The sport of Gods


Last weekend I went to a big game of footy at the MCG. Carlton versus Essendon is always hotly contested regardless of the scores on the field. The two teams hate each other, and that fierce rivalry extends to the crowd. I went with Donna, a typical Carlton supporter who hates Essendon above all others. We sat in the tightly packed members area amid supporters in the blue of Carlton and the red and black of the mighty Bombers. I was pretty relaxed, as I usually am, but desperate for a win against this mob. Donna was a bundle of nerves. I’ve been to about half a dozen of these games with her, and only once has Carlton won in that period. By the end of the day, that stat remained unchanged, though in unexpected ways, and Donna was literally all a tremble.

Great rivals make for great contests. A crowd of 80,00 helps, but there is so much history between teams like this that it will always be a desperate battle. There’s a buzz in the air as the players take the field, a crackling tension almost as the ball bounces and the crowd roars and the ball whizzes from one end to the other, bodies careen off each other and the crowd stills and roars like at the Colosseum. It’s wonderful theatre.

It was a wonderful game too. The re-born Essendon took control early and looked the goods. Then, in a few minutes, two season-ending injuries to key players turned the tide of the match. It’s tough to win, to even be properly competitive, with two players down. Gradually Carlton evened the match up, and early in the second half looked like they might skip away. Each time they got to a couple of goals lead though the Bombers would hit back against the odds.

The last quarter was like that also. Essendon kicked the first goal to go ahead by that margin before Carlton kicked the next three in a hurry to grab a handy lead. That Essendon was able to fight back once more was a testament to Essendon resilience, to a few quite remarkable moments of football, and a combination of laziness and panic by Carlton.

With a few minutes to go, Carlton led by a point. Then Garlett marked in their forward line within range and, looking over his shoulder, decided to play on. Bad move. On his tail was the oldest player in the competition, Dustin Fletcher (BOG for the match), who chased and then desperately lunged with his long arms to bring Garlett down and save the day.

Not long after, Carlton was in control of the ball with that lead when they kicked backwards and then out of bounds on the full. A hurried kick forward, a spill from a pack, and then a snap from the boundary line by Zaharakis saw the scores levelled. Moments later, the siren went: draw.

As an Essendon supporter, I was happy. We had no right to be so close, given the handicap of our injuries. It was a terribly gutsy effort by the players and might just be the making of the team. Backs against the wall, and they never gave up.

Tomorrow is another game that epitomises that spirit – the annual Anzac Day match between Collingwood and Essendon. This is the biggest game of the year outside the finals. There’ll be 90,000+ there tomorrow, and I’ll be one of them. Collingwood is the reigning premiers and top of the table; Essendon is the glamour team of the moment, playing purposeful, attractive football led by a favourite son. Tomorrow’s game has extra significance because James Hird, our coach, was a hero in so many of these matches – he won the Anzac day medal three times. You can bet he’ll get the team properly geed up for the occasion.

Collingwood goes in favourites, and that’s fair enough. Essendon knows they’re the underdogs and have boldly selected a team that might prove a masterstroke or backfire badly. I love the thinking, though: let’s attack. I hope we win tomorrow, and I think we’re a chance if we get our defensive pressures and our run going. Regardless of the result, I have a strong feeling that we’re a real contender this season. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think we can go all the way.

On a related note, I have to comment on the early death of one of my favourite players growing up. Alan Noonan died last week after a long struggle against cancer. He was 61. If I had a duffel coat when I was young and had the number of any player – as was the custom in those days – it would have been the number 10 of Alan Noonan.

My dad and I went to the footy most weeks from the time I was about 7 until 15, and pretty well every week, we played at Windy Hill. We had reserved seats in the Reynolds Stand, of which I still have many very vivid and exciting memories.

Amongst the players I watched week in, week out, my favourites were Noonan, and after him Graham Moss. Noonan was a very good CHF, underrated by posterity, but a powerful competitor, a good mark and a booming kick. He was a good looking man, I guess about 6’3″ in the old vernacular, dark hair long in the fashion of the day, high cheekbones, a big porn star moustache. Well muscled, he seemed to always have a year-round tan, his skin slick with the liniment they applied pre-game. His look was rugged, masculine and somewhat brooding. As you can probably tell, that very young me wanted to be him.

Strange to think he’s gone. I’ve not the personality type to have heroes, though certainly, I have admired many. Alan Noonan, I think, was one of my few heroes and the very first. For an impressionable kid growing up in the tumult of VFL, sitting in the crowd as it roared and cheered and drummed its feet on the wooden floor of the stand, chanting Esse-en-don…Ess-en-don… joining with all my might, enchanted by the colour and spectacle, the noise and wonder, small still, impressionable, impressed as I was by the clever men who sat beside us week after week making witty, intelligent comments on the game, the thump of boot on ball and the waft of liniment coming from the ground, lifted by it, transcended by mysterious passion and carried onwards by the moments collecting all on the field I was in a kind of childish heaven. Others would come, others great and many who remain, but in those days, it was the sight of Alan Noonan roosting the ball through the big sticks from 60 metres out that was my idea of absolute bliss.

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