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Country roots: John Birt

BTV: Country Roots; John Birt John Birt shares his story of growing up in the country and playing for EFC.

John Birt remembers having to wriggle his way through to the front of the crowd just to catch a glimpse of the local action.

This was testament to the popularity of the country football in Ballarat in the 1940s.  Crowds ten deep lined the field as local rivals battled it out.

Birt turned 80 earlier this year. He misses the atmosphere of those country games, but is glad the Country Festival can shine a light on the footy played outside the big smoke.

“I’m a little bit disappointed that country football doesn’t get the recognition it used to get but the country representative games, they were just fantastic games,” he said.

“You go to any of those games or even finals in the country and it was packed, but now there doesn’t seem to be the same interest because people can get to Melbourne easier.

“Country football isn’t as recognised as it used to be so a game like this is wonderful.”

Birt grew up in Ballarat. Like many young Victorians, he remembers a childhood spent outside kicking the footy.

Broken windows were common and the game only stopped when the children had to allow a passing horse and cart through.

“I’m always very thankful that I grew up in the country because the facilities for sport, not only football, were fantastic,” he said.

“We played on the asphalt road and my Father was very kind to me, he gave me two footballs a year … one at Christmas and one in about May because the first footy would have worn out by then.

“We had a great gathering of young people playing footy in the street after school.”

The winters were cold in Ballarat. They still are. But for Birt, mornings spent playing in freezing conditions paid off when he moved to Melbourne to pursue his VFL career with Essendon.

“There were quite a few hardships particularly with the cold weather in Ballarat,” Birt said.

“We had to rug up and the early morning games we had to break the ice … it helped me being able to play on wet grounds because from about May onwards, every ground was a mud heap.”

Birt played his first game for the Bombers in 1957 under Coach Dick Reynolds.

“If I had to categorise certain people in my life that were a great influence on me, Dick Reynolds would be way up there,” Birt said.

“He was a very kind man, he took a particular interest in me … one of the things my parents really liked was that he promised he’d find me accommodation in Melbourne and that he did.

“I ended up living two doors from Dick for about four years, I grew up with his family and got to know him really well."

Earlier this year Birt was awarded life membership of the AFL.

He played 193 games for the Bombers between 1957 and 1967, including the 1962 and 1965 Grand Final wins.

After his playing career ended, Birt served seven VFL/AFL clubs in administrative roles and his association with the game continues today through his involvement with the Premiership Players Club. 

He’s had 42 years of continual involvement in football – and it was that broad contribution that saw Birt awarded life membership under the ‘special service to the game’ clause.

While he served many clubs off the field, his time at Essendon defined him.

“The culture of Essendon is very special,” Birt said.

“I was always respected wherever I went because I was a former Essendon player.

“I worked at Collingwood for 16 or 17 years and I was always known as 'John Birt the former Essendon player'.

“Essendon is very special and Essendon will bounce back from adversities all the way along the line.”