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.


The GF: then and now

Sunday, daylight saving has started, the grand final has ended, and a great hole has opened up. There’s always an anti-climax when the long AFL season is finally done and dusted. A long, slow build-up, a mighty crescendo and then – silence.

It was a grand game yesterday. I sat at home eating left-over pizza and drinking a bottle of expensive vintage apple cider. We were uninterrupted in our viewing of what was a tough, mostly tight, and very compelling contest. Quite aside from the sheer entertainment value of watching two very good teams go at each other hammer and tongs, it was interesting to watch the arc of the game. The best contests in any sport have a big element of theatre to them, and in the greatest it’s all Greek theatre. Such was the game yesterday I thought, a game in several acts and incorporating all the great human themes.

As a committed supporter of a non-competing club – Essendon – I saw much in the game yesterday that reminded me of the last time we played off for the big one. That was 2001, and like Collingwood yesterday went into the match as the reigning champion and as the most dominant team of the year. We’d even managed the most extraordinary comeback in the history of the game against North Melbourne – from 69 points to victory – and thought we were invincible. Like Collingwood though we had lost momentum in the last quarter of the year. Both teams suffered interruptions to preparation and continuity due to injury and suspension. Coming into the big game both teams carried players with big injury concerns. In both cases best form was 5-6 weeks earlier in the year.

The game unfolded similarly as well, though the conditions were very different. In 2001 it was near 30 degrees, which played to the strengths of our opponents from Brisbane. Yesterday it was less than half of that. In 2001 we started well, and got out to a lead of about 20 points in the first half, which should have been more. In the opening of the third quarter of that game we had the chance to nail Brisbane as we attacked incessantly, but without result.

Yesterday Collingwood made their move in the second quarter. At times it looked like they would march away with the game. For large swathes they were the much superior team, but weren’t able to properly translate that to the scoreboard. Geelong were tough, as Brisbane were in 2001, and just before half time clawed back valuable points from Collingwood. I commented at half time that I thought Collingwood might have missed their chance; I expected Geelong to win. In 2001 the scoreboard looked positive, but I had a bad feeling.

In 2001 we dominated the third quarter until a goal against the run of play sparked a Brisbane surge. By 3/4 time the game was just about in the bag for them. Yesterday the two teams slugged it out, with Geelong always looking more likely to land the winning blow. They went into the last quarter with a slender lead which they blew out kicking 5 goals to 1. In 2001 we played it out, but were spent, losing by about 24 points. The margin yesterday was 38 points.

In 2001 we were dead tired come the grand final. Collingwood were fresher yesterday than we were then, but there is the sense that they’d already run their best race. In 2001 we made the mistake of playing too many injured players. It was an easy mistake to make as one was our captain and greatest player, James Hird, and the other a magician of a footballer, Mark Mercuri. Neither contributed much on the day itself. Collingwood too went into the game with players, and it cost them as it did us. Geelong’s one injured player by contrast, Stevie J, was one of their best. It’s a roll of the dice.

So much for nostalgia. Yesterday was one of the best grand finals I’ve seen. Geelong were great. They have players both greatly talented, and of great character. That’s what did it for them yesterday. Bartel and Selwood particularly were warriors. They deserved the win, and as a bystander I was happy to cheer them on. As they say, anyone but Collingwood.

Now the off-season begins. It’s about 6 months till they compete again. Even with a new coach Collingwood will be thereabouts again. Geelong will be more interesting. They’ve recruited well, but are an aging side, and will likely have a number of retirements in the off-season. As for the rest? Hawthorn will challenge, particularly with Roughead back and if the can snag a decent tall back. WCE will go no higher I think, though I’m afraid Carlton might temporarily – their structural issues will continue to hold them back unless they trade for a decent tall forward. And us? Full of hope, as always, but with more reason than most years. We’ll finish 4-6 and, like this year, will be good enough to beat anyone on our day. We beat Geelong this year after all.

That’s it then, a few quiet weeks to catch up on the gardening and so on, the it’s the races, then cricket. Always something.


Here we are again

It's a sunny saturday morning, the first day of October, and here we are again expectantly waiting to find who the 2010 AFL premiers will be.

It's been a week in footy. Somehow the grand final re-match has been overshadowed by the big news events off the field. It's added another layer on what would have been an unusual week in any case. Now it's saturday there's only one story in town: who's going to win?

As I did last week I'm tipping St Kilda, for much the same reasons plus an added few. They have the momentum and the belief I think, and quite likely history on their side. I tipped Goddard last week for the Norm Smith, and though acclaimed by most as BOG he lost out to Lenny Hayes, a great warrior. This week I'm picking someone else. I figure the game is all set-up for Nick Riewoldt. He was good last week without being great. His opponent Brown did everything he could to contain him, and did a reasonable job. The thing is though I can't see him doing it two weeks running against arguably the best player in the comp. Riewoldt is a player of steely resolve and he'll have set himself for a big game.

