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.

Yay for a day off

This is near enough my favourite time of year. After a long winter the weather suddenly – mostly – takes a turn for the better. The sun shines longer, and with more heat. Far from being locked into a succession of drab days (as we had especially this year), there is the promise of much more to come, and the remembrance of all that includes. It’s AFL finals too, the best footy played by the best teams in front of big crowds. There’s a buzz in the air even if your team isn’t involved. This week is the pinnacle of all that, grand final week. Saturday is the big day, the opening of the barbecue season coinciding with the biggest game of the year.

This year it’s all of that, and more. It’s maxed out. Not only have we hit a patch of great weather – high 20’s, low 30’s – we also have an extra day off to enjoy it. Tomorrow, Friday, is now a public holiday, explicitly created to maximise the celebration.

It’s been a controversial call. Like most I’m up for an extra public holiday, but initially I was preferring the Monday after, rather than the Friday before. Part of my reasoning went back to my personal experience of the Friday before the Grand Final. Over the last 30 years I’ve probably been working in the city for about 22 of them. The place is always jumping with people coming in from interstate, and from the ‘burbs to witness the Grand Final parade. The night before the Grand Final has long been one of the best drinking nights of the year. The place is festive and chock-full of people, many of them marvelling tourists. Did I want to lose that? No.

I’ve changed my thinking on that. For a start a Monday holiday – after the event – doesn’t really make much sense. And I’ve been convinced that the Friday, though different, will be no less. Rather than workers there will be families flocking into the city to soak up the vibe. Because it’s now a public holiday the AFL has been able to schedule further activities to make the most of it. The proof will be in the pudding, but I think it’ll work. And, for the record, there’ll still be drinking – I’m out with the boys tomorrow night.

The other complaint about the day off has been from business predictably, complaining about lost productivity and penalty rates and the usual wowser-ish complaints. I don’t have a lot of time for those arguments. For a start I think this will re-direct business. There’ll still be plenty of activity and money spent, but in different areas perhaps.

More importantly life’s pretty sad when worker productivity is at the top of the agenda. It’s important and all that, but in general I’m an advocate of working smarter, and seizing the different opportunities when they come along. There’s been a general trend that the average Joe has been losing benefits and working longer, and it seems pretty well accepted. It’s nice to see for a change something being given back to the working man – and no better occasion for it than this.

1/4 time lead

Picture this: a middle-aged man sitting behind the reception desk of a massage shop in a busy street. It’s a cool day with sunshine breaking through the clouds. Inside the shop anodyne massage style music plays as if on a loop. No-one comes in. The phone rings twice, but one of the calls was from a recorded message. I sit here squinting at the screen of the shop laptop. As per everyday I am here I spend much of my time surfing the net looking for a diversion from the monotony of the day. Today though, is slightly different.

I’ve only posted occasionally about the ongoing drama about ASADA, the AFL, and my football club, Essendon. I have strong views on this, as do most loyal Essendon supporters. It’s fair to say this is a topic that has captivated the sporting, media and legal aficionado’s for Melbourne. For most it is a topic of fascination, and occasional ridicule. For the likes of me it’s just about life or death.

Though it’s not reflected in my posts here, or even in my social media utterances, I’m fully across this saga and follow it with rapt interest from day-to-day, minute to minute. If I were not a supporter I would still find it absolutely fascinating. As a supporter I’ve felt aggrieved for over a year now at what I felt to be a perversion of the process of justice. In essence that the club was rail-roaded by the AFL to protect its interests (and select arses), and that James Hird was made a scapegoat of.

For much of the wider sporting community this line of thinking has been treated with scorn. People like me have been called ‘Essendon ‘truthers’; and much worse. We’ve been seen as deluded, blinded by our love for the club and faith in our toppled coach. The funny thing is though that in the face of pretty damning accusations the faithful have rallied to the club. This episode has galvanised the support base and made them ask of themselves what they believe. For the majority they have felt their love for all things Essendon to be affirmed with a fervour perhaps not felt for some years. A situation like this divides the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. We have resoundingly found ourselves to be in the ‘us’ camp.

On Friday there was some vindication of that faith when documents were published revealing the level of corruption in the process. In short a (potentially illegal) joint investigation between ASADA and the AFL used powers they were not entitled to coerce testimony from players and club officials. They contrived a verdict and an outcome and doctored up the report to achieve that end – all this is revealed in direct quotes from the participants. They were at pains to leave out what did not suit their narrative, and to sex up some of the results – for example the scary concept of injections was beefed up when they found the actual number of supplement injections was disappointingly low. They decided to add in multi-vitamin injections to make it appear much more sinister. A level of political interference was also revealed.

It has to be said that the whole investigation has been farcical and seemingly incompetent virtually from the get go. Even the most critical of Essendon seem to have come to that view. It’s actually embarrassing that a federal agency would be so incompetent in pursuit of their essential purpose. Unfortunately the political angle on this clouded their way forward – joining with the AFL, whilst trying to serve their political masters. Somewhere along the line due process and basic justice was lost.

