ABC article
10 months ago

From St Kilda to Stones Corner: Inside the rise of the Reclink Community Cup

Originally sourced from the ABC website HERE.

By Kyle Pollard

The familiar thump of boot on ball echoes around a quiet pocket of suburban Brisbane.

In a place that’s more likely to be home to a spiralling Steeden than a spinning Sherrin, this small sanctum of oval goodness sparkles on a Sunday afternoon.

At one end of the ground, a group of teenagers decked out in their team training gear go through their usual drills, urged on by their coach in a slick display of both innate and learned ability — potential future stars of a burgeoning Aussie Rules community in the Rugby League capital.

And at the other end, a misfit band of footy battlers mongrel punt their way around the 50m arc, cheering each other on as they skew their handballs, drop their marks, and fumble their way towards goal.

Some kicks tumble over perfectly, and each clean disposal is met with encouragement of a job well done. Others slide off the side of the boot, and encounter an even lustier championing of the effort and endeavour.

At first glance it’s an odd and eclectic group.

Young and slightly older, tattoos and green hair, denim shorts and sunglasses, people who live and breathe footy, and people who have never seen a game in their lives.

They’re the antithesis of the kids at the other end of the field.

Scattered throughout are musicians and roadies, writers and DJs, and on any given Sunday you’ll find Aussie rock and roll royalty from Powderfinger to Birds Of Tokyo, along with emerging artists only just rising up the ranks of the triple j playlists.

Most of them are more comfortable with a Fender than a Sherrin.

But each week for three months they come together to have a kick and a laugh, all in preparation for that one day in July when they run out onto this very ground to play footy for a cause.

They’re the Brisbane outpost of the flourishing Reclink Community Cup movement.

And they want you to be a part of it.

I love your way, I can’t explain

On a typically cold Melbourne winters day, where each gust of wind has its own unique sting, Dave Wells was fresh off the plane from New Zealand and ready to immerse himself in the cultural capital of Australia.

In the midst of the to and fro nature of a long distance relationship, the Kiwi national was fast falling in love with both the town and the girl.

It was the middle of the noughties, and Wells and his partner, Millie, were made for each other — community meant the world to them, and social advocacy and the environment gave them life.

“We dated long distance for two years,” Wells says.

“Back and forth, between Australia and New Zealand. And this one weekend Millie says out of the blue ‘we’re going to an AFL game’.

On the scale of shock revelations in a reasonably new relationship, finding out your partner has an interest in footy barely rates an agape. But the invitation was very much an unanticipated one.

“Until that point she hadn’t shown any indication of interest in the game,” Wells says.

“So I said ‘what? Why would we want to go to an Aussie Rules game?’. Because she didn’t follow AFL at all and neither did I, obviously.”

The couple lived in a world where AFL and Aussie Rules were used as interchangeable terms, where you were more likely discuss Bob Maguire than Bob Murphy, and understand the historical impact of Les Twentyman better than Des Tuddenham.

And yet on that frosty weekend afternoon, Wells found himself on the boundary of St Kilda’s Junction Oval, where the palm trees that spot the park around the ground belie the frozen breeze that sweeps in off Port Phillip Bay just a few blocks and a beach over.

“That was the first time I fell in love with it,” Wells says.

“I fell in love with Reclink and the Community Cup.”

Tim Rogers from You Am I spills a mark while playing in the 2009 Reclink Community Cup. Getty Images: Martin Philbey/Redferns

Spiderbait lead singer and drummer Kram gets his ankles taped before a game. Getty Images: Martin Philbey/Redferns

Paul Kelly looks on from the sidelines while coaching the Rockdogs in the Melbourne version of the Community Cup. Getty Images: Martin Philbey/Redferns

The players were a carbon copy of that Brisbane group, but with a distinctly Melbourne flavour. For the Victorians, it was Tim Rogers from You Am I at full-forward, or it wwas Paul Kelly on the boundary line in an old school fedora managing interchange rotations, or Kram from Spiderbait twisting an ankle and getting ice taped around his foot.

“It was the hijinks that stood out to me,” Wells says.

“You’ve got a marching band heading out through the middle of the ground as the game’s still in play.

“It wasn’t about the football. It was about the community. That connection between people and helping each other out via the game.”

More than a decade after attending the fateful match, Dave and Millie Wells are happily married with three kids, living among the trees in Melbourne’s outer east.

