The conference's theme this time around was 'Heritage, Communities and Cultures'. Of course, within the scope of that topic there was much wriggle room, but the narrowness of some of the papers, principally the AFL club related selections, left me cold. However, there were several worthwhile papers also given, and some good rapport had with the other delegates. My handwritten, notes, where I took them, are pretty crappy, and thus this rundown will not be as good as my notes on the previous conference. The further on you go, the more likely these notes will also suffer from the exhaustion of the long and crowded schedule.
DAY 1 - MCG / Hans Ebeling Room
First up was the keynote address by Kevin Moore, from England's National Football Museum. How do you create a museum for the entirety of the game, in a nation that has such fervour for the game? It's not easy. But Kevin Moore says you start off by not targeting it at die hard football fans, because they'll turn up anyway.
Because you see football as part of broader society, you don't try and gloss over all the negatives in the game's history, including the stadium tragedies, the violence, racism, misogyny and homophobia, no matter how distasteful these issues are to some. You provide an outlet for people to create and provide their own memories, within reason.
You do not make yourself the be all and end all of historical preservation. You work with local communities to find ways of preserving local history locally, and only step in to preserve history as a last resort. You try and tell stories, not just provide facts and figures. You recognise the importance of topophilia, but you do not become a slave to it, in part because football topophilia can be expressed in several ways.
In summary, Kevin Moore provided a very interesting look at the development of the National Football Museum, from its beginnings in Preston to its move to Manchester. Moore talked about the difficulties in securing funding, the fact that there is no national sports museum in England, and that the museum in some ways has to compete against Premier League club museums, which seek to tell a very different, hagiographic story, and which are often not standalone enterprises, but part of the 'stadium experience'.
One of the people attending the conference, though he wasn't presenting a paper, was Ian Kerr. Kerr is trying to start a new higher-brow football journal called The Thin White Line- think The Blizzard, but with an Australian bias. He's currently trying to get edition zero up and going. Kerr has a background of working in trade magazines and publishing, and he seems to have a pretty good grasp on the kind of content he wants. So if you're interested in contributing something to this publication, do give him a buzz. I might end up doing something for it, if I can deviate from my decidedly middle of the road approach.
DAY 2 - MCG / Jim Stynes Room
Day 2 began with a panel discussion, featuring Helen Walpole from the National Sports Museum, Gregor McCaskie from the Essendon Football Club Hall of Fame, and the aforementioned Kevin Moore.
Walpole talked about the National Sports Museum's collection, which told us something we could probably guess by ourselves - that cricket, Australian Rules and the Olympics are at the forefront of their collections. That's understandable, but I think it presents a particular problem to that museum in that it will then struggle to deal with the other stories that Australian sport has. As someone who likes to talk about the parallel existence of soccer in Australia, this concerns me. Then again, the game itself has to learn to take better care of its own history.
I think Essendon Hall of Fame curator McCaskie talked about the difference (as did Kevin Moore) between Hall of Fame setups and museums, in that the latter term should be a protected one, to avoid confusion between educational efforts and self-promoting ones. McCaskie also reflected on how people are fallible. Memory is faulty, reputations whitewashed.
Then it was time to move into some of the papers.
Deb Agnew looked at the issues the SANFL had with youth retention. She was mostly focusing on boys participation, and the reasons behind the stable but unchanging participation numbers. Surveys were conducted across several clubs, both country and city, about what lead to players staying or dropping out. While players often responded that umpiring was a major bugbear, injuries were far more important in seeing players leave the game, especially as they made the transition from junior football to senior football.
I was interested to learn that Australian rules clubs in South Australia are restricted to having 28 players on their list, at every competitive age group. It was also interesting to see that the AFL youth program Auskick had almost zero impact on influencing South Australian participants from taking up the sport at older age levels. The fact that the numbers were stagnant was not elaborated on to a great degree.
Part of the problem with state specific football papers, is that each state is different enough historically and culturally, that it is difficult to conduct meaningful comparative work, let alone decide which state should be used a 'control' sample. How we as Australian sports academics get around this is something that needs to be worked on.
