THEY were all from Warrnambool.
The people parked next to me. The people across the road. The people, two, three, four caravans down the way. All of them. Warrnambool.
“But why not somewhere else?” I shouted, exasperated as they looked at me like a raving lunatic – something I feared I had become because none of this made sense.
“Why not Port Fairy? Or Port Campbell? Christ, even head down to Apollo Bay. Or Peterborough. Anywhere but Warrnambool.”
They stared through me with wide smiles, like Stepford Wives in boardies and singlets as their children belted around on scooters across the narrow roads of Surfside Holiday Park, wedged between Lake Pertobe and Lady Bay in an idyllic setting for holiday-makers who had come from all across our wide brown land – but mostly from Warrnambool.
“Because Warrnambool is perfect,” their leader said unblinking, head tilted slightly to the side like he was trying to understand me, clutching at a Kermonds Burger in one hand and a framed picture of the patron saint of Warrnambool – the Dirty Angel – in the other.
“You’re mad,” I shouted.
“You’re all mad!”
I lunged for my caravan door but the leader grabbed me by the legs and started to drag me away.
“Warrnambool, Warrnambool, Warrnambool,” they all chanted as they hogtied and lifted me above their heads, hauling me across Pertobe Road and through the playground maze before we arrived at the lake’s grubby shores.
I cried out but my pleas fell on deaf ears, the chant growing stronger as “holiday-makers” from Ocean Beach and Discovery caravan parks joined their Surfside comrades in the heaving pack.
Then suddenly, a deathly silence fell over the group.
The birds stopped chirping, the roads fell silent, and the sky went dark as the Fletcher Jones silver ball eclipsed the sun.
Five men stepped forward out of the shadows wearing robes of navy blue – Jonathan Brown, Tom Ballard, Paul Jennings, Dave Hughes and Marc Leishman – the Five Horsemen of the HennaStreetFishnChips.
“We have an apostate in our midst,” Browny’s voice boomed across the silent playground.
“And this dickhead needs to pay.”
In one swift movement his giant arms pulled me from the masses and swung me like a suitcase towards the waters of Pertobe.
“Come, brother,” Hughesy whined gently.
“Come and see the light.”
And with that Browny dunked my head under water and held me there until I could see the truth. I could see all that was real. I saw the meaning of life – Warrnambool was the perfect holiday spot. Even if you lived in Warrnambool.
The Lions legend released my neck and allowed me out of the murky depths. I gasped for air and stumbled to the grass, legs falling out from under me as I tried to regain my energy.
“How do you feel?” Ballard whispered into my ear.
I took a breath.
Paul Jennings smiled. I was one of them.
And yes that it was my way too long, shithouse opening to today’s edition of That’s Bush League: Warrnambool edition.
— ABOUT THE TOWN —
INTRODUCTION aside, Warrnambool is a cracking town that in the case that you lived there, you absolutely would still holiday there in the summer – which is genuinely what a large proportion of the 30,000-odd population does.
Feeling the arctic chill of the southern ocean for pretty much nine months of the year, the regional city in south-west Victoria – about three hours from Melbourne – turns into a family-friendly summer beach town in the warmer months as people pack into the area near Lake Pertobe.
Warrnambool – so called for the Indigenous name of the nearby volcanic cone now popularly called Tower Hill – is known for several things.
One, southern right whales occasionally pop by as tourists stand on the shore and squint out into the ocean wondering whether they just saw a blowhole burst or whether they just saw the whitewash of a pretty standard wave.
Two, Oddball the penguin loving dog lived there, sparking a heartwarming if not a little overly dramatic recreation of the Maremma’s life on film (I suspected Tegan Higginbotham from the start).
Three, Flagstaff Hill, the poor cousin of Ballarat’s Sovereign Hill, brings in tens of tourists every year.
Four, the greatest McDonalds to ever exist – which had a playground replica of the Mahogany Ship – was built there, but has since been turned into a funeral home which makes me immeasurably sad for several reasons.
And five, the town produces bloody good footballers.
Home to nine clubs across two different leagues, it’s not a winter Saturday in Warrnambool if the footy isn’t on.
