Host Richard Parkin interviews Ian Syson about the history of Aboriginal footballers. Parkin analyses the A-League with resident football analyst Kate Cohen and Danielle Warby covers the W-League.

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 Part 1

(Interview begins at 24 mins 25 sec)

Richard Parkin: Welcome back to the Leopold Method Radio Show. I’m joined now by our very special guest, Ian Syson. He’s a senior lecturer in literary studies and professional writing at Victoria University, and also runs an independent publishing company, Vulgar Press. Ian is an historian of football codes in Australia and has a special interest in pre-WW2 association football history. He’s on the phone now to talk about a story he wrote which features in the Leopold Method’s debut Quarterly Editon called A Lack of Dreaming Tracks: Why Blackfellas Don’t Play Soccer. Welcome Ian.

Ian Syson: G’day Richard, how are you?

RP: Yeah, very well thank you. Thanks for joining us. Look, we understand in the Australian sporting landscape it’s one of the most competitive marketplaces and the various football codes are always looking for a new edge to attract spectators, participants and of course sponsorship. Can you tell us how history is being used in this battle?

IS: Well I think history is important even though sometimes FFA doesn’t seem to take its history seriously. History is important because it’s got to do with a code’s sense of belonging, or you know, a code’s sense of being naturalised as the right game for Australians to play, and so when you can establish a deep history of a game it looks like this game has always been here and is the right game for this place.

RP: Certainly there’s an early etching that’s done by Gustav Mutzel of a group of Indigenous people playing football which you talk about in your piece. Now, Australian Rules historians have claimed this as evidence that their code is ‘the Indigenous game’, but you don’t necessarily agree with that?

IS: No, and I certainly don’t suggest that it means soccer is, as Craig Foster has suggested. That etching is of a bunch of Aboriginal men or boys kicking a ball around. And it proves one thing – it proves that Aboriginal people did have games where they kicked the ball. Now as we know, every football code has kicking of the ball in it, so it doesn’t really limit the choice to any game. And I think that’s all it says – that Aboriginal people played kicking games, and you need to make a lot more arguments before you can draw a link between that image and any code of football.

RP: What is it specifically that is captured in this etching though, I mean, is it something in the way they kick that gives us any indication of maybe how the players collaborate in this game? 

IS: Yeah, well I think… what we can rely on is the description that informed the etching. And the description from an anthropologist called Blandowski that the players kicked the ball, they weren’t allowed to touch it with their hands, and the point of the game was to keep it up for as long as possible.

RP: So it was almost like hackey-sack?

IS: Yeah, hackey-sack or keepy-uppy as the Scots call it. And that’s what a lot of soccer players do at training – that’s one of the exercises. But that doesn’t make it soccer, that makes it a game with characteristics of soccer.

RP: It certainly, if you put it in that context, we see historically all around the world Indigenous cultures would have some type of ball-based sport, as you say. Should soccer or football as a code be concerned in getting into these history battles or should we focus on investigating the contribution that Indigenous Australians have made to the game of soccer?

IS: I think that’s much more important, to look at the very real contribution that Aboriginal people have made. Especially recent times, although there is a long history as well. I think to argue over foundations is a bit undignified and also you know, the ethics of doing it, the ethics of capturing an aspect of Aboriginal history to bolt it on to your game, is a bit problematic. And I think the way Australian Rules does that is problematic, and sometimes slightly dishonest.

RP: Can you unpack that for us?

IS: Yeah, well look I think that Australian Rules was an incredibly racist game for such a long part of its history, and over recent times it’s been really good. The work it’s put into Aboriginal players, their development, because it realised that racism. It strikes me that if they can establish the idea that Aboriginal people were there at its invention, then that 100 years of racism becomes a sort of accident, rather than, you know, a staple of European colonisation. Of course Europeans were racist – that was the nature of colonialism. So establishing Aboriginal origins for any game is a way of avoiding the grim reality of race relations within all of the codes. Does that unpack it for you?

RP: Yeah, yeah, that covers it. let’s talk about the early figures within soccer. So any of the trailblazing Aboriginal players that pop up that you’ve discovered in the early history of the game.

IS: Yeah, well, I think the biggies, the important Aboriginal players historically are John Moriarty and Charlie Perkins, and to a lesser extent Gordon Briscoe. The three of them…

RP: Even earlier though, so a figure like W. Bondi Neal, or Quilp, what do we know about these guys?

