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The great checkside debate

Generic photo of a Sherrin football.
Making the football curve in the air has been a feature of our game for many years

Peter Endersbee, dubbed by fans the “checkside champion”, says people thought the kick was “magic”.

The former Sturt rover-small forward, who brought it to prominence with successive goals from “impossible” angles in the 1968 grand final against Port Adelaide at Adelaide Oval, even admitted he neither kicked to, nor thought about the goals when kicking it. And that was under instructions from Sturt master coach of the 1960s and ’70s Jack Oatey. “You have to kick it to the crowd,” he said of what Oatey taught. “It’s about forgetting the goals … kick the kick and the rest will follow.”

Wherever Endersbee goes, people bring up those checkside kicks. And they are still mentioned in television broadcasts. In last year’s finals series, when Port Adelaide tackled Geelong and forward Justin Westhoff had the ball in the Power’s right forward pocket, Channel Seven’s commentary team was reminiscing.

Dennis Cometti: Westhoff … I’m thinking checkside, invented – at least the name was – in South Australia. He needs to do it right here.

Bruce McAvaney: Jack Oatey, hey? A guy called Peter Endersbee kicked two from this pocket in a grand final, set the whole State alive. Couldn’t believe he could do it.

No wonder the checkside punt has become a South Australian treasure.

The Bank SA National Trust Heritage Icons List named the kick among the State’s greatest inventions, events and traditions in just its second year in 2002. The previous year’s list had featured the Hills Hoist clothes line, Balfours frog cakes and Pop-eye while, showing just how highly rated was the checkside, the kick was named in the same year as Adelaide’s legendary Christmas Pageant. The following year the pie floater was included, the next year Farmers Union iced coffee, while the Oakbank Easter races and Menz Fru Chocs had to wait until three years after the checkside earned its place among the State’s elite.

There is such a parochial pride in it, every time football aficionados from Victoria get it wrong – no, the banana kick is not the same, it is booted from the opposite pocket – Croweaters like Graham Cornes, Dwayne Russell and McAvaney are at pains to correct it.

Cornesey, born in Victoria but as fiercely parochial a South Australian as you could ever meet, this year corrected Collingwood president Eddie McGuire on the issue and Eddie conceded, saying he would call the kick the checkside, not the banana, when in Adelaide.

So where did the kick originate? There is no doubt Oatey’s highly-skilled Sturt sides that changed the face of football by winning seven SANFL premierships between 1966-76 made the checkside a strong part of footy folklore.

Oatey kicked it with stunning accuracy at Sturt training and it was he who taught it to players such as Endersbee and the consummately-skilled Paul Bagshaw (how is it possible this 360-game, seven-premiership champion is not in the Australian Football Hall of Fame?). Bagshaw had his shorts ripped off in the qualifying final against North Adelaide at Adelaide Oval in 1973. But the five-time Sturt club champion had the ball in the south-west pocket on the boundary line, so why worry about your shorts? He calmly slotted a checkside goal from an “impossible” angle in his jockstrap!

But Endersbee had seen the kick before Oatey had trained him in the mindset needed to perfect it. As an impressionable 10-year-old Double Blues fan at Unley Oval he had watched it result in a “miracle” goal to triple Magarey Medallist Lindsay Head. The West Torrens champion played a then SANFL record 327 games between 1952-70, a player with sublime skills who opposition players seemed unable to catch or crunch no matter how hard they tried. Endersbee remembered thinking “wow” as Head weaved his magic, then rushed home to try it out.

This was about the time The Advertiser had sent a photographer to Torrens training at Thebarton Oval to try to come to grips with Head’s amazing kick.

The Tiser in 1959 featured three photos which dramatically showed the kick and how it curved from left to right to score goals from the boundary line in the right forward pocket.

The picture spread was titled “CHECK-SIDE” BY HEAD and the first shot shows the ball “leaving his boot in its early flat spin”, the second “shows the ball in flight and about to ‘bend’ in towards the goal” and the final “shows the ball dead centre and through for a goal”.

The Advertiser sporting journalist Keith Butler was greatly impressed by Head’s exhibition that night on the training track. There was no waiting around taking countless reels of photos hoping there would eventually be a successful attempt with the morning newspaper’s deadline looming. “Head booted eight out of 10 ‘check-side’ kicks through the goals,” Butler wrote. “I think two of them hit the post,” Head said with a laugh more than half-a-century later.

