The Butler family at the Old Ivanhoe Grammarians Football Club: (from left) Kate Brennan, Chris Butler, Brendan Butler, Nick Butler, Sam Brennan, Richie Butler, Chiara Butler.
AFL is business, but local footy is about family and friends, and getting involved.
That’s evident whenever you go to a suburban or country game, and it’s bleeding obvious when you spend an afternoon with Old Ivanhoe Grammarians.
I arranged to catch up with the club’s vice-president, Brendan Butler, to watch the game at Chelsworth Park between “the Hoes” and Ajax. I knew Butler’s elderly father had been ill and I inquired how he was.
Butler’s eyes were heavy. He said his dad had passed away at two o’clock that morning. I said it was stoic of him to attend the game and fulfil his duties as vice-president and club medical officer. “I felt like coming,” he responded. “This is family.”
Over the next five hours I heard the word family used dozens of times, by supporters, officials and players. Old Ivanhoe Grammarians is that sort of club.
The Hoes are having a bleak year on the field – they’d had just one win for the season when I went along, and they’re on the bottom of the ladder. But the family networks glue the club together, and the sense of belonging is a powerful bond – through good times and not so good.
Butler’s wife, Christine, also makes a big contribution to the club, and their sons, Nick and Richie, played in the team that afternoon, even though they had just lost their grandfather. They didn’t want to let their mates down. Butler’s son-in-law, Sam Brennan, also plays for the Hoes.
There are two amateur footy clubs in Ivanhoe – the Old Ivanhoe Grammarians Football Club and the Ivanhoe Amateur Football Club. Both play in the “Amos” (the
Victorian Amateur Football Association) and both call themselves the Hoes.
Ivanhoe is in division three. It wears black and white and plays at Ivanhoe Park.
Old Ivanhoe Grammarians are in Premier B and their home ground is Chelsworth Park. Old Ivanhoe’s brown and white strip comes from the original colours of Ivanhoe Grammar School.
If the existence of two clubs in one suburb causes confusion, it also frustrates those who would like to see them merge into one powerful club representing the whole community. The union almost happened a couple of years ago – they even drew up a heads of agreement – but the opportunity was lost, leaving the advocates of the merger feeling that it might never come again. For now, the clubs are separate, proud and going it alone.
Chelsworth Park boasts some of the most beautiful playing fields in Melbourne. The river end of this picturesque parkland is surrounded by a small forest of young gum trees. A few hundred metres away, the Yarra glides between two golf courses, as cyclists and dog-walkers dodge puddles on the track.
On this chilly Saturday afternoon, spectators were rugged up in hats and scarves – not so much to parade their loyalties as to keep out the biting cold. I made a guesstimate of the attendance, as you tend to do at footy games, and counted roughly 400 spectators. There were 100 on one wing, 100 under shelter outside the dressing sheds, 50 behind glass in the luncheon room, 50 sitting in cars and another 50 standing behind the goals at each end.
Make that 401. A lone figure shrouded in a hoodie sat on a wooden bench near the pocket beneath the gums. An Old Ivanhoe regular told me it was Jeff Gieschen, the AFL umpires boss.
For a man who spends most of his working life getting ear-bashed by spectators and coaches alike, “the Giesch” must enjoy an afternoon of isolation in a quiet corner of a secluded oval. Gieschen’s personal interest in the match was that his three sons, Jarrod, Nick and Rhy, all play for Old Ivanhoe. They are former students of Ivanhoe Grammar, which has traditionally supplied most of the Old Ivanhoe Grammarians players.
Jarrod “Hammer” Gieschen is co-captain of Old Ivanhoe. His employer has this year relocated him to Brisbane, but he flies home every second weekend so he can continue playing with his friends. The loyalty of the Gieschens is typical of the family culture that binds the Hoes. In the first 18 against Ajax there were three sets of brothers. The Old Ivanhoe second team has four sets of brothers.
Committeeman Ian Harrison, who had four sons in the same team last season, said: “I put four boys through the school and the best thing about it was that they made fantastic friends. Down here they keep their friends for life.”
The family connections are as binding off field as on. Parents, wives, girlfriends and old boys all have voluntary roles, enthusiastically performing a variety of tasks from sweeping floors to conducting fund-raising functions.
The pavilion at Chelsworth Park is nicknamed “the Pine Lodge” – it is more like a log cabin than a sporting amenity. The walls are lined with unpainted vertical boards, plastered with signs and photos, and the place reeks of liniment, sweat and expectation.
Before the game, team manager Karen Griffiths was darting around the small room, attending to her troops. She tried to find a boot for one player. A minute later
she was looking for toilet paper for someone else.
