the time, and only the most blatant ‘poaching’ would be sanctioned. If you were goal sneaking (Australian term) or poaching (Scottish term) then your goal would not count, but if you ran through on a pass from deep you would be allowed to proceed as long as there was a defender in the rough vicinity. So that and most other decisions were by rough consensus with a little bit of the Greek principle (might is right) thrown in if things got heated. Positional play and passing was also variable, possession of the ball and dribbling much more common and clumps of players around the ball also.
Free kicks were limited. You were expected to look after yourself and being kicked on the shins or up in the air with a sliding tackle was ‘all part of the game’. Rules changed in the gloaming. As it grew too dark to see, around 11 pm in high summer, the cry would go up, ‘Next goal the winner’ even though the score might be 23-12 at the time, if you happened to have been counting since some point in the past, resulting in a frantic scramble to bring the game to a conclusion.
Very occasionally a professional footballer would turn up as a friend of one of the participants and join in, risking his livelihood in the mayhem of bodies. So Peter Price, Ayr United’s star centre-forward, who later played in Australia scoring a hat-trick in his first game for Gladesville-Ryde against Hakoah in 1963 in the Sydney First Division, also had a kick-about with us in Straiton long before that.[2]
Yet there was one game of football played near the village that received international exposure. It was the centerpiece of one of the most awful films ever made, entitled The Match. Made in 1999 and despite a star cast including Ian Holm, Isla Blair, Richard E. Grant and Neil Morrissey, with cameos by Pierce Brosnan and Alan Shearer, it clunks along as Scottish whimsy gone wrong. The conceit is that the local pub and an upmarket bistro have played an annual football match 99 times with the pub going down each time. Now the 100th iteration is to be the decider (‘next goal the winner’), only the loser is to voluntarily close down. Shot in and around the village, the talented cast make as much as they can from a pretty leaden love and football story. Gregory’s Girl or Local Hero it is not. There is a review in Variety, which does its absolute best to pump up the tyres, but that is a struggle.[3] The locals did not do well out of the film either and I think some of them are still owed money.

Black Bull Hotel, Straiton. Benny’s Bar in The Match.
The actual match is not played on the football field in the village but in an expanse of roughly flat land on Genoch farm south of it by about a couple of miles. This is a more photogenic location and quite appropriate in a way since the local farms were loci of a range of sports even in the post-war years. Each farm had its own particular sport—badminton, china or lawn bowls, tennis, even croquet. The farmers and some of the villagers, like the Hays, ‘neighboured’, as it was called. That is they would band together for the labour intensive elements in the annual farming calendar, harvesting, shearing sheep, lifting potatoes and turnips and so on. After the day’s ‘darg’ (work) was done a pig or a sheep might have been killed to provide food for all and in the evening after supper everyone would take part in the farm’s game.
Nevertheless, football was the most central game to the local sporting year, only rivaled by badminton in the village hall over the winter evenings. Football provided a topic of conversation and an ice breaker even for the majority of the population whose only contact with the game might be doing the football pools or listening to a game on the radio. Television was only just reaching the village in the 1960s and reception was very poor. My future wife remembers coming to the school house and seeing the family huddled round a black and white television whose signal came from Northern Ireland at times, only 30 miles away to the south-west. The story was that the BBC and Scottish television shot the football matches ‘using a box brownie with a sock over the lens’, such was the poor quality of the vision. It looked on the screen as if a snowstorm was occurring as the figures fluttered around. The green and pink evening sports papers, the Citizen and the Evening Times, could be picked up in Ayr on a Saturday night, while Sunday Post and daily papers carried pages of match reports and football gossip. None of them ever had anything to say about football in Straiton.
Yet, football was part of the shared culture, not always overt or demonstrative, but always there. International and big club games were always anticipated and picked over in the aftermath. A group of the young men, and a very occasional woman, would organise a trip to Glasgow for an international match or a Cup final. A few older men would be regulars at Somerset Park. My Latin teacher at Carrick Academy for all but the first two years had a fatal flaw—his support for Ayr United. He could be sidetracked into discussions about the game whereas his predecessor taught with a strap to hand to sting the palms of those whose declensions and conjugations left something to be desired.
I doubt if my own family’s involvement in the game had much influence on me at the time. That came much later. My father would very occasionally join in the games in the playground and he did not talk about his own truncated career. My grandfather’s exploits at club and international level must have been a topic of conversation with members of the extended family and occasional visitors but that had little impact when I was young. As the oldest male of the next generation some of the family memorabilia and news cuttings came to me but I stored them away for the future. It was not till 2004 that I began to put together his story and that came about as I was trying to find a way to help shape my mother-in-law’s autobiography which my wife and I were editing for her 90th birthday. Realising I had this cache of material I thought it might help if I put it to use as a dry run for the other book.
Growing up in south Ayrshire, even in an area which had no claims to football success, it was inconceivable to us that this game had not been around since time immemorial and that we had invented and owned it.[4]