South Warrnambool, North Warrnambool and Warrnambool – all with very clever names – play in the superior Hampden League, while the equally clever East Warrnambool joins Merrivale, Old Collegians, Russell’s Creek, South Rovers and Dennington in the less talented but still full of heart Warrnambool & District Football League.
— NOTABLE PLAYERS —
JONATHAN BROWN: (Brisbane: 256 games, 594 goals)
THE aforementioned Browny was born and raised in Warrnambool to mother Mary – probably THE mother Mary given his God-given talents – and father Brian, who imdb suggests was very good in Cocktail and Breaker Morant.
While not starring as a stereotypical Aussie hard man (because they’re not the same person), Papa Brown was playing 51 games for Fitzroy and two for Essendon, creating a life-long love affair for junior Brown and the Lions.
With uncles Noel Mugavin (43 games for Fitzroy and Richmond) and Billy Picken (240 games mostly for Collingwood) playing at the top level, it seemed like only a matter of time before South Warrnambool product Brown cracked the AFL.
And that time came when the Lions took him as a father-son selection with pick No.30 in the star-studded 1999 AFL draft.
Debuting in Round 5 of his rookie year, the 18-year-old opened the scorecard with donuts in his first match, failing to register a disposal against the Crows, but still managing to hold his place in the team to notch 13 games and five goals in his first season.
Brown’s breakout match came in Round 6 of 2001, when he booted seven sausage rolls from 19 touches against the Cats at the Gabba to lead the Lions to a 55-point win in a season that saw them march on to a drought-breaking premiership.
Calling it quits after 15 seasons due to consistent head trauma, Brown finished his career with three flags, 256 games (the third most for a Brisbane Lions player) and 594 goals (the most for a Brisbane Lions player).
Brown now works in the media and has a head with more metal in it than a Metallica fan.
LEON CAMERON: (Footscray/Richmond: 256 games, 108 goals)
TAKEN with pick No.7 in the 1988 draft – when drafts were about as scientific as an anti-vaxx flat-earther – the skinny kid became arguably the pick of the bunch from that season of rookies.
The bloke now better known for taking the Giants to their first AFL Grand Final was very much a country boy, following a familiar junior path of playing for a tiny team – Caramut – before his family moved into town and he joined a slightly bigger team – East Warrnambool.
Spending two seasons at the Bombers, Cameron was then lured to the Hampden League – as most talented Warrnambool & District juniors do – for one season at South Warrnambool, before Footscray told him to pack his bags and get his cracking monobrow down the highway to Western Oval.
Debuting in Round 2 of the 1990 season, Cameron made an immediate impact with 29 touches in a 62-point win over the Swans, going on to play 172 games for the Bulldogs across 10 seasons.
Traded to Richmond for the 2000 season as the Bulldogs invested in youth – getting Mitch Hahn and Ryan Hargrave from the picks they received for he Tigers – Cameron became an integral part of Danny Frawley’s team, starring in 2001 as Punt Road marched to the prelim final where they had the misfortune of meeting Browny’s Lions on the tear.
Eventually retiring at the end of 2003 with 256 games to his name – exactly the same as Browny – Cameron has gone on to become the history-making coach of the AFL’s newest franchise, the GWS Giants, and has been making a big, big sound in the west of the town ever since.
Suckers. That song’ll be in your head all day now.
PAUL COUCH: (Geelong: 259 games, 203 goals)
“But wait Mr.HickeyStand,” I here you say.
“Paul Couch was in your Bush League edition about Terang-Mortlake. STOP LYING TO US. FAKE NEWS PIECE OF SHIT.”
Alright you psychos. Calm down.
It’s true, Geelong legend and 1989 Brownlow Medallist Paul Couch did start his Hampden League career at the Bloods – playing in the 1981 premiership team – but he moved to Warrnambool in 1983 either because the Blues were on a poaching raid for young talent or because Terang wasn’t giving him enough of a run. Depending on who you believe.
Passed over by Fitzroy – who had zoning rights to the boy from Boggy Creek – because he was apparently too slow and too left-footed (nice one Fitzroy), Couch ended up at Geelong, debuting in Round 5 of 1985 against the Kangaroos with 23 touches and a goal in a 26-point win.
