This weekend is the the last of the AFL home and away season, and the finals begin in 2 weeks time.
For many supporters that means the season is over for their team. I’m one of them, though I never expected any different. I couldn’t be prouder.
My team, Essendon, came into the season with 12 players suspended for the whole year. Top up players, mostly players formerly retired or delisted from their previous club, were brought in to fill the ranks. On paper it was a team of inexperienced youngsters and has-beens, with a couple in the middle of ‘regular’ players. It was a devastating blow on the eve of the season, and many were tipping that we would not win a game for the season.
I was more optimistic than that, but even if we hadn’t I’d have stuck fast by the team and the club. I’ve followed the team all my life. I’ve been there for the great moments, sitting in the crowd for 3 flags and watching another on the TV. I reckon I’ve attended about 400 games live, and maybe more – years and years of turning up to 16-18 games a season, starting from when I was about 8.
It was easy to be a supporter then. Normal. You turned up and cheered on the red and the black. The seasons came and went. So to did aspirations, hope, renewed annually. I was lucky: Essendon was a good club to be part of.
That changed a few years back for reasons that are well documented. It was not so easy being a supporter then, not because you loved them less, but because it became so much more complicated. It became more than a game. The reputation and livelihood of men you had come to idolise was threatened by the swirling uncertainties of what had happened behind the scenes. The club and its leaders became pariahs, and even the supporters such as myself were subject to ridicule and contempt. It was a dark time.
I have my opinions on what happened, which I’ve expressed previously. I believe still that what happened was a travesty of process, but regardless it was something that had to be dealt with. We were punished, severely, kicked out of a finals series we had fought to be part of, fined and stripped of draft picks, our coach banished, and ultimately 12 players banned from playing.
As a supporter of the club wins and losses became secondary to survival. As supporter I found my love for the club increase as it was threatened. All my life I had taken for granted that love, because there was never a reason to question it. Then that day came and I realised I loved the very fabric of the club and those who went through it. On-field success is the epitome of that, but it is built upon the character of the place, the history, the personalities, the culture and philosophy.
The club was challenged by the events of the last 4 years, but so have we, the supporters. I think many have had an experience like mine whereby a passive support has been galvanised by events into a robust and defiant espousal of what the club means for us. We’ve copped years of snide talk from the supporters of other clubs, and the media in general. We’ve experienced the schadenfreude personally. So be it. It’s now at the point that I draw strength from the vitriol. I’m inspired by being different. The more they hate us the more motivated I become. We have been set apart – fine, then let us choose to be set apart. Let us dare to be singular.
It’s a meaty philosophy, and easier written now near the end of it all than at the beginning. We have survived; soon we will prosper; but it was not always so certain.
We played the last game of our season yesterday against the club we despise the most, Carlton. We came into the game bottom of the ladder and set to ‘win’ only the second wooden spoon in our history – and the first since 1933. The bonus that came with that is the number one pick in the national draft, but if there was ever a game we wanted to win it was this one. And we did.
The events of the last few years would have killed many clubs. Many suggested it would do us. We survived though, through many a long day, and with the club came the supporters. We had the team gutted earlier in the year, and had an excuse to fail. With it though came opportunity. With just the right man as coach we took to the season with a positive mindset. We have played bravely and with spirit, and earned the grudging respect of the supporters who formerly hated us. And by necessity we’ve been forced to play the young players who would otherwise been forced to develop in the reserves. It’s meant for a losing season, but their development has been fast-tracked in the meantime.
And so yesterday with the number 1 pick on the line and against our rival, we played our last game before the banned players returned. And we played with gusto and spirit and excitement. Our young team carved up the plodders on the other side and won a famous victory. It was one of the great days at the footy. The sun was shining and the crowd roared and stayed long after to cheer a grateful band of players. We had won, and damned the number 1 pick.
It may be hyperbole, but I think it was one of the great days in the history of this club. It was both celebration and re-birth. The club is becoming great again, and next year looks very good.
I don’t think the club could have survived without us, the supporters. I’m so proud of my fellow Essendon supporters. We’ve shown faith throughout. We’ve given our unconditional support. We’ve continued to believe, and had our belief repaid.
I expect great things from the team next year. The next time we take the field it will be with a full squad of established and budding champions. More than that is the narrative arc which gives momentum to the future. We’ve been forced to become resilient, but resilience is much more than just a defensive skill. It brings with it maturity and perspective and self-belief. It makes for a steely determination. And you know the value of things; you learn how to fight for something bigger than a contested ball; and know that the pain can be endured, and will be.
It’s been a torrid time in the club’s history, but that’s what make greatness. Be great. Our time is coming.