Disappointment, too often bordering on bitterness. The prevailing emotions of so many ex-players when they’re asked if they still keep in touch with the game.
Truth is, there’s been an unofficial boycott for years, even decades, by former players whose lingering resentment keeps them away from matches and functions. It’s been a travesty, and a waste. The alumni have so much to offer – on and off the field – but too rarely they’ve been asked to give, or perhaps they refuse to give. Either way, the game has been so much poorer for their absence.
Hopefully history will record a small gathering at the Azzurri Club in the Newcastle suburb of Highfield four years ago as the moment the tide turned. The moment the door towards reconciliation was opened, since creating a movement, and a momentum, which could bring thousands of ex-players across the country back into the fold.
The movement is called ‘Men of Football’, and if the Fox Sports cameras are quick enough you’ll notice some of their members in the stands at Hunter Stadium for the visit of Brisbane Roar. They’ll be the ones wearing tight-fitting Newcastle KB United shirts, probably savouring a cold lager, as they discuss the halcyon days of Newcastle’s first professional team, the merits of the Jets, the merits of an individual player, or the merits of the coach. Opinions among ex-players are generally forthright, often withering, and utterly honest. But while opinions may differ, the cause is a common one. An unabashed, unremitting, love of football. Very much ’till death do us part’, and while they’re alive and kicking these lifelong fans remain a precious resource for a game which desperately needs their collective history, and their enduring passion.
It’s entirely appropriate, of course, that Newcastle should be the birthplace of the ‘Men of Football’ movement. The Hunter, after all, was the cradle of the Australian game. It’s a region steeped in football history, blessed with a football culture you can see, smell, and touch. That culture is never hard to find if you know where to look. Billy Pryce, whose son Shane captained the Newcastle Breakers in the old NSL, was one of those who gathered at the Azzurri Club with a few former teammates. Brett Gemmell, a former Newcastle KB United player, wasn’t there, but has become a key driver of the movement.
A movement, he admits, had humble beginnings. ”Basically, it was a few old fellas who decided to have an afternoon in the pub,” Gemmell says. ”The conversation got around to ‘why don’t we do this on a regular basis’, to ‘why don’t we organise a reunion’. Everything started from there.
”In the end, we had a reunion in 2010 for basically anybody who had played football in Newcastle, regardless of the level. There were guys who hadn’t seen each other in 25 years. Maybe 150 people turned up, and the buzz was fantastic. That was the night we decided we were really onto something, that we could build something. So we moved the thing to a whole new level.”
The ‘Men of Football’ became ‘Men of Football Inc’ – a company by incorporation. Now it is in the throes of becoming a company limited by guarantee, which will make it an official not-for-profit organisation with a board of trustees. Already the ‘Men of Football’ movement has spread to the Central Coast, where there are 300 members. In Newcastle, membership – including females – has grown to around 450. Once the legalities are completed, Gemmell expects chapters will eventually be formed around the country – hopefully with close ties to their local Hyundai A-League club.
”We’re linked into the Jets, and the Central Coast boys have a good relationship with the Mariners, and I think that’s an important reference point,” he says. ”There’s a massive talent base that the clubs can tap into. Basically, we’re re-motivating people to get back involved, and that’s got to be a big advantage for the A-League clubs if they want to use it.”
If you’re wondering whether the movement is all about old blokes getting together to swap yarns over a few cold ones, you’re wrong. The camaraderie, of course, is a crucial selling point.
But consider this list of achievements by the Newcastle ‘Men of Football’ in just a few short years. They’ve raised $13,000 to help a 22-year-old local player, Matt Storey, pay for the drugs he needs to treat his cancer. They’ve helped fund a trip to Darwin for a local schoolgirl to play in the Combined High Schools competition. Their members have accommodated a number of Newcastle Jets players in their own homes – among them Tiago and Connor Chapman – to aid the settling-in process.
They’ve inaugurated the Ray Baartz Medal for the Jets Player-of-the-Year, and the weekly voting is a guaranteed source of white-heated controversy. And they’ve organised the first-ever reunion for Newcastle KB United (35 years after the club was formed), an event to be attended by 24 ex-players including guest-of-honour Ken Boden, which includes a trip to Hunter Stadium to watch their beloved Jets.
The fact that the chosen venue for the luncheon turned out to be too small to meet the demand tells us something. The cold war is thawing. With any luck, it might soon be over.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not reflect those of Football Federation Australia.