History has been a recurring topic all week, but with only two previous grand final draws I doubt anything conclusive can be drawn from them. The consensus is that will be a more open game. It may well be. In the two previous re-matches one team has drawn away from the other earlier and won easily. I expect there will be more space in the result this time – well there has to be, hasn't it? – and in my mind see St Kilda winning by about 22 points without being seriously challenged after the half.

The last draw and re-match was in 1977, and I remember it well. It was the first grand final to be broadcast live. We had one of the few colour TV's in the street so my mate and I sat down in front of it two weeks running. We were just kids. I remember the players well, the key moments, my determination even then that Collingwood shouldn't win it (in a time when the supporters were less feral I think). My mate, Peter Woody, was by contrast a Collingwood supporter, and was gutted by the ultimate result. Like kids everywhere, I danced all over his disappointment, gleeful that the dreaded Maggies had lost once more.

As I did last week I'll be at the Cheeses for lunch: this week it's hamburgers I believe. I'm taking over some cheese and some party pies to chew on at half time for traditions sake. I have to dash off afterwards. This was to be a dirty weekend for me, but I cancelled because of the grand final. The only part of the original deal was the dinner booking at Maze, and I'm going with a different woman now. It will be different today and, for the inportance, lower key I think. I may be wrong, but I don't expect the tension and drama of last week. (Famous last words?) Regardless I'm looking forward to it, as i always do.

One last note. For years the AFL has been concocting pre-game entertainment that verges on the embarassing sometimes. The NRL, a much inferior sport and poorly administered never fail however to put on a much better spectacle than their rich cousins the AFL. The problem is that the AFL have had a cool bypass. They are stuck in another era that seems pretty well irrelevant now,

Last week it INXS. Twenty years ago it would have been pretty groovy, but someone ought to tell Andrew Demetriou that Michael Hutchence is no longer with us. For the re-match they hastily engaged – wait for it – Lionel Ritchie. Now nothing against Lionel, but even in his heyday he wasn't really happening. His heyday is 20 odd years ago. He was probably sipping on a Long Island Iced tea enjoying a fruitfuil retirement when the AFL gave him a call. Dance on the ceiling? Yeah right.

Good luck to him, he might be great, but next year let's avoid the bland, innoffensive option and go for some excitement, let's go for someone who is current and happening. Let's get a vibe going. If this is not the premier sporting event in the country it's close to it – it deserves much better.

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The hit

For the most part when I post here I write pretty much as it comes to me, directly and with few concessions to my readers. There are times I think I should be more considered of what I’m writing, but one of the purposes of this blog is to simply blurt out what I’m thinking or feeling at any particularly moment. It’s not necessarily meant to be stream of consciousness – that would be awful – but it is intended to be an honest, unvarnished and occasionally raw recording of just what’s happening.

If there is any exception to this it is in regard to my international readers. I sit here in Melbourne, Australia, and while I have travelled widely and take a keen interest in the world around me I write from a local perspective. I am sometimes mindful that some of the more parochial stuff I write about might just as well be in a foreign language to my international audience for all the sense it makes. Perhaps I should give warnings, but I hope despite the local nature of some of what I write that my foreign readers persist. I may start from a local base, but hopefully there is something in what I write that anyone can relate to.

A case in point might be when I write about the cricket or the footy. While the sports themselves may be obscure and possibly even dull to many readers, it’s the spectacle I’m interested in, the nuances of attitude and belief, of memory and sentiment, and the full sweep of passion that is common across all countries regardless of sporting flavour. The sports may vary, but the themes are universal. 

If that doesn’t do it for you then consider this the warning I promised – it might be best to stop reading now because I’m about to write about the AFL.

On Saturday I wrote how I was preparing to venture to the MCG that afternoon to catch a critical game of footy. As it turns out I, along with 77,000 other people, watched a game that had pretty well everything in spades, excitement, drama and, above all, controversy. If it was a great game with the right result (for me) it was also sensational in every sense of the word.

At half time I sat high in the members stand feeling less than completely gruntled by the events to that point. With the whole season on the line my team trailed by 22 points having played with little of the passion you might have expected. I was unhappy, but I still thought we were a good chance of winning if we lifted our game. When the siren went to recommence the game for the second half I sat there eagerly awaiting what was to unfold.

It didn’t take long for it to unfold, even unravel, very quickly. Within 20 seconds of the re-start there was an all in brawl in the centre square. On the ground nearby there was a Hawthorn player in his brown and gold guernsey lying prostrate on the ground. The crowd simmered and boiled. Watching from my eyrie I felt a surge of feeling that was familiar to me from when I played the game, and in the years after watching one team go at the other hammer and tongs. Brawls, or melees as they like to call them now, are frowned upon and are much less frequent than they use to be, but are still greatly enjoyed by the punter in the outer. Rightly or wrongly it seems part and parcel of the game we nostalgically recall.