Winning the Charlie in 1989 – a year in which gathered 40 disposals on three occasions including 43 touches and a goal against the Lions (again, nice one Fitzroy) – Couch became a Kardinia favourite not just because he was a bloody star, but because he worked as a garbo for a job and because he was just a really nice guy.
One of several Cats legends from that era not to get a farewell game as he was put out to stud due to a knee injury, Couch finished 259 games and the hearts of every Geelong supporter in the world.
Tragically, Couch passed away in 2016 aged just 51 after a heart attack.
And we’re still not really over it.
JORDAN LEWIS: (Hawthorn/Melbourne: 319 games, 161 goals)
THERE is nothing more Warrnambool – or Warrnabool if you’re a local because you never pronounce the ‘m’ – than the above video.
Dave Hughes? Check. Kitschy regional advertisement for a local company? Check. Jordan Lewis? Check. It has it all.
Hawthorn champion and four-time premiership hero Lewis first hit the Aussie Rules spotlight in 2004, when he featured on Almost Football Legends kicking a ridiculous bee -nah-nah for the Geelong Falcons in the U18s.
Drafted to the Hawks later that year at pick No.7 – probably because the club saw that video and no other reason at all – Lewis was one third of the Holy Trinity from that draft class for Hawthorn, joining Jarryd Roughead (No.2) and Lance Franklin (No.5) as future legends of the club.
Earning a debut in Round 3 of his first season, Lewis picked up 21 disposals in his first match – a loss to the Bombers – and kept his spot in the team for the rest of the year and, let’s be honest, pretty much his whole career.
Finishing up his glittering Glenferrie glory days at the end of 2016 after 264 games in the yellow and brown, Lewis took his increasingly aching body and increasingly disappearing hairline to Melbourne for three seasons, adding another 55 games to his total as he acted as an old field coach for the up and coming young Demons.
Like all good footballers, Lewis has since made the move into the media.
Fun fact: He’s also played in five matches against Geelong where a kick after the siren has decided a game – losing them all. Well, fun fact for some, Probably not Jordan.
DICK HARRIS: (Richmond: 196 games, 548 goals)
TIGERS champion Dick Harris was told by his dad that he’d receive a shilling for every goal he kicked in his first game for Warrnambool.
He kicked seven.
Did Dick’s dad learn his lesson? We certainly hope so, because the 171cm rover then followed that up by leading the league goalkicking in 1931, and again in 1933, before Richmond came knocking in 1934 – probably on the encouragement of his old man because he couldn’t afford to keep him anymore.
Debuting in Round 1 of that year against the Demons, Harris kicked two goals and finished the season – a Richmond premiership year – with 51 majors, before booting 42 in his second season and 46 in his third , then winning the VFL leading goalkicker award in his fourth year with 65 snags.
Again playing in a Richmond premiership in 1943, Harris claimed the club goalkicking award that year with 63 goals, and did the exact same thing in 1944 with the same total, before signing with Williamstown in the VFA in 1945 as one of the big names to be targeted in the Aussie Rules Schism.
Harris passed away in 1993 aged 81, and was inducted into the Richmond Hall of Fame in 2004.
MICHAEL TURNER: (Geelong: 245 games, 285 goals)
MICKY Turner’s f**king football factory. It’s Brian Taylor’s favourite bit of commentary any time a Geelong Falcons product gets the ball.
Shit catch phrases aside, Turner – who is known as the man who developed some of the best Aussie Rules talent in the country since 1995 – was a gun footballer for the Cats.
Son of Leo Turner – another Geelong legend who was a part of Reg Hickey’s invincible team of 1952-53 – Michael started his footballing journey at the Warrnambool footy club in the late 60s before making the journey down the highway to follow in his famous father’s footsteps.
Notching 23 disposals in his first match for Geelong in a loss to the Saints in 1974, Turner played just seven games in his rookie year, but held his place in the team the next season to become a Cats star in a few uncharacteristically lean years for the club.
Finishing up at the end of 1988 with 245 games to his name, Turner would go on to be named in Geelong’s Team of the Century on the wing, poetically with his dad named on the other wing.
WAYNE SCHWASS: (North Melbourne/Sydney: 282 games, 154 goals)
BORN in New Zealand and with Maori heritage, Schwass moved to Warrnambool with his family as a 10-year-old and was quickly recruited to South Warrnambool due to incredible athleticism and speed.