IS: I was going to move back to them, but start with those guys, because they really were trailblazers known in living memory. But you do have earlier Aboriginal players, and it’s a curious history because you’ve got these figures like Bondi Neal who came from the South Coast of New South Wales, went and played up in the Hunter and played representative football in the early 1900s.

And you’ve got this really strange man – strange figure I should say – a curious figure in Queensland called Quilp, who I discovered in a photograph. There’s this Aboriginal guy sitting smack in the middle of the Dinmore Bush Rats Second XI Premiers, and it was just astounding. It made me change my mind on so many things, it made me rethink so many things, because here is an Aboriginal player in such an early team in 1910. And as I discovered, he’d been around since 1904 and started playing for the Bush Rats. He also refereed, which is bizzare, he became a referee later in his career…

RP: Which is a whole other category – if you’re talking about someone pushing barriers in a team that is quite cutting edge, but then step in the middle with a whistle and have 22 guys looking at you, that’s another chapter.

IS: Yeah, I’ve gotta do a lot more research, I’ve just found a sketch of this guy. I’ve got to find a lot more information about him, you know he ended up being a buffalo hunter as well in the bush when he was a bit older. So there are these people, and my idea is that if you find one, you’ll find two, and if you find two, you’ll find even more. So there is a lot of research to be done, a lot more work to be done. But those two figures – Quilp and Bondi Neal – are just… they change the history, the change the way you think about things. We often assume that Aboriginal people have very little to do with soccer, but that’s just not the case.

RP: Certainly you mention some of these guys, the fact that you have to unearth and hunt for these stories, I mean it sounds like the come in and out of the written record of the game – almost disappearing in places. Why do you think this happens?

IS: Well, I mean, they disappear because… well that’s a great question. They disappear because nobody thinks to maintain that record, nobody thinks it’s important enough at the time. They are probably treated as unusual figures that aren’t the norm, so no one thinks to record that history. And so much of Aboriginal history has been forgotten – general Aboriginal history, Aboriginal trade unionists, Aboriginal soldiers are all forgotten in history – and I think it’s part of that malaise that is only being addressed of late. You know to recognise the Aboriginal component of Australian history.

RP: Certainly a fascinating area to get into. We’re going to a break just for a few minutes, but when we come back we’ll delve into this some more.

Part 2

RP: This is the Leopold Method show, we have on the line Victoria University professor and Leopold Method contributor Ian Syson. We’re talking about the history of Indigenous football in Australia.

Now Ian, before I rudely interrupted you, you mentioned a couple of players – Gordon Briscoe, John Moriarty and Charlie Perkins. Now we know in the 1950s there was a wave of Aboriginal players, indeed more Indigenous players were playing in the top level of South Australian football than there were in the VFL. Why do you think this wave occured?

IS: That’s one of those historical accidents I think, where good luck and good fortune and a certain amount of commitment and racism produced this one location – it was Father Smith’s home for, basically stolen Aboriginal children, or Aboriginal children who’d become separated from their parents for one reason or another. And Father Smith encouraged the boys to play sport, and Port Thistle, at the time they were promoted into the top league. In order to be promoted they needed  a junior team and they didn’t have one, but Father Smith organised for these boys, these Aboriginal boys, to go and play soccer. They wanted to play soccer, and not only did they play they were great at it, and Charlie Perkins became, as some of your listeners will know, if it wasn’t for his political activism and possibly his illness, he may well have made the step up to play for Australia. John Moriarty was selected to play for Australia, and Briscoe played for Preston North End in England for a couple of seasons in their reserves. So, it’s startling the quality of these players, and how they all came out of the same family group and friendship group.

RP: Why do you think some of these Indigenous players stayed in the game? Do you think there was a sense of solidarity between themselves and new migrants at various football clubs?

IS: Yeah, well Charlie said that himself, and Moriarty and Briscoe. They’ve all said that they were treated much better than the wogs than they were by the Aussies. And you know, exactly that sense of solidarity – the migrant communities already knew about prejudice and bias, and the Aboriginal players built a connection in that way. It wasn’t paternalism either, they had to be good to play in these teams, they weren’t going to play them if they weren’t any good.

So that mix of quality and a mutual understanding was really important. Charlie said at one point – well actually Briscoe said of Charlie – that he felt that the racism that he encountered in Australian Rules prevented him from playing that game, which he was quite good at. He preferred soccer because he didn’t see and didn’t experience those same problems.

