Go with grace

Father and son

A rumour went around yesterday morning that Jobe Watson, captain of Essendon Football Club, was about to announce his retirement from the game. It was on the cards. He’s 32, it’s been a tough few years, and his form is not what it used to be. I felt a slight quavering though when I hear the news: I didn’t want him to go. A couple of hours later he confirmed the rumour with all his usual grace, class and Watson wit.

No matter what sport you follow you have your favourites. I’ve been following Essendon all my life. I’ve seen a lot of great players come and go. I feel a great affection for many of them, champions and characters of the game, the guys you’d turn up to watch and cheer on as they strutted their stuff. Most of them were very good players at least, and a lot of them big personalities as well. Terry Daniher say, or Simon Madden; Vander and Bomba; Lucas and Lloyd, not to mention Wanganeen, Longy, and Harvs, and all those others I’ve celebrated over the years.

You love them all, but there’s some you just love a little more than the rest.

I remember when I was a kid I idolised Graham Moss. I remember writing a letter to the big ruckman after winning his Brownlow asking him to stay. He didn’t, but I’ve never forgotten Mossy.

Later on I would watch Merv Neagle, taken not just by his dashing play, but by his good looks and insouciant aggression. When James Hird came along I was one of the many thousands who thought he was a golden haired wonder, incapable of vice or misstep, and an absolute legend on the field.

One of my favourites in his playing days was Tim Watson. He captured the imagination of a lot of us. Not only was he a child prodigy, he was an intoxicating mix of skill, power and pace, like Dangerfield, only better. He was a great player for many years and starred in a lot of big wins.

Later on he went into the media where his good looks, intelligence and sense of humour found him many more fans. I listen to him still today and can’t think of a better role model than him – a decent, funny, charismatic man of great personal integrity.

Of course he is the father of Jobe, who shares many of his attributes.

Jobe followed his father into the game about 10 years after Tim left it. He struggled at first, but eventually became the captain of the club, as his father had been, and a champion too, just as his dad – and won the Brownlow medal that always eluded Tim.

I was pre-disposed to love Jobe. He was the son of a much loved legend and I so wanted him to be a chip off the old block. As it happened he became quite a different player from his father. Where Tim was dynamic Jobe was relentless. Tim could turn a game in a quarter of brilliant football, whereas Jobe would construct a match winning effort over the course of the game. Tim was dash and verve; Jobe was insight and deft touches. Both are greats of the club.

I have great admiration for Jobe Watson the player. He was a very good player for a lot of years, and a great player for about four of them. When he won his Brownlow it was by a clear margin in a year when he polled votes in 12 of the first 13 games. Unfortunately his Brownlow became the Brownlow of the players who trailed him by 4 votes in that year – but that’s another story I don’t intend to dwell in.

Most of all I love Jobe Watson for the man he is. It’s common these days for supporters of many clubs to have admiration, even affection, for Jobe, and that’s because of his class and character. Unfortunately for him, and for us who followed him, that class has been on display too often because of the dreadful circumstances the club found itself mired in. It’s too well documented, and I’m not going to add to it now, except to say that Jobe gained a lot of admirers for his grace and dignity and fortitude in the most trying of circumstances. Among other things he proved himself a great leader through that time, as the testament of his teammates so well affirms.

It’s unfortunate that his career came to that. Some of the best years of his footballing life were directly shadowed by the events of the saga, ultimately leading to a year out of the game. I’m glad he returned to the game, but it’s not a story he can escape.

He spoke eloquently yesterday. Footballers get marked hard sometimes. Jobe has always been an articulate, sensitive and insightful character. He brought that yesterday, together with the wit he inherited from his father. I can’t imagine him gone, and don’t want him gone, but I understand.

For me Jobe is not just a great footballer, he is a man of integrity and character, worthy of admiration as a human being. He’s been made well, the product of good education, affection and love. The Watson’s, for mine, are an almost ideal notion of what a family should be. They are all good people.

