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Footy in paradise


LEON BAKER is renowned almost as much for being a wanderer as he is for his match-winning role for Essendon in the 1984 grand final. Baker played footy in country Victoria, in Cairns, and in Bunbury and for Swan Districts in Western Australia before bringing his Midas touch to the big time.

"Leon Baker, premiership-maker," was how Kevin Sheedy described him at Windy Hill.

But none of Baker's wanderings prepared him for coaching the Port Douglas Crocodiles.

A decade ago, Baker was coaching Gippsland club Maffra when his wife, whom he affectionately calls Spider, pointed out an ad in the Inside Football magazine. Port Douglas was looking for a coach.

The artful centreman had played for South Cairns in 1976, when he was 19. A return to the warm weather in North Queensland appealed.

"It's an easy place to live," he said. "No one's too serious about much."

Baker turned up the club's home ground at the Mossman showgrounds, a few kilometres inland from Port Douglas, and received a shock. A tin shed overlooked a rugby pitch. In the shed, a flimsy partition separated the home team and the visitors.

"It was a pretty raw, old set-up," said Baker, who grew up at Avenel, near Seymour.

His appreciation of the rustic surrounds at Mossman reached its height during the annual show, when he turned up at training to discover equestrian jumps assembled across the pitch and the surface cut up by hooves. He was tempted to run his players over the jumps, scoring them perhaps on knee-lift and presentation, but thought better of it. Training would have to be postponed until the show was over.

Besides the Mossman Show, training was interrupted during the cane harvest. Cane fields surrounded the rugby pitch. On the eve of the harvest, when the crop was burnt to soften the stalks and rid the area of snakes and vermin, the players were unable to take marks or aim at the uprights because they were blinded by smoke.

The club knew it would have to move on. The first few years of the Crocs' existence had been eventful, and even successful. But if the club was to prosper, it would have to set up in Port Douglas, away from the cane fields and closer to the hotels and restaurants where most of its players were employed. Most players were employed at the Sheraton Mirage, the luxurious motel owned by former Victorian entrepreneur Christopher Skase. The connection between Skase and the Crocodiles can be traced back to Melbourne, before the Port Douglas Football Club came into being.

Skase's hair was cut in Melbourne in the early 1980s by Marta Smith. A chauffeured car would pick her up and whisk her off to the Skase mansion when the businessman needed a trim.

A few years later, Smith and her family settled in Port Douglas. In 1988, the Port Douglas Football Club was founded at a meeting of southern expatriates - almost entirely Victorian - and Andy Smith, Marta's husband, was voted the inaugural president.

The next January, on the eve of the Crocodiles' first season, Andy Smith made use of his connection with Skase during the international Skins tournament at the Mirage golf course. Greg Norman was lining up his putt at the fifth hole when Smith sidled up to Skase and said hello.

After small talk about hairdressing and golf, Smith asked the tycoon, who owned the Brisbane Bears at the time, whether he would like to upgrade his football interest by sponsoring Port Douglas in its inaugural season.

How much?, Skase asked.

Smith suggested that $20,000 would earn him major-sponsor status. Skase told him to see the manager of the Sheraton Mirage on the Monday and pick up a cheque for $10,000. Another cheque for $10,000 would be ready in a month.

The relationship between the Sheraton Mirage and the football club flourished beyond the cheques. About 30 clubmen worked on the golf course and more than 50 worked on construction when the motel was being built.

"Almost our entire club worked at the Sheraton," Smith said.

Buoyed by financial security, the Crocs made the finals in their first season and the grand final the next year. Centrals, coached by current Carlton coach Wayne Brittain, a member of a prominent Cairns football family, thrashed Port Douglas but the Crocs followed up by winning the premiership in 1991.

By 1993, the year that Leon Baker coached, and by which time the Crocs were desperate to move from the Mossman showgrounds, a stretch of dirt was available at the site of the former Port Douglas tip. The site was next to the pile of silt that had been excavated from Dicksons Inlet to create the Mirage Marina.

The football club smoothed the dirt and created an oval. An Aboriginal claim on land around the mangrove swamps near Dicksons Inlet stopped the Crocodiles from building clubrooms but, from 1994, the club began playing at the ground.

While the land claim was being settled, Ernie Baxter, a founding member of the Crocodiles, organised several clubmen to carry the frame of an old pontoon from the inlet to the oval. A concrete slab was laid. The pontoon was upended and placed on the slab, and tarpaulins were stretched across the upturned frame of the old boat.

The Crocodiles made do with the tarpaulin clubrooms for two seasons. During that time, the Aboriginal land claimants discovered that the land was to be used for a football club and encouraged the Crocodiles to proceed with their plans. Clubrooms were designed in the style known as "tropical North Queensland vernacular", with a high roof, a wide verandah, and louvres to enable two- and three-goal winds to pass through.

The rooms cost $700,000 and, besides football, serve the needs of netball and cricket clubs, with rugby union planned for coming years. The green, sloping roof and the wooden seats in front of the building lend the appearance of an English cricket pavilion but, on any given Saturday in what passes for winter in this part of the world, the number of Mexicans lounging around the oval suggests a big sombrero should be strapped to every post.

