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Country footy: everything I love about the game

People are always telling me how important Australian rules football is to Melbourne.

But you don’t have to tell me how important footy is – I grew up in country Victoria where it is the lifeblood of the community.

And I’m sure it’s the same when you get out of town in Tassie, or the Riverina, South Australia or WA.

For me as a kid growing up in Yarrawonga, life was football in the winter, mucking around on the river or the lake in summer.

I had a couple of older brothers who played footy, so as a young fella of 12 or 13 I’d always jump on the team bus and sit up the front as they ventured into hostile territory for games at Wangaratta or Albury or Myrtleford.

I’d be along for the ride and then to run the boundary in the Under 18s, and it was the perfect way to get introduced to that footy culture, the camaraderie and the team spirit.

I was born into a footy family. My dad, Bernie – “Stump’’ to anyone who knows him – played a lot of country footy in the Picola league, or the Tungamah league as it was known back then.

He was a full forward who bagged a lot of goals. He captain-coached Katamatite to a flag, then he came into Yarrawonga and played some senior footy for the Pigeons alongside my uncle John.

There was no better way to wile away hours as a kid than to jump on my bike and head down to local footy ground, which had the swimming pool on one side and the Murray River on the other, knowing it would either be footy training or knocking around having a bit of a kick with my mates until we had to be home for dinner.

“There are plenty of reasons why AFL football shouldn’t forget what country life has given the game.”

“The footy club’’, as it was universally known, was the heartbeat of the town. When you’re young you don’t understand why so many people seem to always want to come back and get involved and help out at the footy club. You’d appreciate the effort they made to do it, but you didn’t really appreciate why they were so determined to give back so much of themselves.

I guess it’s a bit of the circle of life; those people had such a fantastic time and great memories of being around the footy club when they were young, and they wanted make sure the next generation had the same experience.

In reality it’s all of those volunteers and people whose heart is absolutely in the right place who make a footy club. The people who are willing to go above and beyond because they feel the football club is so important to the community. We were blessed to have guys like “Snapper” and Bert, who helped keep the place ticking like a Swiss clock, and Darrell, who’d run out the water and entertain us with his running commentary.

Thursday evening training was almost like a social event in itself. The senior players would trot out at 6pm and a lot of people from the area would congregate in the clubrooms. They’d watch the boys having a kick and maybe have a few beers and a feed up in the social club where our president, Wally, was holding court at the same old table. There’d be a collection of regulars, talking about how the team was going and telling tales about the town we were about to play on Saturday. It was informal, but it was genuine and it had a rhythm and an energy about it.

It was also just a good excuse for people to get together and talk, and get whatever they needed to get off their chest. And in regional communities, with all of the different challenges that people face, it’s really important to have ways to feel engaged and involved.

When I was 15 I got to jog out with the seniors on a Thursday evening, too, and learn first-hand from blokes I’d admired, like our big ruckman Jarrod Sutherland.

I expected there would be a lot more Thursdays training with the Pigeons. But it’s funny how quickly it happens: one moment you’re showing a bit of form in the juniors and getting a look-in with a few representative squads, and then one day you’ve worked your way on to an AFL list.

Even then you don’t consider yourself as being any different, you still feel part of that small Yarrawonga community, you have that attachment, it’s just that you’ve moved into a different sphere.

Through the ups and down, that community, and all of those people who helped you as a junior, they keep track of what you’re doing and they come along on the rollercoaster with you.

The people of Yarrawonga were certainly with me in 2006 when, in just my seventh game of AFL football, I collided heavily in a marking contest and was carted off to hospital for surgery to remove a kidney.

I woke up to cards, letters, phone calls and text messages from people I hadn’t seen for years, and a lot of people from home came down to Geelong to visit me in hospital and during my recovery. I felt the love and I know that plenty of people rallied around my family through that tough time.

They were with me again in 2008, when I played in my first AFL Grand Final. Actually, a lot of the guys I played football with at Yarrawonga were nowhere near the MCG that day; they were were in a bar in Adelaide on their end-of-season trip.

As they all settled in to sit and watch the match, one of my mates, who was in charge of looking after the kitty, asked the boys whether they wanted to put all of the money on the bar tab or take the punt and put on a couple of bets. They decided on a having a bit of a flutter, and one of the bets was on me kicking the first goal in the Grand Final, at something like 14-1, so it’s fair to say they were pretty happy when I slotted one home a couple of minutes in, even though we ended up going down to Hawthorn. Apparently a couple of the boys formed a breakaway group and headed off for a couple of days on the Gold Coast leg of the Adelaide footy trip.

I guess I was lucky to be drafted by Geelong, because we’ve always had a fair few country footballers on our list. You tend to gravitate towards them, because the AFL is a big fish tank and it’s comforting to find guys you can instantly relate to, because if their down-to-earth style, their values and the way they were brought up.

Also, geographically, when you live in Geelong it’s not hard to duck out out of town and get some space, whether it’s taking the dogs for a walk, fishing or a bit of spot-lighting.

But you never forget your roots.

AFL 2010 NAB Challenge - Richmond v Geelong

I still keep an eye on the Ovens and Murray footy results, and watch to see who gets picked up in the AFL national draft. Hawthorn’s Daniel Howe used to play up at Rennie, just the other side of Lake Mulwala, and I see him occasionally when we both get back home over the Christmas break.

There are plenty of reasons for me to remember what country life gave me. And there are plenty of reasons why AFL football shouldn’t forget what country life has given the game.

That’s why I’m a supporter of the Country Game, the Round 4 match between Geelong and Essendon.

It could turn out to build into another big day on the AFL calendar, like our match against Hawthorn every Easter Monday, but more importantly it’s a great opportunity to reflect and pay tribute to the people from our rural areas.

Hopefully it will act as an annual reminder to the AFL to turn its eyes back to its grass roots. The game’s origins have a strong link to regional Victoria and it has been the lifeblood of the competition for generations.

I know that in recent years a lot of energy and resources have been channelled into growing the game and supporting the expansion teams in western Sydney and the Gold Coast. There is also an appetite for pushing into places like New Zealand and China.

But the AFL wouldn’t want to take country communities for granted.

A lot of those communities have had challenges in recent times with issues like drug epidemics, suicide rates and depression and football can play a vital role in helping bring people together and alleviating those problems.

The AFL can play a role. Initiatives such as the AFL clubs having community camps and NAB Challenge matches in regional areas have been a tremendous success, but there is more that can be done.

It’s not a matter of simply throwing money at country clubs, because that’s a short-term fix. A club that finds itself with a few thousand dollars might spend it on luring a flashy full-forward, and may be better or worse off at the end of his stint.

But I’d like the AFL to give more support to football in country Victoria. I’d like it to tip some of its money back into infrastructure and administration, and look at ways help out country leagues with equalisation, so that we don’t have the big clubs getting stronger while the smaller clubs fold or face a continual battle just to survive.

Maybe our rural areas are where football should look at channelling the energy and resources.

After all, it’s important that the Giants and the Suns start to stand on their own two legs – there’s no point having the AFL propping them up and pouring money into them year after year.

It’s one thing for the AFL’s expansion clubs to be sustainable, and to take the game to new markets, but it’s even more important for Australian football to be sustainable in the farmers’ market, which has always done so much to grow the game and produce its players.