A writers festival on the New South Wales central coast is probably the closest you can come to watching the AFL grand final in a vacuum. There were expat bars in every country in the world displaying more interest than the entire city of Newcastle. The only venue even playing it was the RSL, with the sound down in favour of horse races.
Fortunate to be bunked with the only other Cat fan in town, we eventually ran back to our accommodation in time for the bounce, and at least had one kindred soul to share the shouting. We met the festival’s Saturday night swelling with joy, and no place to direct it. Whenever Geir mentioned football to someone, the response was, “I have to pee.”
In Melbourne, you can feel the grand final in the air. The build-up lasts all week. Not just the media glut, but a kind of nervous energy. Scarves sprouting out of cars like some strange acrylic rash. Spring air crackling like power lines, leaves hustling up the cold streets.
It’s that ubiquity that makes the anti-fans apoplectic. Grand final week is when they most shrilly voice their fierce disdain of our gladiatorial obsession and mouth-breathing tendencies. Seeing so many people enjoying themselves in a way you can’t comprehend must be like going to an ice-cream convention after your tongue was shot off in the war.
You can’t explain the love of sport, just as other devotees can’t explain Nureyev or heavy metal or crossbow hunting. It either speaks to you or it never will. Perhaps you’re born into it. I was certainly born into supporting Geelong. Dad did, and I thought he was the greatest human on earth. Not much has changed.
As a kid, it was simple. This was your team. You gave them your love, they gave you their effort. As an adult, sport is about the stories it contains and creates. There’s an XKCD comic that friends love to send me: “A weighted random number generator just produced a new batch of numbers,” says one sports commentator to another. “Let’s use them to build narratives!”
Thing is, the facetiousness falls flat, because narratives are what sport is made up of. The stories of its watchers, its participants, and the societies around them. These are no random numbers, but real people, real effort, real pain and hardship and brilliance and reward.
As a kid, dad took me to four grand finals in seven years. Four times we packed the bags, packed the lunches, steeled ourselves in the September morning, made that trip to the concrete coliseum. Four times we lost.
The last of the sequence was 1995. Gary Ablett snr was king, a freak of a player who weekly did the impossible. That year the grand final had been pushed back into October. It was my birthday. I wore my brand new No.5 jumper to the game. Carlton demolished us by 10 goals. Ablett didn’t get a kick.
In 2007, I was booked to work at various spots around New South Wales. Then Geelong scraped through the preliminary final. Ablett jnr was the star now. I drove from Dubbo to Newcastle on the Friday night, then left at 5am to fly to Melbourne. My taxi went straight from Tullamarine to the MCG, just in time to meet dad and get in the early-morning queue for the last few seats.
Fifty two points up at half-time, Dad looked over at me. “Don’t you say a bloody word,” I warned. The Cats’ teams of the ’90s had been great at collapsing when well in front.
At three-quarter time it was 90 points. I just put a finger to my lips. When the lead first passed 100, dad and I looked at each other. “I think we might have this one,” I said.
When it was done, song sung, streamers hurled, 44 years of drought broken, we drank one beer, looking over the emptying MCG, the massed ranks of humanity abruptly turning back into cold concrete plinths. We smiled at each other, suddenly deeply exhausted. “I think I’d like to go home now,” he said. History, in the making or the purging, is no small thing.
“It doesn’t matter,” I remember saying the next year, when Geelong’s poor kicking saw Hawthorn fall arse-backwards into the luckiest premiership of all time. “I’ve still seen them win one. That’s all I wanted.”
The year after that, then, was just karmic icing, as St Kilda proved similarly generous in errant shots for goal, letting the Cats back in to win a second flag. And if 2009 was icing, then the baking analogy doesn’t provide the means to describe 2011. This is so much more than sprinkles.
Three wins in five years is a mark of greatness, much more than three in three. The Lions side from early this century peaked and fell away. These Cats have endured, keeping their belief despite the losses that could have derailed them, and the constant talk of ending eras.
It was only some time after that first win that something else became clear. This was not just the resolving of my childhood hoodoo. In 2007, a weight was lifted from my father, too. Trailing a dejected child home, he had felt culpable for each loss, second-guessed himself on each excursion. The realisation is abrupt: just how unsure your parents must so often have been, how afraid of making the wrong call.
These are our stories, and they twine with the others to form part of the narrative. Here is James Podsiadly, going from 28-year-old debutant to a premiership player in two seasons. Here is Tom Lonergan, losing a kidney and nearly his life on the field, before coming back to claim a medal.
Here am I, and here is my father, in the cold wings of the MCG. Me drumming my heels on the step, he peeling an orange to give me half. Here is my father, walking alongside a 10-year-old with a homemade flag. The Eagle fan behind us saying it looked like I’d done my homework on the back.
Here is my father, and here is me, drinking that one beer on that one afternoon one September, suddenly feeling free and easy and unsure what to do with this new expanse. And here am I, a thousand kilometres and a thousand days away, remembering all these things, with a warmth that makes a liar of the early morning chill.
Now tell me that sport doesn’t mean anything.