As the 2014 AFL season is about to start, my incorrigible football addiction is in full flight where I’m really looking forward to a new era for my team, the Blueboys. After last year’s disappointing results mostly (we made the finals by default by Essendon’s supplements scandal wipeout), I have reflected on the best game I saw last year and can only hope I can see more tight, close contests. A gorgeous young woman, bedecked in a gold and brown tight, striped, clingy sweater, a Hawthorn supporter of course, was sitting next to me in the Members’ Reserve at the G on an acclaimed BIG night of football; yet another ‘grudge’ match between the Cats and the Hawks. (Has there been any other kind since the GF of 2008 when the Hawks devoured the Cats?) On the other side of me was a more petite, young female, garbed in Geelong colours, and the first thing I noticed about her was that she was of Asian origin. Why did that seem unusual? I have been attending matches around Melbourne for more than 50 years, and it is still a rare occurrence to see Asians at a game of Aussie Rules. I could only smile and tell her that while I was really a Blues fan, I was on her side tonight. I didn’t say anything to the Hawks girl at all (I hate the gold and brown). As the teams ran out, the quiet tranquillity of the G was transformed into a roaring rotunda, both girls cheering as they clapped their hands in high expectation. Despite our different allegiances (or team addiction, depending on your perspective), we watched the game for four quarters wondering whether we’d walk through the pearly gates or descend into satanic depths at the final siren. Win or lose; who of us would be enjoying a natural high at the game’s end? I was thinking too of another Cats’ fan, an 84-year-old grandmother I’d exchanged footy trivia with before the game in the caf over her home made cookies and coffee, who incredibly, had missed just ONE Grand Final since 1945. And of course, she remembered that game lucidly as the degrading bloodbath it was, the Swans triumphant in the ugly contest. Of course, I wasn’t even born then, though my mother, long since sadly passed away, had recounted the gory details about that game since I was a mere child. Would this woman, make up impeccable and her hair neatly coiffured, be smiling tonight and waving her scarf in the dark cold of the MCG? I told her as I left to watch the game that I’d see her at the GF; hopefully, I do as meeting supporters like her is part of our great game (I didn’t make it there, but then, neither did Geelong. I can only hope she did).
Meanwhile, being at least something of an impartial observer, (navy blue is inked in my veins since my brainwashing as a mere sevenyearoldsomething; my mother and father were well-cultured in working class Carlton where they’d both grown up as children in the 1930s), in between my own excited applause at the skills of all players under intense pressure and tough, physical contests, I was also watching the reactions of these young females. Both of them remained surprisingly restrained, at least vocally, neither of them screamed loudly or even abused the umpires which of course, I used to do in the past successful years of The Blues. (Too often now, I’m more inclined to laugh at Carlton’s players repeated mistakes –won’t bore you with how inept they can be- than lament their loss as I’ve just got tired of crying too much)! The Hawks’ supporter stunned me, not with outlandish outrage when Hawthorn started falling behind in the last few minutes of the game (as I might have behaved years before with Carlton), but with her wild and uncontrolled body movements as she jumped out of the seat and ecstatically threw her arms about for more than five minutes as the team kicked a couple of goals to assert its supremacy, albeit temporarily, as the game unfolded. She was indeed, ‘Up There,’ in there and fighting, out there and at ‘em, one minute flying like an angel, cool, calm and collected, while in the next minute, she was fighting like the devil with the crowd on her side. As for ‘me, I like football’ – not just the game, but all the idiosyncrasies of the mighty mania that grips each and every one of us over a ball of leather. I just smiled at her amusing antics as did others around us. She was entertaining, but were we laughing with her or at her? What was she on, I could only ponder? But then, what ‘drug’ had the 80,000 plus crowd swallowed or smoked too? As the Cats’ potency purred yet again to its pinnacle, the young Hawk, de-winged by inevitable defeat, departed the seat before the final siren even sounded, heading for the bar no doubt. Just a fact of life at the football. All I could say as some way of consolation (she seemed so distraught I had to say something though it never helps at all) was that it’s not the Grand Final. She didn’t even answer me back. There was nothing to say, of course.
