By Colin Hockley*
Long ago a callow and bewildered newcomer to Melbourne was taken by a friend to see the strange sight of Australian Rules Football. The game was held at an ugly stadium in the unfashionable Western suburbs. The day was wet, cold and blustery. In places the ground was ankle deep in churned mud and a bleak wind howled across the ground sending the ball and players scurrying into a pocket of the oval. A lonely and much abused man in white armed with a whistle made sense of this activity as flags stood horizontal and ragged above a grandstand resembling a wartime bunker.
It was all very confusing and brutal. Red faced men clutching beer cans yelled unlovely insults at the players and the incredibly thick skinned man with the whistle who laboured away in the winter mud bringing some order to the confusion. He was universally referred to as “yer white maggot”. There seemed to be several players named, “yer poofta”.
His friend insisted that cold beer added to the experience. Wanting badly to fit in he drank some. Within minutes, after receiving directions, he raced off to find a toilet. This was a tin shed easily located by the stench of urine awash on a concrete floor. Those not drinking beer, or buying more beer, or shuffling in the urine, or insulting anyone on the playing field were standing in an endless queue for hot chips.
Oddly however, an understanding of the game crept in and colonised his physiology. Quite soon, rather like a lot of others, he fancied he was smart enough to understand the beauty of the game. Over time, things improved. The chip queue got a little shorter as the chips became more expensive. Less beer was drunk. The habit of public drunkenness came to be frowned upon, resulting in slightly less smelly and wet underfoot toilets.
His now adopted team struggled to achieve success. They played in a poor part of town filled with the working class and migrants. Money was scarce to pay good players. Those who stayed did so because they loved that bleak Western suburb and it’s rusted on, passionate supporters. Now and then the club caught, by accident, a player of great talent, or foolhardy bravery. Rusted on supporters can trot out the skill, acts of courage, loyalty and exploits these rare players to each other endlessly. Highlights of recent triumphs or a long ago game are wired into them with a passion.
Tragedy is writ large. Shocking injuries, the worst a dashing, handsome young man rendered quadriplegic in a collision. Another left blind in one eye. There were many missed moments of magic as great prizes ran away with Lady Luck, and on occasion, the White Maggot played his part in our agony.
But what seduced him besides the sheer athletic wonder and courage of the players was the ethos, rooted in an indefatigable failure to accept defeat. Strong men with bodies like Greek Gods and minds of steel playing, in the words of one of their champions, “a game of hurt”. Even to win hurt. To see them in the rooms after, huge ice packs strapped to the parts of their bodies that must train and fight again next week and the week after. A win is a happy thing. Grown men lustily sing a silly song of victory. Winning flags and scarves flap recklessly out of car windows, strangers shake your hand in the street on seeing your club colours. We have no enemies. Only pity disguised as friendliness.
Defeat means harder training, meetings focused on strategy, disappointed and demanding supporters, eager younger players wanting to knock you off your perch in the 1st team. In defeat, the supporters always say, “next week” and at season’s end, “next year”. And everything changes. The home ground changes. The name is tweaked. Coaches come and go. Presidents change. Sponsors run away and hide. Dreams come and go. Years pass. Decades pass. Membership rises and falls, like a politicians popularity poll. The rusted on grow older and they cling to the “nearly” moments, the “robbed” incidents and the past champions who blessed us with hope.
It’s a simple word, wonderful and life affirming.
Whatever the cause hope always triumphs over experience.
The name of my football team was hope.
After 60 years the planets lined up. Hope was ascendent. Great decisions were made by the right people. Players of immense talent emerged. A coach blessed with, not merely the knowledge but wonderful leadership skills landed like an angle on the blighted place. Melbourne, the cornerstone of which is this game, sniffed something magic in the air. An agony of injuries brought them, not undone, but gave them added fight and inspiration.
Man Love abounded. Tears fell like spring showers.
Unlikely, indeed, impossible heroics happened. He of the rusted on and the other lot, the come lately stood in that great Colosseum where dreams are made and lost. As the players ran out onto brilliant green in the sunshine, their colours dominant, flags flying, their noise creating tremors shaking the vast concrete floor. 70,000 voices, only ours, could be heard. The silly song roared. It seemed the blue sky with its scudding clouds shook with the chanting. A small bewildered boy lay wide eyed in the arms of his bedecked father beside him.
The game had yet to begin. His body tingled all over and there was quivering in his midriff. Tears and snot ran unheeded. He could have gone home at that moment and died happy. But with 99,981 people in his way he was wedged in, immovable, right on the edge of claustrophobia. This was their day. Their moment. His moment too. At the end, no one left. Not a single person raced for the car park or the train. They just stood and sang some more, over and over.
*Colin is a close and beloved friend and Western Bulldogs supporter.