And Dave is now the CEO of Reclink Australia.

“It’s funny how things turn out,” he says.

“But, you know, I could see even back then what this organisation could do for people.”

Reclink exists as a body that helps disadvantaged people and socially excluded communities get into sport and the arts.

It’s about putting a footy back in the hands of a bloke who long ago tossed it aside in favour of a needle.

It’s passing a basketball to a woman whose religion won’t allow her to play in front of other people without her head and face covered.

It’s about community, and fun, and exercise, and extracting those endorphins that can only be reached with the satisfaction of that perfect pass, or that one shot out of 100 that finally goes through the goals.

Most of all, it’s about hope.

“If you go back to our origins, yes, it started out as something that existed for people who were really down on their luck for various reasons,” Wells says.

“But we’ve expanded that idea. The breadth of sport is now so wide. It’s wheelchair yoga through to cricket leagues, and football leagues, where disadvantaged people get to experience that community that only sport can provide.

“We run a basketball league here purely for Muslim women. We black out the stadium, there’s only women in there. They can take off their hijabs and play basketball. You know, we get up to 300 women along to that on a Tuesday night.”

For their part, the Community Cups — the annual Aussie Rules games played across the country — provide a significant drop into the funding ocean.

The Melbourne leg, which is now played at Collingwood’s old home ground at Victoria Park, brings in about $100,000 a year. The other matches combined, from Brisbane to Canberra, Hobart to Adelaide, total about $60,000.

“We want to make a bigger impact outside of Melbourne, and expand these programs to help more people,” Wells says.

“We know it works — our job is to make sure that people have access to it, right across the country.”

The Community Cup is a major part of that strategy. Not necessarily for the money, but for the societal mark that it leaves in its wake.

It’s a game that saw a future Prime Minister jump on the DJ decks at the iconic Corner Hotel, and year after year sees the who’s who of the Australian music scene band together for a common cause.

It’s an odd and yet satisfying mix of art and sport and politics and media that started more than 30 years ago as a charitable trickle that became a cultural tsunami.

And at the heart of it all is one man, whose journey started in the western suburbs of Melbourne and took him all the way to the glimmering halls of the Vatican City to meet the Pope.

This life, well, it’s slipping right through my hands

Beneath the watchful eyes of an oxidised statue of Jesus Christ that sits high atop the Sacred Heart Church in St Kilda, a man with an infectious smile and usually boundless energy trudges around the striking red brick building.

It’s 1989, and Melbourne is at the start of a three year economic downturn.

Heroin use is on the rise, and more locals are finding themselves sleeping rough, or struggling to find their next meal.

The man knows it’s tough out there. He’s been helping out at the Sacred Heart Mission ever since leaving the seminary, walking away from a path to becoming a Catholic priest to instead find purpose in other ways.

For now, his purpose lives at 87 Grey St, where Melbourne’s hardest of hard luck stories search for warmth in the pots of steaming food and the hearts of the volunteers who dish it out.

On this particular day, the man’s happy go lucky nature is a little bit off, and it’s something that the regulars notice.

With that wide, joyful smile nowhere to be seen, a homeless man approaches with care and compassion and asks the fella why he is looking so down.

“I’ve just had one of those days,” the man replies while shaking his head.

“Mate,” the homeless man responds.

“Tell me about it. I’ve had one of those lives.”

For the man in the mission, it’s a moment of perspective that still lives with him more than 30 years later.

“You could see it in his whole persona, that he truly had gone through a lot in his life,” the man says.

“But the more I looked, the more I could see that there were just so many people like that. We’d see 300, 400 people a day that would come in for a meal and so many of them had come from a background of trauma.

“To me, there was like a hidden crisis of a need for purpose, for occupation, for structure — for positive structure. And I saw an opportunity.”

That man’s name is Peter Cullen, and he might just be one of the most important figures in Melbourne’s history.

Growing up in Werribee and playing footy for Norlane in the northern suburbs of Geelong, Cullen cultivated a deep love of the Australian game that grew alongside a deep rooted need to help people.

With his decision to leave the seminary behind him, he wandered into the then heart of Melbourne’s misery, a grey street by name and reputation, despite the vibrancy of the red and white architecture that dots the southern side of the road.

