The following article was published in the Weekend Australian, June 29-30, 2019, and is reproduced with permission from the author, and Deputy Prime Minister, Hon. Michael McCormack, MP.
Coolamon Football Club: 125 years and still kicking
Coolamon Football Club will turn 125 years old next month.
Current players, from left, Cooper McKelvie, Jamie Maddox and Luke Redfern. Picture: Brad Newman
When country towns were being established across inland Australia, the ﬁrst priority was usually a rail head – a junction to load and unload passengers and produce.
Then quickly followed a pub, police station, church and racecourse … invariably in that order although sometimes those who preached divine providence and those who preferred to bet on it often arrived the other way around!
Not long afterwards, the locals would clear a patch of scrub, use some of the timber for posts and mark out a football ground.
This was pretty much the story at Coolamon, the origins of which date back to 1870 and so named after the waterholes which dotted the parched landscape in this south western New South Wales district.
The local Aboriginal people, the Wiradjuri, called the holes coolamons but the name was used more commonly for a bark or wooden vessel made from the bend of a hollow tree, mainly to hold food or water, but also as a canoe or cradle.
The village of Coolamon was gazetted on 3 October 1881. From the early 1870s, Victorian Rules football had been played in nearby Wagga Wagga and games were soon organised in the Coolamon district on a challenge basis. On 31 July 1894, The Wagga Wagga Advertiser announced Elizabeth Bailey had “handed over to the Coolamon Club, a handsome gold medal, to be competed for by teams from Methul, Boggy Creek and Coolamon, the ﬁnal match to be played on the Coolamon ground”. Coolamon was victorious and so began a proud tradition which continues to this day.
On Saturday, 13 July, Coolamon celebrates the 125th anniversary of its famous football club – an institution which has stood the test of time – surviving World Wars, The Great Depression, droughts and other calamities which have threatened its existence.
It is a remarkable achievement, especially when you consider the Victorian Football League – the forerunner of our nation’s most popular sporting competition, the Australian Football League – had its inaugural season in 1897 … three years after Coolamon Football Club’s formation.
EARLY DAYS: The grandstand at Coolamon's football ground in Kindra Park, built in 1905.
Football clubs are more than just a weekend recreational outlet in regional areas. Indeed, they are often the very essence of the particular community they represent … the heartbeat of the local town … a barometer as to how the district is faring. That is very much what the football club has meant to Coolamon and the wider Riverina over the past century and a quarter. And it is particularly prevalent when times have been tough … when an economic downturn, a natural disaster or a tragedy has taken its toll on locals, the football club has been there to lift ﬂagging spirits.
Over the decades Coolamon has suffered plenty of setbacks, especially in its formative years – the 1890 anthrax outbreak in sheep, 1894 rabbit infestation, the great 1914 hail storm, 1915 dust storm, 1917 mouse plague, devastating Cowabbie Street ﬁres of 1917 and ’18 and various waves of locusts. Locusts have been such a factor in cropping and grazing activities in these parts, it was only ﬁtting when it came time to give the Coolamon Rovers’ football team a nickname that Grasshoppers was chosen!
The arch football enemies a few paddocks up the road – Ganmain-Grong Grong-Matong – have been known to sarcastically mention that a Lion – their mascot –will always triumph over an insect.
In reply, Coolamon supporters will point out their football club has never had to merge in order to survive – something of which they are very proud. Undoubtedly, Coolamon football’s ﬁnest achievement is maintaining its own identity.
Turning dry scrub into arable farmland has been difﬁcult enough, yet the many hardships have really tested the resolve of people and their willingness to eke out a meagre existence whilst at the same time get organised enough to run a football club.
Football was suspended in 1915-17 and 1941-44 due to war and there was no competition in 1930 after the Ganmain (formerly Boggy Creek) and Matong clubs withdrew because their players went to look for work outside the area due to the Depression.
A stone cenotaph in Coolamon’s main street etched with names of the fallen sombrely reminds us all of the sacriﬁces made by so many young local men – who would otherwise have enjoyed playing Aussie Rules – to the ideals of freedom and peace.
Yet, through all of these trials and tribulations, Coolamon’s football club endured, to provide hope and offer a welcome distraction from the curses of weather and other troubles.
It is a similar story in other places throughout rural Australia – and in other codes as well where the steadfastness of the football club and its dedicated band of volunteers have been the very glue keeping a community together when all else is falling apart.
