If you’ve ever been to a Camperdown football match, chances are you’ve heard of Keith Stephens, and if you haven’t heard of him you probably would have heard him.
During a game you will find Keith, 73, keeping stats in match command where he is well-known for throwing open the window to have his say on an umpire’s decision.
“Stupid, absolutely stupid,” he said of his behaviour with a laugh, admitting he does get a bit vocal at games.
As long-term club trainer Barry Jenkins said: “He gets a bit carried away. He’s just very passionate about the club”.
That passion has seen him dedicate 30 years to the club as manager and recruitment officer. And when Camperdown runs out onto the field in next Saturday’s Hampden league grand final, there are many in the region who are hoping the footy gods bless the Magpies with a win to end an 18-year drought.
“It will do us good to win,” Keith’s wife Margaret said. “It’s been a huge year. To win this will be like the sun coming out.” Next week will mark six months since the St Patrick’s Day bushfires tore through the region, and while the green pastures hide the scars of that night, Keith said many were still feeling the effects.
Keith, who serves on Corangamite shire’s fire recovery committee, said farmers were doing it tough and businesses in Camperdown, which rely on trade from the hard-hit Cobden region, aren’t immune.
The Camperdown blaze started right across the road from his son’s property. The howling winds blew it across to the outpaddock. “He lost 110 acres. Every post,” Keith said. “It was just something you just hope never happens again. The damage it does.”
About 9.45pm that night, his son Paul called. “Get out of the house! If it takes off towards the caravan park you’re gone,” were the words Keith, who lives just a few hundred metres from the caravan park, heard.
By 10pm, police were evacuating the street. “The wind. It was just roaring. When you opened the car door it nearly blew it off,” Keith said. “At the top of the hill it was like a volcano. The whole cone was on fire.”
About 1am Keith was allowed to return home and at 7am his son called again. “He’d been calling the yearlings and they were coming from the neighbours’ places. He lost two (of 80), and they found them. They were all tangled in barbed wire,” he said.
While the fire had burnt every fence post and the hay stack, somehow the flames didn’t touch the $30,000 harvesting rake which had been left in the middle of the paddock. “That fire burnt around it, I couldn’t believe it,” Keith said.
Keith had handed over the farm to his son after he retired, a career he’d taken up in the late 1970s after leaving his job in the bank which had taken him all over Victoria.
During those years he played footy for eight different teams but at 29 he decided to retire when he took a posting as a NAB bank manager at Inverloch. “I couldn’t afford to get hurt with the job,” he said.
But in 1978 when his father-in-law got sick, Keith and his wife packed up and moved back to Camperdown with their three children to help on the dairy farm for 12 months.
Despite being offered a job back at the bank, Keith decided to stay on the farm where he spent the next 10 years watching all Camperdown’s home games.
He was then asked to be recruiting and football manager for the club he had once played senior footy for. That was about 30 years ago, and he has been working for the club ever since.
As club recruiter, Keith can list every coach and player Camperdown has seen over the past three decades, which has included back-to-back premierships in 1999 and 2000 and then two grand final appearances in 2004 and 2006.
The Magpies’ last premiership came with with a double edge sword for Keith. “Ken Hinkley rang me on the Friday night before the grand final between us and Koroit and he just said the good news: ‘if we win I’ll be appointed assistant coach under Malcolm Blight on Monday morning, if we lose I’m willing to coach you guys again.”
“So I couldn’t win,” he said. “People were asking me ‘why are you so serious?’ before the game or after the game. I couldn’t celebrate it much.” He plans to celebrate this win...if they get over the line.
For Keith, football, like the slogan says, is more than a game. “It is totally more than a game,” he said. “All my good friends are there. It’s all about family.”
Among those friends are long-time trainers Barry Jenkins and Alex Bourke.
Alex, 79, returned to training this week after having his ankle fused in July. “All of the joints from the end of the tibia down into the foot, they all got fused together,” he said. “My ankle was injured when I was playing football and then it kept getting injured.”
Alex said he would tell his players to make sure injuries were properly rehabilitated. “We didn’t in them days. They’d swelled up and went black and we’d played the grand final the next week and didn’t tell anybody,” he said. “I’m going to get my X-ray and put on the trainers’ wall and say: ‘this is what happens if you don’t look after your ankles. Twelve screws and plates and goodness only knows what’.”
Alex, a Collingwood supporter, started working at the club 25 years ago and, after a 12-year break, has been back for four years. The former Kolora, Mortlake and North Warrnambool player said the biggest change was the way concussion was treated. “Concussion is my main worry now,” he said, recalling the “old days” when you would just tape up a player, and if he stopped bleeding, send them back out.
With his 80th birthday just around the corner, does Alex have any thought of giving up his volunteer work at the club? “Hell no,” he said. “There’s so much you can do around a little village. I feel like I’m doing a service to a wonderful country town, paying a bit back. The rewards are wonderful.”
Volunteers are the backbone of country footy clubs and when Camperdown holds a volunteer night at least 120 people show up.
This year the club rolled out the welcome mat for a different group of volunteers in the wake of the March bushfires, holding a function that 350 people turned up to.
On October 12, it will host another dinner for farmers and volunteers with well-known sporting identities alongside guest speaker Sam Kekovich. “A lot of the farmers think they’re forgotten. A lot of the volunteers are still volunteering,” he said.
With the grand final looming next weekend, one ritual that Keith has is to bring out a life-size painting of a Magpies player.
Keith, an Essendon supporter, purchased the painting, which is believed to be AFL Collingwood player Craig Starcevich, back in 1998 after spotting it on top of a sports store. It has sat in his yard ever since and he only brings it out when Camperdown plays in a grand final. This year will be no different.
When Camperdown won the back-to-back grand finals, Keith said it was fitting because it had been 29 years since the club had won and coach Ken Hinkley wore the number 29. Does Camperdown have a similar omen this time around? Keith certainly thinks so. “Yeah we’ve got a super coach (Phil Carse) who the players would do anything for.”