The growing legend of Matthew ‘Gator’ Gaite

Brunswick Street Oval

Early talk centres on the first gamers Dale Sheedy and Luke Edwards. Like many in the room Edwards has come through the Fitzroy Under 19s. Sheedy, on the other hand, has followed that well-worn trial up from the bush. The boys wish them luck and talk around the table quickly shifts to second gamer Matthew ‘Gator’ Gaite.

“Apparently he’s seven foot,” someone says.
“Seven one,” comes the reply.
“A giant among men.”

The discussion captures the interest of the room. In only in his third year of footy, Gator has made his way up into the ones. This time last year he was running around in the thirds.

It may have been the wine, it may have been the reflective mood of the room but it was hard to tell where truth ends and fiction begins. Whispers of a volleyball background abound. It is said that Gator grew up in the rugby heartland. He’d finally found his calling and made his way to proper footy.

Word goes around that Fitzroy has itself a genuine FIFO footballer. Just 12 hours prior, Gator had been in his hometown of Bellingen up in Northern NSW. Apparently, he’d risen at 2am, driven to the Gold Coast and met a flight bound for Brunswick Street. It’s a good thing he was picked in the ones as he wouldn’t have made the start of the reserves.

The Amateur Footballer was consulted and a few of the old boys shared a chuckle when they discovered he would be wearing – 120. Others just nodded knowingly, a big number for a big man.

The people were thirsty for more information. Questions were directed at Curly Hart, the youngest man in the room, who had played with Gator last year. Curly suggested Gator was most athletic person he had played alongside.

Talk moved to Gator’s Wayne Harmes moment in a thirds game last year. The sprayed kick of a teammate looked a certainty to end up out on the full. Gator refused to yield and instead sprinted full pelt in pursuit of the hopeless ball. Launching himself horizontal he managed to get a fingertip on ball millimetres from oblivion. Gator slapped the ball goalward and into the path of an oncoming teammate who ran into an open goal before falling to the ground coughing. He spluttered and retched before managing to spit something into his hand. A moment later, he stood and raised his arm to hold aloft the mouthguard that he had inadvertently swallowed. He quickly replaced the mouthguard before standing up back to the centre square to contest the next centre bounce.

The luncheon participants were suitably impressed and the legend of Gator continued to grow. Past players, old and young, speculated on his ability. He was said to have a decent leg and the ability to make the impossible look easy but was occasionally prone to dropping the simplest of marks. The reoccurring theme was that Fitzroy had found itself another man who has a dip.

An Engineer by trade, Gator is said to be a man who constructs buildings by day and leaps them by night. Today he would don the famous red, blue and yellow gurney and tread the same Brunswick Street turf as former Fitzroy rucking greats Albert Clay, Frank Curcio, Russell Crow and Alan Gale.

Gator went on to spend the game rotating through the ruck where he thrived on the contest, often using his height and reach to give the Fitzroy midfield first use of the ball. He also competed strongly around the ground and took some telling marks late in the game.

Originally published on footyalmanac.com.au on 20 May 2015. 

VAFA: Fitzroy v Old Melburnians

Fitzroy past players luncheon at Brunswick Oval.

Fitzroy FC 12.9 (81) def by Old Melburnians 13.10 (88)
Brunswick Street Oval
16 May 2015

Grassroots footy is up against a crowded cultural landscape. It vies for attention with the elite competition, any number of other sporting codes, community organisations and recreational activities. But footy clubs have a unique ability to bring people together; in many communities throughout Australia footy grounds are epicentres of place and belonging.

This is true of the footy ground in the heart of Fitzroy. The Brunswick Street Oval has hosted footy for nearly as long as its been played. The Lions played more than more than six hundred VFL games there between 1897 and 1966. League matches are a distant memory but the Brunswick Street Oval is still a place where people from all walks of life come together to reflect, relax and kick an oval shaped ball around an ancient paddock.

Like so many Saturday’s afternoons that had come before the Brunswick Street was again home to a game of footy. Today it was the Round Six VAFA Premier B game between Fitzroy FC and Old Melburnians.