RP: Now we know Charlie Perkins was a massive figure in Australian politics, he was very much the spearhead of the 1965 Freedom Rides, and perhaps a lot of people who know of him as a political activist don’t necessarily know about his football career. Now he did actually go over to England and play there…

IS: He trailed with a couple of clubs, first division clubs back then – Everton and he was also offered a place at Manchester United. But none of those seemed to work out, he ended up playing for Bishop Auckland, which was the top amateur club at the time. Back then that meant something, and also they were probably paid a little bit more than the First Division players because they got these secret sort of payments. So he had two good hard seasons in England, and that improved him as a player and he came back to Australia and he ended up going to Sydney and playing for Pan Hellenic. Pan Hellenic put him through university.

RP: The Sydney Olympic of old…

IS: Yeah.

RP: Now we know quite a few of the players went over to try their luck in England, and that must have been a massive culture change and challenge as a 16-17-18-year old boy back in the 1950s and sixties. Now, there were a few tragedies – tell us about Lancelot Buddy Newchurch.

IS: Yeah, Buddy Newchurch, and I wonder in Aboriginal communities does the name ‘Lance’ come to ‘Buddy’, because we know Buddy Franklin in the AFL… Yeah he was a good player in Whyalla, and he was spotted by a visiting English coach who was associated with Chelsea and he was offered a trial with Chelsea. So the community raised a fair bit of money to get him over and he went to Chelsea, and probably didn’t succeed in the way he might’ve. But you know, he came back and resumed playing in the local area in Whyalla where he was paid a decent amount of money. So it’s not as if he failed, a lot of young men go to Europe and then come back and resume their careers and maybe go back for another go later on.

But he wasn’t able to do that for a terrible reason – which was that he was murdered outside a pub in Whyalla in his mid-20s. I guess what I find interesting in the story is sending a 16-year old boy on his own to London in the middle of winter. And then you think sending an Aboriginal young man, taken away from his culture and his extended family and so on, it just seems bizarre now, to do that today would… you just wouldn’t do it. There would have to be a really strong support network.

RP: Yeah it’s a remarkable small chapter that people don’t know about. Now you mention the AFL has done a lot right in recent times, so what have they been doing well in attracting Aboriginal players to their code?

IS: Well they’ve been making them welcome, they’ve been emphasising the significance of Aboriginality, they’ve talked up Aboriginal players, they provide funding for all sorts of pathways and development. Now having said that, I’m informed – but don’t take my word on this – that Aboriginal participation is actually reducing especially in Victorian footy. So, I dunno if they’re fully doing it right. Maybe that’s in decay? I think of cases that have shown it was difficult to manage Aboriginal players for all sorts of reasons and maybe they were put in the ‘too hard basket’ of late. I’m not sure. But I think people like Kevin Sheedy have put in really good work to make Aboriginal players welcome into their game, that’s really important. I don’t think we have that in soccer – I don’t think we have that person.

RP: Well let’s talk a bit about this. Is there an absence of option? Is there things the FFA could do to get more Indigenous Australians into football?

IS: Well, I think there are things that FFA could do, but it all involves money. And it often strikes me that the FFA sees the flow of money going one way and not the other. But it requires the sources of Aboriginal players be identified, and then encouraged. There’s a really interesting little spot in Mildura which produces a lot of Aboriginal players. Mildura United, Chris Tsivoglou, the coach, you know, a great number of Aboriginal players have been produced by this club and they’ve gone nowhere, their development stops when they hit 16.

One of the great little players from that culture was earmarked to play is now playing third-grade footy in Mildura! You know, Australian Rules! You see this story – there might be all sorts of reasons why he gave soccer away – but you know he really identified as a young soccer player, and he was very good. He stopped, and I think he stopped because he hit a brick wall. A brick wall of no support, no pathway. I’ve already talked about a young Aboriginal player going to Chelsea, you think about a young Aboriginal boy leaving Mildura and coming to Melbourne to play for an NPL team? It’s difficult.

RP: We are running out of time, so very quickly, you mentioned football’s relationship with Aboriginal Australia needs “healing”. So why is authenticity and truth telling important in this process?

IS: Authenticity and truth telling is really important across society, but we can’t make stuff up about our history – the relationship between Aboriginal people and soccer. We can’t make stuff up. We’ve got to tell the truth about the limits but we’ve also got to celebrate those moments where we did a good job as a game. The Port Thistle team did a really good job accommodating six Aboriginal players in the late fifties. You know, that’s what we’ve got to do, we’ve got to tell those stories and tell them well. We’ve got to convince and support Aboriginal people who want to play soccer. I think that our game will only benefit from the development of Aboriginal players. We need Aboriginal players more than Aboriginal players need soccer. That’s the fundamental dimension here. They don’t need to play soccer to develop themselves as people.