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The case for Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters by Johnny Warren

If you had to argue for the merits of one Australian book, one piece of writing, what would it be? Welcome to our occasional series in which our authors make the case for a work of their choosing. See…

Johnny Warren argued that no other sport reflects life the way football does. Dan Himbrechts/AAP Image

If you had to argue for the merits of one Australian book, one piece of writing, what would it be? Welcome to our occasional series in which our authors make the case for a work of their choosing. See the end of this article for information on how to get involved.

The late Johnny Warren – also known as Captain Socceroo – was a legend of Australian football. He is fondly remembered as a player, coach, administrator, writer and broadcaster, and the award for the best player in the A-League is named the Johnny Warren Medal.

And yet his 2002 biography Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters, an Incomplete Biography of Johnny Warren and Soccer in Australia, which he co-wrote with Andy Harper and Josh Whittington, seems eternally destined to raise eyebrows.

It was published when football – some people still call it soccer – was in a “transitional phase” regarding its profile as a national spectator sport in Australia. In the context of the sport’s burgeoning popularity, you’d think we’d now be well past the misogyny, racism, homophobia and other associated stigmas the title refers to.

But in May last year, AFL coach Kevin Sheedy, suggested the Immigration Department were the best recruiters for A-League newcomers Western Sydney Wanderers; and David Gallop, Football Federation of Australia CEO and recent convert from NRL, seemed to revel in the opportunity to stick a boot in.

Wikimedia Commons

Everyone moved on; we got over it. And quite honestly, that’s what you would expect to happen to a book with a title like Warren’s.

It hasn’t because the book is just too important.

Its “story” follows Warren’s career as player, coach, captain and mentor, and his effusive post-career advocacy as a commentator and benefactor.

Simultaneously, it captures the history of Australian football from the darkness of the 1950s through to solemn days of administrative greed, redundant power-struggles, and political self-destruction.

Undoubtedly the text is weighed down by requisite facts and figures; it’s also repetitive, a little flabby, and yes, Warren is prone to preaching. But it is lifted beyond the vast grey swathe of sports biographies by the author’s low key awareness of his contribution to the game’s social and cultural history.

It is not a work that prises open scandal-filled cans, or aims to justify embarrassing public mistakes. The gentle voice lends itself authority through its intelligence, keen insight and overwhelming honesty.

Along the way, Warren shames those responsible for the sport’s lack of unity, champions players who should have been famous long before the lionising of Australian players such as Lucas Neil or Harry Kewell.

There are fantastic stories, such as the doomed 1966 campaign (the Socceroos lost to North Korea who then became the darlings of the same World Cup), the infamous witchdoctor’s curse that John Safran reversed in Mozambique in 2010, and the ridiculously small payment the players received for the nation’s first World Cup Qualification in 1974 (reportedly less than A$14 each).

Warren was born in Australia. His family are “sixth generation Australians”. He grew up playing a sport he loved and was chastised for it almost every day. His playing ability, his understanding of a responsibility for something much larger – and the constant push against the stigma he and the game have undergone – are carefully linked in this book.

In the “Where to from here?” chapter that closes the work, Warren highlights the need for a strong national league. The A-League was established in 2005, the year after his death from lung cancer. He also underlines his disgust for FIFA, the international governing body of association football, and makes an argument for Australian club and national level engagement with teams from Asia, which has since happened.

The book’s title refers to what Warren described as a “mentality” that exists around football in its early days in Australia, a mentality he implied was borne of fear. Commentator Les Murray argued in 2012 that stigma still surrounds the game in Australia, and that its reputation is “soiled” by influential media commentators, who see it as:

some kind of alien animal to which real Australians will never take because there are far too few goals, there are too many prima donna divers, there is no video refereeing and their fans are far too violent and, in any case, not like us.

Although the book’s title was allegedly contested by the publishers, Warren was adamant, and Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters prevailed. It seems outdated now, but the book’s content remains the best, most insightful account of the Australian game’s contemporary development.

In the opening chapter, Warren argues that no other sport reflects life the way football does. I agree. Football changed my life too. Warren’s vociferous passion is contagious, his vision realised. Even if you dislike the sport and never feel the need to buy a ticket for an A-League game, when someone is able to articulate the depth of their soul-brimming passion we can’t help but be a little changed by the experience.

