There was a moment during what has since become the Coodabeen Champions’ final radio broadcast, when co-host Jeff Richardson interjected with an air of impatience. 

Conversation had drifted to predicting the finer details of the following day’s Collingwood vs Brisbane 2023 AFL Grand Final and was, by Richardson’s reckoning, in danger of becoming Serious Football Talk — something to be warily avoided. 

The topic quickly swung back to a shared reverence for Ron ‘Tank’ Kneebone, an obscure 1960s South Australian footballer, and someone far more befitting the Coodabeens MO.

For 43 years, some form of the program has aired, somewhere, on wireless radio — transmitting a simultaneous love for Australian Rules Football and a willing rejection of the silliness that surrounds it. 

The Coodabeen Champions have been covered by Australian newspapers for decades.(Supplied)

At its heart is the show’s intuitive understanding of community and connection —  that sport, of whatever description, is not about statistics, sponsors or sports betting, but instead something far more human. 

In the process, the Coodabeen Champions subtly changed football from outside the tent, only to find themselves at times oddly ensconced within it.

This week, with little fanfare, the current iteration of Jeff Richardson, Ian Cover, Greg Champion, Billy Baxter, Simon Whelan, Andy Bellairs and Jeff ‘Torch’ McGee announced they were hanging up the headphones, leaving behind an unlikely legacy.

Dipper, Daicos say show was ‘iconic’

When the program first broadcast in 1981 on Melbourne community radio station Triple R, the aim was to reflect the types of conversations taking place among fans. 

Simon Whelan and Ian Cover in the early days of the program.(Supplied: Coodabeens)

With little planning, their cobbled together mix of cliché-skewering jokes, updates from lesser leagues, Greg Champion’s gag-laden footy songs and a more general celebration of football characters found a growing Saturday morning audience. 

They might have seemed just as interested in the kick-to-kick happening outside the ground as the match taking place within it, but the Coodabeen Champions soon caught the ears of those playing on game day too.

Robert DiPierdomenico with Greg Champion from the Coodabeens.(Supplied)

“Driving to the ground, you would listen to the Coodabeens,” said Hawthorn icon, Robert ‘Dipper’ DiPierdomenico.

“There’s no doubt the players listened to it, because they all hoped they’d get a song written about them.”

Dipper himself enjoyed such an honour — a chart-topping, good-natured ribbing titled “I’m DiPierdomenico”.

“Everywhere I go now, everyone still sings it,” he said.

“My son learnt how to say the family name by listening to it!”

To underscore their improbable ascent, a visually awkward line-up of six Coodabeens were asked to perform the song and three others during half time of the 1987 then-VFL Grand Final. 

The very industry they’d delighted in sending up was now centring them. 

Of Macedonian heritage, Collingwood’s Peter Daicos was famed for kicking goals from seemingly impossible angles.(Supplied: AFL Photos)

“If you ask me their legacy, they’ve clearly left their mark with, my God, countless people,” said Collingwood legend and longtime friend of the show, Peter Daicos.

“For all the send ups and the joking, their footy acumen has always been very high.

“It’s an iconic show.”

‘Women’s footy owes them a debt’

When the newly-formed Victorian Women’s Football League (VWFL) held its first games in the early 1980s, it only made sense to them to have the league’s co-founder, Gemma Griffiths, on to talk about them.

“They’ve always been inclusive,” said Gemma Griffiths, who soon became a recurring part of the program.  

That commitment to women’s football didn’t waver over the Coodabeens decades-long stint on the ABC, 3AW and more recently, 3MP. 

The Coodabeen Champions broadcasting from a Victorian Women’s Football League match in 2011.(Supplied)

“I think they’re pioneers of media coverage for women’s footy,” said Leesa Catto, a volunteer for the VWFL, who began appearing on the show in 2004.

“Before anyone else, before there were live broadcasts of games, they were the ones talking about the game.

“Women’s footy owes them a debt.”

Leesa Catto on one of her regular appearances on the Coodabeens.(Supplied: Leesa Catto)

Quite what the Coodabeen Champions has come to mean in regional and rural Australia is hard to articulate.

