The Collingwood Knights play in the Reclink Football League on Wednesdays during winter, their homeground being Victoria Park. The club is run by a policeman, Chris McGeachan, aka Geeks, Shane Williams of Youth Support and Advocacy Service (YSAS), Mannon Johnston of Headspace and Pete Burns, a sports-oriented social worker. The Club is inclusive and welcomes all players of all abilities and levels of commitment. On Wednesday, they play in their Grand Final at the ‘Peanut Farm’ in St.Kilda against other community clubs.
The Everyday Life of the Collingwood Knights
A lone figure, wearing knee-length shorts and sneakers, kicks the ball some twenty metres into the air. Spinning backwards, rising and falling as good as perfectly straight. He marks the ball above his head and his muscles flex, showing off his athletic, footballing torso. His hair is thick and cropped short. He stops to stretch for a moment and stays away from the main training group, barely making eye contact with others. And then, towards the end of the training session, he participates fully – kicking searing drop punt passes, selling dummies at ease. Other players call out to him: “Cuz, over here!”, “Balla boy!” At one point he admonishes himself, “Ah, overcooked it” – but otherwise he is as good as silent. Nonetheless, his visage is unmistakable, it is Justin Murphy – a journeyman of a footballer – whose great moment, was holding the ball aloft upon Carlton’s unexpected preliminary final win against Essendon in 1999. Mannon, one of the Knights’ facilitators says, “I don’t know how he came down here. No-one knew he was coming. I think one of our players might be friends with him.”
The site is Victoria Park: former home of the Collingwood Football Club before the upped and left to somewhere more salubrious and swankier. From Collingwood’s current headquarters, they can be seen training, their fan shop fronts on to the busy west-end of Swan St just before it meets the Yarra. But, Victoria Park, remains, and by some decent act of protecting popular urban heritage, half of the grandstands remain and are in good nick too. There are picnic tables. Joggers and casual footballers come to run or play kick-to-kick. The terraces on the southern wing are lined with plaques that give the history of Vic Park and of Collingwood Football Club. But none of the signs mention the grandest act of defiance towards the Vic Park locals: Winmar’s pointing to his skin and stating, ‘I’m black and I’m proud.’ The history and Colllingwood-ness of the Knights is not lost on Max, a die-hard and 30 year plus Richmond fan. “I never thought I’d play on this ground and wear the black and white stripes with such love. I also used to come here and work, selling pies for Four ‘n’ Twenty. I never imagined that one day I would be a player out here. I don’t come here to make friends; I come here to play footy. Yes, some of the guys here are my mates, but some are not. And we know that about each other.”
Mannon, a youth-worker at Headspace whose office is also at Victoria Park, is one of several staff who plays an active role in keeping the Club running. He moved to Melbourne after growing up in an Aboriginal community in western Victoria – although his heritage is from southern Queensland. “I didn’t realise how Aboriginal my upbringing was until I started mixing with others who came from different backgrounds. I grew up in an extended family – and that was quite normal.” Mannon says, “at the Knights, there is no pressure on the players. They can come once, or they can come every week. But, when they come, we provide everything for them. There is food and drinks here. They can speak to people from all sorts of services, without it being conducted in too formal a manner. There is Geeks from the police who is the coach, there is Shane Williams (pictured left) who is from YSAS (and also a coach), there is Shane Potter from the legal services and I’m here helping out from Headspace. The players interact with us in a more casual manner which makes it easier for them to talk about whatever issues they’re facing. The most important thing for us is that we are non-judgemental and we listen to what needs to be resolved.”
It is the end of a training session: David and a mate have taken off their boots and are taking set shots from the 50meter arc, directly in front of goal. They’re playing a best-of-five: who can kick the most goals. Sometimes their shots bounce ten meters out and then bounce backwards. Others, never on target, bounce further away from the goals. The failed shots on goals are a chance to mock each other. Each kick, though, reaches a good distance, height and speed: “I prefer to kick this way”, David says explaining the removal of his boots. “I joined the Knights when I had all the frustrations in the world of a teenage boy. I was angry. I couldn’t get into school.I felt isolated. I grew up in the Eastern suburbs and there were no other kids like me. At my primary school, I can remember asking other children, ‘hey can I play too?’ and they always said no. Maybe they had never met an Aboriginal kid before. I’m not skinny and that too might be a problem. I know the history of this place: when I see that photo of Nicky Winmar, it says to me, “I’m black and I’m proud and nothing is going to stop me from doing what I want. I’ve got my life in order: I’m living independently, I’m going to uni – doing a music course. In the past, I grew up with heroes such as Dean Rioli, Michael Long and others – I was an Essendon fan you see. Now, I’m more into hip hop. Americans such as Tupac and others. But, I’m also into Briggs – he shows its a worldwide movement, not just an American thing. Even though I don’t really follow footy so much now, I always love coming here and playing with my mates. But, I am not coming next week: I’ve got my uni to attend.”
Gina of the Knights, “this is my first time playing Australian rules”
Recreation for the Willing
Playing for the Knights is no picnic. Some players show themselves to be of real skill; while others are still struggling with their fitness and health. The accomplished amongst them evade tackles with ease, react instinctively to the capricious bounce of a loose ball and take strong overhead pack marks. Some players of Maori, Tongan or Cook Islander background display their rugby skills in their goose-steps and strong tackling at an opponent’s torso. Even in intra-club games little is spared; even though the opponent is their match-day team-mate. On this day, Harry leaves the field early in the praccy-match: “I’m not feeling it. They’re not giving me the ball.” While another, leaves in a huff and walks angrily towards the change rooms. He’s not happy about having been ridden into the ground in an unnecessarily crude tackle. Looking on as the chaos unfolds are the unflappable coaches of Geeks and Shane. They yell at their players, while laughing and joking, telling them to get on with it. The coaches have the love and respect of the players. Even if tensions simmer throughout the playing group, they keep playing for the Knights. It is a bond that outdoes their short-term anger and anxieties.
The Collingwood Knights of Victoria Park – Wednesday footballers – ramshackle, haphazard, rough and improvised. Yet, footballers the lot of them. This formerly oppressive, cauldron of a VFL suburban ground has taken on gentler nuances and a quieter ambience. The training drills, the praccy matches, hone footy skills while also allowing players moments to escape outside pressures. And, if an ex-pro finds his home here, he’s welcome too.
Cuz: he of sharp passes and long, straight kicks
*Names of players quoted have been changed.