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Northampton mission underlies country value

John Townsend

Tourists were queueing up to have their photos taken with Josh Kennedy and Paul Hasleby.

The former Docker was popular but Kennedy was the star.

That should be no surprise given that he had just kicked his 700th goal for West Coast, equalling Fremantle champion Matthew Pavlich’s mark for a WA-based AFL player, and is within a game or two of the finish line of an illustrious career.

Dozens of people waited for the chance for a snap, often draping scarves or arms over their heroes, whose patience was only exceeded by the enthusiasm of their fans. We were in Northampton, the lush and hilly mid-west town that punches far above its weight when it comes to football.

And rather than the real Kennedy and Hasleby, who were actually 450km south in Perth, these were life-size replicas of footballers who have starred on the game’s biggest stage.

My family and I were on the trail of Monsignor John Hawes, the priest-architect who designed numerous churches throughout the mid-west nearly a century ago. Hawes often employed my grandfather Ewart Johnson, a prominent Nedlands sculptor in the 1930s, to carve crucifixes and other statues for his churches in Geraldton, Mullewa, Northampton, Perenjori and other places.

One of the most prominent was the crucifix at the striking St Mary’s church in Northampton, a building made of local stones in a gothic design. The personal mission resonated with the football one because St Mary’s is only a drop-kick from the

installation of nine football statues on Northampton’s main street.

They are silhouettes actually, given that they are only about 10mm deep, but the figures recognise the district’s remarkable feat in producing nine AFL players in the past three decades. And the locals might soon have to find room for Brynn Teakle who had a memorable 35 minutes for Port Adelaide last month before a broken collarbone ended his bright debut.

Teakle would join Kennedy, Hasleby, the Cripps cousins Patrick and Jamie, Lockyer uncle and nephew Andrew and Tarkyn, Harry Taylor, Daniel Chick and Liam Anthony as Northampton’s major football products.

Four of them have won AFL flags; another two have played in grand finals while the Carlton captain could boost either tally within a few months.

While Northampton provides the State’s most fertile bullseye of elite football talent, the success of that select group underlines what country football provides to the sport and the community.

Blind Freddy knows that country footy is struggling as cascading economic and social factors force people away from the bush but the Northampton harvest is a vital reminder of the value of nurturing the game’s grass roots.

Just like the WAFL’s importance to the football ecosystem is often undervalued, it seems that country footy has to punch above its weigh simply to be noticed. Last week’s country championships played their part as a shop window – with the generally high skill level and widespread indifference or inability to maintain pointless gut running enhancing the spectacle – but it is a battle to keep the game thriving in the bush.

One parallel to the WAFL was clear. Enormous resources have been poured into football facilities with the picturesque Northampton ground in superb condition in its prime position carved out of a hill overlooking the town. Nearly a quarter of a billion dollars has been spent or committed to WAFL grounds even as crowds are falling and the league’s profile is declining.

That expenditure confirms that government and council decision-makers know that football remains a pivotal part of the community, whether city or bush. And the emergence of the odd star, or nine of them, goes a long way to taking football to the wider world.

Wednesday hero: Haiden Schloithe has the best foot in the league, a silky weapon that caresses the ball to its target with superb weight and balance. It has been his most prominent feature during 192 games at South Fremantle that have brought a flag, Sandover Medal and several State appearances. But smooth kicking was a luxury in the Revo Fitness Stadium bog last week and Schloithe had to revert to another quality – muscle – to have an impact. He did it so effectively that he laid a career-high 13 tackles and was clearly the most influential player in the win over Claremont. Schloithe will retire at the end of the season and will need to play every remaining home and away match plus one final to reach his double century.

IMAGE: Provided


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