Ian Cunningham's presentation was on communication and sports officiating - 'developing a feel for the game'. That kind of thing is a pretty nebulous concept as far as I'm concerned. Cunningham looked at officiating and player reactions to officiating in several different sports. Nor surprisingly, there seemed to be a general trend among player respondents that they preferred a free flowing contest. There was analysis of hand gestures, body language and use of verbal language - apparently six word explanations of decisions work best in that environment.
I thought there could have been greater depth to the presentation. While Cunningham managed to answer most of the questions thrown at him adequately, he didn't have an answer for my question about whether there was a difference in player views between sports like rugby union, where only the captain can speak to the official, and sports like soccer, where every man and his dog feel like they have a license to harass the referee.To his credit, Cunningham acknowledged that was something he should probably follow up on.
While having a chat with him during a break in proceedings, neither of us was able to find an answer as to why players felt that referees needed to have played the game to understand it, while players who had never officiated a match felt they had enough authority to judge referees. One of those mysteries of life, I suppose, to be put alongside while male sports reporters who have no high level experience are more qualified to cover sport than their female equivalents.
Deb Agnew presented a paper that was very much a follow up to her presentation at the previous conference, on the difficulties faced by AFL footballers upon retirement. In that sense, there was little new information that was provided, but the vox pops from the player interviews were still interesting.
Peter Ochieng presented one of the more surprising papers at the previous conference, in attempting to rescue the bad reputation of player agents and managers, by emphasising how important good agents were to a healthy footballer marketplace, especially for African players. This time around he sought to find a method of identifying what separates African Cup of Nations winners, from African Cup of Nations losers. Using data based around resources allocated to football - professional players, clubs, stadiums etc - he used statistical techniques beyond my understanding to try and find impartial rationales for why some countries were successful, and why some weren't.
While not initially being super impressed by the outcomes and methodology, I at least was able to see that his data was important, and that his use of that data was probably sound. But now I'm not so sure. I'm not satisfied with how he couldn't really find a way to accommodate Egypt into the frame, considering their relatively low level of achievement on the resources scaled compared with their very highly successful tournament participation. Nor was I happy with his explanation of why South Africa had failed so miserably as a footballing nation over the last decade or so. And there was no correlation given to the difference in results (if they exist) for World Cup qualifying as compared to African Cup of Nations qualifying, complicated as that is by them being often lumped in together as part of the same process.
Shane Pill provided one of the more curious presentations, on Australian rules football in the USA from 1910-13. What could have been another out and out propaganda piece was actually rooted in solid scholarship, and told an interesting story to boot. It seems that Australian rules had gained some sort of traction among a segment of the private school system in parts of the United States, but that World War 1 and the rise of college football (of the American variety) put a stop to it. I think Pill overestimates how much traction Australian rules had actually made in the US (I'm not sure if that was his intention, but that's how it came across to me), but it was an interesting presentation nonetheless.
Matthew Klugman presented a paper he had worked on with Francesco Ricatti, who was absent from the conference. The fancy name for the paper was Connected to Something: Soccer as a Site of Transnational Passions, Memories, Communities for Italian Migrants. The actual presentation focused on Sydney's Italian soccer community, and their relationships to their major clubs, APIA Leichhardt and Marconi Fairfield.
This was one of the standout papers, not just because it was right up my alley thematically, but also because it tackled a lot of the myths and assumptions about Italian soccer in Australia, as well the myths of the transition from NSL to A-League.
The Italian politics of North vs South did not feature heavily in the presentation - if anything, the Sydney issues of inner city (APIA) vs outer suburbs (Marconi) were more important to the way the supporters of these two clubs viewed themselves and each other.
The paper looked at what many 'bitter' Australian soccer fans still refuse to acknowledge - that the affinity people had for these clubs was situational, and bound to be temporary at the first sign of trouble. Australian soccer is not unique in this regard, but the ethnic question serves to a provide a simultaneously dominant and obscuring narrative - one could easily make similar observations about the VFA, for example.
Despite the obvious passion and nostalgia of the interviewees, personal experience demanded that I ask two obvious questions:
- How many of the people interviewed still attended APIA or Marconi matches?
- If they didn't still attend matches, how did they reconcile their nostalgia and their view of themselves as supporters of those clubs, with their current lack of support by means of attendance?