So in a few more games, and hopefully more than a few, Jobe will grace the field before he leaves it together. The fairy-tale finish would be a premiership, and I’m barracking hard for that, but regardless he leaves the game on his own terms and to a new life – to New York, and beyond. There’s few people I could more sincerely wish great luck to. I hope he finds all he hopes for, and all he deserves.

Race without meaning

Can anyone tell me of a more pointless sporting contest than the America’s Cup?

Once upon a time it meant something. I remember it well. Forever and a day America had held the Auld Mug despite fierce competition from first the British, and then the Australians, with others coming and going in between. The contest was so lop-sided that it winning it became an obsession for a succession of Australian moguls – it’s very man a rich man’s sport. Despite years of toil and millions of dollars spent each and every occasion America retained the America’s Cup sailing offshore from Newport, Rhode Island.

It defeated Frank Packer, but then along came Alan Bond. He tried and failed, then he tried again. This time he came with a new boat with a revolutionary winged keel, designed by Ben Lexcen. Having defeated the challengers Australia III trailed Courageous 1-3 in the final, before it rallied. It levelled the series, and then in the decider crossed the line first. Cue widespread jubilation.

As I said, I remember it well. The nautical equivalent of Mt Everest had been conquered. It was front page news all over Australia. Bob Hawke famously proclaimed than any boss who fired some for not coming into work was a mug. The nation celebrated as one.

It had meaning then because it had never happened before. It was a contest between the starchy New York Yacht Club and, latterly, brash Australian entrepreneurs. Half the mystique was that clash of culture and entitlement, and the other half was the one sided nature of the contest till then. Once Australia took the cup from the American’s the mystique virtually disappeared.

It’s gone on since and changed hands several times – it’s hard to keep up and I couldn’t care less besides. They shifted from the graceful 12 metre yachts to rapid catamarans (losing a bit more of the cachet in the process). It’s been raced in parts all over the world. And to make a complete mockery of the contest though the yachts race under the flag of one nation they are crewed by peoples of all nations.

Yesterday the latest iteration of the event was won. This time the Kiwi’s won it, helmed by an Aussie, beating out the American’s who help the cup, also helmed by the same Aussie who won it for them last time.

This is a sport that has lost whatever tenuous connection it had with our world. It’s always been an elite, rich man’s sport, but that was leavened before by tradition, by the history of the contest, and lovely yachts themselves, like thoroughbreds. Back in the day it meant something to win it because it was an Australian team racing an Australian boat crewed by Australians. There was democracy in it.

Now it’s a profession, a mercenary contest limited to only the very wealthiest. Tradition has been lost, and history has become irrelevant. It has no heart.

Good on the Kiwis, good on their Aussie skipper (from Bendigo), and well played – but what in a sporting sense does it mean? I can’t think of a single thing.


Larry vrs Magic: the great days

30 For 30 must be one of the best programs of its type ever. For those who don’t know, it’s an ESPN program, which basically are in-depth sporting documentaries. What makes it different is the qualities of these shows which often take a different angle to a well-known story or personality, or perhaps take a more intimate perspective. They’re well made, highly intelligent, and far beneath the surface. If you happen across a story you like you find yourself completely immersed in it – this is what happened to me last night.

I happened across last night’s shows. I was doing some random channel switching when it popped up: Celtics vrs Lakers.

I discovered the NBA back in the early eighties. It would be on TV here in Oz late at night and then only the finals. Sitting in a darkened lounge room in suburban Melbourne and watching the feats of unknown basketball stars started off as a novelty. It was strange and foreign and to the teenager I was then pretty dreamy. As the novelty wore off real appreciation grew. I came to know the players and the teams intimately, I found my favourites and cultivated my allegiance. I don’t how or why, but I became a Celtics fan.

Back then if you mentioned Celtics in the next breath would be the Lakers, and vice versa. I can only imagine now, but I reckon I favoured the Celtics because they were the earthy alternative to the flash and glamour of the LA Lakers. I could appreciate the show the Lakers put on, but the Celtics seemed more authentic to me. And, they had Larry Bird.