It’s now at the stage where what so many of us Essendon ‘truthers’ claimed now seems to be true. That will never be accepted by many, but the moderate, reasonable majority have been exposed to the flaws and manipulation within the investigation. Both the AFL and ASADA come out of this looking very bad; and there is now some level of understanding of our position.

Starting this morning was the case between the EFC and ASADA to rule whether the joint investigation with the AFL was legal or not. If it is ruled illegal then everything is off the table, and the investigation basically invalidated. If it is allowed then the show cause notices remain in place. My suspicion is that the judge will rule against ASADA, but allow them to pick up the pieces. I think that will be moot regardless. It seems that ASADA have no evidence of note and have been attempting to bully the players into making admissions. That hasn’t happened, and in the absence of real evidence, and in consideration of time spent and additional expense required, it’s my guess this whole thing will peter out.

That’s not yet the case, however, which brings me to this morning, sitting here behind the reception desk of a massage shop surfing the net. I went from site to site, hitting refresh every so often to get commentary on the court proceedings.

On one page I watched the live feed from the courtroom. QC’s in their formal regalia stood and presented their opening arguments. On the Essendon side there were three, one each for the club, the players, and the coach, James Hird. For ASADA there was just one.

I watched and listened as they made their statements, fascinated and bemused all at the same time. To make some sense of it I would check and refresh my twitter feed every few minutes. And for uneducated barracking I would visit the fan forum I am part of and occasional contributor to. As it could be expected that was rife with comment and speculation, both positive and doom and gloom. Truly, such sites are a fascinating insight into human nature.

You could call my morning unproductive, except even without this diversion there would have been nothing to do. More accurately my morning was precisely distracting. I was happy there was nothing else to do.

So where is it at? In the vernacular of the sport, I’d say we went into the quarter time break with a 2 goal lead. As always though, there’s a lot of game to go, and a lot can happen.

The view from above

I headed off to the footy last night with my eldest nephew, a Carlton supporter. Of course the big game was his team versus my team, much despised rivals. Fortunately my team won.

We arrived late. I’d had to attend something at the shop which ran over time. I sped through the suburbs on the way to the ground, and ultimately parked in the grounds. The game was about 5 minutes in when we entered the stadium proper. The ground was lit up, the stands 2/3’s full, and an undercurrent of sound surged sometimes into a full throated roar before settling back into a background hum.

Normally I’m in the members, but not this time. It’s been years since I’ve been general admission at the MCG. Not surprisingly we couldn’t find a seat at ground level, and as we began to circle the ground we were cut off by the AFL members area. The only way was up.

We ended up on the top level peering steeply down on the field below. The last time I sat up there was the 2000 Grand Final I think. That was a good day.

The seats were filled all around us, an even distribution of opposing supporters. Used to watching the game from up close and near to ground level this was a different experience. Sitting in the members close to the fence you can hear the clash of bodies, and the sound of foot on ball. It’s a visceral, immediate experience.

There’s none of that from high above. In it’s place though is something else. I was fascinated to watch the movement of players, to see emerge patterns and structure less obvious when down below, and impossible to see on TV. From above the game appears more than just a dynamic contest of bodies. You see the tactics at play, the intelligence that defines game style and structure. And in this case I saw the great superiority of one team over another.

Essendon, my team, were dominant all night – they won by 81 points against their most hated rival (my 15 year old nephew was shattered). We clearly have the superior talent across the field, though undermanned, but equally clearly that was only part of the story. The rest of it was discipline and coaching.

What was impressive was the transition between attack and defence. So well drilled are the players that they know instinctively where to go and what to do when one becomes the other (unlike Carlton, who were a rabble). They looked like pieces on a chessboard moving into position.

It was a good win by what I think is a top 4 side. We’ll go close this year.

Driving home I listened to the radio wrap-up of the game while my nephew sat mute in the passenger seat. I couldn’t help but recall my own childhood, and the hundreds of times I would sit there beside my father on the way home from the footy listening to Captain and the Major on 3KZ, or else Harry Beitzel and Tommy Lahiff on 3AW, and occasionally the imperious Doug Bigelow on 3LO. Thirty years on I’m in the drivers seat in a world much changed, my nephew in the seat once mine. Memories.

Paying the price

If you’re a footy fan living in Melbourne then this is a great time of year. A week out from the end of the month we’ve had three weeks of great finals and less than a week away from the big one, the grand final, which should be a cracker. There’s everything that goes with it too. Come this time of year the weather is on the improve. There’s a palpable sense of emerging from a long winter and about to enter into a period of sunny days, blue skies and warm temperatures . There’s a spring in the step, the buzz from the footy, and the anticipation of great events, and great times ahead.