What they disliked most was how the A-League and FFA had branded all of that era as either unimportant, or something to be wiped off the historical map. The respondents felt disrespected. Coming back to the state vs state issue, there were questions about Italian soccer supporters from Victoria and the fate of Brunswick Juventus, but not being within the scope of this presentation, it was an issue that remained unresolved.
One can easily project a similar study on Greek-Australian soccer fans bearing similar results, but there would have to be some divergence. After all, APIA dropped out of the NSL in the early 1990s, and Marconi crawled to the end of the NSL in terms of supporter numbers. In comparison, if you believe the data from that time, South Melbourne was apparently maintaining and increasing its spectator numbers
One would also have to analyse not just those supporters who left South because they made a distinction between 'Old NSL South' and 'Newborn VPL South', but also those who turned ideologically on the club.
Brian Moroney's paper on 'The UltraS of modern football' was interesting, if disconcerting. I'll admit that when it comes to the crunch, I don't really know squat about football ultras, let alone the one with a capital 'U' and a capital 'S'. Academic work on this more extreme faction of football support is thin on the ground, in large part because the UltraS are rightly wary of academics and journalists. So it was a fair effort for Moroney to be able to get the trust of members of Lazio's 'Irriducibili', especially considering he doesn't speak Italian.
It just so happens to be that the UltraS aren't just a football movement - they also have charitable and social wings. Moroney struggled to accommodate those noble causes against the driving ideological force behind these movements - violent fascism. Nor was he able to answer the question about how Livorno's left-wing supporters fit into this scene. But perhaps I'm the wrong person to be looking at this topic, since I abhor violence and fascism, and think that neither of these two things has any place at the football.
If you want to have a read of a version of Ian Syson's presentation, entitled 'The Calm and The Storm', just hit the link, and make up your own mind. He'll appreciate the hits, too. I will say however, that as with my earlier musings on Deb Agnew's paper on SANFL youth retention, the differences between states is something that will come up repeatedly for Syson as he continues this work. I think Syson is aware of this, but how to deal with the different stages of Australian (nee Victorian) rules expansion across the colonies? Was it undertaken as an evangelical crusade? Or was it more akin to a form colonisation? Does it have more of a sense of empire building? And how much do the code wars of our times get in the way of accurately assessing the equivalent issues from 100, 120 or 140 years ago? Something to ponder
Stephen Alomes is a bit of a lunatic - not that there's anything wrong with that. Given his reputation of being one of the AFL's/Aussie rules' most shameless propagandists, at least in academic circles, I was expecting the worst. Somewhat surprisingly, it took him a while to plumb those depths this time.
His presentation topic was on the aesthetic merits of Australian Rules football, and what to do about the rolling maul that threatens to suffocate the game. There were interesting points that Alomes (whose academic career seems to specialise in explorations of Australian nationalism) made about the notions of play, art and the agon, but all the potentially fascinating insights that could come out of such a discussion were undone by Alomes' starting point - that Australian Rules football is the best game in the world - and working back from there.
Alomes also heavily and unashamedly tried to plug his new book, which made the actual interesting parts of his presentation even more isolated. I'm still confused as to what purpose he thought there was in showing the audience his rather mediocre paintings of Australian rules football scenes were. The highlight came when academic and former 1960s Melbourne player Bob Stewart, asked Alomes when the 'golden age' of Australian Rules was supposed to have been, considering that Stewart had played in his fair share of games out there (pointing out to the MCG arena) where the ball struggled to leave the centre square, and had 36 blokes surrounding it.
It's fair to say that when Alomes says that Australian rules is the greatest game in the world, he's not on the same wavelength as many of the game's lay supporters who make that claim. The contradiction of Aussie rules is that, in its own mythology, it is and always has been the greatest game on earth; yet its rules have changed frequently, while at the same time these rule changes are bemoaned by the common man. Alomes suggests that the game needs more changes - restrictions on how many players can be around the ball, numbers on the field, no marks for kicks that go backwards. For someone who loathes the offside rule, these seem to be inherent contradictions in this change manifesto - and yet he seems entirely unaware of this.