At the Sacred Heart Mission, Peter Cullen found his purpose — but he knew there was more to it than a welcoming conversation and a full belly.

“I remember talking to a homeless man who had schizophrenia. He was living it rough down on the beach and he came with us in a group to the Malthouse Theatre,” Cullen says.

“I started talking to him and I said ‘do you have any goals for the future?’

“He just looked at me and said ‘Peter, I don’t even know what to do in the present.’

“Now to me that was really powerful. It said to me that was no good structure in place for these people to live in the moment. There was a lack of non-clinical therapy, something that people could immediately engage in and get something out of.

“I had another guy who had been in prison who told me that he had energy to burn and nowhere to burn it, that it felt like he was exploding inside. Boredom is a terrible emotion. And it can be deadly.”

With memories of his time kicking a footy at Norlane and watching his beloved Cats run around Kardinia Park, Cullen decided to put down the ladle for an afternoon and pick up a Sherrin.

There was nothing organised about it.

Just a general kick-to-kick in the park. Men, women, young, and old. People who had never before had the chance to kick a footy. People who could have been on the path to professionalism had they not had ‘one of those lives’.

It was a magic pill wrapped in leather. Faces that were weather worn and lined with the marks of a lifetime of anguish were transported back to fresh faced kids, washed over with that joy of movement and the endorphins that come with a nice kick and a clean mark.

“It was the power of Australian Rules footy,” Cullen says.

“The power of sport, really. It seemed to remind them of their better life memories, and gave them life-giving quality amongst the challenges that they were going through.

“In that half hour, or an hour, they weren’t the person that had been living it rough on the streets, or the person that couldn’t shake an addiction.

“They were kids kicking a ball. Having fun. And I knew we were onto something.”

As time moved on, the kick to kick grew. More people in need wanted what Cullen refers to as ‘a clean rush, that’s real’.

“It got to the point where we had enough people to organise games,” he says.

“There was no funding. We borrowed used jumpers and used runners, we had to bring in footballs from a local club.

“At our first game we went to the middle of the ground for the coin toss but nobody had a coin. About 40 of us and nobody had a single dollar to spare. One of the players ended up saying ‘surely someone has a food voucher to toss’. So that’s what we did.”

Within a couple of years, Cullen had helped organise ‘grand finals’ to be played at the Peanut Reserve Oval. Simultaneously, an annual game between the Espy Rockdogs and Chasers had been gaining momentum in the live music and Melbourne pub scene.

In 1993, the two worlds collided, when Jason Evans approached Reclink to play a curtain raiser between the Rockdogs and the Tote.

“Jason came to me and asked if our guys would play a curtain raiser before the Rockdogs game, and that all money raised would go to the Sacred Heart Mission,” Cullen says.

“There were thousands there that day. After our match we headed into the rooms, and this one player, all covered in tattoos, says ‘hang on, we won the game — we deserve to do a lap of honour’.

“So they headed back out and ran a lap before the Rockdogs could come out, and thousands of people were clapping and roaring for them. Can you imagine that? That’s a thrill for anyone, let alone someone who’s had it rough.”

Over the next 30 years, what would become known as the Reclink Community Cup would adapt and change, from a match between two Melbourne pubs to a game played between the music industry and the broadcast media, pushed ever onwards by the incredible support of community radio stations and the who’s who of the Melbourne football world.

By 2005, 23,000 people poured into Junction Oval to watch the Rockdogs and the Megahertz face off.

By 2016, Cullen was headed to the Vatican City to meet the Pope, to discuss the importance of sport in helping the world’s poorest people — he would miss the AFL Grand Final because of it.

That kick in the park on a wintery day near the greyest of Melbourne’s streets had turned a moment into momentum. The borrowed boot thumping into a borrowed ball echoed through the halls of parliament, and struck a chord with Australia’s rock elite.

“It’s hard to think of a more natural or powerful partnership than Reclink and Australian Rules football, a sport that crosses boundaries and brings people together,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who DJ’d at a Melbourne game and played in a Sydney game, says in the book Power Of A Football.

“I know it’s a powerful partnership because I once dislocated my finger in one of Reclink’s famous Aussie Rules charity matches.

“I’m proud to have been wounded for such a good cause.”

And for a man known for his musical poetry, Paul Kelly puts it even more simply.

“It’s a good cause, a good day out and a lot fun,” he says.