Like the Socceroos, the book’s name requires a revisit – but while the national team will struggle against their opponents in Brazil in June, had it not been for Johnny Warren they would never have made it in the first place.

That alone makes his biography worth a second look.


Are you an academic or researcher? Is there an Australian book or piece of writing – fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or historical – you would like to make the case for? Contact the Arts + Culture editor.

Further reading:
The case for Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance
The Case for John Bryson’s Evil Angels
The case for Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    The book's title definitely does NOT require a revisit. It perfectly encapsulates the culture of the time and how many in the country did (and still) see those who play soccer.

    Leave the PC out of it please. We are more mature than that and are perfectly capable of seeing things in context.

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    1. Mathew Ashton

      Manager

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      I completely agree with you Mike. To rename this book would be to undervalue it as a moment in time.
      Political Correctness will never stand up to the honest, albeit blunt truth.

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    2. Guido Tresoldi

      Librarian

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Yes, I also agree that the book stands as a testament to its time. Hopefully we will get another Australian Association Football player to write a book for the modern times.

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    3. Lee McGowan

      Senior Lecturer, Postgraduate Coursework Studies at Queensland University of Technology

      In reply to John Phillip

      Thank you all for commenting. While I agree the title captures an attitude at a moment in time, I would see our community shrug off concerns about what other people think of us. We've only the AFL to topple in terms of home game attendances. We're here to stay.

      And as Guido notes, the history needs a refresher, the title will too.

      It's a great book, like the game it's self, it has contentious flaws.

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  2. Guido Tresoldi

    Librarian

    A great book. Of course interesting because of the football, but also, as the article states, on how Association Football exposes the cultural insecurities of the Australian mainstream.

    Such a shame Johnny Warren passed away before he could see the National Team qualify for the world cup. When we qualified I saw a banner at Homebush stating; "we told you so".

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    1. Lee McGowan

      Senior Lecturer, Postgraduate Coursework Studies at Queensland University of Technology

      In reply to Guido Tresoldi

      In the TV studio at the World Cup they had his picture on the back drop, with the same expression on it.

      Watching the footage of Aloisi's pen. and Simon Hill shouting JW's name still gives me goosebumps. Bring a tear to a glass eye.

      Between the Brazil and the Asian Pacific Cup, its going to be a big year for the internationals. And I can't remember a season in the A-League when I've watched so many really good games.

      Thanks for taking the time Guido.

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  3. Dean Biron

    PhD in Cultural Studies; Tutor in Criminology at Griffith University

    Nice piece, Lee.

    The sport has matured remarkably in the decade or so since the book, and one way this can continue is by downplaying the argument around the terms football/soccer. I suspect that few people I played with the 80s and 90s worried much about calling it soccer to differentiate it from other sports in this country ... on this point I would agree with the otherwise chronically inane Peter Fitzsimmons of the Herald.

    The remarkable match in Brisbane last night was also good evidence…

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    1. Lee McGowan

      Senior Lecturer, Postgraduate Coursework Studies at Queensland University of Technology

      In reply to Dean Biron

      Thank you Dean. Appreciate you taking the time.

      I agree last night's game was a cracker! I also agree about ditching minor premiership too. Gallup seems to have had a very positive influence on the game so far.

      And while it feels like most people call it football these days, up here in Queensland (as you'll know) we still meet some heavy resistance.

      The FFA Cup starts in late July this year I think, I think its amazing that Australia will have something that runs like the Scottish Cup (oldest cup comp in the world - FA used the same model and I'm really bias). I think the final happens mid A-League season and I honestly can't wait. Like so many fans, it'll be great to shrug off the models of other codes - its another step towards football's growth

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  4. Christiaan Willems

    Teaching Transformation Fellow & Manager, Redelivery at Queensland University of Technology

    Well done Dr Lee. In the best traditions of name-dropping I managed to get a soccer (sorry) ball autographed by both Les Murray and Johnny Warren for my Dad - a very enthusiastic supporter - for his 76th birthday in 1994. He died the following year. He would have been very proud of the Socceroo's achievements and would have heartily endorsed your observations of Johnny Warren's pivotal role and influence on the sport in this country. P.S. The book title should stay.

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