As best as I can recall, Roy Hay and Les Murray provided an interesting look at why the Hungarian football team didn't turn up to the 1956 Olympics, especially since other Hungarian teams, like the water polo side, did turn up. Since I don't watch much of SBS football broadcasting anymore, it was good to see Les doing something a bit different, and dare I say meaningful. Hay set up the presentation, and Murray took it from there, including relaying details of meetings he had with former players and officials of that era. Most evocative were Murray's descriptions of life under the communist regimes of that era, and the important role he perceived that Hungary's successful football side had in maintaining communist rule.
The panel on 'the future of football', consisting of Richard Baka, Les Murray, Steven Alomes was, as expected, mostly a waste of time. However, it was almost made worthwhile by one old bloke in the audience who asked Murray what kind of future soccer had in Asia, when Asians don't really like soccer? Yes, someone actually asked that question.
DAY 3 - WHITTEN OVAL
Chris Egan presented a paper on the founding of Perth Glory, with the premise that rather than being the 'English/British Wonderland' it was often portrayed as being, the Glory was actually more influenced by Western Australian parochialism (which Egan called 'nationalism'). In that sense, he was arguing against Tara Brabazon's assertions from over a decade ago, that Perth Glory's 'Englishness' was its defining characteristic, making it out of synch with both Australian sport in general and the NSL in particular.
If I got it right, Egan argued that he wasn't saying that Brabazon was wrong, but rather that her more contemporary analysis, as well her as her particular academic background lead almost inevitably to those conclusions. Roy Hay, one of the audience members, was more forthright in claiming that this paper was overturning Brabazon's understanding of Perth Glory.
Egan also talked briefly about Perth Glory's victory over then A-League boss Matt Carroll and the FFA in being able to celebrate its entire history, and not just the A-League parts. Egan argued this was important, in that it would help make sure that recent Australian soccer history was seen as part of a continuum, and not as something which appeared out of and was connected to nothing.
While I admire the sentiment, I think Egan perhaps is too optimistic in seeing this win by Glory being replicated for use by ex-NSL clubs, especially the ethnic ones. I talked about the assault on South's continuity in this post, something which comes not just from the FFA, but from our former supporters. Egan has left a comment there, and I'd be interested to see if more of my audience has something to say on the matter.
Egan's paper is part of a larger effort, that of writing a book on the first 15 years of Perth Glory. It was one of the best papers of the conference, especially for the great primary sources Egan was able to obtain, which saw various figures disagreeing about the rationale and political implications of Perth Glory's entry into the NSL. We look forward to seeing the end result, in a few years time hopefully.
Because of a changed schedule (Mark Pennings, who was meant to be first up in his session, but turned up late), I missed MCC librarian Trevor Ruddell's presentation on the uniforms of Australian national teams. And because Chris Egan's presentation started late, I only got to see the tail end of Tim Hogan's presentation on a bibliography of Australian Rules football.
Hogan was looking at every single type of written material, and the ways of categorising and collecting them. In some ways, this topic is in line with my own, albeit mine (as you'll see later) has a much narrower focus. I did get to have a good discussion with Hogan about my work, all of which made me disappointed not to have seen more of his presentation.
Mark Pennings was there to talk about his new book (the first of four volumes) about the early history of Australian rules football, and the issues around researching that topic. Veracity is at the top of that list. Even when you think you have all the scores down accurately, something comes up to annihilate the validity of your data. Likewise, most amateur chroniclers of that era did not have an eye for posterity, and their information is provided with large gaps, as if the missing details should be taken for granted.
This then leads to massive misconceptions about what rules were being used, who was organising games and how, all of which influences the propaganda battles of the present. And while the presentation was entertaining and informed, one also got the feeling that while Pennings is at the cutting edge of Australian rules historical work, he's still at best halfway to where Ian Syson has ended up. That doesn't really mean that one is right to the exclusion of the other, but it's interesting to see how two different writers coming from two very different places, at times using some of the same material, can come to such different conclusions.
Following the morning sessions, there was a panel discussion of sorts on 'Football in the West'. Brett Daniher, Western Bulldogs' community liaison I think was his title, went first. He talked about all the community work that the Bulldogs do, and the attempts by some other clubs to mimic it. I suppose rather by necessity, Daniher fell into the trap of trying to sell the work as integral to the Bulldogs' efforts to mark out their territory in the western suburbs, in order to maintain supporter levels and find new supporters. And yet, he never seemed to touch upon the fact,that even though the western suburbs are growing very quickly, that unless these new arrivals were from non-Australian rules backgrounds, most would likely bring their AFL allegiances with them.
