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A manual for footballers from a 600-game centre half-everywhere

Posted by on 18/07/2018

Matt Zurbo (left) in aciton. Photo: Jobe ReynoldsMatt Zurbo is as romantic a figure as exists in Australian football. He’s like Neale Cassady and Jack Kerouac rolled into one if they’d both been Australian footballers and not members of the American Beat generation.
Nanjing Night Net

He’s 49 and still playing with his local club, Lilydale, in north-eastern Tasmania. He estimates he’s played around 600 games of adult footy across three states. He lives on nearby Mount Arthur and works in the bush – cutting wood, building fences, harvesting ferns, doing whatever paying jobs he can get. Until recently, his sole companion was a dog called Bucket.

The other thing Zurbo does is write. Readers of the Footy Almanac website will be more than familiar with his work, which also runs to a sequence of novels and children’s books. He is a highly flavoursome writer – by turns colloquial and poignant while always being different simply by virtue of the range of experiences his solitary, nomadic life has given him.

Here he is writing on the Almanac website about, “the higher pitch of the all-Aboriginal teams and their supporters, in the Kimberly … I’m told one mob travelled nearly 600kms to play another, only to find the river between them and the oval was swollen. The whole team swam across croc-infested waters, played, won, waited out the floods and drove home again. Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of that?”

Zurbo’s life, as he tells it, begins with his father. Again, from an Almanac story titled, “My Old Man the Tiger”: “During the war his family spent four years on the run through Transylvania, into the heart of Hungary then, finally Germany, before being put on a boat to Australia. In the orphanage they were teaching him how to speak ‘proper English’, which only made him sound more like a wog, so each Saturday he would sneak away to stand in the outer at Richmond games and learn how to speak Australian.”

He further wrote of his father: “In the summer, to ease the tension, he’d bundle my sister and I into his little Suzuki and roam. Anywhere, everywhere, with nothing … that’s how I discovered the bush. But still the talk between him and me was of Richmond.”

Zurbo claims to have twice tried out for Fitzroy’s under-19s. “I was too slow, I couldn’t jump. I was twice cut, twice broken-hearted.” He then spent two years playing in what he calls “a tatts and knuckles league”, where he says he “learnt what matters”. He describes the position he has played over the course of his 34 seasons of adult footy as “centre half-anywhere” with occasional runs as a ruckman who can’t jump. “As long as I’m out there bashing into people,” he says.

Of the clubs he has played for, the one dearest to his heart is Otway Districts or, as he calls them, “the mountain boys … the fog suckers up on the ridge”. First prize in an Otway Districts raffle, he fondly recalls, was a big bag of spuds. He’s had 12 concussions “from not getting out of the way” and his game now consists of “marking the ball and handballing it to someone who can run”. Will he play in 2017? “Of course,” he says.

Zurbo lives alone and goes to the local pub for conversations. He’s like a certain sort of bloke you meet in pubs – extremely friendly, full of talk, but on for hearing a good story in return. That’s where he says he gets his stories. In the pub.

He says he got the idea for his new book, Champions All: A History of AFL/VFL Football in the Players’ Own Words, from spending time in pubs in northern Australia and being struck by the minimal story-telling style of Aboriginal people and islanders.

People talk about selfless acts in footy. A selfless act for a writer, particularly one with Zurbo’s loquacious charm, is to put together a book in which not one word of the writer’s appears. That is the case with Champions All. For three years, Zurbo ventured out of his home in the bush of northern Tasmania, travelling around Australia in pursuit of people who had played the game at a distinguished level. The list on the cover includes Mark Ricciuto, Gavin Wanganeen, Malcolm Blight, John Kennedy snr, Byron Pickett …

Zurbo claims to have transcribed three million words on his 171 subjects before cutting the manuscript to a hefty 200,000 words. What strikes you about the book is all that isn’t said – it’s a commentary-free zone. All you hear are the bare thoughts of footballers about players, grounds, big matches, and in between you can almost hear grunts and the slap of bodies. This is a manual for footballers, by a footballer with buckets of respect for the game.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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