The Rise of Football in Northern NSW

1963 University of New England Aust Football Team
(names in article)

When the students at the University of New England in Armidale formed an Australian Football Club in 1962 they had no-one to play against. The nearest football competitions were in Newcastle or Brisbane so they decided to form their own competition. The result of their endeavours are the current competitions in North West NSW and on the North Coast. Clubs such as Tamworth, Gunnedah, Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie all began their life in the UNE ANFC-run competition in the late 70s/early 80s. For most of its existence the competition didn’t have permits, clearances or tribunals. All disputes were settled at the pub after the game.

In this excerpt by Bob Cason (inaugural president of the UNE footy club) from The Celebrated History of Australian Football in New England: Where’s the Piss & what’s the Score? (Greenmount Press: 2002) he tells the story of the beginning of the game in northern New South Wales.

 

In The Beginning….
Bob Cason

It all began in 1962 when word spread around amongst the footy starved Mexicans and Crow Eaters that there was a footy team in Moree looking for a game. Bob Hudson, a PMG employee (Post Master General Department, now Telstra and Australia Post) had been transferred north from Aussie Rules territory in southern NSW, had organized a team and was looking for a game. We obtained some goal posts from somewhere and arranged for the grounds staff to set up an oval at the far end of Consett Davis at UNE.

This produced the first hic-up of introducing Aussie Rules into rugby heartland. Many of the grounds staff were migrants of which many were poms who had never seen an Aussie Rules ground in their life. We arrived for our first practice to find the boundary lines running almost directly from point post to point post, (barely clearing the 50-metre square if it had existed at that time).

The game against Moree proved an eye opener. The word had got around and the ground was almost encircled with cars or spectators, which was a surprising indication of the extent of interest in Australian footy in the area since many of these spectators were from outside the University. Some enterprising supporter went around with the hat and we collected almost 30 pounds ($60.00), which kept the club in the black for the next couple of years.

As for the game, we soon discovered that Bob’s Moree recruits did not have a lot of footy skills, therefore we could afford to move Jack Obst from full back to full forward and the game ended up a little one sided.

We paid a return match in Moree at the Moree Showgrounds, which we again won easily. Apart from the footy an added attraction of going to Moree was a swim in the hot mineral spring baths.

Setting up the Administration

Flushed with success we decided it would be prudent to form a club and get things official. There were three main reasons for setting up a club:

  1. To get some money from the University Sports Union to buy footballs and any other assistance that was available,
  2. To get Aussie Rules mentioned in the following year’s University Handbook which might attract or not distract enrolments from the footy heartland, and
  3. To get in an application to attend the next year’s intervarsity at Sydney.

The overriding philosophy (or mission statement as it would be called today) was to foster the development of Australian Football throughout the whole area. We did not want to confine footy to the University. Hence names like Northern District Australian National Football League, and an endeavor to play games in Armidale. We were fortunate to get the use of the show grounds through some Aussie Rules sympathizers in the district.

Another strategy was to try and introduce footy to young players in Armidale. We approached the schools offering to facilitate games between the schools, but this received a rather cool reception. We even approached TAS, because they had recently appointed a headmaster from Geelong Grammar. He was polite and diplomatic, inviting us into his office, where he confided that he appreciated what we were doing but if he let Aussie rules into The Armidale School (TAS), he would be out on the street, courtesy the Old Boys, Board etc. We were however received favourably at the Catholic school where some of the brothers were from down south, and we ran training sessions on Wednesday afternoons at the show grounds for some of their classes. I heard that in later years, a game or games were played between Armidale High school and the Catholic school.

There was also support from Armidale as well as within the University. Keith Smith had moved north from South Australia to a farm close to Robb College, had contacts with the show grounds and was instrumental in getting use of the ground, especially as he knew that soccer was trying to get on there as well. Mr. Wilkins had a bakery in Armidale and donated money that went to buy the Wilkins’s Shield that became the trophy for the local competition. Neville Crewe, a member of staff at Adult Education Centre of the Uni was a mad keen South Melbourne supporter, gave guidance with administration.

We had good relationships with the local paper “The Armidale Express” who were always ready for some extra copy, which accepted a weekly column on our activities. Some Mexicans starved of the footy coverage they were used to in southern newspapers once commented to me that they looked forward to our weekly Aussie rules news.

Robert Wesley-Smith later took on this role and just to sex things up a bit wrote under the pseudonym of “Stab Kick”.

Northern Districts footy league

If the seeds were sown in 1962, things started to germinate in 1963. We had to get a team to Sydney Intervarsity and get some more games in Armidale. Sydney University team travelled to Armidale one long weekend. They had obviously had to recruit a few rugby players to make up the team and with the handicap of travel we beat them, much to the surprise of some of the staff who were graduates of the University of Sydney.

Moree still had a team and with the nucleus of a team in both Robb and Wright colleges there was the basis of a competition with two rounds and a final between the two top teams. A great idea St George but inevitably there were setbacks. The distance between Armidale and Moree was arduous, it soon became obvious that Moree would be bottom team and games were forfeited. Inevitably a car broke down when Al Watson’s car rolled on the return from Moree late one night and the occupants feared they would die from exposure to those Northern NSW frosts before help arrived. A game was held halfway at Inverell in an effort to minimize the travel.

By 1964, Earle Page College was opened so a 3-team inter-collegiate competition was preferred to travel and uncertainty of playing Moree. Alistair Watson offered to umpire and received one pound a game for his troubles. Rent for use of the showground was paid in kind, with volunteer labour painting the fence around the oval.

Another issue was when to play the games. Rugby Union was played on Saturdays while outside the Uni rugby league was played on Sundays. Initially games were played on Saturdays, because this was the way it had always been done down south, although by this time Sunday football was being played in Melbourne. It soon became obvious that playing Saturdays had more difficulties than advantages and it became a Sunday competition, which produced less hassles and more spectators.

There were seldom enough Aussie rules players so rugby or soccer players were enticed to make up the numbers. It was not hard to pick out the rugby players or the soccer players; rugby players held onto the ball waiting for a maul to form while soccer players went in for the ball feet first.

Conclusion

The question of whether the high ideals of those early years of fostering the development of Australian football in the New England have been achieved is a matter for debate, but a view of the honour roll showing teams from Coffs Harbor and a Tamworth AFL suggests there has been some progress to this end.

Image:
1963 University of New England AFL Team at Erskineville Oval participating in an Intervarsity Carnival:

Back row (l-r): Peter Ashby, Will Dennis, ringin from Sydney pub, Steve Hill, Paul Rive, Paul Stephens, Jack Obst, Ted Nixon, Bob Cason, Paul Dale, Sandy Cuthbertson,
Front row: Rob Wesley-Smith, David XYZ, Doug McLean, Dave Hennessy, Doug Murray, David Coates, Bob Myer

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