Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

When Ron Barassi played Soccer

In November 1964 the might of the VFL took on that year's Dockerty Cup winners, Slavia-Port Melbourne in a game of soccer. It's an event that some participants cannot remember and many would prefer to forget.

As John Kallinikios has written in his Soccer Boom: The Transformation of Victorian Soccer Culture 1945-1963, soccer was undergoing a massive expansion in Melbourne in the late 1950s and early 60s. Extraordinary crowds were flocking to Olympic Park. Over 23,000 went to see a clash between George Cross and South Melbourne Hellas in 1962. In 1966 over 35,000 crammed into the same venue to see Victoria take on AS Roma.

Fans crush into the Victoria v AS Roma clash at Olympic Park, Age, 30 May 1966

Simultaneously VFL football was undergoing something of a mild decline in attendance – albeit from a great height. The fear of a soccer takeover was growing in some footy circles. Roy Hay, Phil Moseley and other have documented the way in which this fear sometimes turned into the active suppression of soccer through such practices as exclusion from schools, restrictive ground allocations and concerted media attacks on the game and its participants. In Ethnic Involvement in Australian Soccer: A History 1950–1990 Moseley reports that in 1952:
Headline in the Truth, 7 Nov 1964

the VFL directed its operatives to secure all available public sporting space in Melbourne in order to stifle the burgeoning threat posed by soccer’s migrant-inspired growth. Similar moves had been made in 1927 and 1928 when British migrants so rattled the VFL that it wrote “with alarm” of this “foreign code”. The 1950s boom in migration promised to be far more of a problem than that of the 1920s. In 1958 a Melbourne soccer club sought to lease a council ground usually used by an Australian Rules club. In response to the application one rules-supporting sneer, “let them play . . . in the gutter”. Melbourne’s reputation for paranoia was crowned in 1965 when youths daubed anti-soccer slogans over Middle Park, chopped down the goalposts and tried to set fire to the grandstand.
Soccer’s rise to prominence produced various responses, but perhaps none as fascinating as the idea of a soccer-VFL match played under soccer rules. Jack Dyer, ‘Captain Blood’ challenged Slavia-Port Melbourne to a match to raise money for the Victorian Society for Crippled Children and Adults.

The idea for the game came about after Dyer had been a guest of the Victorian Soccer Federation at the final of the 1964 Dockerty Cup, won by Slavia 1-0 over Footscray JUST. Dyer repaid his hosts’ generosity by writing in his subsequent Truth column on 10 October, “I went, I saw and I was sickened. Soccer . . . It really is a girls’ game – but only for big girls.” He felt that if he were allowed to train the best of the VFL players in the rudiments of the game they would easily beat a team of soccer players.

This rankled with a number of the Slavia team, and Dave Meechan, invited onto Channel 7’s ‘Wide World of Sport’ by Alex Barr, suggested that Dyer should put his money where his mouth is.

Manolis Papadopoulos, who attended the game, also remembers Dyer generating interest in the challenge by “attacking the soccer players’ abilities as athletes and the game itself as easy and simplistic for anyone to play. Dyer believed that VFL footballers were so physically advanced and technically skilful that playing soccer would be easy for them”. Slavia accepted the challenge and the game was set for 15 November 1964.

The Sporting Globe excitedly previewed the game, “We’ve been waiting for years for this and it's here at last . . . soccer v. footy.” The Globe was glowing with the prospect of a tough game: "‘Captain Blood’ has already warned Slavia that it's going to be ‘on’, and this means one thing – it's going to be the toughest, roughest soccer match Victoria has ever seen.”

Indeed, Slavia would be facing some hardened VFL footballers. Dyer’s team contained Ron Barassi, Ted Whitten, Kevin Murray, Des Tuddenham and Gordon Collis. The Slavia team included keeper, Ray Barotajs, Peter Aldis, John Auchie, and Hammy McMeechan – well-known in soccer circles but hardly household names in the wider Victorian community.

Papadopoulos remembers the footy players making their intentions clear immediately. Barassi led the charge, literally, taking every opportunity to rough-up Slavia players. This backfired when Barassi went into a tackle and was let down by his woeful technique. John Auchie simply put his foot behind the ball and when Barassi came charging through for a massive toe-bash he found himself flying through the air and landing in a crumpled, injured heap. One report is that the footy legend was carried from Olympic Park on a stretcher. Others are less dramatic, having Barassi merely limping off injured.

Ray Barotajs alludes to Barassi’s injury in his own Truth column on 21 November: “I think the VFL boys would be the first to admit now that it isn’t a girl’s game – just ask Ron Barassi.”

Many years later Slavia right-winger, Hammy McMeechan met Barassi in a King Street newsagency where they happily recalled the match and the incident. McMeechan claims Barassi confided, “That was the injury that eventually made me give footy away.”

And the big men fly! Slavia keeper Ray Barotajs climbs over
Fitzroy's Kevin Murray 
in a heading duel at
a practice session prior to the game, 

Age
 14 November 1964
It should be emphasised that Hammy refutes Papadopoulos’s notion that the footy players were ‘putting it about’ or trying to bully the Slavia team. He claims that a marvellous spirit of goodwill had developed between the players, most of whom displayed the mutual respect that sports people have for each other’s abilities. After all, the Slavia players were the ones who had trained the VFL team in the rudiments of the game.

McMeechan says, “They were decent guys, especially Kevin Murray. They respected us for our skills and as people.” He also recalls a moment of hilarity when prior to the game he went into the VFL rooms to say hello to the footy players and was amazed by Paul Wadham’s size 13 boots. He put them on and went back into the Slavia rooms saying, “Look at my skis!” In the meantime Wadham returned to find his boots missing but was happy to enjoy the joke when Hammy came back in with them on such was the camaraderie between the teams.