I loved Larry Bird. He’s probably my favourite basketball player of all time, just ahead of Michael Jordan. I loved him because he was a superstar, and because he was such a damn smart player, and probably loved most because he was so damned unlikely. Here was a tall, gangly, very pale skinned, red haired white guy without any particular athletic gifts who dominated in a league of flashy and explosive athleticism. What he had was his great smarts, an incredible passing game, a pretty good shooting hand, and an unsurpassed competitive edge. He was a leader.

Like the Celtics and Lakers, if you mentioned Larry Bird then Magic Johnson came next. He was Bird’s Laker’s counterpart, and epitomised the differences in the teams. Magic was immensely talented, a great athlete, a happy go lucky, larger than life motor mouth with a great ability to take a game by the scruff of the neck. You had to love Magic. He and Larry came into the game at the same time – a blessing to the sport – and then dominated it for the next 10 years.

The show last night was about that great rivalry, between Celtics and the Lakers, between Bird and Magic, between two different cultures and philosophies.

I loved it. I remembered so much watching it. I could recall moments sitting there watching clutch moments in the key finals series between the two teams. Sport is like that. We interact with it as a spectator and an aficionado, and in so doing it threads its way through the simple day to day of our life. We remember things by the sports we watch, and remember sporting moments by the things we did. They become enmeshed.

This is a two part show and last night I watched the first part before having to go to bed. Tonight I’ll watch the second part which will feature the epic battles between the two sides. Can’t wait to watch.

Duffers in control

So Australia got knocked out of the ICC Champions Trophy by England on Saturday night. In a lot of ways we were pretty stiff. Our first two matches were rained out without a result. Our batsmen hardly got a hit and we got just a single point out of each match. That meant we went into the match against England having to win to progress. Normally that’s a scenario Australia excels in. Unlike South Africa say, Oz almost always wins the must-win matches. It brings out the best in us.

This time we went into the match slightly underdone because of the lack of match play, but I was still reasonably confident. Midway through our innings we were looking good before the middle-order collapsed to post a reasonable score, but not nearly as much as it promised to be. As it turned out despite some early wickets England won pretty comfortably, and fair play to them. We’re out (as are, once more, South Africa).

So, the circumstances worked against us, but there was fault elsewhere too. I go on and on about this, but that’s because it’s a constant issue: selection. For the life of me I can’t understand why Moises Henriques was asked to bat at 4, and Chris Lynn was left out of the team. For a start Henriques is not an international standard number 4 batsmen. Secondly, Lynn has prodigious talent at the short forms of the game. We saw it in the Big Bash, and again in the IPL leading into this tournament. He’s ballistic, just about the cleanest and biggest hitter in the world, and is also an exceptional fieldsman. Surely when everything is on the line you pick your most dangerous side?

I was prepare to blame Mark Waugh for this. I loved Waugh as a cricketer, but as a selector he has a big NSW bias. The elevation of Henriques, I thought, had his fingerprints all over it. But no, turns out it was at Steve Smith’s insistence. I reckon the captain should have an input into selection, but not the final say. Smith, the NSW skipper, is naturally biased towards his own team-mate. It was a mistake throughout the tournament and, who knows, might have cost us a spot in the semi’s.

The other, intangible factor, is the current dispute between the players and the board. I’m inclined to the players side on this, but think the best solution is some kind of compromise. It’s been dragging on far too long, and the blame for that is largely the ACBs.

It’s hard to know what impact that had on the team’s performance, but I suspect only marginal. Still, it has been unsettling and, at times, unedifying. What I’ve taken out of it is the belief that the board (as opposed to the administration) is out of touch, arrogant, and not terribly competent. I’m sure that this dispute will finally be resolved, but after that I think there’s a strong argument that the board should be overhauled.

By the way, same goes for the board of the ARU, who are ridiculously and dangerously incompetent. Doesn’t surprise me overmuch. My experience of boards is that they are made up of highly competent professionals mixed with a filler of entitled duffers.

