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Connecting the nation

BTV: Sheedy on the Country Festival Kevin Sheedy talks about how he believes the Country Festival can help connect our nation.

As an annual part of the AFL fixture, the game celebrating our regional communities is barely 12 months old. But for Kevin Sheedy, this match has been a lifetime in the making.

The Essendon Legend’s family roots were cultivated in regional Australia and as he grew older his admiration for the risks taken by those outside the capital cities only increased.

“I’m very proud because my Grandparents are from the country, I’ve got a lot of relatives in the country and some of the greatest players I coached and played footy with are from the country,” Sheedy said.

Like Sheedy, Essendon has embraced regional Australia since birth.

As far back as the 1880s when it played in the VFA, the Club has sought to spread its wings across the country.

Launceston was a popular spot in those early days.

Half a century later, Dick Reynolds’ all-conquering sides of the 1940s spent time in Casterton and just prior to Sheedy’s arrival; Barry Davis took his team to Warracknabeal.

When Sheedy was appointed, the Club’s commitment to expanding its horizons gathered pace.

“We’re the Club that started flying around Australia in the 1980s … having an airport right next to Essendon was probably the best thing that happened to our Club,” Sheedy said.

“We played in Mt Gambier, Alice Springs, Cairns – we took the team and we got to know our country. 

“Then we recruited from the whole of Australia to make us a better Club and we’re still doing it." 

Sheedy’s 1984 premiership side featured players from Kaniva (Glenn Hawker and Roger Merrett), Dimboola (Merv Neagle and Tim Watson), Bunbury in Western Australia (Leon Baker), Horsham (Shane Heard), Ungarie in New South Wales (Terry Daniher) and Broadford (Alan Ezard).

“Our last four premierships that I was involved in, we brought players in from the whole of Australia,” Sheedy said. “That love and fun and ‘she’ll be right mate’ … they’re beautiful people and we should never lose sight of the tyranny of distance.”

Kevin Sheedy speaking to school students in Warrnambool during a Bombers camp in 2004.

On a recent Club community camp the four-time premiership winning Coach walked into a country pub and offered to buy the locals drinks. He chatted respectfully, asking just as many questions as were asked of him. Most of the patrons had met Sheedy before.  They all had a story to tell about how their paths had crossed with Sheedy's. Not one of them had ever lived in Melbourne.

“Footy to the whole of Australia is a powerful connection,” Sheedy said. “It’s a conduit, it makes people meet, discuss, debate, have a chat and just have a beer or a cup of tea. Sport and football has been a wonderful connector, it’s like a vine – it moves through the country and it makes all the people mix together. You don’t have to love footy, but footy can bring you together.”

Sheedy hopes the Country Festival will educate and create awareness for the issues faced by people living in regional areas, in a similar manner to the way the Essendon and Collingwood ANZAC Day match has helped provide further recognition of those that have served our nation.

“I don’t think anybody in the city knows enough and this is a great connector for city people to appreciate what country people have done for our nation,” Sheedy said. “This game will grow, it will be as big as ANZAC Day – 8.6 million people live in rural Australia and they need to be shown some love and care.

“Our landscape is a harsh landscape … farming and country people have to work through that. Our hope is that we invite lots of people who need to come to a game to have some fun.

“This will be one of the great shows that can be shown around the world about how a football code builds and helps connect the nation.”

Essendon Football Club is proud to support the tireless work of our volunteer firefighters throughout regional Victoria, with the auction of the player worn guernseys from the 2017 Powercor Country Festival Game.

The funds raised from the auction of these specially designed Country Festival guernseys will go towards supporting the CFA Mental Awareness effort.

Retail guernseys can be purchased here.