“Music, sport, togetherness. What’s not to love?”

For Peter Cullen, there’s still work to do. He has a program that he knows works and he won’t stop until every person in Australia has the opportunity to kick a footy, and experience that brief moment in time where their worries melt away into the euphoric nature of sport.

“The older I get the more I recognise that this has been a powerfully fulfilling journey. I’ve got my whole life out of it. I can say at the end of all this I have had a life well-lived,” he says.

“But we have a world-leading model here. This is something that should be available in every town, in every city in Australia.

“We need more funding. We need more help. We need this expanded well beyond the Victorian border.

“We can only make a better Australia with this.”

I don’t wanna be left out, so will you take me too?

Behind a shopfront window plastered with posters, a world of music quietly sits in lines of blue crates just waiting for that moment of discovery.

In this small store in the Brisbane suburb of Stones Corner — about 150 good drop punts south of the Gabba — the unbelievably cool and the quietly awkward flick their fingers over hundreds of records, looking for that one audio gem that will twinkle in their ears and fill out the soundtrack to their lives.

There’s music from around the globe, of different eras and styles. Old cassettes spin around on a display, and behind the counter a new copy of Private Function’s ’370HSSV 0773H’ record sits pride of place, an album that was released just after the band headlined the post-match Community Cup concert in Melbourne last year.

For Queensland music lovers, Sonic Sherpa is a pilgrimage they’ll likely make at least once in their lives.

But for the Brisbane leg of the Community Cup, this record shop is the heart and soul of everything that they do.

For eight years, partners and keepers of the tunes Steve Bell and Michelle Padovan have helped organise the match with a group of Brisbane Community Cup originals, wrangling together equipment, and players, and footy fields as best they can, all to raise money for that trickle of an idea that started in St Kilda 30 years ago.

“I remember vividly ‘Shelly’ talking about the prospect of the cup coming up to Brisbane and she was very passionate and I thought it was great — and then all of a sudden I had an epiphany of ’oh hang on. I’m going to be organising this, aren’t I?” Bell says.

“I’ve always been the guy at footy who was a music obsessive, and I was the music guy who loved footy, but there’s not that many people with the foot in both worlds.

“So it was pretty obvious that I was one of the right people to help get it off the ground.”

A renowned music journalist, Bell had played at a ‘pretty high level’ in the years where his knees ached a little less and the kicks flew a little further.

He had moved to Brisbane in the early 90s, living the share house life in a world that was not that far removed from a He Died With A Felafel In His Hand sort of lifestyle.

And back then, the Australian game just wasn’t on the River City’s radar.

“It was crazy. No one even knew what Aussie Rules was,” Bell says.

“I’d be talking to people at parties and stuff and and they literally didn’t know what it was.

“The game with the tight shorts or aerial ping pong and all that sort of stuff they’d say. The footy scores for the AFL were hidden 20 pages back in the paper.”

For a passionate St Kilda fan, it was foreign world in which if you said you were a fan of the Saints, the general response would be that (I’m) Stranded was a cultural cornerstone of the Aussie music scene.

He had a foot in both worlds — but one of those worlds was yet to be truly discovered north of the Murray River.

And even now, with three decades and three Brisbane Lions premierships in the rear-view mirror, Aussie Rules still sits in shotgun to rugby league, occasionally grabbing at the wheel but mostly accepting its place in the passenger seat.

The Community Cup, though, goes from strength to strength — and it does it on the back of the hard work of the likes of Bell and Padovan, and scores of volunteers who dedicate their time to the organising committee, and the broadcasters of community radio station 4ZZZ who turn out every year to build on the success of the year before.

It’s people like Sharryn Bell, who was on the first committee all that time ago and continues to put in hours of work to get the event off the ground. It’s the entire Evans family, who were crucial in taking what Jason had started in Melbourne and took a punt on it working in Brisbane as well.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. For the Brisbane leg of this event, it took a handful of hard working locals with a big idea to raise an ever-growing community.

“You can’t go out to a gig anymore without running into someone from the Rocking Horses or the Brisbane Lines” Bell says.

“But there’s this other side to it — there’s that element of pride, that pride that we’ve made this event bigger and bigger and raised greater sums every year for Reclink to do their important role in society.

“It’s like a warming glow, that altruistic charity aspect of the cup.”

