I was reading last night a book in which ex-AFL players described the first time they picked up a football. There were some colourful stories. Many had come from the bush and told how they’d played imaginary games among the cattle, or used a silo to practice their high marking. Some, pre-1950, had come from disadvantaged circumstances and described how they had scrabbled to play the game, many of them using a makeshift, handmade ball, rather than the real thing. More recently – from about my vintage on – the stories became more familiar to me. They spoke of the footballs coloured in club colours – I remember so well – and kicking in the street.
It got me remembering when I was just a kid and enraptured with the game. I had forgotten but now recalled, how on twilit evenings I would go out into the backyard with my footy and by myself would imagine whole games, inclusive of commentary.
We lived in a developing suburb. The back fence was wire and beyond it was paddock in which horses would occasionally graze. There were a lot of kids in the street – five to one side, about ten to the other (with more to come), and a few over the road. It made for competitive games of street cricket and occasionally untidy sessions kicking the footy too and fro on the road. There were three of us who were the eldest who set the agenda, with everyone else following. That was still to come though, I think, when I started kicking a ball around the backyard.
There was a copse of straggly gum trees in the backyard, and a pool against a side fence. These presented constraints on the playing field, but occasionally would represent imagined opposition. Taking the ball, I would run with it in the yard, baulking trees as if they were lunging opposition players, or steering the ball between them as if they were goal posts. Up and down I went, commentating aloud “…and H takes the ball and dodges around one player, then another, he kicks for goal…and it’s a goal. Great play, H!” To which I would add in some crowd noise.
I ran to exhaustion, the fantasy game consuming my imagination, kicking little chip kicks or handballing, blind-turning past invisible opponents and bouncing the ball until it got too dark to play.
It was a fond experience recalling that last night. I’ve seen kids do similar, totally enraptured by the fantasy, and it always warms the heart. I imagined what I would have thought had I seen myself play back then. It seemed a thing of blissful innocence. Briefly, I wondered what my parents must have made of it peering out the back window at my strange antics. I imagine there was both affection and humour in the sight.
I was about eight then, cute as a button. And that was me – not the person looking on, not the parent watching, that was me, in that small body, full of dreams and fantasies, imagining a world I was to come into one day, imagining myself – as small boys do – as the star of some fantastic scenario. It seems awfully sweet.
After I put the book down I wondered at the context of it. I can barely recall the first ever AFL game I attended, against Melbourne I think at the MCG. My memory is impressionistic, of colours and movement and unexpected noise. Later we became members and we – my father and me – would go to every home game at Windy Hill, and quite a few of the away games. I remember so much still of that, which went on for about a dozen years together, right from searching for a parking spot to the kids selling the footy record outside the ground and the radio afterwards on the way home the Captain and the Major mainly, with Jack Dyer in his irascible way commenting on the game and giving his ratings of the players.
Then there is the game itself. Most of my memories seem to be against Richmond for some reason, even when very small – I was sitting in the stand above the day of the infamous Windy Hill brawl. And I remember a game against North Melbourne when they were at their peak, and we stormed home with the stand thrumming with feet beating against the wooden floor and the chant going up “Ess-en-don…Ess-end-don…” and for a kid, it was absolutely intoxicating. I remember a headline in the paper the next day, or the following week’s record, “Essendon burst North’s bubble.” I remember Ken Roberts kicking the ball over his head for a goal from the point post and Alan Noonan – my favourite player – muscled and tanned, his skin gleaming with oil, a big moustache in a handsome face playing forward for Essendon.
That went on for years. Players came and went, the memories shifted and updated, and though it was full in me as a boy and the memories vivid I had little conception of the broader game until 1977, the year the grand final was first telecast live. Till then the finals had largely past me by. I might hear a game on a radio, and once the next door neighbours took me to a final (Richmond vs. North Melbourne) at VFL Park, but we were more likely to be riding our bikes somewhere.
That changed in 1977 when North Melbourne took on Collingwood and I watched the game with my best mate in our lounge room. Peter Woody was a Collingwood supporter, but I hated them even then. At ¾ time in that game, it looked like the Maggies would break the drought, but then the Kangaroos, inspired by Barassi, stormed back. It was only a late goal by Twiggy Dunne – I can see it now – that ultimately allowed Collingwood to draw the match. And so the next week Peter Woody and I sat where we had the week before and watched the replay, and the Kangaroos win it easily. From that moment on, I understood the game in a broader context – not just moments, but the meaning of it.