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NAIDOC a good start but it could be so much more

John Townsend

This week’s round of WAFL matches is designed to shine a light on the sumptuous Aboriginal talents that have enhanced and illuminated Australian football over many decades. NAIDOC round has a significant role to play in reconciling white and black Australia.

But apart from the use of special one-off guernseys - often with magnificent and moving designs provided by people with close connections to the various clubs – the honouring of past champions and, increasingly, more education about Noongar culture, NAIDOC round appears to be more spectacle than substance.

The special round arose from the brainchild of former South Fremantle chief executive Brian Ciccotosto and fellow Bulldog Richard Walley who, in 2007, approached Claremont to play a game that recognised the numerous Noongar players who had appeared for both clubs.

That initial NAIDOC meeting, which Claremont won to secure the Jimmy Melbourne Cup for the first time, has since evolved into a round involving every club. Claremont will attempt to win the Jimmy Melbourne Cup – named for the WAFL’s first Aboriginal star who won a premiership at West Perth, also played for South Fremantle and Subiaco, and later served at Gallipoli – for the 11th time on Saturday.

The Tigers have had South’s measure for much of the rivalry’s 15-year history with the Bulldogs winning just four games in that time. Melbourne was the first of only 10 acknowledged Aboriginal players in action in the league’s first 70 years before their numbers rose rapidly after the decades-long prohibition on entering Perth was lifted in 1954.

That 10 included George Blurton, the Midland Junction dynamo who, in 1915, won the WAFL’s inaugural and only Cookson Medal that preceded the century-old Sandover Medal by six years. The symbolism of NAIDOC round is vital but so too is creating opportunities for the people it represents.

And when it comes to football, the impact of indigenous people appears to start and finish on the field.

It is more than half a century since West Perth’s senior team positions – coach, captain and vice-captain – were filled by Aboriginal men.

No senior Australian team before or since has replicated what captain-coach Graham Farmer and his deputy Bill Dempsey did in that 1969 premiership season. Where are the other Aboriginal coaches? Captains? Presidents? Chief executives? Board members?

Farmer and Barry Cable are giants of WA football who had successful stints coaching in the WAFL and VFL.

Yet there have been few others. It is inconceivable that the skills, talent and knowledge that Aboriginal people have displayed on the football field for more than a century cannot be translated to the WAFL offices and corridors that exist behind the scenes.

A couple of Aboriginal men have coached WAFL teams, a larger collection including Dempsey, Stephen Michael and Gerald Ugle have been captains, while only a mere handful of committed individuals like Troy Cook and Kim Farmer are currently on club boards.

But that is about it.

The 120 years since Jimmy Melbourne first raced across the football field have showcased hundreds of brilliant Aboriginal footballers. Their skills have not only enriched the game and made observers marvel at their exploits but reinforced football’s role as a vehicle for modern reconciliation.

NAIDOC round will recognise those playing efforts this weekend but wouldn’t it be great if there were other and perhaps even more substantial off-field achievements to celebrate as well?

IMAGE: Geelong FC

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