Recruited to North Melbourne for the 1988 season, the wingman started slowly with just six touches in his debut match in Round 1 against Essendon, and while he acquitted himself well in Round 2 with 17 disposals and a goal, he was dropped back to the magoos and didn’t play again until Round 18.
Picking up 20 possessions in that loss to Richmond, Schwass became a regular in Noprth’s starting side from that point on, winning the club best and fairest in 1994 and 1995 and playing in the premiership in 1996.
Traded to Sydney in 1998 in return for Shannon Grant and Brad Stephens, Schwass became a club champion at his second team in 1999, before hanging up the boots at the end of 2002 after 98 games for the Harbour City.
Schwass has since become a major voice on mental health issues in sport, shining a spotlight on his own battles with depression, alcoholism and drug use. Check out his foundation PukaUp here.
COLIN WATSON: (St Kilda: 93 games, 34 goals)
ACTUALLY from Allansford – just east of Warrnambool – Colin Watson was spotted as a schoolboy by Aussie Rules legend Roy Cazaly (who would incidentally go on to coach Warrnambool) and was convinced to join Port Melbourne and St Kilda in 1920 as a 19-year-old.
Realising that Melbourne was a bit shit and Warrnambool was perfect – as any true blue Warrnamboolite would – Watson played just four games for the Saints before heading home to Lady Bay.
Playing the 1921 season in the country, the midfielder decided to give the VFL another crack in 1922, joining St Kilda mid-season and playing out the rest of the year at Junction Oval.
Maybe his caravan was in the shop or maybe he missed his booking window at Surfside, but for whatever reason Watson decided to stay in Melbourne the next season, racking up 45 games over the next three years and winning the Brownlow Medal in 1925.
Longing for the country again, Watson – in a move akin to Paddy Dangerfield telling the Cats to shove it because he wanted to play at Lorne – signed with Stawell in 1926 as captain-coach, a move the Saints blocked, forcing their star to sit out the entire season.
Holding a love of paper work that matched his love of the city, Watson then made an uncleared move to Maryborough in 1927, a decision that saw the VFL disqualify the entire Ballarat Football League for that season. Yes – the whole league.
Unperturbed by the chaos he was causing, Watson left Maryborough in turmoil and rejoined South Warrnambool for six more seasons before – unbelievably – he decided St Kilda really was the right place for him, signing on as captain-coach for the 1933 and 1934 seasons.
By the time 1935 rolled around, Watson was – you guessed it – pining for home, and played just the opening round for St Kilda before packing his swag again and heading back to Warrnambool to probably play mini golf at Lake Pertobe and get into punch ups at the Gal.
As they say, you can take the boy out of Warrnambool, but there’s every chance he’ll come back again.
KEVIN NEALE: (St Kilda: 256 games, 301 goals)
“COWBOY” Neale was a bloody fine player in his own right, with the South Warrnambool product starring for the Saints in the glory years – or year – as a tall that could shift between the ruck, the forward line and the backline.
But the big fella – nicknamed Cowboy for his bow legs and rolling gait – is remembered by many as the man who KO’d Hawks legend Peter Hudson just before the full forward was set to break Bob Pratt’s goalkicking record of 150 snags in a season.
Playing in the 1971 Grand Final, the Tasmanian marvel needed just four goals to break the record many thought would never be broken, and given he’d played in just three matches where he’d kicked fewer than that in the ’71 season, he was odds on to do it.
“I remember addressing the players on the Thursday night and Hudson had a fabulous year that year and he was all poised to break the record,” then Saints coach Allan Jeans.
“And trying to get my point across (about how to stop Hudson getting the record) a voice from the rear of the crowd said ‘it’s very difficult for him to do it if he’s unconcious’.
“That was the comment that was made and it came from the direction of Cowboy Neale.”
And sure enough, after kicking three early goals, Hudson became the victim of an errant – or well targeted – right hook from Neale in a battle for the ball that knocked the Hawks champ’s bearings out for the rest of the match, leaving him on 150 goals.
Hawthorn will still go on to win the flag by seven points.
Neale would retire in 1977 as a best and fairest winner and 256 game veteran, and was named in the back pocket of St Kilda’s Team of the Century in 2001.