After more than a century, a proud country football and netball club is folding. Its demise tells a bigger story about rural Australia.
The night before Quambatook Football and Netball Club’s final ever home-and-away game, two men found themselves in the clubrooms, engaged in good-natured, if occasionally strained, debate.
One of them was to give a speech at the conclusion of the men’s seniors game.
The club’s young president, Rhys Carmichael, insisted it should be delivered by Malcolm “Dasher” Knight, a club legend several decades his senior.
Knight objected. The speech, he argued, should instead fall to the 27-year-old football playing president, Carmichael.
Neither of the men wanted the club’s final moments to be about him.
Like the best of country sporting clubs, Quambatook’s is defined by no-one, and everyone.
Exactly what it is that makes it special can’t be pointed at, but it can be found everywhere.
It hides in the corners of club change rooms, where the intoxicating smell of Deep Heat hangs like a fog.
It can be found up a bolted-on ladder to an old scorekeeper’s box, deemed too dangerous for kids to climb, but just safe enough for a septuagenarian to amble up and keep keen watch from.
It is there in the many, many sandwich-making, canteen-running, bartending, grounds-keeping, netball court-sweeping volunteers.
It is there in people like Kellie Burmeister.
She has been coming to the club in northern Victoria’s Mallee country for 30 years.
When she was a teenager, Burmeister would ride her bike 17 kilometres from her family farm to netball practice.
Her parents, both life members of the club, would pick her up afterwards, and often headed to the pub in town for a midweek meal.
“It is a very special place to me,” she said.
Now, the club — her club — is folding.
The story of Quambatook Football and Netball Club’s sad demise is repeated throughout small communities in rural Australia.
“We have done our best to keep going as long as possible,” Burmeister said.
“The reality is, we’re not the only club in this situation.”
The pandemic and its costly economic and social effects have seen sporting clubs around the country shuttered.
In the case of Quambatook, 300 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, the problem runs deeper.
The club, which has been around in some form for more than 120 years, has run out of young people.
There are simply not enough children to fill the next generation of teams, nor enough parents who live locally to help with crucial volunteering.
The town is shrinking.
With each new census, Quambatook’s population declines.
There are just 229 people living in town — 132 fewer than a decade ago, according to the most recent data.
The town’s median age is 59 — 21 years older than the Australian average.
For many of those older residents, the club is the town’s connective tissue. It transforms the idea of community from the abstract to something tangible, something touchable.
“A lot of the older blokes in town come here to have a few beers on Thursday night and catch up and fill in the days doing a few little odd jobs,” Carmichael said.
“I think it will hurt them a lot more than probably what it’ll hurt the younger blokes.”
Kellie Burmeister’s dad is one of those older blokes.
“That meeting point is really lost once it’s lost,” she said.
“Whether he’ll come and meet those friends of his ever again, I’m not quite sure.
“Unfortunately, it’ll probably be at funerals where he’ll catch up with some of them now.”
No country for young kids
If there are only a few hundred people around town, Chelle Espagne seems to know most of them.
Her Quambatook general store doesn’t appear to have customers, so much as a flurry of family connections and friendly acquaintances.
On a recent Saturday morning, a conversation at the check-out with her younger cousins, around which packet size of Twisties represents the best value, was interrupted by a phone call.
It was an older local woman, expressing gratitude for a delivery of fresh bread.
The general store has recently had to figure out how to bake its own, after their supplier 30 minutes away in Kerang stopped delivering.
The quality of the bread, the older woman assured her, was excellent.
“We’re fighting to keep our town alive and keep it positive,” Chelle Espagne said.
It is a long way from the Quambatook she grew up in.
“There were 160 kids at the school when I was here. It was a vibrant, great little school.”
The school shut down five years ago. It had just six students and no teachers.
The demographic change in the proud and fertile cropping region has been stark.
“Back in the day, there were houses everywhere,” Espagne said.
“We’ve gone from all those little farmlets, to great big farms that are getting bigger and bigger, who don’t need the workers because the machinery is getting bigger and bigger.
“It certainly has a knock-on effect, because we’re losing those workers that would have shopped in town; their kids went to school in town and played sport in town.”
Malcolm Knight remembers a Quambatook with multiple banks, multiple pubs and a State Rivers office.
Employees from those businesses doubled as volunteers in the football and netball club.
“It takes a lot to run a football club, but when you’ve got that many people around, you have a lot of fun,” Knight said.
“Now we’ve got 65-year-old people running water and things like that. We just haven’t got the young people at the club.”
