True grit

Leading from the front, Jobe Watson

A couple of months ago my footy team, the team I have followed and loved all of my life, found itself at the centre of the biggest scandal to hit the AFL, perhaps ever. Like most supporters, and many sporting followers, I was dumbstruck. In the frenetic days after I did not know what to think. In the worst case scenarios doing the rounds my team might have been rendered irrelevant by the extent of the penalties. There was high dudgeon, innuendo, slander, and conjecture that ranged from the puerile to the extreme.

Naturally I followed this very keenly, reading every snippet I could, following up on every report, and trawling the internet forums peddling hope, despair and conspiracy. It consumed a lot of my mental space, but I didn’t write a word of it here. I couldn’t face it. Even as I began to feel more confident about the situation I still witheld writing anything on it. What was I going to say? Really, I didn’t know anything for sure and my conjecture would add nothing to the tale, and so I chose to remain silent.

All throughout this the club I have loved all my life have conducted themselves with great dignity. Regardless of the outcome of the various investigations – and I am much more hopeful now than I was before – I will remain proud of the quiet strength, resolve and honesty with which the club has acted. These may sound the words of a one-eyed supporter, but compare their behaviour with that of large sections of the media, who have become rabid and ugly, and the other clubs which have been subsequently implicated. My club, the essendon football club, has acted with classy restraint, dignity and common sense.

It helps greatly that the club is led by men of the highest calibre. I doubt even the clubs harshest critics can say anything against David Evans. He is the sort of man you want as President of your team. He’s a passionate and devoted Essendon man, his father a legend of both the club, and later in AFL administration. He is what they call ‘good people’. When this bombshell broke he was there calmly owning up to the possibility of untoward practices at the club that he helmed. Neither he nor anyone else shirked responsibility or sought excuses. At his behest the club was opened up, the investigators invited in. It was then, and ever since, a great example of strong, humble leadership.

At his side of course was the Essendon coach, the club legend non pareil, James Hird. James Hird, the golden boy. One of the greatest players to take the field. The messiah to legions of fans. Good looking, intelligent, articulate, passionate, he has personified the club more than any other for nearly 20 years. That day in that press conference he looked drawn and shocked by the turn of events. He expressed his utter ignorance of whether there had been transgressions or not. It was not an excuse, but an admission of fact – a ticking parcel had lobbed in his lap. Was it a bomb, or an alarm clock? Like Evans he spoke with dignified restraint, and like Evans invited resolution to a state of affairs that bewildered them all.

Legal imperatives have meant that they’ve been unable to say much more than that ever since, and the majority of the players nothing at all. The club leadership has played a straight bat even to the most flagrant of slanders. They’ve denied nothing, made no excuses, sought no sympathy, and in fact have instigated their own independent inquiry into the events in question. Though much of the initial reaction was rabid, I think they have earned great respect from most footy followers in the dignified way they have acted.

This is a football competition however, and the only score that counts is on the premiership ladder. Last night the 2013 AFL season began. The first game of the season was Essendon playing Adelaide over there. This is a tough assignment. Adelaide were a goal short of making the grand final last year. At home they’re near unbeatable, winning 13 out of 14 last year. It’s a home advantage worth about 4 goals minimum I reckon. On top of that Essendon are coming off a season where they/we dropped away drastically. And, of course, the traumatic effects of the ongoing investigations – and related uncertainties – were an unknown factor.

My own sense leading into the game was that these ugly recent events had served to bond the club – the team, the administration, the supporters – tighter than ever before. For the club it’s inevitable that a bit of an us against them dichotomy would arise. Beyond the walls of Windy Hill (etc) is an hostile world, much of which is baying for blood. Within the walls there is brotherhood made tighter by leaning upon each other. What was routine in years past has become a kind of therapy in these fraught days. Playing the game becomes more than just a fun job, a meal ticket, it becomes a kind of salvation for players who have no other expression. This is what they do, this, they remember, is what they love, and these are my borothers in arms. A shared threat can galvanise a group.

For the supporters we are forced back to remember why we love this club. Despite the media frenzy and dire accusations the response from the supporters has been magnificent. They – we – have rallied around. In part I think it’s because we see how unreasonable and unfair much of the coverage has been. For the most part there has been a lack of objectivity, and in some instances totally unbalanced vitriol. It’s worth remembering that the club is guilty of nothing as I write this, and I’m not sure exactly now what it stands accused of – different now I think to how it started.

As a supporter I know I have been given pause to reflect why, and how much I love this footy club. I guess it’s easy to take such things for granted. Then it becomes threatened, and you feel how much this club means to you. You recall the great memories, the fantastic moments indelibly etched on your mind. As someone who has followed the club since I was a boy so much of my development occurred in parallel with the rise and fall of the club. Gee, I remember standing in the outer in the rain watching them train in the eighties. I have vivid memories of sitting beside my dad in the R.T. Hird stand (James’ grandfather) watching game after game in the seventies. I grew up with the great players, was there at many of the stellar moments. It’s rich inside you, and worth so much because it is yours – ours – as well as theirs/ You can’t throw that away.

Like every Essendon supporter I went into these opening game full of hope. I wasn’t certain, but I thought the team would rally well. During the week Hird had spoken about how the off-field events had made the team stronger. He was convinced they had taken another step towards being the elite we aspire to. Adversity had forced from qualities that had been dormant previously.

I sat on my couch and watched as Adelaide raced away to a 22 point lead in the 1st quarter, having had the first seven scoring shots. From then on in it was just Essendon though. That resilience came to the fore and they ground their way back to level, and then ahead. Despite Adelaide’s quality it didn’t really seem ever in doubt. There was quality in the team, a steeliness that wouldn’t allow it. Whenever adelaide threatened Essendon responded. By the end of the game we were going away. Then the siren went and the emotions overflowed.

So much of sport is catharsis, but never more so than in situations like this. After a long, tough summer the cork had popped. This was vindication of some sort. Here was belief. This was unlikely faith rewarded. The players came together as you rarely see. The coaching staff hugged each other. In the rooms after the theme song was performed with a rousing gusto.I felt a soaring pride. This is my club. This is the history and heritage and meaning and spirit of the black and red I have followed all my life. In these difficult days, this was true grit.

Who knows what lays ahead? For now there was this, a great moment, common human feelings, players and supporters alike, unbottled. It was a win for the ages. We are Essendon.

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