For Padovan, it’s the sense of community and building of relationships that makes the game a special part of the Brisbane music scene’s annual calendar.

“It’s that camaraderie,” she says.

“It’s the media knowing who the musicians are, the musicians knowing who the media are, and it’s all of them doing it for a common cause and a common purpose.

“We’ve been lucky that the Brisbane music scene has really got behind us on this and supported it from the beginning.

“It still sort of blows my mind, some of the people who have said yes to playing.”

One of those people is Ian Haug.

A founding member of Powderfinger and now on tour with The Church, Haug’s guitar has left an indelible mark on Australian music. But every Sunday — when he’s not on the road in another city, playing on another stage — he’s all about taking an infallible mark. Preferably in the goal square. On a slight angle.

“I think this if my fourth year,” he says.

“Belly and Michelle had asked me to get involved, along with Johnny Mullen from Dew Process records, who had been there from pretty much the beginning.

“And I just see it as something that’s beneficial on three levels — it’s a good social thing to do, it’s a bit of fitness, and it’s great charity. You can’t really beat that sort of combination.”

A Tasmanian by birth, before a move to Victoria that saw him indoctrinated into the cult of Australian Football, Haug stopped playing footy as a teenager when his family moved to Queensland.

But he continued to ‘semi-follow’ the game, identifying as a Hawthorn supporter because his brother had worn yellow and gold playing junior footy somewhere in the Frankston area, so the connection ‘just made sense to a six-year-old’.

“I’ve always had that interest in the game and being able to pull on the boots again is just a lot of fun,” he says.

“I mean it’s not a serious game — I wouldn’t be playing if it was — but there’s just this really fun spirit about the whole thing.

“To be allowed to put on a Rocking Horses jersey and and just be out there with friends, you know, it’s just funny seeing all these people you’ve known in the music scene come out and kick the ball and it’s like ‘wow, I didn’t know you could do that’.

“Growing up I’m sure a lot of musician types were wary of the jock types of people, because there was something uncool it. But this thing, it really brings the two worlds together.”

Having played in some Australia’s biggest venues — including the 2008 Grand Final while decked out in his Hawthorn guernsey before the Hawks claimed the flag — you would be forgiven for thinking nerves wouldn’t be an issue in a kick and giggle hit out in the Brisbane suburbs.

“I get nervous,” Haug says.

“Whenever the ball comes near you, you just don’t want to screw up. I’ve missed a couple of easy goals in my time.

“I think everyone’s like that. But you just have to have that mindset that nobody is going to hate on you for letting a goal go through.

“You still don’t want to look bad though — and that’s why we go to training every week. That, and hoping you’re prepared enough to not get injured.”

Ultimately, Haug says, this whole footy circus is a way to help people who haven’t had the opportunities that the rest of us might have had in life.

“It’s proven that sport and music help people who might be having mental health issues,” he says.

“And this is all about helping those people who have fallen through the cracks start to rebuild friendships and have an opportunity to do something that a lot of us take for granted.

“So yeah. Come and join us, watch some footy, check out the bands — grab a veggie burger. Come and have a beer. It’s genuinely a great day.”

Countdown as the weeks trickle into days

When that ragtag bunch of Brisbanites run out onto Enoggera Memorial Park on July 30, they’ll have been training together since the end of April.

They’ll have made new friendships, learned a few fresh skills, pulled a couple of hamstrings, and just generally had a bloody good time.

No matter the result, whether the captains lift the cup for the Rocking Horses or the Brisbane Lines, they will walk off the field with that euphoric feeling that only sport can provide.

Fresh in their minds will be that one perfect pass that opened up the play. That oh-so-close mark that just spilled from their fingertips.

That goal — that perfect goal — that spun so beautifully between those two big posts, and the adulation and appreciation from teammates as the ball tumbled over the fence and six points went on the board.

They will have that feeling deep within them.

That feeling that so many of us never get to experience.

“It’s a clean rush,” Peter Cullen says.

“It’s a clean rush, and it’s real.”

The Brisbane Reclink Community Cup is on July 30 at Enoggera Memorial Park, with a concert headlined by Hope D. Tickets and information can be found here.

Words and production: Kyle Pollard

Graphic: Shazza Bell

Photography: Kyle Pollard, Allan Allport, Nadia Jane Achilles, Red Stockholm, Getty Images

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