As far as I can remember, Scott Munn, Melbourne Heart's CEO, didn't talk so much about the western suburbs. He talked about how the future challenges in getting people, especially young families, involved with sport (focusing mostly on his own elite level) will not be related to costs as much as it will be related to time. It struck me as quite a middle class sort of argument. That is, not that the argument was invalid, but that the argument was narrow, and therefore prone to negating the importance of getting working class people involved with soccer. It strikes me only now, a week or two on from the conference, how easily such a comment could be allowed to pass - it doesn't say good things about what the authorities (and clubs) think about the place of the working class in local soccer.
As an aside, one of the more curious things that was said by Munn, was that one off attempts at trying to convert people to your cause like school clinics were almost doomed to fail (he used some clever analogy about pissing on your own leg - I can't remember how it went, but it was quite funny). All of which puts another attempt by Heart to give away free tickets into a whole different perspective.
Tim Shellcot from the Western Region Football League was the best of the three speakers in this session, in part because he didn't suffer from a proliferation of marketing speak. He put forward the challenges faced by the organisation, which fell broadly into two main areas. The first challenge was obtaining new facilities in growth areas of the outer western suburbs. The second was trying to find ways of bolstering the survival chances of older clubs from the Footscray/Sunshine areas, where demographic changes have wreaked havoc on clubs who have failed to keep up with the times.
Sound familiar? Those growth areas will be fought over by every sport. Those clubs in the traditional Footscray District Football League (the league's former name) areas are going to face the same issue many of the head in the sand soccer clubs will face. Lack of diversity will not see them viewed favourably by councils who are seeking to have their facilities used by the broadest range of their constituents.
Shellcot's one failure was in not considering soccer as his organisation's number one competitor. Instead, he singled out cricket as a threat, as that sport, traditionally part of the Victorian Anglo-Celtic winter-summer nexus with footy, is according to him now competing for monopolisation of talent. It is an interesting phenomenon of recent times, that talented young athletes are being asked to commit to a single sport at a younger age.
There is also the issue of grounds being shared with cricket. Shellcot did not seem to be able to the see the cricket side's argument on these matters. Nor did he elaborate on the strong place soccer has in the western suburbs, and what influence that may have had in the areas like Sunshine and surrounds where Aussie rules is apparently struggling at suburban level.
Laura Hale gave one of the few explicitly new media related papers, on using Wikipedia and Wikinews as a way of promoting African women's soccer. As a one time semi-prolific wikipedian myself, it was interesting to hear about many of the trials and tribulations I had also gone through: needing to use foreign language sources, fights with other editors, avoiding original research etc.
In addition to that area of her presentation, Hale also discussed her involvement, via her online work, of creating improved media kits for some of the Paralympic sports as well as for able bodied Olympic athletes. Even simple things like having a photo and bio for every athlete! It was interesting and impressive stuff, with lessons to be learned for many smaller scale sports organisations who think that this kind of stuff is inherently beyond their abilities.
Then it was time for my own presentation. Based upon my honours thesis, which I finished last year, I gave a very stripped back look at the history of Australian soccer literature. No time for quoting from the texts, or getting into any sort of depth with regards to the major texts, nor for analysing the parallels between the academic work and the creative work. What I decided to cover then was a brief history of this niche (and in some ways artificial) genre; a look at my research methodology; the varied themes of the texts; what doesn't quite fit; and the future directions this area of research should take.
Despite having a small attendance at my presentation, the questions from the audience were quite good. I was asked about whether I had covered similar texts from overseas, to which I had to reply that, no, I hadn't, but that I had some intention of doing so. A common response I had to give was that, within the scope of the thesis, there just wasn't enough room to cover all the areas of this genre that I wanted to, especially the area of children's and young adult texts - that would hopefully come in the next phase of researching and writing on this topic. One of the audience members had apparently attempted similar work with the theme of swimming, and could identify with the difficulties of a pre-database era in terms of research.
Because I was scheduled directly against him, I unfortunately missed Les Street's presentation, looking at Sydney's NSL venues, work which was based on his masters thesis looking at (I think) the history of NSL venues. It was the presentation I was most looking forward to, and I was really disappointed that I didn't get to see it.