Never better

There’s been a lot of talk this season about how close the footy is, and how even the competition. There’s no one stand-out team, and though the Lions are now clear bottom, no terrible teams, as there have been in past years. In the middle of the ladder there’s a log-jam of teams on 5 wins for the season, but top is only 7. As it stands there are about a dozen teams in clear contention for the top 8, and perhaps a couple more that might yet surprise.

That’s been a feature of the early part of the season. Powerhouse clubs like Hawthorn and the Swans started the season in diabolical for. The Swans lost the first 5, but have now won the last 3 and are looking ominous. Hawthorn have been flogged a few times, and though they’ve now won 3 games I reckon they’re shot for the reason, and very likely for years to come.

On the field the footy has been exciting too. I read a stat yesterday along the lines that over the entire course of the 2016 season only 17 teams won after being behind at half time. We’re not even halfway through this season and the current figure is 25. Momentum swings have been a feature throughout the season, typified, perhaps, by the Cats-Bulldogs game last Friday. The Bulldogs let at quarter time; in the 2nd Geelong kicked 6 goals to nothing; in the 3rd the Bulldogs kicked 6 goals to 1; and in the last the Cats fought back to win, kicking 7 goals to 3. On Saturday Collingwood trailed by 40 points at one stage before defeating Hawthorn comfortably, and Richmond twice have lost on the last score of the day (once after the siren).

That sort of reversal has been reflected in how the season has gone. The Tigers won their first 5 games of the season; if they lose this Saturday they’ll have lost the next 5. Geelong likewise won the first 5, before losing the next 3. Adelaide were flying, everyone’s pick for premiers after winning the first 6 in dominant style before being flogged in the next 2. And last year’s premiers have fumbled their way to a 5-4 start to the season.

There are aspects of the game that can be improved – umpiring interpretation for one thing – but overall AFL footy is a great product. I can’t think of a more spectacular sport in the world. The skills and athleticism are fantastic, and a tight season like this really highlights how compelling a sport it is.

The added bonus is the Bombers are on the rise – looking good boys.

Playing to instinct

I got my hair cut last night and on the way home called up Cheeseboy to check if he was watching the soccer. ”Come over,” he said, “and bring a bottle.”

I went over, and took a bottle with me.

We sat on his couch with his son and got through a bottle and half of red wine and assorted cheese and biscuits while watching the Socceroos take on the UAE in a world cup qualifier. Oz won a scrappy game 2-0 and everyone was happy.

We’ve been doing this for years, watching the soccer from his couch or mine, mostly A League, but often the Socceroos as well. We’ve watched the team evolve and the ups and downs as various coaches took charge. Hiddink was a favourite; Verbeek wasn’t. Postecoglou is great.

What I love about Postecoglou is that besides being a very good coach is that he is an Aussie, and has an Aussie mentality. That’s no small thing. When it comes to sport there is a very distinct Australian culture and attitude which some of the lesser foreign coaches we’ve had in charge never grasped. I think Australians in general, and certainly on the sporting field, are more aggressive. We have an expectation of attacking play. Not for us a passive or defensive approach. That suits us very well in a lot of sports in which we are pre-eminent, or close to, but always more problematic when it comes to sports such as soccer, where we’re mid-ranking.

We’re not as technically proficient as the leading soccer nations and don’t have the dyed in the wool understanding of the game like we do, say, cricket. Because of this Verbeek and Osieck tried a conservative approach when sending us onto the field. Our teams would be told to sit back and absorb our opponents attacks and hope to catch then on the counter-attack. Australian teams are generally well disciplined and they played the game they’ve been told, but it chafes against instinct.

Our strengths are athleticism, mental strength and a never say die attitude. We want to win, and would rather risk losing trying for it than settle for a tame draw. It’s not just the players – it’s the expectation of the Australian sporting public as well. There is no higher compliment than to be seen to have a go. That’s all we ever ask: have a go.