Under the headline “Not So New In SA”, Butler noted how “the ‘check-side’ punt kick is being hailed in Melbourne as something of a new concept in kicking goals from almost ‘impossible’ angles”.

But he wrote Head had been “getting goals with the check punt for several years”, noting how “from seemingly inconceivable angles on the boundary line, when you can barely see daylight between the posts, goals can be kicked”.

St Kilda’s Bill Young, a deadly accurate full forward who booted 274 goals in 94 games between 1956-61, had the ability to kick what were dubbed reverse punt goals and this may have prompted The Advertiser story. When left-footed rover Blair Campbell, who played for Richmond and Melbourne in the late sixties, threaded goals from the boundary line he was credited by some as having invented what Victorians called the banana kick. Campbell, whose footy career was ravaged by knee problems but played Sheffield Shield cricket for Victoria and Tasmania, was actually reviving the kick he saw Young use in the late ’50s, then practised himself and dubbed the “boomerang”.

Rod Carter wrote in The Age in 1968 “it’s not a kick you will find in any National Football Council handbook on how to play the game …. in fact its execution would horrify many coaches”. The story featured photos of Campbell implementing the kick, just as The Advertiser’s story had with Head in 1959.

Campbell recalled of “fragile-looking goalkicking genius” Young, “when kicking around corners he had perfected the ‘boomerang’ snapshot, which I learned from him”. Young, according to Campbell, “used a different version of it for deliberate shots from the boundary line”. “The ‘boomerang’ kick is now commonplace in VFL football,” Campbell wrote in The Age in 1988. “I have been given the credit for popularising it but I was merely a disciple of Young.”

There is no way to be certain who first kicked a goal with what is now known as the checkside kick, or who initially mastered the art. Jack Oatey’s son Robert, a 300-gamer at Norwood and Sturt who was runner-up for the Magarey Medal – like his father – and who used the checkside in games with pretty much unerring accuracy, said Jack used to say to him: “Nothing’s new in life, son. It’s all been done before.”

Robert says the great players and those who “love the game”, thrive on the challenge of trying new things, developing a solution to an old problem, working on it and practising it until it is mastered – at least enough to use in games. He also says “good players make the ball talk”. For all those reasons he believes “people have kicked it (the checkside) for a long time”.

There certainly is evidence players kicked something similar a “long time” ago. Allen Burns, a South Melbourne player of the 1890s, had few rivals in kicking goals from difficult angles. After a clash with Fitzroy in June 1894, a football scribe for The Argus noted Burns took a shot from 40 yards “with the posts almost in a line … a goal seemed impossible and his team were urging him not to try”. But he took the shot and, “to everyone’s amazement and the South’s delight, scored a wonderful goal”. And Paddy Shea, a premiership forward with Essendon in 1911-12, was reputed to be a master of the banana and checkside kicks.

But, whatever way you look at it, the checkside kick was obviously an oddity across the border when Head had started to weave his magic because a Victorian university group headed to Adelaide to watch, film and take copious notes on the eight-time Torrens best-and-fairest’s almost mystical ability to kick these goals from “impossible” angles.

“They did a segment at (Adelaide’s) University Oval with me kicking the checkside … they took plenty of film, took it in slow motion, went into the dynamics of it, measured how far it curled around … they wanted to find out how it was done,” Head recalled.

Asked if he knew anyone had been kicking the checkside in Melbourne, Head said: “I don’t know that anyone was doing that sort of kick … if someone was doing it in Victoria they wouldn’t have sent the team over here.”

Head’s skills were legendary. The “Artful Dodger” played a whopping 37 games for South Australia, kicking the two last-gasp goals to secure the Croweaters’ famous seven-point win against Victoria at the MCG in 1963. His skills were always dazzling but it was the checkside kick more than any other talent that so caught the imagination.

“I used to practice these kicks, basically from when I first started playing,” he said. “When you’re a kid, you try everything. It was something that was natural for me. I didn’t miss very often.”

Head makes it sound easy but that doesn’t take into account countless hours of hard slog he spent on the training track. “I used to practice it all the time,” he said. So while his Eagles team-mates were often taking it easy winding down the day after games, Head would spend at least an hour on Thebarton Oval every Sunday kicking for goals from difficult angles, often with no daylight between the goalposts. Two young Eagles fans would collect the ball and kick it back to him. One of those was David Hookes, like the checkside kicks he saw split the centre with monotonous regularly a future South Australian icon. As State cricket captain, a Test century-maker, entertainer and lovable larrikin, Hookes always held a special place in the heart of everyday South Australians. “Hookesy lived just a couple of drop punts away from Thebby Oval,” Head recalled.