There’s a lot of things associated to all of this which make it feel a different time of year. Besides the sunshine and the conversation there are the habits and rituals of the season. On Friday there will be the Grand Final parade. Thousands will flock to the city to cheer on the competing teams. I generally avoid that unless I’m in town, but I love going out for a drink on the Friday night before, Grand Final eve. There’s that vibe in the city, the day before the big day, lots of thirsty people gathering at bars around the city talking about the game to come, speculating ion what will happen or who to barrack for. Some will be attending the game itself, as I have myself now a few occasions. That’s a great feeling. If not attending the match then just about everyone will be watching somewhere, and more often than not at a Grand Final barbecue somewhere – a few beers, a kick of the Sherrin, some overcooked snags, and the big game on the big screen. That’s me again this year, and hundreds of thousands of others.

The last few years this time of year has seen broadcast on TV specially commissioned documentaries celebrating the great grand finals of the past. They go behind the scenes, interviewing players on coaches who participated, getting their insight into the lead-up to the game, the events of the game itself, and the aftermath. There are winners and losers – that’s what this is all about – stories of triumph and tragedy, ecstasy and pathos, brought back to life through replays of the footage back in the day and the reflections of the players today. It’s very well done, and for a footy tragic like me, pretty well essential viewing.

My favourite of the programs to date was broadcast last year about the 1984 granny, one of the few classic games really – which, of course, my team won. They’ve had programs on the 1979 grand final, the 1981, the famous 1966 match which the Saints won by a single point, and over the weekend the 1989 grand final.

The 1989 final is one of the best ever. It was truly epic. I remember it very well. I didn’t attend a grand final barbecue, instead I watched it by myself at my mum’s house on a bright September day. I’d been to an earlier final at the MCG and watched my team Essendon, absolutely thrash Geelong by something like 80 points in a dominant display. I went the week later to VFL Park and saw Essendon lead early until a few controversial bits of biffo helped Hawthorn over the line. I missed the Preliminary Final – fortunately – when Geelong reversed the result of a fortnight before and murdered us. Ablett was supreme on that day. And so the Grand Final was Hawthorn versus Geelong.

Being an Essendon man I had a healthy dislike for Hawthorn, and hoped Geelong would get up. Most of the footy world was the same. It wasn’t to be, but another few minutes of game time and it probably would have happened.

This is a game famous for the physical confrontations, the great comeback from Geelong, and the performance of Gary Ablett – or God as he was commonly called – who kicked 9 goals on the day. Watching the doco I relived it all. The hit on Brereton right at the first bounce, the confrontation between Dipper and sundry Geelong players, and the general biffo throughout the game. Geelong started the fight but in so doing lost some composure as Hawthorn kept theirs, which allowed the Hawk to race away to a handy 6-7 goal lead for most of the match. They were hurting though – Brereton had broken ribs and kidney problems, Dipper had to be rushed to hospital after the game, and others were concussed or played with broken bones.

It was a rugged game in the old-fashioned tradition, man to man, no beg pardons as Captain Blood might have said. Watching it again I missed it. It’s a tough game these days, as tough as it’s ever been in the sheer physical demands it places on players. As a sheer spectacle it is often exhilarating. Gone though are the gladiatorial physical confrontations which were such a signature of Aussie Rules footy. I grew up with that, and when I played I played in that spirit, giving it and taking it. I loved it, both as spectator and player. I wish it still was, but understand why it is not.

I hoped Geelong would win. Part of that was because of how they played, which was fast and high scoring. I wanted Hawthorn to lose too. They had played in the preceding 6 grand finals and like most I was sick of them. For me, and other Essendon supporters, there was the added reason that we were the most bitter rivals of the eighties. I guess the two teams hated each other, and so did the fans.

As always in situations like that there is also a mutual respect. Like two boxers who come up against each other again and again to slug it out, there is a fierce desire to prevail, but also a grudging admiration for the skill and character that has brought this opponent to face you in the ring once more. I wanted them to lose because I disliked them and because their victory was our failure. I don’t resile from any of that now, but I have to admit to an obvious respect for greats of the game who became that by going above and beyond every time. It was the basis of our battles with them. Against Geelong that day it was this quality that saw them endure when they were on their knees, when it would have been easier to give away. In the famous words of their coach, Yabby Jeans, they were willing to pay the price.

That last quarter of the 1989 GF is one of the great quarters of football. Down by over 5 goals Geelong were the stronger team, and with nothing now to lose they began to play with the freedom that made them such an intimidating attacking force. Through the early part of the final quarter they chipped away at the margin, but as the quarter went longer they gained confidence as Hawthorn weakened. They were at their most irresistible in the last 5 minutes, and finally reduced the margin to a single goal with a minute to play. It was not enough.

What a great game. I watched the program absolutely mesmerised by the memories evoked, and by the stories of the participants. Sport is drama, and this was the most famous of dramas.

