The assembly wasn’t paying attention. The principal, Mrs Hannebery asked for silence three times. She looked frustrated. Her first name is lost somewhere in my memory, but she was tall, thin and good looking.
Not long after she arrived at Oak Park Primary School, word spread that she was Mark Hannebery’s mother. Mark played for Collingwood, mostly off the back-flank or on a wing. A short left-footer, Hannebery was skilful and quick. Despite playing 61 games from 1979 to 1983, he never played in a final.
I never asked Mrs Hannebery if she was Mark’s mother. The few times I talked to her, I was in trouble, one time for going home at recess to get a forgotten permission form for a school excursion. Mrs Hannebery lacked the warmth of her predecessor, Ruth Tozer, who smiled a lot and had patience and seemed to love all the kids. Mrs Hannebery was distant with sharp eyes behind round glasses. She appeared to tolerate the kids.
That Monday morning, in April 1982, Mrs Hannebery addressed the kids while Mr Latham waited, arms folded, in the background. As deputy principal, George Latham was inexcusably violent on occasion. Reducing kids to tears by shaking them, screaming at them and giving them the strap. Behaviour that wouldn’t be tolerated today. Latham was a hard bastard, considered heartless by a lot of kids. I recall likening him to Darth Vader. It was a brave kid who mucked up on Latham.
Latham and I had a brief history. In music class one day, I was pressing my fingers into the holes on my recorder and checking out the rings it made. Latham didn’t like it. He told me to stand up then shook me and yelled in my face, you’re not paying attention. He made me stand for the rest of the class.
Another afternoon I was summonsed to his office. I was shitting myself. But Latham wordlessly handed me the phone. My father, Bill, was on the line. There’d been an accident at home that left my mum, Patsy, with minor burns. Bill explained where to find the house key to get in while Patsy was at the doctor.
As I hung up, Latham, without looking at me, said bad news about your mum. I didn’t answer. Latham’s voice was without sympathy. He couldn’t care. I didn’t rate or respect him. Latham wasn’t overly tall. He was soft around the middle. It was his voice, dark brown eyes and intent that scared most kids.
The assembly was silent as Mrs Hannebery finished her address and handed the microphone to Latham. His deep, menacing voice rebounded through the schoolyard as he announced, with a grin, that two all-girl teams would play a game of football at lunchtime on Friday. A kid at assembly laughed. A few others joined in.
‘Don’t you dare laugh,’ Latham said, executing his signature move, pointing at the kids while clicking his fingers and killing them with his eyes. ‘They’re probably better than you are.’
Assembly was suddenly silent. Latham waited a moment before putting his finger away. He said the teams were to be built by girls from grades five and six. Proving this venture was truly about the kids, Latham asked for an umpire.
When assembly broke up, I gathered my bag. Despite my fear, I found myself drawn to him. ‘Can I umpire the game?’ I asked.
Latham looked down at me. ‘Do you know the rules?’
‘Okay, you can umpire.’ Latham’s eyes narrowed and he pointed at me with that finger click. ‘You better know the rules.’
I walked away, taking the fear with me. I knew the rules. I was already umpiring lunch-time games at school. I wasn’t much of a player and I enjoyed umpiring. When I watched VFL replays, I picked out the free kicks. I knew the rules. I thought I’d show Latham.
Friday – Game day
I remember Latham coached one of the teams. My memory might be lying, but I believe Ms Elliot coached the other side. Wendy Elliot was already a trailblazer for women’s sport in Victoria, playing as a wicket-keeper batsman in an all-female grade competition.
One day, Elliot brought her Grey-Nicholls scoop to class and let us hold it.
There wasn’t enough girls to fill two teams of 18 players. I recall 14 players lining up for each side. Before the game, a few mates sledged me for umpiring girls. I was used to their sledges, particularly when I umpired games at lunchtime. Umpires can never keep everyone happy.
