“Fremantle [Football Club] is that donkey in that Robert Bresson film Balthazar, being flogged and beaten and disrespected and mocked and yet you stay with this poor donkey.”
These are the words of Tim Winton, acclaimed WA novelist and Fremantle Docker fan in an interview with The Monthly in 2008. Winton is correct. For much of Fremantle’s short history it’s been the proverbial “ass” of the joke from rival supporters. I know. Because, like Winton, I follow Fremantle.
Unlike Winton I live in Melbourne. There are not many Freo supporters in AFL’s heartland. For those who are, we are every bit as passionate as any other football supporter. There’s just not many of us. And we’ve copped it for years.
“Shockers”. “Purple is a gay colour”. “Your song is horrible.” “The anchor weighs you down.” “You traded pick 1 in Super Draft. WTF?” “Purple is the colour of sexual frustration”. “What the fuck is with your song?” “Purple, LOL.”
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However, 2010 is different. The donkey is becoming a thoroughbred.
I moved to Melbourne in 2004. Six months after Fremantle made their first final, an elimination final, against Essendon at Subiaco. I was there. We got thumped. I was one of the 40 odd thousand who cheered the boys off, despite the embarrassing scoreline. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. It felt right at the time. It was our first final. We were proud. And I would do it again if I had my time over. Maybe it’s a Freo thing. It’s what we do.
So when I moved to Melbourne I knew three Fremantle supporters. My best mate Kim, who made the move over with me and my two mates, Ian and Todd, who were already living here. That’s it. So we’d go to each game, braving the Melbourne winter and the mocking of the Richmond and Collingwood supporters (who are particularly scary when you are wearing purple). 2004 and 2005 were bad years. I got used to Fremantle losing just as I acclimatised to the Victorian capital’s bleak weather.
Along the way you’d meet a few more Fremantle fans here and there. You’d end up sharing a beer after the game and talking about how Shane Parker kept Fevola goalless against Carlton and then kicked a goal himself on the way to a great win. You’d have a few more, disclosing you’re mutual love of Matthew Pavlich (the great man) and how, in a few years, Aaron Sandilands would take the game apart. With your new found Freo mates you’d go to the club’s after match function for Melbourne supporters where a couple of hundred of you would share a win with the boys (like our victory over Melbourne in 2005). And in there you’d see the likes of the late great Matt Price, sporting a Dockers scarf and a big grin, celebrating a rare MCG victory with players and fans alike.
But 2006 was a good year. It’s funny Melbourne. When you’re team is winning, winter ain’t that bad. People forget that Freo made a preliminary final in 2006. A flash in the pan. Freo fans don’t forget, but that’s the closest we’ve got to the big prize. But we weren’t ready that year. It would have been a Stephen Bradbury premiership. And the Eagles deserved their flag that year (as much as it pains me to say that).
So 2006 came and went. And then it was disappointment.
And then it was Mark Harvey.
Fremantle fans are very loyal, Jesus we’d have to be. But I doubt you’ll find a single Fremantle fan who doesn’t think this bloke is the bee’s knees. Former coach Chris Connolly and CEO Cameron Schwab turned Fremantle around from a debt ridden rabble to a viable business in the ultra competitive AFL market. Mark Harvey is beginning to make this place a club. And it’s a beautiful thing.
Fremantle’s drafting and trading used to be diabolical. This column isn’t long enough for all our follies. We’ve traded away great players and, despite a few exceptions, traded in “list fillers”, and a few too many with an eye on retirement and a healthy retirement package care of Fremantle. That’s our past. It’s part of our colourful history. If it wasn’t so painful it would be funny.
Fast forward to the past three years. Our trading and drafting has been astute, calculated and, dare I say it, inspired. Fremantle have gone from easily the worst to, arguably, the best at the drafting of kids and recruiting of players. One Michael Barlow doesn’t make a premiership team — but it helps. Add a virtually free Adam McPhee, Kepler Bradley and Alex “SCOS” (second cousin of Stephen) Silvagni and a host of quality kids and the turnaround has been remarkable. Fremantle fans already love Stephen Hill. No Freo fan ever thought they’d ever see anyone as good as Pavlich wearing purple. This kid could match, and overpass, Pavlich’s deeds. He’s a beauty.
I was at the MCG yesterday watching the boys train. Fremantle’s kids are excited. Tasmanian recruit Jesse Crichton looks about 12. But he’s one of Harvey’s boys. He’s expected to play like a man. It’s the Harvey way.
And Fremantle fans are excited too. Freo’s fan base is a bizarre and eclectic mix — much like Gerard Neesham’s inaugural 1995 side. We count among our celebrity supporters Kim Beazley, Luc Longley, Tim Winton, Rove McManus and the late Matt Price. And the rank and file are as every bit hopeful that “sustained success” is not an unreachable goal as it has been, no longer merely a motivational slogan to be bandied about.
So today’s a special day for Fremantle fans. For those who fly over from Perth and those who are already here. The Melbourne based supporters are particularly abuzz. Why wouldn’t they be. The big stage in Melbourne in September. Jeez, some of us even play a footy match once a year — the annual Grudgematch, the Fitzroy Dockers vs. the East Coast Eagles — we love this game, this football club.
Today, we get to witness Fremantle’s first ever final in Melbourne. At the hallowed ground that is the MCG. Geelong are a formidable opponent. So much class. So much experience. And they are perhaps “the greatest team of all.”
In my opinion, the best part of this is that I expect us to be here, in Melbourne, for finals again. Maybe not next week. But certainly in the succeeding years. And that’s something I thought I’d have to wait a fair few more years to say.
As Tim Winton said, “in the end, if love is all they [the players] get from their community and their supporters, along with all the other dyspeptic advice that they get from the community, then maybe that’s enough for them.”
Maybe it used to be. But under Harvey I don’t think it’s enough anymore.