As the 2009 AFL season culminates tomorrow, keen supporters will begin contemplating the new season.
Already Barry Hall seems destined for the Western Bulldogs and the trading period, the draft camp and the draft itself are all looming. Tom Scully, regarded as the most likely No.1 draft pick, seems set to join Melbourne, raising hopes anew for some of the AFL’s most long-suffering supporters. The recruits, especially if taken in the top 10 draft picks, are central to that odd feature of a keen supporter’s emotional life; once hooked, despite the disappointments of the previous season, hopes always rise as the new season appears on the horizon. All the old hopes and anxieties flow back into place and the summer seems like a torpid distraction from the elemental passions of life.
While interviewing for Footy Passions, Joy Damousi and I came across another and larger set of recruits; those babies born into footy culture and especially those born into mixed marriages in which parents and/or older siblings barrack for different clubs. In family after family, desperate attempts are made to lure the child towards a life-time affection for (and affliction with) one or another club. Mothers go back on their word and insist that their child has to support their team after all, no matter what the father may prefer.
Fathers buy memberships and scarves and jumpers in their club colors, hoping that these will work their magic on the innocent. Uncles and aunts are always a danger. We encountered one Western Bulldogs family in which the Hawthorn-supporting uncle bought Hawthorn memberships for each of his brother’s children from birth — enticing them to betray their Bulldogs father with memberships and a cornucopia of Hawthorn paraphernalia. After all this, sometimes the child rebels and insists on a transfer. Madeleine, in Footy Passions , enveloped her precious son in Sydney Swans’ colours and clothing from birth and her friends and neighbours celebrated his first birthday by all dressing in red and white.
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Even the cakes were red and white, with the Swans logo in icing featured on the birthday cake. Yet, at last report, the West Coast Eagles, the Swans major adversary in recent years, have stolen his heart. While proud of this independence of spirit, Madeleine hopes her own and her husband’s devotion to the Swans will ultimately prevail. No doubt, plans are already being laid for next year. The other set of recruits are the arrivals from overseas. In Melbourne, and perhaps elsewhere, new arrivals are plagued and cajoled until they eventually make their decision. That decision, once taken or imposed, for many becomes a life-long identification. As a Richmond membership recruiting poster put it, “Yellow and Black. It’s In The Blood. Make your blood oath …”
In Footy Passions, the stories we report and analyse reveal the range, intensity and intricacy of these identifications. We have learned that the ways in which supporters talk about their teams also tells us a lot about them. It reveals an intricate connection between the supporter’s personal life and the meaning and significance they attach to the fate and fortunes of their team. As the much-anticipated grand final between St Kilda and Geelong looms tomorrow, in the following brief extracts from Footy Passions we introduce some supporters of St Kilda and Geelong whose passions have been joined to the fate and fortunes of their club throughout a lifetime.
Margot believes that the idea that premierships are all that matter offers far too narrow a vision of success. For her there are many more dimensions to success other than winning a premiership. Of course, this might be special pleading from a St Kilda supporter still traumatised by St Kilda’s loss to Adelaide in 1997. But Margot rightly points out that the attachment to the team is far more complex than just wishing and hoping that one day the holy grail of a premiership will be achieved; although she keeps wishing, hoping and cursing.
“There’s a lot that happens in those 22 weeks that you can look back on. We still talk about games back in the ’70s and the ’80s and ’90s and special memories attached to those games. Of course winning the flag, you want it. You want it for them. I want it for all the boys who have struggled their guts out, you know. It took me two years to get over ’97. Adelaide — those bastards, who I despise more than … I just haven’t had the words for how much I despise them.”
Every time St Kilda gets into the finals, she is very anxious: “So it’s a big risk, it’s like downhill skiing going into the finals. Without a pole, you know. It’s just freaky.”
Nadine describes her passion for the Saints in the following way.
“My father was a St Kilda supporter. And I was the youngest of three, the only girl, daddy’s girl. My dad barracked for St Kilda, so I barracked for St Kilda. I wouldn’t even know when that occurred. I have no idea at which point I decided. Because my dad barracked for St Kilda, that’s who I was going to barrack for. I remember once or twice, I was probably eight or nine, going to the MCG with my dad and just being overwhelmed by being in such a place. You could almost feel that it was a sacred place. Then, as I got older, and could venture out on my own, I’d go with friends from school to Moorabbin. Religiously on a Saturday afternoon, you went to Moorabbin.”
The family mood would be shaped by football results. After the defeat of St Kilda in the 1971 grand final, there was a melancholic mood in the family.
“Mum said to me, ‘Don’t talk to your father’. Not that he would ever have yelled at me or anything, but just give him some space. If my dad was upset, I was upset. I had no idea why I was upset. So,’71, I remember it, but I didn’t understand the significance of it, and I also didn’t know that it would be so long before we even looked like getting to another final.”
Nadine continues to draw a sense of being close to her father, even after his death, through their shared devotion to St Kilda. Every game she attends with her own children further embeds this connection. When St Kilda plays, Nadine inhabits an “as if” magical world in which time is eclipsed by the co-presence of a litany of special moments, stretching from when she was a little girl sitting with her dad at the game and sharing a passion that has linked her to him throughout her life. At once, Nadine’s is a deep attachment to her father and St Kilda. It is so deeply embedded that it has taken on a quasi-sacred status. Listen to Nadine talking about buying a footy jumper for her daughter.
