VOL 59 No. 1 April 2019
Photography: AFL

For the last quarter of a century, thousands of people have flocked to the G to watch the annual Anzac Day blockbuster. And despite its milestone 25th year, just like in previous years, the highly anticipated match remained secondary to the day’s main priorities.

In 1995, Essendon and Collingwood came face-to-face for the first official Anzac Day clash between the two Clubs. That day, more than 94,000 people packed the MCG.

It marked the start of what has become an annual tradition and one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the AFL season. It has also become an occasion that transcends just a simple footy match.

Let’s go back to where it all began in 1994 when Essendon’s then coach, Kevin Sheedy OA, had a brainwave. After seeing what he thought were dwindling Anzac Day crowds, the Australian icon who completed two years of national service in the 60s, believed he had a fitting way to commemorate the day.

He rang then RSL Victoria President Bruce Ruxton AM OBE and told him his thoughts. “The RSL’s support is tremendously important.

"It is not an AFL day, it’s the RSL’s day."

Kevin Sheedy OA

The match has ongoing support from RSL Victoria. “Congratulations on 25 years of Anzac Day matches. Thank you to Kevin and those who realised the potential of an annual match that honours Australia’s service men and women in a way that appeals to the masses, while retaining the gravity of the day and giving it the respect it deserves,” said President Dr Rob Webster OAM.

Kevin Sheedy credits the spirit of the Australian people for bringing the match into its 25th year. “They understand the depth and hurt of war over the many years our defence forces have been in war zones.

"I think it’s really touched reality that we had an opportunity to celebrate all those lost men and women, and the injured men and women who haven’t been well in life after service."

Kevin Sheedy OA

Every annual ANZAC Day morning, dawn services around the country reflect on the service and sacrifice of all Australian service men and women from every conflict, past and present. Come the afternoon, thousands of dedicated AFL fans gather to watch the Anzac Day match, where the meaning of the day does not go unrecognised.

The pre-match has become one of the most emotive scenes in Australian sport. A motorcade of service men and women from all conflicts is greeted with a hero’s welcome from both sides of the footy fence, as it completes its lap of honour around the ground. And then, for a moment, it is almost like the two teams become one, as they run through a single, unified banner in a symbolic gesture recognising the way Australians came together in war times.

Then, in one of the most poignant moments – the lone bugle plays The Last Post, followed by a respectful and moving minute’s silence. The quiet speaks volumes. Some say it is electrifying, others say it is golden.

21-year-old Essendon Football Player, Darcy Parish is gearing up for his fourth Anzac Day match. “I just remember having shivers down my spine. The minute silence really touches me, you’re there in this massive stadium with a massive crowd and it’s just silent.”

Essendon Midfielder Darcy Parish


Kevin Sheedy’s passion for Anzac Day and the ANZAC Day footy match is driven in part by his self-described patriotism. He fondly recalls how it saw him draw maps of Australia on the front of all his exercise books as a school child.

He also has a burning desire to keep ANZAC Day relevant and as meaningful now, as it has been in the past. “Many young people really wouldn’t understand the First World War. Obviously, it was so long ago, before they were born, even the Second World War, the Korean War. It’s one way to replenish and reignite the history of these people who gave us the opportunity to live the life we have.”

It may be said the Collingwood-Essendon game has helped to reinvigorate ANZAC Day, providing a new generation and audience. “I would like to think that in the 25 years the Club has been involved in Anzac Day, we’ve been able to play a part in the education of the next generation and even hopefully supporting Anzac Day to be an even bigger, more significant day in our country,” said Xavier Campbell, Essendon Football Club’s Chief Executive Officer.

The players themselves are encouraged to display the ‘ANZAC Spirit’ of skill, courage, self-sacrifice, teamwork and fair play. Since the year 2000, the ANZAC Day Medal has been presented to one player who best exemplifies these traits. It was later awarded retrospectively for the years 1995-99. “From our players perspective, it’s an amazing honour if they can walk away with the ANZAC Medal. But very importantly, they know what that represents,” said Mark Anderson, Collingwood Football Club’s Chief Executive Officer.

The RSL has supported the Clubs to build a greater depth to ANZAC Day by implementing a whole range of initiatives. Education programs, guest speakers and visits to the Shrine of Remembrance allow the meaning of the day to be embedded into the football club’s psyche.

"ANZAC Day isn’t just important for one day of the year."

Essendon CEO: Xavier Campbell

These initiatives serve as a real highlight and learning opportunity for many of the players. “We listen to Jack Jones, who comes to talk to us about his experiences at war. He is still around the Club and it’s great to catch up with him. It’s great to connect with someone like that,” said Essendon player, Darcy Parish.

Essendon’s Jack Jones made his debut for the Club in 1946. He played 133 straight games and by the end of his career had 175 matches to his name. Throughout his career, Jack wore number 24, as a tribute to the mates he served alongside on the battlefield. Jack served in New Guinea and Bougainville as part of the 24th Infantry Battalion during World War II. He has been quoted as saying, “we should never have gone – as 18 and 19 year olds. It’s very hard to describe what the war was like, but it was horrific.”

“I remember thinking last year when Jack was articulating his service time in Papua New Guinea, that he was 19. The same age as some of our players. To think of them in that position is incredibly confronting. It provides great context to war and what it was like to those individuals,” said Essendon’s Xavier Campbell.

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The ANZAC Day match has also become one of the greatest fundraisers for the RSL, a crucial element in looking after veterans. “There are young veterans now, some in their 20s and 30s, that are the same age as current players at Essendon and Collingwood, but their life experience is completely different, and some of them desperately need our help,” said Dr Robert Webster, RSL Victoria President.

Both the Essendon and Collingwood CEO’s are humbled to be at the helm during this milestone. Essendon’s Xavier Campbell has been with the Club for 10 years and has been intimately involved in the preparation of the last decades worth of ANZAC Day clashes. Collingwood’s Mark Anderson was at the 1995 match as a member.

While they might be ‘enemies’ on the footy field as they battle it out for the coveted win, their common bond adds an even deeper, personal connection to the day.

“My grandfather, Donald Campbell, served. It probably impacted all service men and women differently. It wasn’t something my grandfather spoke about and that was his choice. He was injured in the war and it affected him for the rest of his life and made things a bit more challenging for him. But what I do know is that he was very proud to serve his country,” said Xavier Campbell, Essendon’s CEO.

“My grandfather from my dad’s side served on the Western Front in 1918. So, from a personal perspective and for our family, like many Australians, having that piece of our family history a part of Australia’s history and recognising the contribution of all who served, not only from WWI but right through the battles Australia has faced really means something to all Australians and has a personal connection to myself and our family,” said Collingwood’s CEO, Mark Anderson.

It has not always been a harmonious relationship between ANZAC Day and football. At one stage in history a government regulation prohibited organised sport on ANZAC Day. Eventually it was lifted, but the controversies that plague ANZAC Day footy cannot be denied.

Whether you are a friend or foe of the Anzac Day footy match, its founding father Kevin Sheedy has a parting message.

"Keep supporting our men and women in Defence at all times."

Kevin Sheedy OA