A line in the sand

If you’re an Aussie bloke, there’s an excellent chance you love your sport. Grow up in a town like Melbourne, and odds on, you’re into footy specifically. This is a footy town, an AFL town, and as much as I love other things – music, books, movies, travel, food, etc. – I’m as caught up as any Aussie bloke generally in sport, and as many Melburnian when it comes to footy.

It gets you early. From when you’re a tyke, you have your team, and no matter the travails they go through, the ups and downs, the infuriating lows, the exhilarating highs, you’re stuck with them for life if you’re a true supporter. They belong to you, and you belong to them.

My team is Essendon. I follow them because my dad did. He followed them because he grew up in Strathmore, not far from the Essendon home ground at Windy Hill. The rest of the family barracked for Carlton, a fate worse than death in my book. Just imagine!

Not that I’m in a position to be cocky, unfortunately. I’ve been lucky enough to witness a lot of success. I’ve been in the crowd three times when we won the premiership and once when we lost. In those days, Essendon was brilliant and brutal on the field – admired, feared, often hated, which is just the way you like it as a supporter. More than once, I was called an ‘arrogant Essendon supporter’ and took no offence at all at the description. Yeah, suck on it; I would think and occasionally say aloud.

Off the field, we were powerful, ruthless and progressive. We were one of the big clubs in the league, wealthy and historically successful (much like Carlton, I hate to say – which is one reason we hate each other so much. Alphas, going head to head). We had that swagger, but we were also leaders in embracing indigenous culture and event footy. Great team that we had for many years, we also had an iconic coach.

It all started going sour around 15-odd years ago. We’d won the flag in 2000 in what is probably the most single-season dominant team in the game’s history. By the mid-2000’s we were treading water.

We’ve been mediocre ever since, and the only time we weren’t was amid the catastrophic supplements saga. I think it ruined the club on and off-field and severely impacted the psyche of Essendon supporters. Like many, I think we were scapegoated, and the charges against us unsubstantiated. Like many, I remain bitter and angry over it.

We’re a big club, so we survived it, but much of the soul went out of the place. I think a part of the problem is that after initially resisting, the club gave way to the AFL and afterwards looked to brush it all under the carpet. It left a lot of unresolved tensions that affect us to this day. We toned down our voice looking to appease rather than stand up for our values. It’s an attitude that has infected the club psyche. Commercially we go gangbusters, but our core business is winning footy matches, and that’s been fucking awful.

In the last few days, the pattern of mediocrity and poor decision-making has been challenged. It’s been clumsy and ugly to observe from a distance, but probably necessary. Had the board made the right call earlier when it was obvious to everyone else, the shitshow currently in progress would not have been necessary. But, as an Essendon supporter, let me say that I’d rather this shitshow than no shitshow.

As it stands, the board chairman has resigned/deposed. The new chairman has made bracing comments about a ‘line in the stand’ – a phrase resonant with supporters (and obviously said for that reason). He’s called for an external review, which is what should have happened months ago, and rumours aswirl about us going after the best coach in the land.

It’s not pretty. I don’t think the club has handled it particularly well, but I also wonder how much is just media speculation. The current coach, a lovely guy, has been treated pretty poorly by events. He appears to be a dead man standing, though he continues to turn up at the club leading into our final game of the season.

By coincidence, I was out at the club facilities – the Hangar – last week. I’m a 50-year member (I signed up young), and among other perks, I was given a tour of the training facilities, which are the best in the league. I saw the premiership cups arrayed and flags on display and immersed myself in the history presented, as did the other fans with me. Come what may, I’m devoted.

As a long-time member, I miss the uncompromising attitude towards victory that was our birthright. Instead, we’ve become wishy-washy, which is just about the worse thing you can be. Nice and inoffensive. Fuckity fuck that.

We’re in the running, supposedly, to get the best coach of the last 20 years and one of the greatest of all time. He’s a cunt, and he’s always hated us, but he’s a successful cunt. Right now, we have an unsuccessful nice guy. Which do you prefer?

Great coaches are hard to come by. Even good coaches are rare. To my mind, the greats have an authority that compels success. It’s a mix of confidence, intelligence, and, above all, self-belief. They have a vision and are unafraid to pursue it, and their belief inspires others to follow and believe also. It’s that total buy-in and uncompromising standards that drive success.

We’ve lacked that. It’s a ruthless edge that for many years was our brand, but not for a long time. I want that again. I want to believe.

I’m sorry for our present coach. I think he’s been treated shabbily. We need to be better, which means a clean-out of the administration also, starting with the CEO. We need to become a football club again, first and foremost, with team success the number one KPI.

Watch this space. We’ll have a better idea in the next few days. It could be worse, of course. I might follow St Kilda. But it can be a lot better, too, and that’s what I’m counting on, one way or another.

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