Nearly 25 years ago – strange to think. I suppose I should feel old. I watched at the same age as many of the key players – I think there is a year between Dermie and I. A lot of the players present a very different physical profile 24 years later – you wouldn’t recognise them in the street. Others, the fitter types, seem more compact versions of their AFL self. Me, I’m not much different.

Seen not to be done

Last night after the game against Carlton the very much under siege Essendon coach, James Hird, gave one of the most remarkable press conferences you’d ever hope to see. For 6 months the media have been camped on his front lawn, almost literally, door-stopping him each morning as he heads off to work. He has never been less than courteous.

Last night, at the pitch of this scandal, he finds himself the centre of he sat answering the fevered questions of a critical press. His responses were measured and honest, he rose above the pack to perform with the dignity and class of a gentleman. When the presser might have ended he let it go on, let them ask their questions he said. It was absolutely mesmerising TV, whether an Essendon fan or not.

Take that with a grain of salt perhaps, since I’m very much a Hird acolyte – there are few people on this planet I respect more. All the same, I found my admiration for him increase as the presser went on, and it’s hard to believe than any impartial observer – and perhaps even the odd critic – would not have been similarly impressed.

This is a man who has been under the most incredible personal pressure, yet he continues to function, and to present when it would be so much easier to retreat. Most would have buckled before now. As a player James Hird was known for his skill and wizardry, but he was also a player of great personal courage. That’s very much on display through these long months. He’s an inspiration for those who love him, but we love him because he inspires us. (Man, don’t I sound like the fanboy?).

I was buzzing with it afterwards. It had been a big night. Lots of emotions had been brought to the surface. Roused as I was by Hird’s performance, I was saddened to believe that a man so clearly better could be brought low by a pack unworthy to mentioned in the same breath as him. Doesn’t that happen too much?

Once more Hird proclaimed his innocence, but intermingled with that was willingness to do whatever was best for the club. That likely means that he will be suspended from the game he loves, and which till recently loved him back. Innocent perhaps, but banished.

I can’t begin to explain how disenchanted I am with the whole sorry saga. Most Essendon fans will say the same. There’s been a lot of talk in recent times about ‘natural justice’ in the legal sense. We all want that. Beyond that is the more fundamental kind of justice, the difference between what is right and what is wrong. Hell, we know that injustice occurs every day, that right does not always prevail. That’s disappointing, but we are conditioned to a degree to accept that. What’s difficult in this case is that injustice is a part of the predetermined process. It’s cynical and two-faced, and it looks like prevailing.

I thought then to list, for posterity’s sake, the litany of undemocratic, unjust, and occasionally corrupt processes that have exemplified this investigation.

  • In February Essendon FC is induced to ‘self-report’ a suspicion that illegal supplements might have been administered to the players. This is later proven to be false, but the damage is done, the genie is out of the bottle. There is reason to believe that the AFL acted illegally in revealing details of the ACC investigation.
  • ASADA and the AFL then conduct a joint investigation into Essendon, which is illegal under the terms which ASADA operates.
  • All parties to the investigation are subject to confidentiality agreements. These are honoured by Essendon, but regular leaks from the ongoing investigation over a period of 5 months make their way to the press. This is illegal, and offenders risk a 2 year jail sentence.
  • Selected members of the press, hand fed by senior AFL executives, are encouraged to pursue vendettas against EFC, and senior figures – such as Hird. Much of this is libellous, some of it scandalous, and most of it would normally result in post-season court action in a fair-minded society. That’s unlikely to occur now if deals are to be done. The rabid pack of dogs get off scot-free.
  • Throughout this persecution neither the club, nor individuals concerned, are able to defend themselves because of the constraints of the confidentiality agreement. The story gets sold as fact without it.
  • The key drug in question, AOD-9604, is found in February to have been not prohibited for use in the period investigated. The AFL know this, but choose to remain silent. The result of this craven silence is that the club continues to be portrayed as guilty when it is not, and the captain of the club, reigning Brownlow Medallist, and much acclaimed good guy, Jobe Watson, is booed whenever he touches the ball – which, given his quality, is plenty.
  • ASADA finally release an ‘interim’ report. In the first instance this has been clearly produced in time for the AFL to act before the finals. In other words ASADA is in cahoots with the AFL to punish individuals conveniently within the AFL’s time frame. An interim report also means that the confidentiality agreements remain in effect – ergo, Essendon are still unable to defend themselves publicly.
  • Despite the length of the investigation ASADA have been unable to prove that illegal or banned substances were taken, and no infraction notices are issued.
  • The central protagonist, the mad scientist with all the answers, Steve Dank, is never interviewed by ASADA. The report is published without his crucial testimony.
  • Despite no infractions being recorded Essendon is still deemed to be guilty.
  • The report is incomplete inasmuch as it contains allegations, but not the defence of the allegations. Defendants were not given the opportunity to rebut the allegations made against them.
  • The report is leaked, once more, to the AFL’s favourite journalists. Once more the club is painted as being rotten without an opportunity to defend itself. These leaks contravene the terms of ASADA, and leaking of personal details without permission constitute an illegal act.
  • Unlike a court of law the club and the individuals are presumed to be guilty until proven innocent – an opportunity which is denied to them. Much of the reporting on this would constitute a contempt of court if it was to be heard by a legal body. The AFL uses the media as an organ to influence public opinion and intimidate the club.
  • Despite the interim nature of the ASADA report the AFL choose to charge EFC on the basis of that, in large part on governance issues, outside of the terms of reference in which ASADA acts.
  • AFL release a highly inflammatory ‘charge sheet’, which is then taken to be factual by the court of public opinion after being splashed across front pages. Once more the EFC have no right of rebuttal.
  • A highly emotionally woman claiming to be a players mother rings talk back critical of the club, a disastrous moment for the club. The woman cannot be identified, and the word around the traps is that she was an actress making a paid performance to increase pressure upon the club.
  • The AFL refuse a request from the club to have the hearing heard by an independent tribunal. The AFL, joint investigators, will also act as judge and jury – analogous to a person being charged by the police and appearing in court to be judged by the arresting officers.
  • Deals are negotiated prior to any hearing. I.e you are guilty, this is your penalty, now we’ll go to the hearing.
  • EFC are isolated within the competition, by the media, and by public opinion.

