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Blue Healers of Old Unley Town

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Spirit of '76

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PostPosted: Mon Aug 04, 2008 4:54 pm    Post subject: Blue Healers of Old Unley Town Reply with quote

The Blue healers of old Unley town
18/04/2008 12:49:23 PM The Independent Weekly

The Sturt Football Club has had it tough in recent years, but is surviving well on character. They are a new breed of Blues, led by their coach Rick Macgowan. Ashley Porter reports

It’s another dog-dung day afternoon, and one poor chap has the duty of picking up the droppings over the oval before the big match. Volunteers started at seven in the morning helping to erect a temporary fence, turning a playground for muts and would-be canine queens into a league football venue.

You can smell the sausages sizzling on the mounds. It’s match day at Unley Oval, the home of one of South Australia’s most traditional clubs, Sturt. Meanwhile, the players are beneath the old stand changing in rooms that probably haven’t been improved structurally since Victor Richardson won his Magarey Medals in 1920.

To the current players, these rooms are special. After training from six o’clock one summer morning they organised a working-bee. Armed with tools and paint brushes, they tarted up the place like never before.

When everyone else had left, recruit Ian Perrie, who not long before had been delisted by the Crows, returned, and by himself polished the floor boards in the kitchen, built by his new teammate, Tristan Gum. All voluntary.

We’re talking about the Bob Marshall Rooms, named after Sturt’s youngest-ever league player, who went on to serve the club admirably until cruelly taken from us with the Bali tragedy in 2002. Once you could sense the legendary Jack Oatey lurking along the long and narrow row of lockers, but times have changed. There is a new breed of Blues now; they’re in a league of their own, and their coach Rick Macgowan thinks of them more as mates than he does as players wearing numbers.

Whether it’s this one-for all and all-for-one bravado, or maybe the fickle fate of football, something special is happening at Unley. The Blue boys are unbeaten after three rounds and on top of the ladder, but Macgowan knows only too well that every dog has his day.

The newfound camaraderie within the club at all levels, and the on-field success, is undoubtedly keeping Sturt alive. It has fallen on hard times in recent years. While some other SANFL clubs own, or have rent-free ovals, Sturt pays the City of Unley an annual lease fee in excess of $100,000. It is unable to train on the oval until late March, and a few weeks back the league team could not do a training drill the length of the short oval because a Kanga cricket game was in progress. Other times, dogs roam unleashed. It is a pathetic situation. Try rotating 80 players in the gymnasium, a room not big enough to swing a proverbial cat.

Sadly, Sturt no longer owns its own licensed clubrooms - it leases them back from the Council. The club is pinning its future as a manager of the Castle Tavern at Castle Plaza, and the popular Barzaar on Unley Road.

Yet, for all of this hardship, the daunting financial challenges ahead, Sturt is continuing to defy the odds and is thriving on pride. Macgowan, a 238-game player with Central District (222) North Adelaide (15) and SA (one), plus a one-year assistant coaching role at Woodville-West Torrens, has been a driving force, but prefers to acknowledge others.

He doesn’t see Sturt as being poor, but rather a gifted club because it has players with true character, something that he produced from deep within when playing for Dark Peake in the old County Jervois League (now Eastern Eyre) on SA’s West Coast as a 14-year-old. His club struggled for numbers, so he played for the junior colts at 11.30, then saddled-up for the B-grade, and then the A-grade at two o’clock. That toughness, his willingness to do anything to help the club, has never left him.

“I can see similarities between Sturt and Dark Peake, which is a marginal farming area; not a lot of wealth around the place, but all good people,” Macgowan said. “Also, there weren’t a lot of resources and the coach did a lot of other jobs. It survived on having genuine people within the club, and that’s Sturt all over.

“At Sturt; there also isn’t a lot of money around. You just can’t go out and buy what we need – you have to find a way to purchase things.

“When I came here last year the facilities were very poor compared with other clubs, so the first thing I tried to do was to improve the environment for the players. They have now embraced the club; they have a greater sense of ownership.

“I want to see these players rewarded. It’s been a hard road, and we have asked a lot of the senior players. Pre-season the last two years they could have put their hand up and said, no, it’s all too hard, and trained once a week. We would have said okay. Instead, they did everything of an 18-year-old, and then fixed this place up in their own time.

“Clubs are about people. When Ian Perrie, who had been here only a few months and had no affiliation with Sturt, did that extra work after the busy-bee it really said to me what this bloke is about. The genuine article; he wants to be involved with Sturt. You don’t always find that in recruits.

“When I suggested that we do the rooms up we couldn’t find the money to buy the basic items, but Sturt is a proud club. There are a lot of people out there who are Sturt to the core and we were able to call upon yet again. Over the past 12 months they have come out of the woodwork, not because we’re winning games, but the fact the players are earning their respect as men.

“If you think there is a secret to us winning, then this is it. We have to work bloody hard just to field a side and perform. There’s no doubt in my mind that the better the facilities the softer the players are … that’s a problem with AFL football.

“Because AFL clubs have the players 24/7, they talk to them about recovery and looking after themselves so much that the players are reluctant to play if they are not 100 per cent, hence there is that negative mind set. ‘Hell, I can’t perform’ they think; the mind is a very powerful tool. With our facilities we treat them tough, and they perform under any situation on the field.”

Macgowan is definitely not in the old Oatey mould, but again, times have changed. He approves of his players having a few beers, in moderation of course, and especially if it’s with teammates. He encourages them to open up their homes to each other, enjoy life as quality mates, and experience the basic family-like values.

With an immensely supportive wife, Jacqui, and with their three kids aged under six -Winston, five, Hester, three, and Scarlett, 18 months, plus another due in August - this guy really knows about family life. His coaching commitments, plus running his own packaging business, Macgowan Agencies, makes his every moment precious.

Sturt’s success under Macgowan, especially the positive culture that he has developed among his players, has set the rumour mill running at full pace suggesting an AFL move, perhaps in an assistant role.

“I have always wanted to coach, and after turning Sturt down at first I am so thankful that I took this job on,” he said. “But the AFL? I am pretty passionate about the SANFL.

“Our league has got so many advantages over the elite competition. I love the SANFL environment, and I have never really considered the AFL. You never say never, but I am really happy in what I am doing.

“SANFL supporters get close to the action. They get here five minutes before the game and get home 10 minutes after the final siren. There are so many advantages the AFL could never get close to. I just think the SANFL can improve out of sight, and part of me says I want to be part of that.

“It’s special when you have mates like I have; great people who just happen to play good football.” And dear old Bob Marshall would have been proud to have them in his rooms.
“Reserves teams in the SANFL for the two AFL clubs is not negotiable – that will not be part of our discussions on the licences. We will not compromise the SANFL competition (with AFL reserves teams).” John Olsen
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