The sight of curls of steam wisping from mid-morning cups of tea while the Coodabeens broadcast next to country football grounds has been repeated in communities around Australia. 

Dispatches from the volunteers of tiny struggling clubs, or curio three-team leagues like that on King Island, are spotlighted on a weekly basis. 

The program conducted outside broadcasts from all over Australia.(Supplied)

“They have a connection with rural communities,” said Sharon McEvoy, from the Dederang-Mt Beauty Football Club in Victoria’s high country.

She was first invited on the Coodabeen Champions after her son Ben, known in AFL circles as ‘Big Boy’ McEvoy, was expected to play in the 2010 Grand Final. 

When he was dropped from the team at late notice, Sharon McEvoy still fronted up to the Coodabeens broadcast outside the MCG, and promptly burst into tears. 

A crowd gathers around an old Coodabeens outside broadcast.(Supplied: Coodabeens)

After St Kilda drew with Collingwood, she was invited back for the replay the following week, this time with the knowledge her son would be playing.

Those watching the broadcast had heard her tears the previous Saturday and cheered raucously. Cue more tears. 

“They’re genuine blokes. You can just tell they care,” she said.

Community came to the fore during COVID

Even if they didn’t indulge in too much planning, co-host Ian Cover said it was no accident the show always returned to country footy. 

“That’s where the best stories are,” he said.

“Sometimes it’s taken for granted, ignored or forgotten, because there’s so much focus on the big time.

“But where’s Lachie Neale come from? He’s won two Brownlow medals and he’s come from Kybybolite.”

The Coodabeen Champions broadcasting from a football match at Healsville in 2007,(Supplied)

Of the 1195 Coodabeen Champion radio broadcasts, it’s those during the worst of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 that Ian Cover ranks among the most profound. 

“You actually felt a responsibility. People were in lockdown and they couldn’t go to junior footy or out for coffee on Saturdays,” he said. 

“It really drove home how important the show was in people’s lives. Those two years, our ratings were the biggest we’d ever had.”

In September 2021, the Coodabeens crossed to Jane Wines, mother of soon-to-be Brownlow medallist Ollie Wines, on her break at the Shepparton vaccination clinic. 

Jane Wines, mother of Brownlow medalist Ollie, was dubbed “The Vaccinator” by the Coodabeens.(Supplied: Jane Wines)

Wearing PPE out the back of the portaloos, she beamed about the achievements of her son while earnestly barracking for anyone listening to get vaccinated.

The program bestowed her a classically footy-esque nickname: Jane ‘The Vaccinator’ Wines. 

“By me being on that show, our vaccination rates went out for sure,” she said. 

“Well, I tell everyone that anyway.”

Footy still an ‘entree to so much more’

Before Ollie Wines was a star Port Adelaide midfielder, his Saturday mornings were spent like so many other country kids — being driven from Echuca to nearby sporting grounds with the Coodabeens crackling on the car radio.  

The Coodabeens and their regular 1988 season guests.(ABC Archives)

Jane Wines has watched on as his career has since been subject to the churning 24-hour footy hot takes content machine.

She knows what she prefers. 

“I can’t listen to some of the other ones. They’re far too serious about it,” she said.

“Give me the Coodabeen Champions’ approach any time.”

The Coodabeen Champions in 2020.(ABC Radio Melbourne)

For his part, Jeff Richardson leaves regular broadcasting with an Order of Australia Medal (as do five other Coodabeens) and a sense of optimism.

“The media landscape is changing again, the barriers for entry have come down, and it’s become even more open for people to come and have a go and do something different. It’s tremendous,” he said.

“For every story you hear about country footy and struggling numbers, the whole growth of girls’ and women’s participation in footy is an inflection point that can turn that whole story around.”

Longstanding fan Laraine Rodriquez interviewed by Ian Cover at the 2019 grand final day outside broadcast.(ABC Radio Melbourne)

Paul Kelly once said that when he wrote about standing high on the hill, looking over the bridge, to the MCG on Leaps and Bounds, he wasn’t really talking about football — more of a feeling. 

The same could perhaps be said of the Coodabeen Champions. 

“It looks like it’s a game you play with a ball,” Jeff Richardson said, “but it’s an entree to so much more than that.”