Head started using the checkside kicking for goal and then tried to perfect it in field play. If he was running and he wanted to kick the ball out to the right, he wouldn’t use his left leg, he would use the outside of his right boot to curve the ball like a boomerang to whoever was waiting. It is similar to the way Geelong’s Steve Johnson and Steven Motlop, among others, do it these days when players don’t necessarily kick with both feet.

“I have been asked why didn’t I kick with my left foot? Well I always say, ‘why would I kick with my left when my right foot’s better?’” Head said.

Head’s precocious talents even caught out Jack Oatey, the coach who was all about the “skill factor”. “I can remember when Jack was coaching the State side he was very surprised at training when he was showing the side ‘this is how you do the checkside’.” Always confident of his ability and with enough cheek to drive his opponents crazy, Head piped up with, “Jeez Jack, I’ve been doing it for years”. Then he nonchalantly lined it up and slotted the goal.

Butler, in 1959, wrote in The Advertiser: “It may be new in Melbourne, but SA’s great goalkicker Ken Farmer used it with outstanding success for many years when he was kicking his ‘century’ a season from 1930 to 1940. Later, Norwood and State rover Jack Oatey was a successful exponent of the kick.”

Head’s kicking of the checkside and The Advertiser story and photos immediately sparked debate on the kick. Long-serving and highly-regarded football scribe Harry Kneebone thankfully weighed into the argument with the most definitive account of the kick in the next day’s Tiser.

Under the headline “Churchett Kicked ‘Reverse’ Punt”, Kneebone credited Glenelg goalkicking guru of the 1940s and early ’50s Colin Churchett as the man who developed the kick.

Kneebone wrote: “Lindsay Head’s photographic quashing in The Advertiser yesterday of a Victorian claim to have invented the ‘check-side’ punt, revives interesting recollections.”

Kneebone, who had seen all the great goalkickers since the early 1920s, wrote: “The first man I ever saw deliberately impart the reverse swing to a punt was Colin Churchett (pictured below).

“We dubbed it ‘the reverse screw punt’ and Churchett, a player who really understood footballistics, used to get goals with it when kicking with his right foot 40 yards or more out on the boundary in the right pocket.”

Kneebone did not believe Farmer kicked what Endersbee described as the “traditional checkside”, the set shot from the boundary line. “The preliminary position of the ball (across the boot) has prompted some to liken it to a kick with which Ken Farmer scored many goals,” Kneebone wrote. “Farmer’s ‘across-the-boot’ punt was used in vastly different circumstances from the kick demonstrated by Head. It was a snap, whereas the ‘check-side’ punt usually is essayed from a set shot.”

What Farmer did was what Cats Johnson and Motlop do now, what Head did in the field of play – as did Robert Oatey and Jack Oatey at Norwood in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Farmer, “under pressure, and running from right to left across the goal,” according to Kneebone, would “kick the ball off the outside of his right boot so that it flew at right angles to his line of motion and so through the goal”.

As a football-mad youngster who could kick or snap goals from just about any angle, Churchett regularly used the screw punt, where the ball naturally curved to the left, when shooting for goal from the left forward pocket. He was determined to find a way to curve the ball to kick goals from deep in the right forward pocket, so he spent many lonely hours as a youngster swerving his “reverse screw punt” between some bamboo poles on a paddock next to his house.

Churchett became adept at slotting goals from deep in the right forward pocket and, like Endersbee in the ’68 grand final, would simultaneously amaze and thrill fans – and even team-mates. They never tired of watching the goalkicking maestro go through his routine at training at Glenelg Oval.
Tigers 1950 grand final ruckman Don Laffin said he saw Churchett “kick a goal from outside the point post – he went back to the pickets. It was on the Bay Oval, at the northern end. It was a spinning, banana-type kick. He would kick it high in the air and the ball would spin into the wind and curl right around for a goal. I thought that was bloody brilliant. They do a lot of the kick now. It was the first time I ever saw anyone do that”.

