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Australian Football

Huon Football Association team c 1920, (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)

Australian Football in the 'Sporting Island' has been the holiest of sporting religions for most of the last 150 years. 'Footy' has often been of primary importance, from the paddock to West Park, from the backyard to York Park, from the school playground to North Hobart, from seaside St Helens to the gravel surface of Queenstown. Since football came to Tasmania (as 'Victorian Rules', later becoming 'Australian Rules' football) in the 1860s, it has excited Tasmanians, divided them by club and region, and united them when it has put Tasmania on the map.

The first matches were played in 1859 between Hutchins and the High School, and the Hobart and New Town clubs were formed in 1866. The Tasmanian Football League was not formed until 1879, a Hotham (North Melbourne) team played a combined northern team in Launceston in 1881, and the first north-south match was played in 1883.

Tasmanian football's many stories were not only those of premierships and medals. They were local and regional. Rivalries dominated within and between competitions such as the major bodies of the south, the north and the north-west (the Tasmanian Football League, the Northern Tasmanian Football Association and the North West Football Union in the decades after the Second World War). Local leagues differed in region and character: from Circular Head to the Tasman Peninsula; from the early 1900s Wednesday Afternoon Football Association to the North West Christian Amateur League of the late twentieth century. Other stories were about achievements, ways of putting Tasmania on the map: first, when Tasmania defeated Victoria in 1960 and again in State of Origin in 1991; second, through the many former Tasmanians, over 300, who have played and often made their name among the best players in the land, in the VFL and the AFL in particular.

For nearly a century Tasmania's sporting myths were particularly concentrated around football and cricket. Like their heroes, most Tasmanian boys grew up playing footy and many girls shared their enthusiasm and joined in kick-to-kick in the park or the backyard. King Footy dominated as a spectator sport, even as school and amateur sport saw a proliferation of all sports. The big crowds of the 1960sā€“70s were proportionately bigger than in Melbourne (313,032 attended TFL matches in 1971) but have retreated now that Tasmanian football plays second fiddle to the AFL; however AFL attendances at York Park and at the Tassie Devils finals (over 10,000) are still greater than for other sports. Football clubs are often also at the centre of local social and community life, from Clarence to Smithton.

The game's heroes included administrators such as the first president of the TFL, WR Giblin, politician and premier; rover Horrie Gorringe; full forward Allan Rait; Roy Cazaly, who played over 500 football matches, although fewer than Max Hardacre's 725 games in the Mersey region; Hec Smith and Ivor Warne Smith. In the post-war boom years there were 'John L', John Leedham at North Hobart; Graeme 'Gypsy' Lee at Wynyard and Launceston; the Hobart ruck trio 'Powell, Pascoe, Payne' (Dennis, Mal and Burnie); Ray Stokes at Burnie (and Richmond in the VFL); Neil Conlan at Glenorchy and Devonport; Paddy Martin at Burnie (and the south and north, and later the media); Darrel Baldock at Latrobe; Indigenous footballers such as Darrel West and Neil Maynard; and adopted Tasmanians such as Bob Withers at Launceston and John Devine, one of many footballers who became parliamentarians, at North Hobart. By the mid-1960s, when Royce Hart went to Richmond and Ian Stewart won three Brownlow Medals with St Kilda and Richmond, heroes were increasingly Tasmanians starring on the mainland. Only some, like 'Huddo', the great 1900-goal full forward Peter Hudson, and Darrel Baldock, returned to play and coach.

The tyranny of Tasmanian distance, traditional rivalries and sporting economics, defeated the Statewide League experiment of the 1980sā€“90s and the game has returned to its local traditions. Like all local sport its lustre has dimmed in the era of national and global sporting celebrity. Tasmania has no AFL team, but in 2001 the Tassie Devils began playing with the VFL (Victorian Football League).

Further reading: A Alexander, You're in roo country, Rosny Park, 1996; K Pinchin & A Leeson, A century of Tasmanian football 1879ā€“1979, Hobart, 1979; J Stoward (ed), Australian Rules Football in Tasmania, Hobart, 2002; D Young, 'Sporting Island', 2004, in author's possession.

Stephen Alomes