BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
WEDNESDAY WARRIORS: Doing it for the Jumper, by James Gilchrist
, March 20, 2010
The forging of character
Doing it for the Jumper
by James Gilchrist
(Victoria: Connor Court)
Paperback: 266 pages
Rec. price: $29.95
Reviewed by John Morrissey
It is fitting that in 2009, while Peter Ryan was shadowing the Collingwood football team to produce Side By Side, self-confessed Magpies tragic James Gilchrist was on a similar mission with the current team at his old school, St Patrick's College Ballarat. What has emerged from Gilchrist's labours is a far more cerebral work, which asks and answers questions about team sport and spirit as a builder of what some now regard as clichÃ©d old-fashioned values.
Wednesday Warriors is the fruit of attending a season of schoolboy footy, getting to know many of the players, studying the current coach, and interviewing or researching the individuals who, for a century or more, have adorned the St Pat's legend.
The sub-title of the book is Doing It For The Jumper: the St Pat's Ballarat Tradition, and this is the theme of Gilchrist's work, which goes far beyond recounting a string of football matches on bleak Ballarat Wednesday afternoons.
After setting the scene with an evocative introduction to the city of Ballarat itself and coach Howard Clark - a man whose struggle against crippling illness is an inspiration in itself - the author begins to weave a narrative of the season together with profiles of current players and recollections from some of the giants of St Pat's past.
Names like Carlton's John James, Richmond's Barry Richardson, St Kilda's Danny Frawley and Collingwood's Mick McGuane appear alongside "coodabeen" George [Cardinal] Pell and present-day AFL players. Together they share their memories and reflect on what their old school taught them about loyalty, courage, respect, modesty and playing for the team.
Notable among these reflections are those of North Melbourne's Drew Petrie, star of the college's 1999 Herald Sun Shield - the pinnacle for Victorian school football.
Modest about his own achievements, he praises the influence of his team's coach, Gerard Ryan, and describes how the school team's fine traditions have been upheld over the years.
Young boys, he observes, model their behaviour on that of the young men who are senior players in the school's First XVIII. These older players thus carry a considerable responsibility for team members' conduct, both today and in the future.
The values which Petrie espouses contrast with the behaviour of many AFL players. He particularly recalls the strength of character shown by senior players at North Melbourne when the Wayne Carey scandal hit the club.
Petrie's high regard for traditional values and his condemnation of drunkenness and mistreating women are shared by Howard Clark disciple Nathan Brown of Collingwood, who says his greatest moment in football so far is still the 2005 Herald Sun Shield victory.
Looming behind the legendary matches won on the way towards the Shield final on the MCG - and the ill-omened attrition of the side through injury - is the college itself, its very fabric steeped in tradition and expectations.
Gilchrist describes the reverence with which the boys view the jumper. He uses the word "reliquaries" in reference to the photographs and trophies from the past, certainly an acknowledgement of the hold of the religion of football, rather than any allusion to the Catholic allegiances of the college.
Yet another formidable presence informs the St Pat's tradition, and that is legendary coach for most of the period 1937-59, Brother Bill O'Malley.
Focussing on his hulking ruckman, George Pell, Gilchrist muses: 'The effect of St Pat's and the O'Malley culture on Pell was to instil the virtues of loyalty, teamwork, competitiveness and discipline, as well as a devotion to the cause of the battler; ideas which, in a wider context, were being fought out by the Church in its perennial quest for equality and acceptance of Catholics within society."
Spirit of the underdog
Cardinal Pell today echoes this opinion and stresses the spirit of the underdog in explanation of so much of the phenomenal record of the St Pat's football teams.
We see this especially against the other Ballarat schools, where often for decades they went undefeated, so that breakthrough wins by Ballarat High School in 1958 and Grammar in 1962 remain highlights of those schools' histories. But we also see it today against more fancied city teams, boasting numbers of elite players from the Under-19s competition.
For it has always been about the team, and not the individual, in a history where a player was once strapped for bouncing the ball in the forward pocket, before turning and kicking a blinding goal - instead of following the team plan!
While St Pat's has produced 90 VFL/AFL players over more than a century, this figure is still comparatively small, and underlines the emphasis on the team. This was evident in 2009, when standout player Josh Cowan, sadly missing from the Shield final through injury, was the only team member drafted.
It is a delightful touch then that the author profiles a number of the team leaders: boys from farms and small towns, who have modest but very realistic ideas about their abilities and prospects, and a genuine appreciation of what the college and their spiritual leader and coach Howard Clark have meant for them. However, some readers might not appreciate Gilchrist's quirky choice to interrupt a nail-biting account of a thrilling game to give us a potted life history of a 16-year-old wingman!
The author is himself a teacher, so the context of his epic is sometimes the classroom. We are reminded that football coaches are also classroom teachers - the Christian Brothers revere Brother O'Malley primarily as an inspired religion teacher. We also see that Howard Clark continues to exercise a profound influence in the classroom as well as on the football field, a mark of many great coaches.
Nevertheless, Gilchrist is frank about the academic ability and application of some of the players - witness the frustrations expressed by one teacher of English literature - while greeting it with a level of acceptance that one suspects he would not show towards his own students.
Even for this reviewer with a Marist background, this is an engaging work which has the reader cheering the team of 2009 all the way to the showdown with their rivals and sometime villains, Assumption College, Kilmore.
The book is simply but well produced by ConnorCourt Publishing, with an eye-catching cover, featuring the team leaders of 2009 in their striking college jumpers, and looking every inch the "Warriors" they are dubbed in the title.
It features a generous foreword by Francis Bourke, an Assumption old boy, photographs of past and present teams and players spaced through the text, an index, and a quite exhaustive and valuable appendix, with details of team results, coaches, captains and those who went on to greater things in football.
Wednesday Warriors should be a sell-out in Ballarat itself, where the St Pat's team's exploits still receive avid coverage in the local Courier; but it is also a must for every old boy and family associated with the college. This is an ideal gift, especially for men of all ages who have worn the famous jumper.