As reported in a newspaper article about the game published in 2009, Brownlow Medallist Gordon Collis, has a different memory of the day.
''It was a little spiteful in that we, with our technique [laughing], couldn't resist the opportunity of a hip and shoulder here and there,'' he said. ''The other boys had tricks of their own. One of them was to put a foot over the ball as you were about to kick it, so your shins would make contact with the soles of their boots. That didn't improve relations. We didn't see it as very manly way of going about things. But it was effective. It was also effective in stirring us up!''
Even now Collis lacks the gumption to see that they were beaten in a contest that was inevitably skewed against them because of Dyer's hubristic boasts, resorting instead to age-old complaints about the sneakily and cowardly violent behaviour of soccer players. Collis is perhaps on his own in this regard, though it's hard to know what Barassi thinks because he refused my requests for an interview. Bluey Adams when quizzed about the game replied that if it taught him one thing it was that soccer "was a damn sight harder than it looked."

When it came to the game, it really was over before it started. The footy players were so technically deficient (as Collis admits) that they stood no chance of winning. The photograph below of the VFL stars trying to clear a ball from their defence speaks a thousand words on this point.

In front of a massive Olympic Park crowd, Paul Vinar (in goal), Stuart Magee, Gordon Collis and Kevin Murray (l to r) look on as an unidentified VFL player tries to clear the ball. Slavia’s Hammy McMeechan is on the far right. Note the difference in footwear, McMeechan’s cutaway Adidas shoes contrasting markedly with the VFL player’s boots.


In a moment that demonstrated just how difficult the translation was for the VFL players, McMeechan ran on to a through ball with his marker, Collis in tow. He could feel Collis’s massive frame bearing down on him and so played a neat backheel to his captain and right-half, John Sanchez. But, instead of stopping, McMeechan kept racing toward the corner flag. And Collis kept right on following! Arriving at the flag McMeechan turned around with his arms outstretched as if to say to Collis, “What are you going to do now?” Collis turned away grumpily, to the amusement of the massive crowd.

Hammy McMeechan. 
Photo: Don Hruska, Soccer News.
Les Shorrock collection,
Deakin
 University Library.
At the break (they had agreed to play 25-minute halves) the score was 3-0 to Slavia, decisive without being embarrassing. Having now recognised what was an obvious mis-match, representatives of the VFL team came into the Slavia dressing room at half-time asking if they could play Australian Rules in the second half. The Slavia coach, former Manchester United player, Brian Birch, said, “Look at my players. Hammy’s the biggest forward and he’s only 5’ 6”. No way. We never said we could beat you at your game!”

The Sun’s soccer reporter, the American, Morrie Buckner suggested that the VFL team improved in the second half but unfortunately for them so did Slavia, running out 8-0 winners. As he wrote in his match report: “A dozen VFL stars showed little more than faith and hope when they played for charity in an exhibition soccer match at Olympic Park yesterday.”

Thankfully missing from Buckner’s measured report is the Globe’s rhetoric of footy triumphalism. Though, if disappointed, footy fans might have derived some joy from his reporting that the VFL won the four-man relay race and Barassi won the long-distance kicking competition (Sherrins and soccer balls) conducted prior to the match. To round out the pre-Match contests, Slavia’s Shepherd won the kicking-accuracy competition.

McMeechan makes a valid point when he says the might of the VFL was up against one semi-professional soccer team. “We only had the best runners in our club and we were up against men like Bluey Adams who had competed in the Stawell gift. I’m not saying we would have won the race but had we been able to select from the speedsters in the other Melbourne soccer clubs we would have given them a better run.”

In what must have been something of a culture shock a few things were revealed to the sporting public. First, the might of the VFL had been hammered by a team of part-timers, none of whom would rank in the top 1000 players in the world.

Second, soccer has its own requirements of strength and fitness that cannot be dismissed out of hand. While few would ignore the sheer toughness and durability required to play Australian rules football, too many are prepared to downplay the physical demands of soccer. While John Auchie’s tackle had an unfortunate impact, it nonetheless demonstrated the balance of technique, strength and toughness required to play the round-ball game.

But the most important lesson I think is that for too long many Australians have failed utterly to understand the technical skill and artistry of the world game and the physical qualities needed to play even at a moderate semi-professional level. McMeechan recalls with a chuckle that prior to the game, when his workmates found that he would be marked by Gordon Collis, he was told, “You won’t get a touch!” The only surprise in the result is that some people were surprised.

In 2014 it will be 50 years since the game. It would be nice to see it commemorated in November in another game between the winners of the Dockerty Cup (the statewide cup) and an AFL selection. A vain hope I know, but one which might contribute to a kind of sporting tolerance and pluralism that we so desperately need in Melbourne.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Hammy McMeechan who died in October 2012. It will remain one of my regrets that I never got back to see him after my initial interview with him. As I said in a piece in Neos Kosmos, he "shone with the joy of life" - a truly impressive man who is missed by many.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting about the peak in crowds in Melbourne. In Perth it seems the boom happens in the mid 50's and is specifically an Italian based boost that occurs for one team. You also get a dedicated football facility, the first enclosed venue in 1953 that SAWA runs to raise revenue.

    Serie B players were migrating to Perth to play with Azzurri at this stage.

    The post war growth in football interest seems a very Italian led revolution, changing the status quo from the past. 40 years later, an Italian entrepreneur challenged the status quo and believed that a professional league was sustainable.


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  2. I attended this game and remember Ron Barassi limping off the ground and getting booed by the fans. In the early 1960s, sports commentators like Jack Dyer, Lou Richards and others referred to our sport as a 'girls game.' I think Dyer and his crowd issued a challenge which was answered at Olympic Park with Slavia winning 8-1 against the VFL. Slavia must have dented the egos of Dyer and company.

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