[1]               One version can be found on the Sports and Editorial Services Australia website at:
[2]               Soccer News (Victoria), 25 April, 1963, p. 5.
[3]               Derek Elley, review of The Match, Variety, 9 August 1999,
[4]               Mining villages on the Ayrshire coalfield like Annbank and Glenbuck produced barrowloads of football stars.

Saturday 11 July 2015

From Detente to Distrust

These are the first two pages of my latest piece in the The International Journal of the History of Sport. Copyright prevents me sharing any more than the taster below. The whole article can be accessed via

Soccer’s Place in Post-World War I Melbourne

There are four main football codes in Australia. While each has a presence in each state,
Rugby League dominates in the more heavily populated Northern states of the eastern
seaboard, and Australian rules is the main code in the rest of the nation, with its origins and
historical epicentre in Melbourne.1 Rugby union is presently in League’s shadow in the
northern states (though with strong spectator interest generated by international games and
some interest, mostly at the private school level, in the Australian rules states). Association
football (soccer) has the broadest national coverage and the highest participation figures.
While soccer has some local strongholds, it is almost universally the second football code
in each state in terms of revenue and interest. Since 1880, this patchwork has been ever
changing. Its seams and tears are indices of the conflict between and within codes for much
of the games’ histories in Australia.

Yet antagonism has not always been the modus operandi in Australian football. In the
early days of codification, advocates of the football codes often saw themselves as
engaging in the one great game of football, sometimes describing it as the ‘English game
of football’ whether playing rugby, Victorian, Association or any other variation or
confusion of rules. Code delineation, competition and jealousy tend to accompany the
heightening of professionalism and the competition for enclosed grounds – as do the
search for and mythologization of origins.

In much of Australia before the 1890s, football code co-operation was common.
A Townsville Football Association, for example, was founded along these truly plural
A football association and two clubs have been formed during the week, one under the title of the Townsville and the other the Mercantile . . . It has been resolved that the association should include clubs playing under any recognised rules of football.
The short-lived Rugby and English Association Football Club of Perth, established in
1892, is a co-operative formation almost unimaginable today. Certainly, aficionados
argued for the merits of their own code but a sense of fraternity was often obtained
between them. In Sydney, Brisbane and elsewhere, much experimentation and codeswitching
occurred as clubs tried to establish their choice of code.

As late as 1909, J.J. Calvert, President of the Sydney Rugby Union was happy to speak
effusively about soccer. Richard Kreider describes his speech at a dinner to welcome the
West Australian ‘Soccerites’ to Sydney. Calvert proudly claimed to be the oldest soccer
player in the room, having played a version of the game at Oxford University.
Calvert then confessed that had soccer been the prominent game in NSW when he first began to take an interest in football administration, his services could well have been devoted to his first love . . . and although he believed that no game could possibly outshine rugby, he looked upon football as a grand and legitimate game and wished for the West Australian team to convince the public that British Association football was well worth seeing.
This contrasts markedly with the miserable reception the West Australian team received in

Only in Melbourne

Perhaps only in Melbourne does a brooding, hidebound and monolithic structure of feeling
dominate, where other codes are sometimes humoured and usually dismissed as inferior.
Yet even this attitude was softened from time to time. Melbourne’s press was sometimes
faintly supportive of soccer after a few initial warning shots in the early 1880s. In the
period immediately following the First World War, the press and the Victorian Football
League (VFL) seemed to take a positive attitude to soccer, a game which had contributed
so much to the war effort that it and its players were impossible to forget so quickly. Too
many soccer players had appeared in Rolls of Honour for their efforts to be dismissed as
marginal. It appears that in 1920 soccer belonged as a small but significant component of
Melbourne sporting culture.