Postecoglou understands that very well, has been vocal about it, and has tapped into it very effectively. He has unleashed the players in his team and encouraged them to be daring and take the game up to our opponents. We’ve always been a great dis-respecter of reputations – it doesn’t matter if you’re ranked best in the world we’ll always rate our chances and will give it a good crack. It’s a great ethos that comes very easily: don’t die wondering.

That’s why I love Postecoglou and reckon he’s the perfect coach for our national team. He’s very astute tactically and prepares his teams well, but most of all he lets us play as our nature demands, and has got the best out of the team. And that’s all we ask too. Strive, and even if we fail then let it be on our own terms.

We won last night and we’re a long way from being world beaters, but it was sufficient for Cheeseboy and I to raise a glass and be thankful to support a team we can believe in.


For the true believers

I don’t want to go over the top, but Saturday night at the MCG was one of the greatest sporting occasions of my life. I say sporting – and it was a game of footy – but it went far beyond that. It was a night of raw, redemptive emotion. For Essendon supporters this was the first time in 4 years we could go to the footy with a full squad and all the horrors of the supplements saga finally behind us. This was our time finally, and as a collective – club, players, supporters – we rose to it.

It started with the march to the G, all the diehards joining together at Fed Square before marching to the ground behind our colours, banners flying. Then the game itself. There were 78,000 in attendance and I reckon 65,000 were Essendon supporters. The roar when the players took the field was one of the loudest I’ve heard. It sent chills up the spine.

No surprise that the players were roused by that and they started like a rocket. They got the first goal a couple of minutes in and I had tears in my eyes. Emotion was always going to be a powerful motivator, but it fades. We got the early lead before the old pros at Hawthorn exerted their experience and come half time had the lead, and looking likely to go on with it. Midway through the 3rd Hawthorn led by a little over 2 goals, and though tight the narrative seemed predictable: brave Essendon would challenge, but run out of legs, and Hawthorn would power away. It didn’t happen like that.

Instead it was Essendon that flicked the switch. Pace and dare and creativity told and it was my team that ran all over the top of the seasoned pros. They never looked likely to lose from about 40 minutes out. They controlled the ball and were playing dynamic football. They believed, and the belief surged them forward, again and again. In the end it was a comfortable 25 point win. It was a great game though.

Of course once the final siren went the floodgates opened. The stadium was awash with unashamed emotion. In the stands, and across the land, Essendon supporters embraced and cheered and shed a tear. On the field players fell to their knees, before gathering themselves to circuit the field giving thanks to the supporters who have stayed so true.

It might seem strange, but it’s the supporters I feel so happy for. I’m one of them, but I divorce myself from that as I see the sheer joy on other’s faces, when I read of their unstinting support, when I see that even after all the stress and trauma we have record membership numbers. I’ve said before, that while the whole supplements saga was an evil thing the good that has come from it is that it has bound us true believers together.

As a sporting fan you tend to take your support for granted. It’s something you inherited from your folks, like religion, or acquired somewhere along the way. You support blindly, thoughtlessly, because that is what you do. You roar for the colours and belt out the club song and know the history backwards. You are part of a tribe.

It’s different now to be an Essendon supporter because each of us have had to question that. It was challenged by the events of the last 4 years, and for the first time cast into doubt. Each of us have had to ask what it means to barrack for this club? What does it mean to us? What do we feel? What do we think? It’s like a devout man finding doubt abruptly in his heart and having to find a way back to faith. We have been tested, and those of us who remain have come through the fire to a new understanding of what our devotion means. It is a living thing in all of us because we have had to breathe life into it. For those who cheered and hollered on Saturday night it was a kind of vindication of that faith. We are the true believers, and this is our reward.

Occasions such as this are unforgettable. There’s a sense of shared euphoria. On the street and on the train on the way home people high five and sing the song and share the joy. There’s a sense of brotherhood and goodwill. We share a common love and there’s no stopping us from celebrating it.

It’s hard to come down after such occasions. I had no thought for sleep and wanted to consume all I could of the game, Saturday night and Sunday and even this morning. I can’t get enough.

Just quietly, we may actually have a handy team too. Go Bombers!