That’s where it stands now (and doubtless I’ve left out things). The bottom line is that Essendon have been effectively pronounced guilty by all and sundry without the forum or the opportunity to defend themselves. It’s like a Soviet show trial, but without the trial, and Pravda reporting on it.

There are fair-minded, sane commentators out there, but most have been marginalised. Mainstream press have jumped on the bandwagon not wanting to be left out. The AFL is such a huge industry that it corrupts in a similar way to government does. Directly or indirectly the AFL employs many thousands of people, and they buy a lot of compliance as a result. They control the message; they hold the purse strings; and the clubs are made to toe the line.

I suspect a deal will be done in the next 24 hours. My feelings on this are pretty clear. I have a heavy heart, and cant envisage any deal being done acceptable in these circumstances. We’ve been cut from the herd though, and its hard to survive alone.

Is that democratic? No. Is is just? Not on your life. Too few see it: amazingly few. I made a joke on twitter the other week about Wikileaks exposing the corruption, but maybe that’s what’s needed. Regardless of guilt or innocence, this is a crime against due process, fairness, and ultimately, justice. It makes me sick.

Say it isn’t so

I remember when footy was fun. Even when the team was not travelling as well as it could be it was always compelling. At times it became a refuge, something to do, to watch, to talk about, to hope for. I’ve loved Aussie Rules footy all of my life, but I’m losing my love for it, and its nothing to do with what’s going on on-field. It’s become compelling for all the wrong reasons.

I wrote the other week about the travails of my football club. I was defiant then, confident that justice would prevail and that we were on the side of the angels. As I write this much of that has changed.

It’s been a very rugged week for supporters of the Essendon football club. One bombshell after another, a massed, critical media, a seething public, and open confrontation between my club and the competition it belongs to.

There’s too much to go into here. Let it just be said that after some very encouraging news for the club the AFL chose to dump an unedited, out of date charge seat to the media. It made for tough reading, and the public responded with hostility and outrage.

As an Essendon supporter I was conflicted. I’m a dyed in the wool supporter of the club, but I refuse to be blind in my loyalty. I want to know the truth. Much as I wouldn’t want it to be so, I have no argument with just penalties being handed down if it can be proved we committed the crime.

Reading the list of charges I wanted to believe that we were innocent of them. Many of the charges were paper-thin, and easily dismissed. There was a lot of emotive language spinning a lot of circumstantial evidence. This was a PR document, another dirty trick by the AFL seeking to influence public opinion. It worked.

I’m smart enough to read a document like that and know that it presents only one side of the story, and with bias. For months we, the supporters, have been told to fear not, truth is on our side. I read the charge sheet and wanted to hear that truth. I wanted my fears to be allayed. For 24 hours I was in deep conflict. If there was truth to these charges then I couldn’t defend the club, and the individuals, I have grown up loving.

What changed is that I read an article. Most of the press has been scathing, but then much of it is hand fed by the AFL – and some of it on its payroll. That’s one of the most scurrilous aspects of this whole saga – but then that’s another story. Amid the hyperbole there are the odd nuggets, fair-minded articles and reasonable journalists willing to think for themselves.

One such article was on Thursday. It was a simple article, but what it made clear is that the report that everyone has based their commentary upon is hopelessly skewed. One side of the argument has been published, but not the other. In this small example a tawdry conspiracy was exposed – basically to intimidate Essendon into accepting a settlement.

Now this is no proof of innocence. The charges may yet be proven true, but what it did do is make plain that we are not getting the full story. The official record weights one side of the argument whilst not even bothering to document the defending argument. Outside of that one side gets the headlines making outrageous accusations, and the other has no forum to refute them.