Victorians are everywhere. If a Port Douglas player or supporter isn't from the garden state, a Victorian connection is usually to be found. The odd South Australian or Tasmanian might break up the mix, or Queensland number plates might occasionally be found on four-wheel drives around the oval, but by and large most clubmen would be more familiar with Collins Street than crocodiles.

On the day on which I went to the footy in Port Douglas, almost the entire team was from Victoria. The MacLeod brothers, Andrew and Stephen, learned their junior football in Port Douglas, but only because their family moved from Victoria when they were young.

Terry "Bucket" MacLeod, the brothers' father, was larger than life at Geelong and District league club Thomson before moving his tribe north in 1990. Others, such as club president Rob Barnett, have also moved their families to Port Douglas and stayed. Leon Baker is among brothers. Barnett admitted, however, that most Port Douglas players are in the tropics for a good time rather than a long time. "They spend one or two years chasing backpackers, then go back home," he said.

The high turnover is expected in a town that is in the heart of a thriving tourism region. Coach Ian Wilmott, a noted juniors coach at Victorian amateurs club Hampton Rovers before heading north, said most clubs in the south would expect to lose three or four players a year who must be replaced; at Port Douglas the figure is more like a dozen.

Last summer the club augmented its practice of placing an ad in Inside Football and relying on its contacts in Victoria by advertising on the recruitment internet site, Wilmott and football manager Ian Hay, who grew up in Creswick, followed up by hosting information sessions at the Sandringham Hotel on successive Sundays last December.

About eight curious players turned up at each session. Hay brandished glossy brochures of trips to the barrier reef and spoke about sun and sand. His pitch was to enjoy a couple of seasons playing good football up north before settling into family life in wintry Victoria.

Two players were recruited through the internet site: Jason Heath, a Collingwood rookie forward who spent last season at Williamstown, and Glenn Hayles, a 203-centimetre ruckman from Ballarat club Redan. Handy pick-ups, you might agree.

Neither had any idea of the whereabouts of Port Douglas. Heath expected it to be dry and dusty, rather than the lush, tropical wonderland it is, and Hayles was surprised to find out the town was in Queensland.

Hay said few recruits realise the location of Port Douglas before setting out. A common reaction is to get out of the car on reaching the oval, shake the head, and mutter: "F..., it's a long way."

Many southerners from coastal regions arrive with surfboards strapped to the roof of their car. In their minds, Queensland is all about sun and surf; they fail to realise that the barrier reef stops any waves crashing into shore past Noosa Heads, which is 2000 kilometres south.

If the southern players feel sheepish about their ignorance of North Queensland, their friends often make them feel better. Many Port Douglas players and supporters regale stories of mates arriving in Brisbane and ringing up to suggest a visit.

"I might pop up for a drink," the mate says. It is then explained that the distance from Brisbane to Cairns is further than the distance from Melbourne to Brisbane. Plans for drinks are usually put on hold until the next season.

Amid the tropical hi-jinx, clubs in the Cairns Australian Football League strive to win the premiership as much as their southern counterparts. Brennan Crisp, a 26-year-old ruckman, expressed a typical reaction after pulling on the boots for Port Douglas.

Crisp played for Myrtleford in the 2001 grand final in the Ovens and Murray league, considered the strongest league in country Australia, but, after representing his home town all his life, he decided to take up Port Douglas's offer.

"I thought one year away wouldn't hurt," he said.

He was pleasantly surprised at the facilities and the football in the tropics. He said the top teams in the Cairns AFL would give mid-ranking teams in the Ovens and Murray league a battle.

His own battle during this match against the Cairns Saints was to overcome an injury he picked up during a training run on Four-Mile Beach. In an incident unimaginable in north-east Victoria, he broke his toe while playing a soccer match in bare feet.

Crisp spent most of this match camped in the goalsquare. His fellow forward Mark Morasco, who arrived mid-season when it became apparent his home club, West Footscray, was unlikely to make the finals, led swiftly to take several marks and kick four goals.

On the sidelines, Leon Baker, looking fit and tanned at 45 years of age, watched the club he coached for one educational season, while Kevin Duffy enjoyed another installment in his own football education. Duffy converted to the Australian game after watching an AFL exhibition match in Toronto when he was 10. This week, he is to take leave from the Port Douglas reserves to represent Canada in the Australian International Football Cup in Melbourne.

Last year, the Crocodiles won the premiership when Lachlan Fletcher, a brother of Essendon defender Dustin, booted a goal to sink the undefeated South Cairns with the last kick of the grand final. In this match against Cairns Saints, the Crocodiles remained on course to defend their flag with a comfortable victory.

Cairns Saints is also comprised mainly by Victorians. The club was formed a decade ago by expatriates from the Ballarat league.

In the social rooms after the match, players and supporters compared notes as a cooling breeze drifted through the louvres. Four-wheel drives were backed off the bank that surrounds the oval as the rooms filled with talk about North Queensland and North Ballarat.

The sun set on another glorious day at the Port Douglas oval.

16 August 2002


Leon Baker in 1981 with Swan Districts

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