Glenelg team-mate of the fifties Rex Leahy – such a familiar face and so liked and respected as Adelaide property steward for the first 16 years of the Crows’ history – recalled of Churchett’s deadly set-shot shooting: “Before training I saw him start at the half-forward flank on the boundary line and work his way across to the other half-forward flank, having a shot every 10 or so metres ... and he never missed one.”

Churchett, a Glenelg and SA football Hall of Famer who kicked 100 goals in a season in 1950 and ’51, was a humble champion who said he thought Oatey could have been kicking the checkside around the same time as him. And he recalled practising it at State training with forward Albert “Pongo” Sawley, who played under Oatey when he captain-coached Norwood. But Robert Oatey was unsure if Jack, a 10-time premiership coach who died in 1994 aged 73, had kicked the checkside for goals in his playing career.

In 2004, when Glenelg honoured Churchett with a significant achievement award for his lifelong contribution to the club, he took to his favourite south-eastern pocket of the Bay Oval with a Burley football and demonstrated how he kicked his reverse screw punt. It was a carbon copy of the way Endersbee threaded through his celebrated goals in the ’68 grand final. Churchett’s ashes are now scattered in his much-loved pocket. He had died in 2012, aged 86.

Churchett was a hero of Tigers fans. They would pack up and move from one end of the ground to the other at the end of each quarter so they could be close to the glamour forward, who was something of a Tony Modra of the fifties.

He also was a national hero in World War II.

Churchett joined the navy as an 18-year-old in 1944 and his razor-sharp eyesight helped earn him a place on the HMAS Hobart as a radar operator. He was on the Hobart as it chased a Japanese submarine out of Sydney for 200 miles, dropping depth charges along the way. He was in Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender when 3000 allied planes flew over in a show of strength that blotted out the sun. He said it was “one of the mightiest things I have ever seen”. And Churchett walked through the rubble of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, among the first to see the devastation of the atomic bombs that ended the war.

Colin kept in his sock a pocket-sized diary of his war service in the Philippines, Borneo and New Guinea, an incredible historically-significant memento. Years later, on the footy field, he kept a copy of the Footy Budget in his sock so he could check the race results from the scoreboard and see where his money was going. Maybe footy wasn't played at quite the same pace back then.

Two of Churchett’s greatest moments came on Adelaide Oval, as in successive finals series in 1950, in the preliminary final against Port Adelaide, and in 1951, in the first semi-final against West Torrens, he reached his century of goals in a season (he was the only footballer to kick 100 goals in an SANFL season between 1941 and ’69).

The News noted the 1950 preliminary final, in which Glenelg overwhelmed Port by 44 points, was “football as it should be played – in a friendly and sporting atmosphere. A sample of this was the unanimous tribute from 38,476 spectators as Glenelg’s Colin Churchett kicked his 100th goal. Port supporters forgot club consideration to join in the applause. But it was only a temporary truce. In the lull that followed the ovation, one voice rang out loud and clear, ‘Now put the boots into him, Port.’”

It was the way Churchett put the boot into the footy that was special. Then Lindsay Head did it. And Jack and Robert Oatey. And Peter Endersbee. Bill Young and Blair Campbell over the border. And later Collingwood magician Peter Daicos, who added his own flair and creativity. Now Crows favourite Eddie Betts does it, from the same pocket as Endersbee, the newly-christened Eddie Betts Pocket. They have all played a key part in the evolution of goalkicking, no matter what you call the kicks.

As for the “checkside” name which Cometti said came from SA, Robert Oatey is not so sure. Jack Oatey, among his many coaching legacies, introduced what he called checkside ruck play, where the ruckman came in from the same side as his opponent. And he did talk of the attack side and the checkside, where his players were stationed at stoppages so they could run straight towards the goals when they got the ball. But Robert said his dad called checkside punts “backscrewies”.

So why was it called the checkside? Robert Oatey actually blamed the Vics. “Maybe the Victorians wanted to call it something different?” he suggested.

Whatever it was called and whoever had first used it, it was Oatey who first trained players to become proficient in it.

“He was good with the technique,” Robert said of his father, who made the goalkicking skills “a very important part (of training), the first 30 or 40 minutes was always kicking for goals – all types of kicks including backscrewies and bananas”. “Make it spin”, he would tell his men as they line up from the boundary line.

“He formalised the training of it and he encouraged the blokes to use it in matches. They spent a lot of time working on it – they didn’t just do is for a bit of fun – so when it arose in matches they would be able to execute it properly.”

Enter Peter Endersbee. And didn’t he execute it properly?

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs