A bus full of Footy Whippets - an experience of joyful inclusion

By Peter Hanlon

Lachie with big brother Clinton

Lachie Young is one of six boys from a Wimmera family whose love of sport fits the Australian bush stereotype to the letter. They grew up playing footy and cricket in a Minyip back yard, testing their home-spun skills in the local underage competition at weekends.

The most storied of the sporting Youngs, Clinton, played 137 games for Hawthorn and Collingwood including the Hawks’ 2008 premiership. He remembers piling into the family car and heading off to training as a teenager, and seeing the devastation felt by his little brother Lachie, who has Down syndrome, at being told he couldn’t join him. “When he was really young he played Auskick, but once it became more competitive he couldn’t play,” Clinton says. “He’d be crying as we headed out the gate.”

When Clinton was playing AFL Lachie was his biggest fan and a regular in the changerooms after games. Last year the tables were turned in the most heartwarming fashion when Clinton, who’d returned home to play for Minyip-Murtoa in his first season out of the AFL, played at Horsham in front of a big crowd. After the main game the local all-abilities team – the wonderfully-named Wimmera Whippets – took the field.

“Everyone knew Lachie was playing, so a lot of Minyip-Murtoa people hung around to watch,” Clinton says. “In the first quarter he was in the goalsquare, kicked a pretty flukey goal and did a big celebration. That got the crowd going. It was pretty special to watch.”

Clinton says it doesn’t matter what position his brother is chosen in, “he just plonks himself at full-forward anyway”. Their mother, Bev, laughs in agreement, confessing that Lachie doesn’t like straying too far from the possibility of another goal. Such indulgences are tolerated in the name of simply getting a game. “Lachie always loved supporting Clinton and our local team too,” Bev Young says. “But to get out there and play himself, he just loves it.”

The vehicle for this fulfilment is the Football Integration Development Association (FIDA), which from humble beginnings in 1991 has blossomed into a competition with 700 registered players spread over four divisions in Melbourne and which in recent years has spread its wings into country Victoria. Lachie Young’s experience is typical, as the veritable godfather of FIDA, Peter Ryan, observes.

“People go on about the self-esteem that’s associated with being able to play, but that’s because it’s true,” Ryan says. “I had a newspaper cutting from a mother who said it was the best day of her life because it was the first time her son had a game of footy. You get a lot of emotional responses from parents, saying how much it’s improved their lives.”

Rob Klemm, who coaches Williamstown and became involved in FIDA while teaching with Peter Ryan at a Broadmeadows special school in the mid-1990s, says many players in his club’s two teams share a similar playing history – accepted at Auskick level, but gradually disenfranchised as they tried to move up through the grades and the game became more taxing. “Coaches start to demand more complex game plans, they don’t understand, so they drop out – or they’re discriminated against, which does happen unfortunately.

“But they come down to a FIDA club and they realise, ‘I can get a game in this team, and play and have fun and win games and lose games.’ All the things that happen in footy. They’re doing what they’ve dreamed of.”

Clinton Young first encountered all-abilities footy making a player appearance at the Ringwood Spiders with his then Hawthorn teammate Grant Birchall, and soon became a FIDA ambassador. The Hawks’ connection runs deep; the seeds of today’s competition were sown when, 26 years ago, Hawthorn responded to a request to run a clinic for wannabe footballers with intellectual disabilities at its old Glenferrie Oval home.

Yet FIDA, which began with six teams and now boasts 23 and an annual national carnival where teams vie for the Peter Ryan Cup, is arguably his greatest contribution to the game.

Casting back, and drawing on his experience playing and recruiting far and wide, Ryan says it was commonplace to see “someone hanging around the club who had an obvious intellectual disability, who would have just loved to put a footy jumper on and get out and play. That’s who we started catering for.” Teams were generally run by councils and agencies in the early days, and a key to growth has been having clubs take a FIDA team under their umbrella just as they do juniors, women and veteran’s sides.

“These people add to your footy club – they can run water, fill in for the reserves, and they just bring more people to your footy club,” Ryan says. Klemm concurs, recalling that when he first became involved there were very few FIDA players who would have held their own in a mainstream football club, but now Williamstown has a handful of players who regularly turn out for North Sunshine, and in Corey Murphy a 200-game player with Airport West in the Essendon District league.

The rise in standard has parallels with AFL Women’s, which made such a splash through February and March you could have been forgiven for thinking women only started playing the game in 2017. The reality is that exposure to professional training and coaching will continue to improve women’s football at a rapid rate, just as playing and training regularly lifts the level of FIDA football.

The range of abilities is naturally vast, with Ryan noting that the higher functioning players drive cars, have full-time jobs and enjoy far greater independence than some of their teammates. “At the other end of the scale we’ve got players who, as their coaches would say, haven’t had a kick for six years but just love putting the jumper on and running on the field. Bev Young sees the rewards regardless, where even travelling to games in a bus full of Whippets is an experience in joyful inclusion.

FIDA’s evolution from a small, volunteer run competition, through a partnership with the Victorian amateurs to, since 2015, being run by AFL Victoria has been critical. FIDA remains an incorporated body with input into how the game is run, but with AFL backing there is now a manager overseeing FIDA football nationally. “With one team you can have the best player in Australia potentially playing with some players who may not move or get a kick for a season or two,” Rob Klemm says, noting how complex that can be for coaches to ensure everyone is enjoying their football. His point was backed up at the 2016 national championships, where Klemm coached Vic Metro and Willy’s Kelvin O’Connor was named captain of the All-Australian team. “We’ve got that range – the best player in Australia in disability football, right down to players who are very happy just to touch the ball during a game.”

A women’s division is firmly in FIDA’s planning, with girls currently playing alongside boys in the regular competition. As Klemm says, football’s beauty is that when you pull on the jumper it doesn’t matter who you are – you’re part of the team. “In lots of ways in life these people get discriminated against, but when they go to an AFL game and they’re wearing their team’s jumper, they’re just the same as any other Collingwood or Richmond supporter or whoever it might be. You’re part of the tribe. That’s something our players don’t get a lot of, that acceptance.”

Peter Ryan is rightly proud, and says he and his wife now concentrate their efforts on fundraising, a constant battle for any sporting club or organisation. Three or four major functions are held each year, and on March 25 the new season will be launched at the Yarraville Club. Ryan’s mission is to find more volunteers. “I turn 70 next year. We could do with a few more helpers.”

Up in the Wimmera, Bev Young is trying to keep tabs on her footballing sons; five of her six boys are still playing and a grandson is in the Minyip-Murtoa juniors. There was a time not so long ago when she wouldn’t have been able to count 24-year-old Lachie among them. Thanks to the Whippets – who also boast a netball team, and this season will wear new jumpers boasting a big yellow ‘W’ and a whippet’s head – he’s no longer left behind.

“Some of them would never, ever, ever have dreamed of playing a game of footy in the past, they just wouldn’t have been able to,” Bev says. “Just to be out there and be part of the team, it’s wonderful.”