While soccer’s contribution to the ANZAC story has been largely forgotten today, it
was hard to escape in the immediate post-war period. Even as late as 1927, a suburban
soccer match memorializing ANZAC was being promoted by the press. In 1920, the very
strong Northumberland and Durhams club were ‘popularly known as the “all-digger”
team.’ And during and after the war many soldiers previously unaware of the game had
been exposed to it, often with transformative effects.

What follows is a series of moments and case studies that trace a changing attitude
towards soccer in Melbourne and the rebuilding of the ideology oft-noted by Roy Hay, that
soccer is a ‘wicked foreign game’. It is a selective narrative because at this point it
remains in the service of a hypothesis.

To keep reading visit

Thursday 9 July 2015

4 Melbourne soccer teams from 1909

Below are some very high quality photographs of four (or perhaps only three or even two) of the six teams to play soccer in Melbourne in 1909. The 6 teams can be seen in the fixture below for the first round (first 5 rounds in today's terms) of the competition.

The teams are:

  • Williamstown (the 'blues')
  • St Kilda
  • Prahran
  • Melbourne
  • Fitzroy
  • Carlton

Of the teams below only one, St Kilda is identified in the Trove archive. The others need to be ascertained. The bottom two may well be teams representing the same club. Indeed, it is starting to seem likely that 1, 3 and 4 are all St Kilda

Click on the photos to enlarge.

1. St Kilda FC

2. Cartlon United FC

Sunday 5 July 2015

Karmichael Hunt Revisited

Here's a piece I published on the Roar 4 years ago. While I think I was generally right about the risks he posed to the AFL, I missed completely the central dilemma his defection would introduce. 

While the AFL was sitting smugly in the glow of all of the publicity surrounding the defection of Karmichael Hunt and Israel Folau, a dilemma was never far away. If the players failed to make the grade, the ploy would be seen simply as a cynical exercise in attention seeking. But that was not the worst that could happen.
Their success might prove an even greater problem because it would raise the suggestion that Australian rules football is not that hard to play and that any developed athlete could learn to play the code with relative ease. 
Footy might then be painted as a fall-back sport for athletes who don’t make the grade elsewhere.
It could also create a further disconnection between the game’s grass roots and the elite level.
Why should a boy play his heart out for a club, rising through the pathways and representative football, struggling in second tier footy hoping for a breakthrough when ‘elite’ athletes from other codes and sports are waltzing in through the side door and getting paid millions in the process?
Nonetheless, the code-switching of Folau and Hunt is a historic moment in Australian sport.
Even if their shifts are complete flops (which seems to be a distinct possibility at the minute) the impact of their decisions and the way they were engineered will be lasting.
They have raised the spectre of wholesale code-switchings based on the idea that certain players are such superb athletes that they could make it in any sport they chose. The AFL’s recent acquisition of the TV squillions certainly means that there could be a fund available to tempt players over.
Asked by Mark McLure on ABC Radio Grandstand (July 31, 2009) whether he felt there were other players in Rugby League who could make the shift, Hunt replied: “Oh mate, there’s a lot of names that come to mind but I guess the obvious ones would be Billy Slater . . . down in Melbourne . . . well Greg Inglis . . . I mean these guys are natural athletes, they can do what they want.
“They could go and play basketball or play soccer if they put their minds to it, they’ve got that much ability.”
Presumably Folau was also one of those on his mind.
As a soccer supporter this proposition had me vaguely excited. The prospect of league, union and Australian rules players giving our game a fair suck of the hydration bottle is appealing.
One long-standing frustration for soccer in Australia is that many of its tens of thousands of juniors end up playing (and supporting) other codes of football at the senior level – this drift might well be the game’s fundamental problem in its ongoing efforts to establish itself on an equal footing in Australian sporting life.
At the elite level, AFL players like Adam Goodes and Brad Green were standout junior soccer players. Rugby League’s Andrew Johns starred with the round ball as a junior in Newcastle. Preston Campbell loved playing soccer as a boy. Each of them left the game in their teens. 
It’s a trend that leaves many supporters wondering if we might have had more success had those players and others stayed in the game. I know the words, “He would have been a great soccer player!” have often passed my lips.
Yet this intuitive sense needs to be countered with a good dose of realism. Whenever mature sportspeople have tried to cross codes, failure has more often been the result.
Aside from the relatively easy shifts between the rugby codes, football because of their astounding punting or place-kicking abilities, there the odd Gaelic player going to Australian rules and players entering American football are few examples of successful football code-switching. 
In relation to soccer I can’t think of one in recent times. In Melbourne, Glen Manton and Angelo Lekkas both tried out with South Melbourne Hellas when they left footy; both were unimpressive.
Needless to say, Karmichael Hunt’s apparent belief in his and others’ adaptability is newly found. In June 2008 he had this to say about his own skill levels:
“Basketball’s my game,” he says. “And soccer. I’ve been watching a lot of Manchester United. Cristiano Ronaldo is amazing. Amazing. I just enjoy watching the Premier League. I admire the skill those guys have. Their vision and touch. It’s awesome to watch. I wish I had the skill to play soccer. I’d be in England playing there. Or basketball in America . . . But I never had to decide. I was born a rugby league player.” 
Hunt was speaking from the heart in 2008. In 2009 he was speaking through his wallet.
I’m no great rap for Australian rules but even I can see how difficult the skill-set acquisition will be for men who were “born rugby league players”. Perhaps time will prove me and many others wrong but the clock is ticking and Hunt’s own words seemed to be poised to come back to haunt him.

