As the AFL season stumbles toward Anzac Day, the ritualised grumbling and discontent about the match-scheduling for the day will choke the talkback lines and fill acres of newsprint.
Since the early 90s, Anzac Day football has become the sole domain of two of Melbourne’s biggest clubs, Essendon and Collingwood. Just as the marketing machinery at Cricket Australia have sold the Boxing Day Test as some ancient rite (it only became a regular feature of Australian cricket after the 1974-75 summer) the spin kings have managed to sell this marquee day on the footy calendar as “tradition”, even though the fixture has been in place for little more than a decade.
VFL footy was first played on Anzac Day in 1960 and was a regular feature of the season with any and all clubs being drawn to play over the years. If anything, in those days footy was a distraction for many people from their indifferent attitudes to Anzac Day. Then, most people were no more than one generation removed from the pain, devastation and sacrifice of war.
Whilst deeply respectful of the fallen, many Australians were sceptical of public displays of patriotism and held a healthy scepticism about the cultivation of blood myths peddled by politicians. These people wouldn’t recognize Anzac Day today.
A new generation has embraced the day and brought the new patriotism into public life. Credit to Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy, a goal square philosopher if ever there was one, who sensed the changing mood and suggested that the fixture with Collingwood be established as a way of augmenting the Anzac Day experience.
Since then, Anzac Day footy has become the biggest event in the home-and-away season. Sold out well in advance, over 95,000 people are expected at the MCG tomorrow.
The other AFL clubs and their fans feel aggrieved that they have been locked out of the experience. There is a sense that the Bombers and the Magpies have hijacked the day and cultivated it for their own ends.
The grievances may be legitimate but they result in this unseemly annual squabble. It’s time to call on truce on the annual Anzac Day haggle. Collingwood and Essendon have dealt with the day with dignity and simplicity and have made sure that the spirit of the day is foremost. They should be made custodians of the day on behalf of the whole football public, entrusted to protect the integrity of the occasion.
Similarly, Bombers and Magpie fans need to accept this as an honour bestowed on them, not a God-given right that somehow legitimises their claim to being the competition’s most important clubs. They should be grateful for the opportunity and humbled to be entrusted with something so important to so many.
Until the bounce of the ball, that is. Then it’s on for young and old. And I’d imagine that many of the fallen that grew up loving footy throughout the ages wouldn’t want it to be any other way.