Book Review: Time & Space

by williamschack

“Nothing’s new in life, son. It’s all been done before.”
– Jack Oatey

Time and Space is the story of the tactical evolution in Australian Rules football. The book is the result of what must have been exhaustive research by ABC journalist, James Coventry, and provides a surprising and insightful analysis of the Australian game’s development from its amateur and rugby roots, to the top tier state competitions that dominated the minds of Australian sports fans west and south of the Barassi line in the 20th century, to the professional and national game it has become in the 21st century.

For the non-football fanatic, the early chapters may seem quite tedious, but fanatics will find it illuminating to read of some of the early developments. It was surprising to find out that whilst there was no explicit reference to an offside rule in the original rules, it was expected that the players adhere to it. The opening chapter, aptly named ‘Breaking the Line’, shows that when the games’ founder Tom Wills broke that unwritten rule he was roundly criticised as ungentlemanly and unsportsmanlike. How lucky we are that he did, for it is our game’s singular feature that distinguishes it from rugby and soccer, and in this writer’s opinion, the great trump card it holds over the other codes.

The book suggests that most things in football have been done before, as the epigraph at the beginning of the book explains (see above), and that each development is usually a reorganisation of something that has been tried by another coach. The spare man in defence is something that is often derided by commentators as a modern invention that means contemporary players are incapable of competing man-on-man. Yet as far back as 1894 it was used as a tactic by Geelong to stop the all-conquering Essendon’s Albert Thurgood. Furthermore, the incessant complaining by fans, commentators and administrators about the state of the game, has been said time and time again as football has developed and changed. There are numerous passages taken from the opinion pages of old newspapers which were written decades ago, but the reader could have sworn were discussed at a round table on Fox Footy last year with Adrian Anderson, David King, Mick Malthouse and Gerard Healy.

This suggestion, however, does not mean that football should stand still. The fans who complain that we should leave the rules alone and let football change itself need to understand that it has never been thus. From its very inception Australian Rules was an evolving beast and along with tactical masterminds, the rule makers have played a large part in that evolution. There are many rule changes that the book highlights as being for the betterment of the game. The most obvious and commonly cited in contemporary times is the introduction of out-of-bounds-on-the-full rule in 1969. Another lesser known one is the introduction of the 10 yard mark rule in 1897, which had previously been 2 yards. A tactic known as ‘little marking’ had crept back into the game where a series of short kicks – that were usually poorly disguised throws –  were used to transfer the ball forward. It is peculiar to think that it ever existed, but it did and the rule makers recognised that by extending the required distance for a mark that play would open up and be a greater spectacle for fans.

The book uses the central characters involved in tactics to help propel the narrative from the 1850s through to today. It is the structure that gives the book its greatest strength. For whilst it is interesting to learn the details of game plans which we never knew of before, it is even more interesting to read about the likes of Tom Wills whose story is one that every Australian should know. Or Geelong identity Hermann Reichmann, whose name when typed into google shows up nothing except a reference to his name in a review of this very book.

It is also refreshing to read a book that acknowledges the great debt the games owes to the other states who played Australian Rules. The VFL and latterly the AFL would like to take the credit for every invention in the game and rewrite history. The book shows that some of the most influential figures in the trajectory of the game came from outside the borders of Victoria and its passages on the political manouvering of the State competitions in the now defunct Australian Football Council are fascinating.

To analyse the details of the tactical changes is beyond the scope of this review, but it is interesting to note that revolutionary ideas often come from the clubs that weren’t successful, as they needed to innovate to compete with the clubs with the best players. It made this reviewer think that along with increased professionalism in football, perhaps one of the reasons that there is now so much innovation and tactical change in modern football, is that because there has now been a socialist system in the AFL for almost 30 years. With the reverse draft and a salary cap, the gap between the top and bottom is nowhere near as large as it used to be, and so all clubs feel the need to innovate, even when they are at the top.

This book has highlighted some people I was unaware of in regard to their impact on the game, and changed my opinion on some issues surrounding its current status. It is recommended to anyone who has an interest in how the game arrived at its current destination, even if you’re only interested in the recent history then I’d still recommend it just for the final chapters. The very recent tactics aren’t analysed in great depth, which apparently was due to not too many current coaches wanting to reveal their inner secrets. Hopefully another book like this is written in 100 years to document the developments of this century. For, as Gerard Wheatley writes on the back cover, this is ‘not just the tales of the men who pushed and prodded the Australian game. It’s the story of footy itself’.

Time and Space is published by HarperCollins