Saturday 4 July 2015

"Are they at war with Soccer?"

JJ Liston, powerbroker and diplomat

JJ Liston is a curious figure. Well known in VFA circles, his soccer commitment is much less known. He was president of the VSFA from the mid thirties until his death in 1944 and took a particularly ecumenical view on sport. While Australian rules was his number one he also admired and enjoyed soccer. His primary role was as a thorn in the side of VFL (from both VFA and soccer perspectives) and his ire took him to the point where he threatened to amalgamate VFA and soccer.

There is a great silence on Liston's marginal views and his story is worth tracing. For one thing it will tell us a lot about Victorian soccer in the 1930s.
Football Has Lost Leader
By H. A. de LACY
In the death of J. J. Liston football has lost a leader. He loved a thrilling sporting bout and football held the highest place in his affections. He took a leading part in the politics of the Australian game. I can vouch for his sincere desire to do the greatest good for the game itself, irrespective of pre-established ideas and constitutions. Re was prepared to kick his way through any conservatism that the greater good of the game could be served.
MR LISTON was president of the Victorian Football Association, the Victorian Soccer Association, and a Trustee of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. In football he was known throughout Victoria as "J. J." He was the sponsor of the senior representation in football of the outer ring of municipalities. Early he allied himself with the Williamstown Football Club—one of the oldest football cubs, became president of that club, and later president of the Victorian Football Association. It was in this office that he took up the fight for the newer municipalities; places where the popuitaion was growing. He wanted Victorian football graded, with promotions and relegations. In sponsoring this view he mostly sat on the opposite side of the table to the League officials. He was fearless in his advocacy and often bruised shins and trod on corns. But he was respected for his ability and fighting qualities.
He was a power in the sporting world. When he spoke he did not waste words. There was the occasion when the League hoped for representation on the board of trustees of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. However. It was "J. J." who was appointed. He became president of the Victorian Soccer Association as well as of the V.F.A. His opponents criticised him for taking such an office, asking how a man who was president of an Australian rules body could also be president of the State Soccer body. He scorned criticism. "Are they at war with Soccer," he retorted. "If they are. I am not. There is room for all good healthy games, and Soccer is a damn good game. It would serve us better to get down to knowing something of the good management of Soccer throughout the world. We could learn something."
From a state bordering on bankruptcy in 1937, he battled on till before the outbreak of war. The Association clubs were bidding high prices for League stars and getting them. But even this success was not altogether to "J.J.'s" liking. Hestill wanted graded football under a State council. He knew that the trafficking could not do the game the greatest good and often said: "It will make our opponents recognise our strength, but It will not advance Australian football." Immediately prior to his death he was using his influence to bring about a conference of the League and the Association with an eye to uniting the two bodies. Football has lost a statesman.