“I wanted to get the new heritage jumper for the kids last Christmas. I was in the AFL shop in Frankston, and I was trying to work out what size to get for my daughter. I was holding up the jumper, umming and aahing, and the guy said to me, ‘Here’s a Richmond one in a bigger size if you want to just hold that up to see.’ And I said, ‘You’ll have to hold it. Sorry, I can’t do it.’ And he said, ‘It’s just a jumper,’ and I said, ‘It’s a Richmond jumper.’ And he said, ‘You won’t get germs from it.’ I said, ‘Someone might walk past and see me though. I’m sorry, you’ll have to hold it up.’ And I thought, ‘I like Richmond, I don’t even have anything against them.’ But my hand went out and I just couldn’t.”
Richard knows who to blame for his lifelong addiction to Geelong. The moment occurred when he was just seven and his father was taking him and another boy, who lived nearby, to school. The three were chatting when the conversation shifted to football and the upcoming season. So Richard asked his father: “Who do you barrack for, dad?” The reply: “Geelong.” Captured by the intensity of the moment, Richard cemented his identification with his father with just two words: “Me too.” This immediate identification with his father was a significant moment. It condemned Richard to decades of football misery, now finally redeemed. “And that’s the moment that’s killed me,” he confessed, “I’ve been suffering ever since.” It was also the consolidation of an enduring connection with his father, mediated through football, a space where expressions of intimacy and emotional connectedness could be shared.
For Richard, the history of Geelong, as he has experienced it until recently, symbolises one of life’s clichés, that of unfulfilled talent. As a club that has fielded some of the most talented teams ever to play and that has been involved in some of the most memorable finals, Geelong had never fulfilled its potential. Richard remembers reading a journalist’s account of the Geelong sides of the 1960s, an account that stuck with him, as it resonated with his own sense of talent unrealised.
“Geelong — what a great side they were in the 1960s. What a waste they only won one premiership. The issue has always been talent unfulfilled. Always. That is Geelong’s theme. This is where it gets personal, because you always feel about your own life, have you wasted your own potential promise? I realised that was the issue for me in barracking for Geelong, that it was a personal issue. I think it was Noel Coward who once said about someone ‘that he went from promising to has-been without an intervening period of achievement’. That’s Geelong. One of the issues for football has been this thing about Geelong being this great side that never fulfilled its potential.”
For Geelong, Richard reiterated, “It was always coming; everything was always about to happen. The terrible ifs accumulate.”
Jack, who died recently at the ripe age of 102, grew accustomed to the sad fortunes of St Kilda, having begun following them as a boy. There was never any question about any other allegiance.
“Well, you’re sort of bred with it. If you’re bred in St Kilda, nine times out of 10 you’d be a St Kilda supporter. They were more Prahranites I think, than St Kilda. Most of the people came from the Prahran side, although they were called St Kilda. It was a heartbreaking team to follow. And they not only didn’t win but they used to get a damn good thrashing.
When the Saints played Essendon in the 1965 grand final, more than 50 years after he first barracked for them as a schoolboy, he was determined to be there, despite having to work until near the start of the match.
“I was at the shop on my own and I couldn’t shut the shop before one o’clock. So I got in the car and when I got to the MCG, there was a little stretch of grass running parallel to the railway line where no one had parked. So I left my car on the grass. I knew it was wrong, but I was so eager to see St Kilda that I did it. A policeman came. I could see him, and he screamed at me, ‘Don’t park there, don’t park there.’ So I got out of the car and I ran, and he chased me about a hundred yards and then he let me go. And I thought, ‘When I go back he’ll be waiting for me’.”
Essendon beat St Kilda by 35 points and when Jack did get back to his car he discovered that he had been booked. Still, seeing St Kilda play in its first grand final since 1913 was well worth it, despite the loss.
The next year, St Kilda reached the grand final again. This time they won their only premiership, beating Collingwood by a single behind, kicked by Barry Breen in the last minute of the game. There were 101,655 people at that grand final and Jack was one of them. He was in the standing-room-only section and had an obscured view.
“I could only see half the ground. I could see what went on down there, on the Melbourne side, but the other side I couldn’t see. I had to put up with it. And I didn’t know how long they had to go. I didn’t know anybody and there was a great roar, a terrific roar, and I said, ‘What happened?’ Someone said ‘St Kilda won.’ And I started to cry, the tears rolled down. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. And when I walked home — I didn’t take the car — to think that they could’ve won a final! They only won it by a point!”
Jack’s children and many of his grandchildren will be at the MCG tomorrow. Those who aren’t will be following the match with keen attention. As with Nadine and Richard and thousands of others, memories of parents and loved ones who shared, and often stimulated, their devotion will be alive in the crowd of passionate supporters whose emotional life, at least for the moment, has condensed into an identification with either St. Kilda or Geelong. No wonder it hurts if you lose!
Extracts are taken from Footy Passions by John Cash & Joy Damousi. Footy Passions is a recent publication by UNSW Press and sells for $34.95.