A few minutes into the match, it was obvious that the girls had less skill than the boys. In that era, girls didn’t play football. They played softball, netball and tennis. Most of those girls had barely kicked a football. I had two sisters and I never taught them how to kick or mark. I never wanted to play football with them.
As the first half went on, it was an easy game to umpire. Most of the girls understood the rules and the positions they were playing. Kicks dribbled off the boot. Chest marks were dropped. Handpasses missed. Some girls banged in for the ball, others hung back.
It was much like the boys games I umpired, where kicks dribbled off the boot, chest marks were dropped and handpasses missed. Some boys banged in for the ball, others hung back.
I did a fair job until an incident late in the second half. Donna Wood, an athletic, rangy girl picked up the ball at half-back and went for a run. Instead of bouncing, she touched the ball on the ground. The second time she bent to touch the ball, it didn’t make contact with the ground. I let her run. No one was chasing. She bent to touch the ball again and it didn’t make contact. She was running fast. I put the whistle away and let her get a kick.
Wood was the best player on the ground. Michelle Rhodes was also a standout. Jenny Kirk also got plenty of the ball. Sonia Torre and Simone George had a great duel in the ruck.
I can’t recall if Latham or Elliot’s team won. It was a good game of low-scoring, tough footy. I walked off the ground, pleased with the competitive nature of the girls and my own game. When I got to the classroom, Simone George walked up punched me on the arm, then gave me another one. ‘You’re a bloody shit umpire, Matthew,’ she said.
‘No I’m not,’ I said, rubbing my arms. Simone raged about Donna’s run, how she should’ve been penalised for running too far without bouncing. A few mates criticised me. I knew I blew the call. Instead of admitting it, I said I missed it.
The truth couldn’t be told. I enjoyed umpiring the game. When Donna went down the wing, I couldn’t help myself. It was a great run, too good to spoil by being pedantic. And Donna had a strong left foot. I thought she could kick a goal if I let her go.
The weekend didn’t halt the controversy. Monday morning, Simone was still angry. A few mates asked if I’d learnt the rules. During assembly, Latham said the game had been a great success. No one laughed. ‘Girls should be playing football,’ Latham said. ‘And Matt Watson did well as umpire.’
After assembly, he wandered through the crowd of departing kids and stopped in front of me. ‘Good job Matthew,’ he said. ‘But you should’ve penalised Donna for not touching the ball on the ground.’
Praised and defeated. That was Latham. I knew he was right.
Unfortunately, there was no second game. Latham never put the suggestion forward. It was a shame, because half the school watched, cheering on the girls. Sure, it was novelty, but no one ever watched the boys play at lunchtime.
I don’t know why Latham didn’t organise a second game, or why Hannebery or Elliot didn’t push it. I don’t know why the girls didn’t push it. Maybe it was that era, where girls didn’t play footy. Maybe the Education Department found out and sent a memo, reinforcing the fact that girls don’t play footy.
Later that year, after an inter-school football game, Latham praised my game at centre-half-back against a bigger opponent. He pointed at me and clicked. ‘I could hear Matt from the boundary line,’ Latham said. ‘Telling you to get it out, kick it, talking. He punched from behind and tackled hard.’
I never had another issue with Latham at school. But his praise felt hollow, influenced perhaps by my job as umpire of the all-girl game. No one else wanted to do it. I didn’t do it to get him off my back.
Latham died several years ago. I’ll never forget that day in music class. I’ll never get the chance to tell him how I felt. But watching highlights of the AFL Women’s games from the weekend, I cannot help recall Latham at assembly, announcing the all-girl game with a smile and pointing and clicking his finger at the agitator.
Don’t you dare laugh. They’re probably better than you are.
No one is laughing, Mr Latham. Shame you weren’t around to see the games at the weekend. I’m sure you would’ve loved it. For all your bastardry, you set the example for girls more than three decades ago, like no other teacher I had. For just one game, you offered the girls a chance to play football. Now it’s reality, no one is laughing…