Cracking weekend away in beautiful Manly. When the idea was floated a few weeks ago with Michelle, a mate from the mighty West Ryde Rovers and a die-hard football fan, it was quickly locked in and due to the size of my Friday night, I was the designated passenger for the trip to the seaside. Some ill-timed roadworks en route held us up and we just got to the event as it opened. Following the Acknowledgement to Country, some words from the well-spoken local MP James Griffin and the introduction of super MC Adrian Arciuli (or Archie as he gets from most), it was straight down to business. This is how I saw the event unfold, remember I write fiction…
We kicked off with A lifetime in football, journalist Stephanie Brantz in conversation with Remo Nogarotto. This was a fascinating insight into the life of a true football man, and a sprinkling of Northern Spirit chat evoked memories of Friday nights at North Sydney Oval. Many anecdotes from a very eloquent orator, including an insight into Newcastle Jets dealings with Newcastle United in the UK back when they were trying to forge links between the two clubs. A fine start to the day.
We then had Do #BlackLivesMatter in football with former West Ryde Rovers player Francis Awaritefe and Professor John Evans, chaired by the articulate Trevor Thompson. Francis got our attention by repeating a racist remark, eyebrows raised around the room, and this was a thoroughly engaging chat through a number of issues involving inclusion and equality. The phrase ‘taking a knee’ (not ‘taking an E’) was used on numerous occasions as the chat expanded on instances of racism that have been in our own news in recent times.
Lunch out at the Bavarian at Manly Wharf was comedy – by the time we’d ordered using the new fangled ‘order by phone’ process, it was time to return for the afternoon sessions.
The first session was a presentation by statto Andrew Howe, the man behind the Encyclopaedia of Socceroos. The subject was the country of origin of all players who have played in Australia over the years. There were some amusing little side-stories that kept this interesting. I’m a data fan myself, and must admit I did have a little trouble grasping the concept of some of the stats on display, but on the whole it was a very well thought-out session from a very intelligent speaker.
Next up we had Michael Cain interviewing Craig Foster on Life Beyond Football. Michael is the man behind the excellent Mark Viduka documentary from earlier this year, and speaks very eloquently. The discussion with Foz was interesting, and the keyword was ‘Culture’. It was almost a rallying call to the whole of the football community to spread the word of football and recognise that it is a movement that can do so much good in our country and indeed the world. The plight of Hakeem was a subject that was close to many in the room.
The panel I was involved in saw the creator of FWF2020, Bonita Mersiades, bring three diverse football content creators, myself Texi Smith, Michael Cain and historian Peter Kunz to talk through their respective works in History and Heroes. Michael took us through the making of the documentary with Dukes, giving a fascinating insight into the process and the difficulties finding support, Peter gave us sample content and stressed the importance of the history of our game, and I hope I did justice to the three, nearly four, fiction novels that have become part of the Australian football landscape. A thoroughly enjoyable experience.
After a quick hello with former Toon loanee Dave Mitchell, the session I had been anticipating the most was Opportunity knocks, dealing with the legacy of the upcoming 2023 World Cup. This was the first time we saw a full table. Expert journalist Emma Kemp took control of a panel consisting of respected football coaches Tom Sermanni and Alen Stajic, the learned Michelle O’Shea, author Greg Werner and reporter and online content magician Rose Valente. This was fascinating. It was great to hear Staj in full flow, he speaks so well, Michelle and Greg brought excellent ideas to the table and Rose gave the crucial viewpoint from the fans perspective. I’ve never heard Tom speak at length previously, and enjoyed his dry sense of humour. This session left everyone excited about the World Cup coming to our shores. I was three beers in by now. This was entertainment of the highest quality.
Dinner time, and a chance to chat with some fabulous football people over a wine, and for me to get some clarity and insight into smaller details for my upcoming release Anna Black This Girl Can Play from people who know better than me. The food was delicious, great choices, and we were suitably relaxed to enjoy the Soap Box contributors, given some air time to share ideas before the evening session.
