Writing a history of a sporting club must present definite challenges; how much space to spend on descriptions of particular matches? How much on individual players? On the administration of the club? In Absolutely Bleeding Green, David Headon has met these challenges to produce an eminently readable, informative book, which deals thoroughly with Raiders history, and with changes to Rugby League over the years.
A club doesn't spring fully formed from nothing, and the first sections of the book deal with the history of rugby, and later Rugby League, in the areas around modern day Canberra. As many League fans will know, the break-away sport was partly a result of working men having, for the first time, 'more leisure hours on the weekends'. In 1909, many former Wallaby players switched from rugby to play the professional game in the NSW Rugby League established in Sydney two years earlier. In 1921, the '"first match under Rugby League rules"' (reported in The Queanbeyan Age) occurred in the Canberra region, when the Warrigals played Bungendore. The game was soon "blossoming" in the area, and its "progress reflected the evolution of the capital city itself".
In an approach that occurs throughout the book, significant figures from the early era are profiled, and this makes for engaging reading. Whether it be Clarence Edwin Hincksman, who fought in WWI and returned to play with the Warrigals, the various coaches throughout Raiders' history, or later outstanding players such as Alan Tongue, the wider consideration of the game's history and the club's fortunes is enlivened by these cameos.
The 1981 bid for admission of a Canberra club faced some serious opposition, despite 'strong arguments in Canberra's favour', such as excellent grounds, many registered players, and the fact that 'a Canberra-Queanbeyan club...was bankrolled by the Queanbeyan Leagues Club.' Moreover, if rugby league was to survive, expansion beyond the confines of Sydney was necessary. Refreshingly, Headon reports on two politicians who were there, pushing the bid, rather than just using the achievements of victorious players for self promotion. Fred Daly and Ros Kelly were the two politicians involved. Bob Hawke was also an early supporter of the Raiders.
The circumstances behind the adoption of the distinctive Raiders colours, and even the name before their debut in 1982, are somewhat 'obscure', Headon writes. The NSWRL seems to have been behind the selection of the Raiders name. (At least one of the other suggested names, the 'Diplomats' wasn't successful!) The jersey's colour and design was not immediately acclaimed, but, as the author points out, 'Time can be a great healer...' It's now hard to think of the Raiders playing in anything but that distinctive green, and the Viking, whether as mascot or clap - the latter more recent, thanks to the Icelandic soccer team- has become part of Canberra's landscape and soundscape.
The pronouncements of Sydney pundits that the Raiders were likely to have a bad year, every year, seem to run through the book like a kind of grim (and sometimes amusing) Greek chorus. The dislike of Canberra as a place by various people in Sydney echoes through the book; whether it be the weather, the association with the other game on the Hill, or a simple dislike of the expansion of League outside their own city, some Sydney experts often seem to delight in writing off the Raiders.
Headon makes no secret of his love of the club throughout the book, but this is no one-eyed fan's tale that side-steps problems encountered by the club, or wider issues of changes in society as they affect League.
The glory years of the late 80s and early 90s are examined in depth, and this must have been as much a pleasure to research and write as it is to read. The split in Rugby League brought about by the creation of Super League will bring back painful memories for some readers. Many fans felt 'disgust' and 'fell out of love with the game' as rival media barons carved up the sport created by working men and followed for generations. The new reality of League after the 'war' is concisely summarised; 'A few clubs were going to be well off, able to exert influence, have their games routinely televised and purchase targeted marquee players of other clubs and their talented juniors. The rest would struggle.' The next chapter of the book, Harder Yards, brings these issues into focus as they have affected the Raiders from 2002 on. Poaching of junior players nurtured by the Raiders is identified as a particular concern, given that the club has long put substantial resources into this area.
Headon makes no secret of his love of the club throughout the book, but this is no one-eyed fan's tale that side-steps problems encountered by the club, or wider issues of changes in society as they affect League. The knowledge of the game and careful research shines from every page.
The selection of photographs complements the text, and they go back to the pre-Canberra days. Victor the Viking is also these, in different outfits from different eras. There is a photo of Raiders players in a girls' under-18 team, showing how the game continues to evolve. A brilliant black and white shot of Mal Meninga in the stands, looking up at the camera, with the entire crowd around him looking at the player after his last match, is the stand-out image. Of course Mal Meninga is also on the front cover, whereas fans adorn the back.
You do not have to be a rusted-on Raiders fan to find Absolutely Bleeding Green fascinating. In telling of the fortunes of a club from its inception to the end of the 2018 season, it focuses on the the players, fans, and the many people who work behind the scenes, providing variety, and surprising the reader. The book also shows how Canberra is linked to the towns surrounding it; there would be no Raiders without Queanbeyan. It deals with changing expectations of player behaviour, different notions of coaching, and how sport remains something more than just a marketable commodity. Descriptions of significant matches capture the excitement of the game, and the fleeting moments that affected the result.
The trouble with writing a book on a sporting club must be that as soon as the work is published, a new season makes demands to take its place within the pages. Headon writes that "The Stuart era as coach of the Raiders remains unfinished...a book yet to have its later chapters written". No doubt the memorable 2019 season will be detailed in a later edition of the book.
Absolutely Bleeding Green: The Raiders Story provides an invaluable history of a club that once again seems to be heading towards the very top of the game. It deserves to be read and re-read.
- Penelope Cottier is a poet who writes as PS Cottier, who loves several codes of football.
- Absolutely Bleeding Green: The Raiders Story, by David Headon. Allen & Unwin. $39.99.