Meetings, Media and Mitch

Celebrating 50 years of AFL at UNE logoRod ‘Rocket’ Gillett, Chairman UNEANFC Old Boys & Girls
The annual general meeting of the UNE ANFC in 1974 was my introduction to rural politics. Held in the Robb JCR it was chaired by Russell “Rusty” Reynolds and attended by about 20-odd members. Rusty was duly elected unopposed as president as well were the remaining office-bearers – the executive and discussion was dominated by Robb representatives.

At the meeting I raised the issue of playing games at Bellevue instead of the far-end of Consett Davis – dismissed out-of-hand by Chairman Rusty – and instigating more media attention for the game by getting a spot on 2 AD – oh, alright, if you insist, but do it yourself I was told. So I did, more on that later.

This was a salutary lesson for a “fresher” from a country high school in northern Victoria. Have the numbers, line-up the people in advance, and limit discussion to your agenda. I cut-my teeth in the Austin JCR, then the UNE SRC, the Union, and the Sports Union – where I found every-one else had the same approach… But it was fun and I enjoyed the cut-and-thrust of student politics. I even attempted to transfer these skills to the ALP. Alas, not to any success given my failure to secure a safe seat in a parliament anywhere…

But it was heaps more fun in football!

R.M.T. Sharp was elected president of the footy club in 1975 with Mitch Hooke as secretary. It needs to be noted that at this stage the UNE ANFC ran the competition and only fielded teams for rep matches and intervarsity competitions. There was no registration system (all students were eligible to play), no clearances (so guys could play with home clubs in the uni vacation), and no tribunal (any disputes were settled post-match at a keg).

Even though he was in Earle Page, Rod Sharp was a Melbourne Grammar old boy and had wonderful private school vowels. He instigated the playing of the national anthem –God Save the Queen – on a grammarpone prior to the grand final that year.

Regime change came in 1976 when I teamed up with a couple of team-mates and like-minded individuals in Lyle Rex aka Bill Malcolm and Ian “Doc” Murdoch. They too, were farm-boys, who went to country high schools. Both were hard-nuts who liked nothing better than beat to Robb! So, you could say, there was an edge to our views on life, grain prices, and social position.

This had manifested itself clearly in the politically volatile year of 1975 when a City United team wearing Wright’s red jumpers (some wore Austin’s maroon, others wore Drummond’s orange) upset Robb in the grand final. At the post-match function in the Robb JCR the vociferous Paul Nankivell scrawled on the notice board, “We smashed squattocracy!” Ironic given Nanker’s roots are now firmly planted on a sizeable spread on the Liverpool Plains.

But it was footy that drew us all together – it is an inclusive game, so we included the Robb boys by making Mitchell Harry Hooke coach. The choice of Mitch as coach was an inspiration; he led us to UNE’s first intervarsity championship win in Sydney and we beat a Newcastle rep team in Newcastle.

By this time I was coming in loud-and-clear every Saturday morning on 2 AD, had grabbed the back page of the free weekly newspaper, and had secured a column every Sunday in the Sun Herald. I was the voice of the game at UNE and Mitch was the face of the game, but the blokes running the game were Murdoch and Malcolm.

“Doc” was the bag-man and amongst his initiatives were selling cans after games along with a bbq. He also made sure he collected membership fees from players. You daren’t refuse. Doc and Billy reignited patron Jack Makeham’s interest in the game; JPM started running a book on games that attracted patrons to matches and generated further sales of food and beverages. Straight out of The Farming Game manual.

It was not just off the field that Murdoch and Malcolm ran the game. Together they reformed the City club and made it strong. Strong enough to beat Robb in the grand final. They gave Robb a lesson in football that year and me a lesson in Football Finance 101 – control the money!

They departed the scene at the end of 1976 leaving Hookey and me to finally run the show. The next year we competed in first division at intervarsity in Melbourne, won the northern NSW championship and supplied the bulk of the players that won the inaugural country championship for Northern NSW. Mitch was magnificent in all games and was declared UNE’s Sportsman of the Year and selected for NSW Country. He really didn’t need my help with his promotion…

But the Murdoch and Malcolm legacy ensured City went through the season in 1977 unbeaten – Robb didn’t even make the grand final – the first time ever. A United team made up students from Page, Wright and Austin stormed into the finals and put Robb out in the preliminary final. The two non-Armidale based teams, Tamworth and Gunnedah didn’t even make the finals.

The entry of Tamworth into the UNE comp in 1975 was a game changer for footy in northern NSW. It led the formation of Gunnedah in 1976, then Coffs Harbour in 1977, and the mighty Uralla Wanderers in 1978. Now the Nomads play in the Tamworth competition on the picturesque Bellevue Oval.

I wish Rusty could join us on August 4 for the Old Boys’ Day, but he sadly passed away a few years ago. It would have gladdened his heart. I learnt some salutary lessons from Rusty, not just political ones. He was a terrific fellow, a very talented sportsman, a very humble man who knew how to run a footy club.

I subsequently tried to apply the Rusty-Murdoch-Malcolm maxims in footy politics over the years in my various roles at league, state and national levels. I had good teachers at the University of New England.

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