When life as he knew it ceased to exist in March of this year, former AFL coach Robert Shaw figured he had two options to fill the long hours of lockdown: write a book or start a Facebook group.
Facing a winter without the reassuring hum of football chatter, Shaw worried: what would happen to all the club diehards in his home state of Tasmania when the padlocks went on the front gates of grounds around the state?
“COVID-19 forced isolation,” Shaw said.
“We needed to take care of each other and our footballing families.”
So, he went digital, starting a private Facebook forum for Tasmanian footballers and officials past and present, and their families.
At first, Shaw considered it a makeshift stab at a support group, but the results quickly exceeded expectations. A modest gathering of like-minded footy friends morphed into a sprawling, six-month-long reunion of 3,500 true believers, spread all over the country.
Whereas outsiders ponder Tasmania’s much-publicised decline as a football state, Shaw’s group has revealed its beating heart. What might have been a time of loneliness for those unable to prop against club bars has turned into a celebration.
“If we lost a few over the journey, we now have sons, daughters and grandchildren joining our page and stepping up to talk about Dad or Grandpa.”
Long-lost friends have been re-united. A new generation of Tasmanians (members range in age from 16 to 85) has been exposed to the state’s rich football history.
The main ground rule is simple and tells a story in itself: AFL discussion is off limits. That’s just as well given the volume of rich local content.
Every day more sepia-toned team photos are uploaded, plus pictures of moth-eaten jumpers, premiership flags and scrapbooks that members have found in back sheds, abandoned stairwells and dumpsters. The group’s fund of anecdotes has become a de facto oral history of the Tasmanian game.
The most remarkable finds have surfaced as recently as this week thanks to the group’s resident historian.
Damien Dillon is an unlikely candidate for that role — he’s young, and a former player of some note. In 2001, playing for Cygnet, he won the prestigious William Leitch Medal, named for the father figure of Tasmanian football, and claimed down the years by luminaries like Peter Hudson, Albert Collier and Stuart Spencer.
Dillon is fired by the same passion for Tassie footy as Robert Shaw. He’s spent many happy hours digging under the state’s grandstands for discarded trophies and team photos.
“I started to do a bit of history on the William Leitch medal, and it just snowballed from there,” Dillon says.
Early in the group’s life, in collaboration with North Hobart Football Club historian Adrian Collins, Dillon unveiled something that floored Shaw and others: a Tasmanian Football League minute book from 1908, detailing the proposed colours and design of the state’s first representative football guernsey.
For more than a century now, that classic design — myrtle green with a primrose map of Tasmania on the breast — has made it the item most coveted by Tasmanian footballers.
So, imagine Dillon’s glee this week when several strands of his football life were drawn together.
Scott Leitch, great-grandson of Tasmanian football royalty, made available what Dillon now believes to be the earliest surviving Tasmanian jumper: a battle-scarred treasure from the 1920s, worn by Alan Leitch, son of William.
Young and old
Mixed in with the former players, presidents and team trainers are group members whose surnames define Tassie football history: Baldock, Steele, Hall, Lethborg, Young, Devine, McCarthy, Bonney. Big names intersect with lesser known ones.
One of the most popular stories of inter-generational fraternity came via a photo of 81-year-old Graeme ‘Gypsy’ Lee, one of the state’s football icons, and Nick Gregson, a local player of the current generation.
As a 14-year-old football obsessive, Gregson was summoned to the Railton pub by his parents so he could acquire the local legend’s autograph; two years later Lee bought Gregson a new pair of boots as reward for his rise to senior ranks at East Devonport, the club Lee coached to a treasured flag in 1968. Fifteen years after their first meeting, Lee is Gregson’s player sponsor, and their bond connects the dots on nine decades of Tasmanian football.
For those involved, such moments have re-affirmed the game’s power to connect people. Some members played against each other in primary school, then at club level, in representative teams, and finally as senior players.
A few, like Shaw — who played 51 games for Essendon between 1974 and 1981 and became a Bombers life member — made it to the mainland and the big-time.
“We all had very similar journeys,” Shaw said.
The quiet conscience of football
Is Shaw an underestimated figure in big-time footy?
Most know the CV: Essendon plucked him from Sandy Bay in the mid-70s, and he played eight seasons in the VFL; he coached innovatively, first back in his home state at Clarence, then in a variety of backup roles to Kevin Sheedy and his successors at Essendon, and at Fremantle. In his senior coaching jobs at Fitzroy and Adelaide, Shaw thought outside the box. Who else would have encouraged Doc Wheildon’s dropkicks?
For a time, the Tasmanian Football Hall of Famer was also a quiet achiever in the media, as an expert analyst who actually fulfilled the criteria of his job title; inevitably, he was drowned out and replaced by novelty acts.
Now he’s a sort of conscience figure in the game, and a font of hard-earned wisdom. If the AFL ever admitted the need for a Commissioner of Common Sense, Shaw would be the man.
Above all, Shaw is a fierce advocate for Tasmanian football, which has faced its battles in recent times.
“Our regional communities are our strength, not our weakness,” he said.
“AFL ‘sources’ tend to suggest that to build on their own narrative.”
Tasmanian football ‘rivalries’ are little understood on the mainland, especially in light of the state’s inability to convince the AFL it deserves its own team.
Shaw’s group has exposed a lie perpetuated for generations by football pundits and administrators, particularly in Melbourne: Tassie football is not driven by the sorts of petty regional jealousies that would make an AFL franchise unworkable.
“In the group, there has been no referral to the so-called divide of the North-South and North-West,” Shaw said.
“Yes, there has always been pride and extraordinary rivalry. But that’s what made Tassie footy great. The chance to play against the best all over the state, then unite in the great state jumper.”
The Sleeping Giants
Most in the state consider it beyond debate now that AFL ‘narratives’ have left AFL Tasmania in a mess; two CEOs have come and gone in quick succession.
“They stay a few years and move on,” Shaw said, also remarking on the inability of such executives to grasp the state’s football history, the interconnectedness of the towns the game is played in, and the multi-generational commitment of the people involved.
“To take the game forward, you have to understand where it all came from. In Tassie, it’s a people’s game more than anywhere else.”
Is Tasmania a football state in crisis? You wouldn’t think so browsing the posts in Shaw’s group. They don’t speak for the whole state, of course, but even a discovery like Dillon’s state jumper revelation has united a decent sample size of the state’s football people. Not only can they imagine an AFL team wearing it, they’d feel the immediate connection that other expansion sides have had to manufacture.
“Our past player network is truly united under the one jumper and would create a great team and, more importantly, one hell of a football culture,” Shaw said.
“A one-state team would have a strong membership base, and it would be connected, loyal, culturally strong. No-one has proved we couldn’t do it. The AFL just don’t get it. We can enhance the competition. We don’t have to sell anything — no false promotions or giveaways needed. And we have the jumper.”
“Tasmania has produced some of the greatest players the game has seen. And this online group has proved that the love and passion for the game exists in Tasmania. It shows there could be unity.”
At the very least, Shaw’s group has proved that a Tasmanian football museum is a must, although he and Damien Dillon concede it’ll only happen with local government support.
“We badly need a proper museum, but with ‘AFL’ in front of the name ‘AFL Tasmania’, the care factor is minimal,” Shaw said.
“This should have been the role of AFL Tasmania.