Image by sobriquet.net via Flickr
I was late getting to the MCG yesterday for the footy as I’d been out for lunch and then had to wait for a train. I walked around the outside of the ground after the game had started. There were a few kids selling footy records, the usual food stalls selling donuts and hamburgers at which the odd customer bought his lunch, and the stray latecomer like me hurrying to get into the ground. It was sparse though almost to the point of being eerie, an impression that was heightened by the roiling sound of 50,000 inside the ground, a dull murmur that sometimes lifted to a roar, like a wave breaking upon a beach. You could only imagine what was happening out on the ground, was it us they roared for, or was it them? It brought back a flood of indistinct memories over many years from when I was a child going to the football, this roar that had never changed over that time and possibly never had from the time the Christians took on the lions, regardless of who the crowd roared for. It was a visceral remembrance of the raw appeal of the game, pure in its essence as I could not see the action but could feel the thrill of it.
That changed as I entered the ground. It was crowded in the members and so I ended up on level 4 of the stand where I very rarely sit. It is a different view from up there looking down upon the field. The players are foreshortened by the angle and the field spreads out like a playing board. You can see the movements of the players upon the board and the passage of the ball, but you lose the direct involvement in the game you get from ground level. You get close enough to the boundary you can hear the smack of one body against another, hear the players call for the ball and up close see the oiled muscles and take in the sheer size of them. There are times, as you can at the track, when you can hear the thud of boot on turf as they run across the ground to win a disputed ball.
For once I watched with a bemused detachment. From early on it seemed apparent we would lose. Next to me a grandfather with his grandson watched the game. Every so often the grandfather would explain something to the boy. They barracked for the opposing team and occasionally the boy would ask in his small voice a question of his grandfather. Between scolding the changes in the rules the grandfather would answer knowledgeably with the wisdom of a lifetime watching the game. I said nothing and showed nothing. There was a kind of fascination in watching the deterioration of a team I have followed for a lifetime, like watching silently a woollen jumper unravel with a piece snagged on a nail.
I left with the same blankness in me, beyond despair. How many times have I left a game seething after a loss? Just about every time. I always took losing badly whether it was me or the team I followed. Never could I remember this numbed indifference. They’re losing me, I thought.
Last night as it happens was the 10th anniversary dinner of the 2000 premiership of the club. I went along wondering what the vibe would be. I dressed in my suit and tie and mingled in the crowd before dinner. Much of the conversation centred around the wretched state of the team. Some were almost accepting of it, as if shell-shocked into the belief that it was hopeless, that nothing would be done and hence nothing would change. The best option then was to grin and bear it. Others were less philosophical. I expected some anger and there was some of that. They wanted change, action. Enough was enough, this is a proud club and something had to be done.
I was of this second group, though what flamed in others was cold in me. The feeling had gone out of it. Much like I had sitting from high in the stand I saw it in clear lines. The argument was advanced in my head based on cool rationalism and logic. If the football club was a corporation then the board would be acting. If share price value can be likened to a position on the ladder then the coach equates to the CEO. Our share price (and hence shareholder value) is plummeting and shows no real sign of reversing the trend. The shareholders are restive and the board, presumably, becoming impatient. In the business world a board will often look to cut its losses rather than accept failure. It may seem harsh sometimes but being ruthless has its virtues. Whether it be a corporation or a footy club the objective is success, either building towards it or achieving it. Right now we are doing neither and the coach has lost the players: time to act.
The night proceeded and I found my spirits lift. There was something oddly life-affirming to be amongst the players who achieved such great heights for the club. With everyone else I smiled and laughed along at the stories told, recalling in my own mind these great players and that time.
They seemed to me people of unusual character. I wondered if that was coincidence or if I saw them through rose coloured glasses, but finally accepted that what I saw was true. Talent is one thing, but relatively cheap; character is what builds great teams and makes possible the leadership necessary to get to the top. The team of 2000 is one of the best ever AFL teams: no team in the history of the game has been so dominant over a season. They had talent and skill by the bucket load, but what made them special is that they combined it with character.
I listened to the increasingly impressive Matty Lloyd and Scott Lucas, champions of the club, and then James Hird and Michael Long, legends in their own way on the field and off. They remain impressive people and all spoke of their love for the club and for their team-mates. That was a common theme throughout. It makes you proud to follow a club that inspires such passion in those who represent it, but there was something more significant in it.
It’s all very well striving for individual and team glory. What makes a team great is going beyond that. Glory is fleeting after all even if so honoured, but the standards that we set and live by go on forever. It’s the application of those standards that result in glory. Each of these men had that: pride in performance, trust in each other, the leadership to strive against opposition and, above all, the commitment to give back. Champions all, they subverted themselves to the greater good of the club and all it represents. They make the club, and in the reflected glory of the club are celebrated by it.
It seemed a timely lesson right here and now. Success, after all, is more than individual talent and a clever game plan. It is in the collective that the spark of success is ignited and which if fanned properly becomes an enduring flame. That flame burnt brightly back in those years because it was something they believed in; now the flame is almost out. I left wishing we had more of that ilk at the club today, wishing, in fact, that some of those would return to the club and bring with them the passion that still burns so fiercely. I’m sure they’re hurting as much now as I am, and the flame long after dodgy knees have given out still burns in them. That is what we need, for that to be returned to the club and nurtured, for it to
made front and central to the clubs purpose, for meaning to be returned to the guernsey and the brand to be newly polished: we are Essendon as they say. Well we are, now let’s mean it.
It was midnight when I parted from my dinner companions. I still felt cold and detached. I wasn’t ready for bed. Instead I went into the casino and prowled the floor. I searched for a bar where I could sit and maybe find an interesting woman to chat too, but all I found were ordinary bars full of men in tracksuit tops. There was no-one I saw who I liked, but, I reflected, even if a beautiful woman had come up to me and begged to come home with me I might have said no. It seemed too straight-forward. I was cold, detached – and complicated. So be it. I made my way out of there and home. Hoping now, for something to happen.