How is it that bush football clubs – and Coolamon speciﬁcally – are so adept at ensuring those ﬁghting qualities bred in the hardy souls who make up their numbers, come to the fore in the worst of times? Perhaps the answer lies in the necessity for country folk to be that little bit tougher, just to get by.
“Hard work by loyal volunteers keeps the Coolamon club going,” declares Matthew Hard, the longest-serving coach in the club’s history.
“It’s all blood, sweat and tears to make things happen.
“When things have to be done these people just turn up and do it. They don’t ask for anything in return. They do it because they love it. There are a lot of generous people in this community. It is only a small town but, in these places of this size, the footy club means everything. Everyone has a connection to it. Everyone is involved.”
A football journeyman who started out at Melbourne’s Noble Park, Hard spent 10 winters coaching the Hoppers in three stints between 2002 and 2017 – his pinnacle being guiding the club to the 2013 premiership.
He was hard by name and by nature …he demanded commitment and led by example … such that in 2014 when Coolamon named its best team of the past 40 years he was chosen as captain. No-one disputed the decision.
Also in that celebrated side on a halfback ﬂank was Ian Buchanan, a veteran of 164 ﬁrst grade games between 1979 and 1992.
HIGH FLIER: Coolamon stalwart Ian Buchanan marks as Wagga Tigers’ David Brown looks on in 1985 action.
Like most locals, he never played for any other club. Wouldn’t entertain the idea.
The club is such a part of the town, says Buchanan – a Coolamon premiership player in 1983 and farmer who has experienced the ups and downs of both agriculture and football.
“The football gives people something to be enthusiastic about … something to talk about … win or lose … something to look forward to,” according to Buchanan.
“I don’t know what they’d do without the football club. It’d be like shutting the hotel. Worse.”
Buchanan was an effective, no-nonsense defender as was older brother David whilst their youngest sibling Bryan was a ﬂashy, high-marking, crowd-pulling full forward.
No-one has kicked more goals for Coolamon than Bryan Buchanan. He took the mantle as Riverina Football League’s all-time leading goalkicker in 1996 from Narrandera’s Victor Hugo – what a great name! – and held it for 22 years. His 608 career goals in 232 games over 14 seasons was the record until Collingullie-Glenﬁeld Park’s own version of Tony Lockett, Marc Geppert, went past it in last year’s ﬁnals.
Whilst Buchanan had the distinction of most career goals, the honour for the best effort in a game for the club belongs to the mercurial Jack Green who, on 11 August 1940, slotted an astonishing 22 from 30 scoring shots in Coolamon’s 43.23 (281) to 1.1 (7) thrashing of Matong at Kindra Park, Coolamon.
Green came to Coolamon after starring for Carlton and Hawthorn in the VFL. It was not uncommon for country clubs to recruit big-name players from the top league and Coolamon has had its share of leading lights who found their way to the bush to earn a few quid … former South Melbourne best and fairest Ian Gillett coached the club from 1959-63 and, more recently, Russell Campbell (1983) and Wayne Weidemann (2000) have both coached the Hoppers to ﬂags.
Temora boy Jake Barrett is running around in Coolamon colours this year after ﬁve years in the AFL with Greater Western Sydney and Brisbane. The team is going well too – second on the Riverina ladder and with every prospect of featuring prominently come the September ﬁnals.
As for colours, Coolamon has stayed true to its green with a white vee. In the mid-1990s there was strong pressure, applied from a national and local level, on country clubs to wear the same strips as AFL clubs. If their jumpers did not match up, they were ordered to change.
It was mostly about marketing, but clubs were told it would be cheaper this way to outﬁt their players. Many bush clubs meekly and merely acquiesced. Coolamon, boldly and typically, refused to comply. It stuck with tradition. It kept its unique design. No-one in Melbourne or local headquarters was going to tell Coolamon to dispense with decades of green and white.
It is the Coolamon way. True. Deﬁant. Solid. Successful.
This is why next month’s anniversary is so important. It is appropriate and good that such milestones are acknowledged and tributes are paid to those who made and continue to make it all possible. Coolamon’s reunion weekend has it hosting football and netball against the Mangoplah-Cookardinia United-Eastlakes Goannas – what must surely be the club with the quaintest name in Australian sport – but that is a story for another day …
Michael McCormack is the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, Leader of The Nationals and Federal Member for Riverina. His sons Alexander and Nicholas play ﬁrst grade for Mangoplah-Cookardinia United-Eastlakes Goannas.