Fitzroy’s long and proud football history was on full display at a reunion luncheon held prior to the game. MCs Colin Hobbs (1966-71; 64 games) and Danny Wilson traded jokes, laughs and war stories with past players from a range of eras. Winner of the 1971 Stawell Gift Trevor McGregor (1966-71; 47 games) reflected on the challenges of balancing football and athletics in an era when cross training was unheard of. Paul O’Brien (1966-69; 47 games) discussed fighting at Preston jazz dances and playing Centre Half Back in the senior team. Brian Pert (1954-65; 125 games) recalled how he came to miss the 1960 Preliminary Final after being cut by a falling shard of glass after his teammate kicked a football into a fluorescent light hanging from the roof. While self proclaimed member of the ‘All Australian team of surnames beginning with Z’ Bruno Zorzi (1957-58 & 60; 18 games) shared his memories of debuting at Full Back on North Melbourne’s Jock Spencer and playing in Brunswick Street mud so deep that he lost his boot.

Fitzroy past players luncheon at Brunswick Oval.
Fitzroy past players luncheon at Brunswick Oval.

The modern day Fitzroy Football Club maintains a sense of community that is rare amongst sporting clubs, especially in the city. Supporters range from Fitzroy diehards to young families who just happen to live around the corner. Club President Joan Eddy takes the stage, welcomes them all and acknowledges a list of sponsors that reads like it would in any town in Australia: the local Bendigo Bank, the North Fitzroy Caltex, the Royal Derby Hotel and Piedimonte’s supermarket, to name but a few.

Joan notes that at 1-4, the game it is crucial in the context of Fitzroy’s season but also acknowledges that the competition is as tough as ever in Premier B. She makes special mention of Dale Sheedy and Luke Edwards who are making their senior debuts. She also notes second gamer, 7’01’’ ruckman Matthew Gaite. Edwards is a product of the Fitzroy under 19s while both Sheedy and Gaite have made their way to the club from the bush.

Looking out over the ground but it is hard to imagine the muddy bogs of yesteryear. It is a perfect autumn day and the ground is in beautiful nick beneath a cloudless blue sky. There certainly wasn’t any chance that boots would be lost to the mud.

When the siren sounds it is Old Melburnians who burst out of the blocks, moving the ball with fluency. Fitzroy co-captain Daniel Bisetto is doing his utmost to stem the tide, repeatedly dropping back and dragging in telling marks, but the Redlegs run and carry is generating too many quality opportunities and they take a two-goal lead into the first change.

The second quarter sees the intensity lift and with it a change in momentum. Gaite competes manfully in the ruck, using both height and reach to give the Fitzroy midfield first use. Redleg’s midfielder Edward De Fegely cannons in and out of packs but Fitzroy’s defensive pressure is decisive. Rory Angiolella and Dominic Pound-Palmieri both look lively and the Roys get themselves back into the match kicking four goals to one for the term.

The half time siren sees of past players, supporters and blokes from the 2s duck through the back gate of the North Fitzroy Bowls club for rumination and speculation over a couple of quiet pots. Attention is diverted from the clinking of glasses and the speed of the green when the siren sounds. The punters down their the last of drinks and head back to WT Peterson Community Oval for the second half.

The game settles into an end to end struggle. Old Melburnians draw away and Fitzroy to doggedly peg them back. George Hurley-Wellington is strong across halfback for the Redlegs but Bisetto is equally effective on the opposite line for Fitzroy. Thomas Bachet finds himself on the end of scrambled kick and converts for Old Melburnians but Chris Doherty finds the reply within a minute. Only two points separate the sides at the final change.

The final term is a seesawing affair. Fitzroy come out all guns blazing and skip away to a two-goal lead but the Redlegs rally with consecutive goals. The scoring dries as the ball is shunted from contest to contest. The deadlock breaks when the play opens up and Theodore Rosenthal puts the Redlegs in front. A big contested grab at centre half forward by Bisetto has the Fitzroy old boys nodding with appreciation. ‘League level grab that,’ is the call. The two sides go goal for goal while supporters anxiously glance at their watches and yell themselves hoarse. Thomas Hywood’s second goal seals the win for Old Melburnians and the Heritage Listed grandstand groans.

Fitzroy supporters walk away disappointed with the result but content in the knowledge that the Brunswick Street Oval still knows how to put on a show.

Originally published on footyalmanac.com.au on 19 May 2015.