Coach Craig Hunter, who took Heidelberg to two flags, was geeing up his troops, while committee member Danny Bodycoat watched on nervously.
“Today is a mini final for us,” Bodycoat said. “If we lose this one, we’re facing relegation. If we win, it puts us in second-last place and we’ve got a chance of avoiding relegation.”
Old Ivanhoe has punched above its weight for 15 years, playing at either A or B levels. But the last two teams each season get relegated and the Hoes are in a precarious position.
Besides its parlous state in the competition, Old Ivanhoe’s long-term concern is that it doesn’t have an under-19 team to bridge the age gap between the grammar school and its open-age teams.
At the luncheon before the game, club president Peter Love told supporters: “The reality is that for the longevity of the club we need to get up an under-19s team again. We need a pathway for those boys from the school.”
The number of boys coming from Ivanhoe Grammar has diminished in recent years since the school has gone co-ed, but the school team is strong again, and the club hopes to raise an under-19 team for next season.
Brendan Butler, an anaesthetist who is a former Ivanhoe juniors coach, says the pursuit of promising teenagers is so competitive that some district clubs are paying boys to play in their under-19s.
“Our players sacrifice a lot to play here,” he said. “There are several players in our seniors who could command a lot of money elsewhere.”
It’s against the rules of amateur competition for players to be paid. The Hoes actually pay to play – a subscription of $350 per season. However, as an incentive to potential recruits, the club promotes its “old boy” network.
“The network is better for employment and career advancement than getting a bit of cash for standing in a pocket at a district club,” Butler said.
The network is powerful. Last month Old Ivanhoe Grammarians held a fund-raising auction, and one of the prizes was two business-class international air tickets, arranged through James Hogan, who is president and chief executive of Etihad Airways. Hogan graduated from Ivanhoe Grammar in 1975 and is a former Old Ivanhoe player.
Peter Love is steeped in Hoes tradition. His father played in two premiership teams at the school in the 1930s, his brother played in two premierships in the 1950s and Love himself played in the club’s first senior premiership in E section in 1973.
“In the first 18 ... there were three sets of brothers. The Old Ivanhoe second team has four sets of brothers.”
“We’ve got to have waves hitting the beach each year,” he said of the need for under-19s to be coming through.
The pavilion where the pre-match lunch was served is named the Harris-Stevens room in honour of the families of the “father” of the club, Andy Harris, and the old Grammarians’ greatest player, 1973 premiership captain Bob Stevens.
Harris was captain-coach in Old Ivanhoe’s first season, 1964, when it won one game in F division – against RAAF cadets. Over the next three decades the club climbed the rungs of the ladder and has been a fixture in either A or B grades for the past decade and a half.
Harris said he was disappointed that the merger with Ivanhoe didn’t take place. “We promoted the merger. One strong club could tie up the whole town and represent the community.”
The match I had come to see was hard fought, both teams playing with the desperation that comes from knowing relegation is not far away.
Ajax was inspired by midfielder Eugene Routman, who dominated with his speed and penetrating kicking. Wearing No.78, Routman turned several half-chances into goals that sapped the Hoes’ morale.
Down by four goals at half-time, Hunter locked supporters out of the dressing sheds during the long break, presumably so he could tell his soldiers a few home truths.
Fortunately, the atmosphere in the Harris-Stevens room was more inviting. AFL coaches talk about the spread, but the afternoon tea at Old Ivanhoe was the best kind of spread.
The sausage rolls were to die for and club president Peter Love joked that when the students from University play at Chelsworth Park, they reckon it’s the best feed they have for the week.
Committee member Deb Curatolo, who is the mother of five-time club best-and-fairest Scott Curatolo, brings pastries provided by sponsor Ferguson Plarre Bakehouses all the way from Wallan.
While the vibe in the tearooms was warm and friendly, on the field things were getting gloomy and inhospitable. The weak winter light was fading, and so were Old Ivanhoe’s chances of avoiding relegation, as the visitors attacked continually.
Even spectator 401, “the Giesch”, had deserted his post, perhaps dragged away to League headquarters in “the dark lands”.
When the final siren sounded, the Ajax players triumphantly stomped into the Pine Lodge, and they were boisterous in their rendition of the club song. Meanwhile, Hunter didn’t hold back on the shocking truth, telling his men that they had failed themselves and their supporters, and that they were staring relegation in the eye.
When I stepped outside the Pine Lodge to head off into the darkness, Dr Brendan Butler was still busily fulfilling his club medical duties. He was tending to an injured
player, removing stitches from a cut and helping another in his recovery. It had been a hard day, but Butler was among family and friends. And they were already thinking about next Saturday.