Paul Kennedy, of ABC News 24 fame, gave a presentation about a short documentary he made, which was broadcast on his Contact Sport program. The documentary (which you can watch here) looked at the 1892 boat accident which wiped out a majority of the Mornington Football Club's playing list. Worthy material perhaps, but it didn't do much for me. Part of that was due to the documentary itself, which felt a little like one of those earnest films made in a university documentary class (and I should know, I was a student in such a class), with the same sort of production values. The use of music, title cards, hokey narrative devices and the most obvious 'serious/poignant' camera angles was just so amateur that good community television making has left them behind. Perhaps others will get something more out of it.
Rachel Murphy is the Western Bulldogs' liaison person for their relationship with Victoria University. She went through the ways in which students get access and work experience through an obviously mutually beneficial arrangement. But like Brett Daniher's earlier presentation, it all felt a bit too much about the hard sell to me. It's the perennial plight of the cynic.
Peter Haby of the Hawthorn Museum, provided an an overview of that institution, mainly its role and its history. Haby was obviously knowledgeable and passionate about his topic, but the presentation was unfocused and unwieldy, and felt like it went on forever. Now I know that's not a very academic way of looking at things, but there's no way of dressing it up.
Still, it was interesting to hear one version of how some sporting anoraks, trainspotters and assorted weirdo collectors have been able to re-cast their obsessive hoarding and statistical obsessions into respectable pursuits. And not just respectable - but also marketable. Not that these sorts of museums are self-funding, not a by a long shot. But within the scope of selling a club, history. as approved by the clubs themselves, is suddenly worth looking after.
Of course, the aforementioned anoraks just want to carry on doing what they've always done, with the bonus of sharing their life's work with the general public.
Helen Walpole from the National Sports Museum gave a very practical demonstration of everything you need to look out for when attempting to preserve and display archival material. Wood, acids, oils, air, dirty hands are all just waiting to devour metal, cloth, paper - in fact any material you can think of. The importance of selecting tools and devices that cause the least amount of damage and risk to artifacts is crucial, and the novel use of fishing line, mannequins, gloves etc, were fascinating.
It put a lot of things into perspective, seeing as South itself will be creating its own museum when the social club gets redeveloped. Are we going to go down the same route of every local club, just cramming everything into a bunch of trophy cabinets? Or are we going to use this opportunity to tell a story, both of our club and of the objects themselves?
Call me petty, but I preferred the previous conference's location at Victoria University's Flinders Street campus, if only because the lecture theatres and clasrooms used actually had tables where someone could take notes properly. The notes I made on this conference suffer greatly in comparison to their predecessor, because about halfway through day two I just gave up trying to write on a notepad on my lap.
And while the aesthetics of looking over the MCG from the privileged areas of the MCC were pleasant enough, it reinforced the fact that these areas are off limits for the vast majority of the public. Which would be fine if it was during the cricket season, but the fact that access is also granted during the AFL season always strikes me as hypocritical. No doubt that there are bound to be those who have an MCC membership who will say that they have every right to have access to AFL matches. I'd hazard to guess that if AFL access was removed, we'd see a massive decline in the membership base of this so called 'cricket' club.
There was also a distinct lack of rugby league and union presentations, just one presentation between the two sports. Add to this the tunnel vision/myopia of some of the Australian rules papers, and it all got a bit too samey at times.
And finally, in no particular order of importance:
- Powerpoint must die.
- Flowcharts must die.
- What's with trying to give us all this Western Bulldogs crap? And especially with trying to get conference attendants to contribute to the Western Bulldogs museum? I came here to see interesting papers, not for being bombarded with Bulldog propaganda.
- The people who packed away the scones before half the people could get to them must die.
The good papers - the ones with new insights, those which overthrew old assumptions, and who were engaged with the questions of methodology - were worth the effort. Those attendees who were also willing to cross code boundaries made the experience worthwhile.
The next conference, scheduled for some time in 2014, will apparently be at least loosely based around the theme of soccer's 2015 Asian Cup, which Australia will of course be hosting. Expecting some really interesting papers then, especially in seeing what sort of 'Asians love Aussie Rules' propaganda pieces come out of it.