Football has always been an integral part of my life, though many of my work colleagues, even friends, both female and male, over the years, have oft expressed surprise at my profound passion for the game. ‘Incongruous’ was the word one female manager suggested when I imparted my love of Aussie Rules so I forgave her stupidity, as after all, she was just a Pom who had never even been to a game. I’m unsure now, some 28 years later, whether she bothered to attend to see for herself what all our collective madness is really about. But she wasn’t the first to assume, that as a well-dressed, intelligent young woman, even sophisticated and well-educated who loved to read, attend classical music concerts and sub-titled, foreign movies et al, I could possibly enjoy a game so violent (at least to her), so brutal and so unrefined where brawn beats brains, or at least seems to, according to all the people who are bemused by my revelry in the game. I can certainly look like a ‘lady’ most of the time, with great feminine style, even when I waltz into the G, but once the game starts, I too, can morph into an outrageous ‘Ockerina’ nobody can recognise. But is football matter over mind or do footballers just have no minds at all as some have contended against me? And do we, as fanatical supporters, leave our own minds at the turnstiles when we enter? Even more now perhaps, when despite so-called trial by video as it was initially dubbed when introduced by the AFL in 1986 to examine onfield incidents, with umpteen cameras poised around the grounds to catch offenders, so many players are still engaging in conduct unbecoming. The powers-to-be at the AFL Match Review Panel charged eight players last weekend with an assortment of reckless and rough misdemeanours; obviously, many players seem simply oblivious to Big Brother, but is there something more sinister and sadistic lurking, albeit unconsciously, in their psyches? Or are they suffering from a brain fade or maybe, it’s all just a no-brainer! What goes on in their heads I have no way of knowing of course, if at all anything is going on other than contesting for the ball and doing whatever’s needed to gain, or maintain, possession of the leather. Anti-social behaviour is unacceptable off the field; but on the field? No red cards in this game, just business as usual despite concussed players lying almost dead (or so the horror appears in the stands) on the mattress as they’re moved off the ground! Former Geelong VFL player and co-coach of Geelong Football League team South Barwon, Casey Tutungi, 27, is now a quadriplegic for the rest of his life after injuring his spine in a local match, just one tragic reminder, if we need any at all, how cruel and dangerous this game can be. I can only conjecture about my own lunatic, for wont of a better word, lust for this crazy Aussie game, along with hundreds of thousands of my compatriots, let alone comprehend what inspires men, and thousands of women too now, to play Aussie Rules.
Former Collingwood follower Darren Jolly last year penned a newspaper article extolling the virtue of mental toughness and pushing through the pain barrier; mind over matter was the headline, as if football is played from the neck up rather than the head down? But does that even go close in explaining or clarifying the continuing incidence of reportable offences? Indeed, I’d argue that both physical prowess and mental tenacity unequivocally contribute to the creation of our champions, though players putting their bodies on the line so often seems completely mindless; their physical assaults, however accidental, usually applauded as acts of great courage. Impunity is the name of the game in their desperate hunger for the ball.
In my past imperfect years at games, I’ve screamed out some less than salutatory comments of abuse; denigrating women I’ve been told (you’re playing like a bunch of….!) while as Magpie wingman/backman Harry O’Brien wrestles with his personal demons, I am apologising to everyone with mental health issues for the many times I’ve suggested loudly and vehemently, that Blues’ players need anti-depressants to enliven their flat and lethargic, even apathetic, contest for the ball. I’ve also slammed umpires with a few ugly swear words, now very quietly under my breath these days at the G. I’ve also banged my hand on the hard, aluminium seat in front of me as I’d tossed the rolled-up Record on the ground in disgust (the Record made a resilient battering ram) with the consequent bruise lasting a few days. (Since they rebuilt the Members, the new, individual seats are just too soft and fully occupied so I just can’t do that anymore). But my antics were merely a toddler’s tantrum compared to Hawthorn coach Alistair Clarkson’s punching a hole in the wall in the box not to mention other coaches throwing phones or thumping tables or even smashing the glass window a la mid-80s Cats coach John Devine at Arctic Park ( I happened to be sitting just two rows in front of him and was lucky to escape being cut with the shards of glass that sprinkled the seats), but then, I’m not a man nor a coach despite my teenage fantasy of being just that, though my frustration and exasperation can be much the same without even sitting in the box. ‘I thought you were a lady,’ one male Carlton supporter, aged in his 70s, once responded to one of my angry outbursts (not that I can remember now what it was I said) while my mother, standing alongside me, turned to him and smiling, remarked: ‘she’s not really my daughter!’ I could only laugh. So too, did he and she. I’ve also stormed off to the bar mid-quarter, or even worse, gone home in disgust to drink too many reds to drown my despair. Such is our aggressive mania! Maybe deep down, we’re all just lousy losers! After all, winning is so much more fun.
At the same time, I’ve also experienced an ecstasy unparalleled (well, almost) by other indulgences of life (nothing else seems to matter on Grand Final day when The Blues have won- though I’ve stopped holding my breath about when that might happen again), I’ve laughed hilariously as supporters screech ‘chewy on your boot’ as an opposition player shoots for goal as I’ve never understood where that comes from as well as all the myriad of witty and not so witty comments (none of which I can recall now) that echo in the crowd as beers are swilled and hot pies demolished (though I never liked beer or four’ntwenty). Old fashioned footy is still alive and well and thriving; with its highs and lows and its unpredictable outcomes and as much as our boys endear us with pleasure one week and pain the next, we still keep going to the games. ‘There are days when you give it up, There are days when you could fly, You either love it or hate it Depending on the score, But when your team run out or they kick a goal, How’s the mighty roar.’ Thanks Mike Brady for giving us such stirring lyrics, and hopefully, the Geelong supporter and the Hawks supporter I sat next to will have someone between them again at their next encounter. The GF? Maybe Kennett’s Curse will condemn the Hawks to stay grounded – it’s now 11 straight losses since ’08 – while the Cats celebrate their more than nine lives! But with each re-match, there’s no guarantee for either a mighty manic cheer or a drink of deep despair. Success is just around the next week, the next year! That’s football! At least, that’s what Carlton keeps promising. I can only hope it’s true. And of course, The Hawks DID win the 2013 premiership!