I’m outraged, as I have been from day one, at the process. Any fair-minded person, any person who chooses to inquire deeper, ask more, cannot fail to see that this has been corrupt process. Again, that’s not to say that the EFC is innocent, but justice demands that they get a fair hearing, without the overweening influence of the AFL and their media cronies announcing us to the world as guilty.

This goes to the heart of my anger. As a supporter I’ll cop it sweet if it can be proved that we did wrong. I want proof of that though, and an impartial judge.

I’m active on a supporters forum, which is predictably going crazy right now. Rather than repeat it I’ll post a couple of comments I made there regarding this issue:

These are hard times, and there’s little to feel good about. The one thing we could cling to was the very determined insistence of the club that these charges were spurious. We could believe, and hope, that our club is innocent.

A deal turns that on its head, whether true or not. We are damned if we accept such a deal as being rumoured on offer. That might be fair – we may be guilty and deserving of it. Or we might not be. Regardless, as a supporter I want to know. I deserve to know. I don’t want the AFL riding roughshod over us to get this out of the way.

A deal like this by its nature is antithetical to that. For a start we get the sentence without the trial. We get the presumption of guilt without our day in court.

This is what I find very troubling – this presumption, even acceptance, of guilt.

Now if all the charges are true I believe we deserve a fair whack. In fact, I would be disgusted as a supporter to think my club could be so careless and negligent. I don’t think that’s the case though – though that could be because I am a supporter.

I believe we were negligent, but I doubt any drugs were improperly administered. I would like to know, and want us to be judged on the truth or otherwise of that. The penalty should be commensurate with the crime, and not pander to public and media expectation. The leaked penalties seem too much to me.

Finally it sits very poorly with me that the reprehensible actions of the AFL and their media cronies should go unpunished. We lose, not necessarily because we are in the wrong – let that be properly adjudicated on – but because we lack the resources of the AFL, and because the PR war is against us.

My preference is to hold out. Give us our day in court, whether it be in the high court or before an independent tribunal. If our cause is just then stick fat. And as a supporter I’ll feel very dissatisfied if a deal is done and all the rest of it is swept under the carpet.

The second comment relates to the frustration of Essendon fans becoming vocal on the radio waves:

If Essendon fans are upset it’s because for 7 months we’ve been told that the club can’t wait to tell it’s side of the story, but when the time comes to speak out we say nothing except to vaguely rebut the charges. We deserve more than that as loyal fans. We’ve stood by on the promise of innocence, but now we need to hear the proof of it.

I’m not about to turn on the club, but I understand the frustration. There’s been much talk of duty of care, but what’s forgotten is that the club has a duty of care to the supporters who have stuck by so loyally. We’re crying out for it: say it isn’t so.

Rumour has it we’ll do a deal, as my comments above reference. The penalties mentioned are way over the top, but the AFL has the weight to bend us over a barrel. For them, I think, it is not about justice, or about the players; it’s about being punitive, about making an example of us to anyone else who might think about defying them.

We are guilty forever if we accept a deal. I’d rather us be tried and convicted, than to settle on the easier path where no justice is served.


Friday night at the G

Friday night I rocked into the city, collected Donna, and then walked to the MCG. Every year we do this, we go to the big game between her team, Carlton, and mine, Essendon. As sporting clubs they are the most bitter of foes, with little affection between the teams, or the supporters following. They also happen to be the equal most successful clubs in the history of the VFL/AFL, and so each is always looking to get one up on the other.

Donna and I are friends, but on this occasion we become rivals. She hates Essendon like no other team. Somewhat ironically she thinks we are arrogant, and views us as her teams nemesis. Though we are friends I gather her strong feelings against Essendon have become more violent since she met me. She’s on record as saying that she doesn’t care who Carlton lose to as long it isn’t Essendon; and she lives, I think, to see both the team, and supporters like me, humbled.

I don’t do humility well at the best of times, and I’m sure as hell not going to give her the pleasure of seeing my dismay on those occasions when Carlton tops us. She wears her heart on her sleeve with almost anything, whereas I’m much more insouciant. Whilst a large bit of that is natural to me, I’m not immune to feeling bitter and twisted when the club I hate most beats us. Do I let her see that? Never. I maybe be seething inside, might feel sick to the gut, but not once will I give her or any of her brood the satisfaction of seeing it. Maybe that’s why she thinks we’re arrogant.

Anyway, this Friday was the latest instalment in a long rivalry. It was a cold, but clear night. As always on the eve of a big game the MCG buzzed with people lining up at windows and gates, and circling the ground. The lights light up the night sky, and the news teams were out to report live from the scene (apparently I was prominent in the background to a cross to the channel 9 news team).

I’m an MCC member. Part of Donna’s delight in attending these matches with me is the pleasure to sit in the members reserve – she’s that type. I like it too, though mainly for the convenience of guaranteed entry to the best sporting arena in the world. Usually I flash my members ticket, buy a guest ticket for Donna, then march tight in. Not this time.