And what a session this was. Adrian Arciuli was the chair and the panel consisting of journalist Ray Gatt, football commentator and journalist Simon Hill and executive producer Murray Shaw. This was a session not unlike a chat between old mates in a pub and as a consequence was as relaxed and fun as you would expect. Favourite players, moments in football, anecdotes and plenty of laughs. This will make a fabulous session to watch back again online. Discovery that the bar was closed suggested that the evening was drawing to a close, but this one was a hard one to wrap up because everyone was enjoying it so much.
Saturday evening in Manly was eye-opening. Drunken teenagers on a rampage outside the ferry while the festivalgoers went on what felt like a pre-match march through the streets, then no way of getting into venues with so many people. A couple of beers with Lucas and Brendan, the future of Australian coaching and the future voice of A League football, Chris Curulli and I had to go and find Michelle. She’d found a party back at the hotel after losing her key on the way back to the hotel to charge her phone. The night wouldn’t end there. Luckily we got into a pub and caught NUFC’s horror show against Chelsea over more beers into the early hours. Fun night, it’s that beer and football combination again.
The next morning Manly put on a magnificent dawn. After a quick heart-starter of a run along the foreshore, the only way to cool down was to join the hundreds of people already up and about in the ocean. Ready and invigorated to start day two of the festival.
We got underway with a session with businessman and activist Jaimie Fuller in conversation with ABC reporter Jack Snape titled Does anyone care about integrity in sport? Good question. I maybe needed to be a bit more current with my knowledge of sports rorts, as some of the content required background reading, but these are two people who definitely know their shit. Jack perhaps had the shackles on and stayed clear of courting controversy, but it was an interesting insight into a subject that is often in the news, and very relevant to football.
The next one was Das A League Reboot, Simon Hill taking the chair with two whirlwind visitors Simon Pearce and Danny Townsend, both of whom head up A League clubs. This was an opportunity to get stuck in to some of the pertinent aspects of the A League and, given the Chatham House rules that applied, I’ll not go into it. It did bring a lot of information to the table that suggests that the A League is in a very exciting period, with a great deal of change in place behind the scenes in recent months. As football writers we need to be ready to embrace that change. Most of the information in this session was news to me, and it was a pleasure to hear Simon and Danny in full flow. They have the skill of politicians and you would find yourself totally absorbed in the answers to the many questions without realising that the question hadn’t really been answered. This truly was the session that would define FWF2020 for me – breaking news and opinion reserved for those in attendance, and I felt privileged to be there. The questions from the floor were lively and interesting, this could have gone on a lot longer.
The idea to offer a packed lunch to all attendees was champion. Sitting by the beach eating a top quality meat pie – a lot to love about that. One more panellist to complete the line-up and this was FFA CEO James Johnson in conversation with journalist Vince Rugari. Vince’s no-nonsense approach to the conversation was excellent and there were a lot of good questions at the end that kept JJ on his toes. As a conclusion, the encouraging sign was that JJ and the two A League club men from the previous session seem to be completely aligned in their vision for the future. Will we get promotion / relegation? We’ll have to wait and see.
Bonita and Adrian wrapped up proceedings for the festival, Bonita with some telling words surrounding her situation with Football Queensland, and words of advice to the next generation of journalists. After a few goodbyes, and getting my year’s supply of pens from the table, it was time to bid Manly goodbye.
I’ll be able to reflect on this event much more this week as I return to everyday life, but I have two takeaways from this. Firstly, football in Australia, whilst in a worrying state from a media point of view, is undergoing a once-in-a-generation transition that could present so many opportunities for those in attendance today. If there are no reporters at the Mariners v Western United game, as an example, there are people available to fill that void and deliver something just a little different (I’m looking at the ‘young’ table). It just needs someone to drive it. Secondly, we have a duty as football writers and football people to stamp the culture of football all over Australia. We should not be shy, we should not be deterred by the negativity that surrounds the beautiful game in our media, and we should prepare to fight for the game we love.
This was also a proper return to social life for myself – no longer being in a relationship after 20 years has taken me time to get used to – and I’d like to thank my partner in crime for the weekend Michelle, someone I can count on to be always one beer ahead and to know way more about football than me, for lending me support. Hope you enjoyed the weekend as much as I did.