A famous past
“My little town hasn’t disappeared yet …”
So begins Dear Little Quambatook, John Williamson’s love letter to his childhood home.
The country musician stands as one of the town’s most famous exports — his one-time Quambatook schoolmate, Molly Meldrum, stands as another.
“Quambatook was my growing up town. I just loved the place,” Williamson said.
“I think it’s probably the backbone of what I write about.”
He might have sung the defining songs of the Mallee, but Williamson’s voice registers an audible thrill when he mentions having played football for his hometown team.
“For me to become a part of the football team was like joining the legends that I knew as a kid.
“Our team used to pull everybody together and there’d be people tooting their horns on the side of the ground.”
Small towns and big characters are a theme of Williamson’s music.
He, like seemingly everyone associated with Quambatook, fondly recalls the late Jim Wallis.
A club legend, Wallis went on to play for St Kilda in the VFL alongside some of the Saints’ greats, all while working and training in Quambatook.
Having tracked across most dirt roads around country Australia, Williamson has seen a clear pattern.
“The bigger towns are getting bigger, and the smaller towns … I’ve often said that the bitumen roads have taken the guts out of a lot of little towns because all of a sudden, everything got so much closer,” he said.
After three sepia-toned minutes recalling a country upbringing of yabbies, leeches and pub heroes, Dear Little Quambatook ends with Williamson asking repeatedly: “Why did we all move away?”
The final home-and-away day in Quambatook Football and Netball Club’s storied history started early for the volunteers working the gate.
It began even earlier for those organising the sequence of overlapping matches throughout the day.
Carmichael suggests the “admin side of things has gotten ridiculous” since the AFL took over management of the league.
“The workload it takes to put a team out there and all the behind-the-scenes emails and whatnot is probably taking the fun out of footy,” he said.
Those frustrations soon ebbed away as fans, friends and families spilt onto the picturesque country ground.
Food vendors were organised so the Ladies Committee could enjoy the afternoon, freed of catering responsibilities.
Other volunteers began lifting hot dogs out of boiled water and chilled cans out of cold buckets.
The day’s opponents in both football and netball were from Macorna — a small town less than an hour’s drive east.
There was a clear talent disparity in the first junior netball game.
Sensing their advantage, two girls from Macorna took it upon themselves to help a young Quambatook boy learn to shoot mid-game.
The emotions of the day were confusing.
There was sadness, concern and a sense of unease.
“I am a bit worried about the future,” Carmichael said, prior to taking the field for the seniors footy team.
“I think smaller football clubs are going to find it harder and harder to go on.”
There was an overwhelming sense of pride, too.
Carmichael was part of the club’s leadership who made the call early in the year that it would not continue after this season’s end.
That allowed for locals to process the idea of losing the club and make room for celebration, rather than sorrow.
Kellie Burmeister could be found in constant motion about the venue, cheering courtside one minute then holding down a position at goal defence the next.
“It’s a moment to be proud,” she said.
“We have fought for a long time to keep it going as long as possible. We are very proud of this club.”
That rural cliche — a country footy club is the heart and soul of the community — is more worn out than a set of old boots.
On days such as these though, it bears a not-insignificant level of truth.
That doesn’t mean the club’s absence will mark the end of the town.
Those left in Quambatook look to its annual Tractor Pull, the cinema at the silos, the bowls club and the development of a weir pool as part of a viable and vibrant future for the town.
By the time the seniors footy team finally took to the field, the ground was saturated from lashings of afternoon rain.
Quambatook was irrepressible.
Amid the mud and crunch of country footy, there was a discernible joy to the way the team played.
So many goals sailed through from the home side that the honking of horns and flashing of lights threatened to flatten car batteries.
A Quambatook win became inevitable, but perhaps it always was.
When the final siren rang, it was met with a raucous cheer.
The score — 15.12.102 to Macorna’s 2.1.13 — is not one of a team who is done for the year.
An unlikely tilt at the premiership is still in its grasp in the coming weeks.
In the end, both Malcolm “Dasher” Knight and Rhys Carmichael addressed the crowd.
A medal named after the late Jim Wallis was presented to the game’s best player, Quambatook Saint Tobie Cameron.
Wallis’s partner, Jan Free, placed the medal over Cameron’s head, before wrapping him in a warm hug.
“Coming out to Quambatook is the best f***ing thing I’ve ever done,” Cameron said.
The club song was sung and tears were spilt.
Then the players and their community filed back into the clubrooms, having added one more memory to thousands past.
Reporting, photography and digital production: Jeremy Story Carter
Source: AFL NEWS ABC