For some inexplicable reason the MCC weren’t selling guest tickets, claiming they had sold out. I was deeply dubious given my past experience, and unprepared to accept defeat so easily. I went into the ground, saved a couple of seats for us on the HFF, then returned to the hubbub outside. We waited for about 45 minutes as the crowd grew around us, and eventually the announcement was made that guest tickets would be going on sale after all. This created a rush to get them, and we spent the next 25 minutes in a queue, but finally got the treasured ticket.

By the time we made it to our seats the game was only 10 minutes off. It felt odd. Normally we’d have sat there sedately watching the pre-game preparations and reading through the footy record. There was no time for that this time, and instead sitting down it felt as if we’d already gone through a bit of energy just getting there. Then the game began, and the 82,000 odd sitting in the stands roared.

The first half of footy was pretty forgettable, especially if you were an Essendon supporter. As a spectacle it was pretty ordinary, and the standard no better than average. Still, if you were a Blues fan you’d take it. At half time Carlton led by 19 points and Jarrad Waite had kicked 5 goals.

Sitting in the stands I felt frustrated. Behind me the fat guy was singing the praises of Carlton in the typically one-eyed fashion of all devout footy supporters. Next to me Donna was feeling relaxed, though always wary – she’s not happy until a stake has been thrust through the heart, and until then is fearful of Essendon coming back. That’s happened a few times over the years, but in Donna’s eyes I think is further proof of the sneakiness of the Bombers. A few rows down there was one Carlton supporter I was itching to snot. Every time his team would kick a goal he’d turn around and hold his blue Carlton guernsey out as if to say, take that Essendon scum.

The fact is we’d played awfully, were lucky to be as close as we were, and a win looked very unlikely.

Then the second half began. I thought we looked better, but still Carlton went ahead, up by 31 points 10 minutes in. About now though things started to click for my guys. They began to play more expansively, attacking through the middle and taking more risk. Gradually it began to pay off. We kicked the last 3 goals of the quarter and might have had another if the umpire had whistled when he should. Still, 14 points down going into the last quarter, and I felt buoyed.

My experience of the game, and sport in general, is that there are optimistic supporters and pessimistic. It’s just something in the blood. Me, I see 14 points down and think we can win this. I’m always confident, the worst I get is pragmatic. I was pretty confident. Donna, 14 points up and in the box seat, had the fear of god in her. She was not optimistic, not just because that’s how she is (and has a long-held belief that half of her team are soft-cocks), but because the fear of losing to the team she most feared losing to suddenly became big in her, as if, again, she was destined to have her hopes dashed in the most wicked, dastardly manner.

Carlton actually got the first goal of the last quarter, and perhaps that should have been it. I didn’t feel it though. We were up and about. We seemed to have more run, were playing the better footy, and the game was opening up for us. Sure enough within 10 minutes we were up. A minute later we were down again, and for the next 10 minutes the difference was one or two points.

Then, just over 90 seconds to go an average kick and a poor effort saw Winderlich intercept, and then pass the ball to Melksham just inside the 50 metre arc. One point down he goes back and slots it. I never doubted it. Perhaps that’s something both Donna and agreed upon – there was predestination at work.

The final minute of the game was all action – check out the video to see it. Carlton could have won maybe, but in their final thrust were denied by a great mark to a player who will one day be regarded as one of the greats – Jake Carlisle. Siren goes, we win.

I said little, though I admit to cheering pretty good. Donna swallowed hard. I glanced at the fat guy behind me, but he looked away. The wanker in the Carlton jumper had gone awfully quiet.

Donna and I parted and I walked through the streets thronging with happy and sad supporters. I caught the train listening to the game review. At home by about 11.40 I then spent the next few hours watching a replay of the match I’d just attended. How many times have I done that? Plenty, and it’s fun.

Another great game. Great contest actually – mostly these games are, with lots riding on them. And, ultimately for my team, a great and gutsy win. That’s the spirit you want, and the spirit you need if you want to go all the way. Whether we can this year I’m not sure, but looking good. Very confident for next year though.

It’s a different GF this year…

It’s the day before Grand Final day here in Melbourne, which is always a big day – except, somehow, it doesn’t feel so much right now. Could be it’s the weather. It’s dreary, wet and cold, and tipped to be drearier, wetter, and colder tomorrow. Footy is a winter sport, and we’ve had plenty of cool grand finals, and yet I always think of Grand Final day as being the unofficial start of the barbecue season. Generally the weather is good, and sometimes quite warm, and almost always the mood is festive.

Not so this time, and though it seems strange to suggest, I think the ghastly events of this week might have a lot to do with it. The abduction and murder of Jill Meagher has really cast a a dark pall over the city, which the weather epitomises. We love our footy in Melbourne, and the opportunity to catch up with our mates at one of the thousands of grand final parties is always a calendar highlight. This year though we’re reminded very starkly that it’s just a game, and much more serious, much darker forces are afoot, and never too far away.

It seems the enthusiasm in the last week has dimmed, despite the prospect of a very competitive match. Hawthorn go in favourite against the Swans, but it would be no surprise to see the Swannies get up. I’m tipping Hawthorn, but actually have a feeling Sydney will win. The Hawks may be most dangerous team in the competition, but there is no better team at blunting those offensive weapons than Sydney. They’re hard, tough, disciplined, and very determined. And though they’re generally thought to be more blue collar, thy have some real silk amongst them.

It’s raining, today and tomorrow. The general consensus is that it suits the Swans because it nullifies some of the Hawks strengths – their skill by foot, their marking power up forward, and because it plays to the Swans big strength, their ability to win the contested ball. It’s probably true, but it’s a marginal advantage – the Hawks have plenty of tough in and under types of their own – Sewell, Mitchell, Lewis, Burgoyne; have a forward in Franklin as dangerous on the ground as in the air (not to mention Cyril beside him); and an undersized defence that will benefit from a slippery ball.

I’ll be at the Cheese’s as usual. No matter the weather we’ll cook up a few snags, a steak or two, and suck on the odd cold beer – not to mention a handy bottle of red or two. I hope for a compelling game, for its own sake, and because it would be good to move past this grim, sad day.

My tip? Hawks by 9 points.

Memories are made of this

It’s an immense time of year here in Melbourne, always is. Sometimes you forget, but then September rolls around again and it comes back to you all: the hype, the excitement, the anticipation, the wonder, not to mention the parties. AFL finals series is like that. No question it’s the biggest game in town through winter, and maybe more than that. Is it a bigger sport than cricket? Not quite, not yet anyway. Cricket has it over footy because it’s the only real national sport we have. But footy is big because it is so passionately felt.

For some reason I don’t write about footy much here. I don’t know why that it is. It’s that I’m not passionate about it – fuck, I am. There are weeks I live and die on the weekends results. Not a week goes by without a keen dissection of the game in general, much discussion, and often times some bitter – though mostly good natured – banter with rival team supporters. I don’t know how many live games I’ve attended over the years – certainly in the hundreds; and I figure I know as much about the game as anyone going around. Then again, everyone in Melbourne is an expert.

So it’s finals time. My team isn’t there – next year maybe. Disappointed I might be, but not for a moment does my interest wane. If you like footy through the home and away rounds then you have to love finals footy because it is the best there is. It’s got all the skill you’ve become used to, but added into the mix is the fierce nature of the contest. It’s a mighty hard game that becomes a battle of wills as much as of skill and athleticism. The teams that win at this time of year are those most committed to win the hard ball, and to deny it to the opposition. It is about preparation and discipline, playing to instructions, and as a team; and not once taking a backward step. It’s marvellous to watch no matter who you barrack for. It may be the most spectacular sport in the world, but at this time of year it also becomes the toughest.

So it has been the last couple of weeks of finals footy. There have been some mighty battles. The best of the games have been like contests between an irresistible force and an immoveable object. Which can prevail?

Today I watched a program that reviewed one of the more famous grand finals of the last 30 years, the 1984 game between Hawthorn and Essendon. I remember it very well. Essendon is my team, and the year prior I had rolled up to the MCG with my dad to attend my very first VFL/AFL grand final. We were smashed. In 1984 we couldn’t get tickets to the game, and so I watched it with my dad at my old home in Lower Plenty. It was a great game.

I had a powerful sense of nostalgia as I watched today. I’ve probably watched this grand final from start to finish a half dozen times, and seen the iconic moments of the game replayed a hundred times or more. I know the game so well, and so returning to it today was like opening up a favourite novel you know back to front, but are happy to return to again and again because the story is so compelling.

What made this program different was the interviews with some of the great players who took part in the game from both sides. It’s always fascinating to get the insights from those who competed, and to learn of some of the back stories. I was riveted from start to finish. As the game unfolded I felt it swell in me again as it did that first time live, and as it has every time since in replay.

Things like this become a part of your story, especially when you are a kid, as I was then. You’re just a spectator, but you’ve put your faith and hope in a set of colours, a tradition you hope to be part of, and a bunch of men, young mostly, who come to personify all that hope and all those beliefs and, ultimately, all that love. You never forget them when they’ve done you proud.

It was like that as I watched, becoming emotional at the moments which are inscribed in my memories so vividly. It’s the story of me as much as it is a story of the game and those who participated in it. And my story is multiplied hundreds and thousands of times, each story different, but with the same genesis.

I remember that night rocking up to the club with my dad. We were social club members as it was then, and so gained entry inside. Funnily enough my memories of that are vague. I remember a sense of turbulent celebration, people everywhere jammed together calling out and cheering. And I remember the players there. They seemed numb with pleasure, the gods of the day justly feted by the likes of us mere mortals. Memories.