It all started when the Essendon captain, Matthew Lloyd, collected a Hawthorn opponent with his shoulder when the ball was in dispute. He’s a big boy Lloyd and Sewell, the player in question, was out cold before he hit the ground. Sitting where I was high in the stand my first impressions were that it was a deliberate bump and I applauded Lloyd for it. I believed he had set out to put his imprint on the game, to make his mark and ignite the spark that had been absent in the first half. There was something more primal in it to. I turned to my companion for the day and said: “I probably shouldn’t say this, but there are few more satisfying feelings than laying someone out like that.”

It soon became evident though that the damage was was worse than first thought, and watching the replay to see that it had been largely an accidental and unfortunate collision. Lloyd may have raced to the contest with intent, but it was clear that in the rough and tumble of the disputed contest that he had little control over what happened. In any case it was the moment that led to an ever widening circle of events that continue as I write.

It started the brawl which continued to break-out in angry patches throughout the second half. It won Essendon the match, igniting them to run away with the match – and therefore to make the finals. And it kicked-off vitriolic and personal attacks unusual for AFL, and catalyst for much comment and controversy. And I guess the last consequence is yet to be determined, that of the penalty Lloyd will face by his actions.

There’s a lot of history between these two clubs. Club rivalry is often overstated, but not in this case: there’s not a lot of love between Essendon and Hawthorn. It started out in the mid-eighties when footy was at its hardest, and these teams were the toughest in the land. They played off in three successive grand finals, with Essendon winning the latter two. In the years following the rivalry continued in some memorable clashes. There are many famous incidents, but the most notorious would be the now infamous ‘line in the sand’ match.

That day the biggest brawl for many a year broke out in the 2nd quarter. There were fights all over the park, but the low acts occurred when players where king hit from behind.Campbell Brown, who mouthed off on Saturday night, was the most shameful of these, and was subsequently rubbed out. Essendon went on to record a very big win.

That sort of behaviour is unacceptable, but it is not nearly so clear cut with incidental clashes between players and the traditional hip and shoulder (the shirtfront is now gone).

Man on man contact in footy today is very much a contentious issue. I grew up in an era when these sort of collisions were commonplace on the footy field. One of the great differentiating factors of AFL footy were the heavy hits and tough contests. That’s not the case anymore, and for many – most perhaps – it is cause for nostalgic regret.

Once upon a time contact as there was on Saturday would have been spoken of, but not penalised. Perhaps that was wrong, and there is a lot of common sense in the road the AFL have taken. Bumps to the head can be dangerous, they should be discouraged. Unfortunately this subject is so fraught with controversy these days that balance has been lost. We have gone to extremes when we should be tending towards the middle.

I suspect there will be a major overhaul of these rules in the off season. In the meantime I am resigned to losing our captain for the finals. Them’s the rules, what matters now is his integrity.

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Saturday morning before the big game

Statue of Essendon's greatest, Dick Reynolds a...Image via Wikipedia

It's Saturday morning as I write this, just before midday. I have an egg boiling on the stove which I'll curry shortly and stick into a roll for my lunch. It's dim outside, and wet. It rains even as I speak, a steady pattering on the roof that is comforting when indoors, though not so much out. It is what we used to think of as being typical footy weather – wintry, wet days when we would journey out to the suburban grounds the game was played on then and watch the players perform on a variety of surfaces, from slippery ice-rinks to the puddles and bog of Moorabbin. Those days are gone, and even the weather that was once so normal is now odd. And there are places they under a roof, as they will today at Docklands.

Not so the MCG, where I'll be today. It's a big game, the last round of the regular season and the last before the finals begin next week. My team, Essendon, play Hawthorn, last years premiers, in a game weighted with meaning. Not only do these teams have a bitter rivalry going back to the mid-eighties when they swapped titles (the Lakers/Celtic of the AFL), the winner of today's game will play again next week with a chance to play on the last day of September. The loser bows out, always next year.

For me a couple of hours before the first bounce I feel something very familiar. I have experienced this hundreds of times in my life, the anticipation, the expectation, the countdown to the siren blowing with all sorts of things going through my head. Today it is slightly more fraught than most because so much more rides on the result, but all in all I am pretty calm. There is nothing I can do but cheer on the team. I may get l;oud at the footy sometimes, and it's pretty common to share a few words with opposition supporters, but by and large I am a very focussed and unflustered follower of the team.

Today I am going with an English girl foir just a second game of footy. Arriving here she had been told she should barrack for the Saints, not surprising considering the largest concentration of English backpackers live in St Kilda. She went to her first game a few weeks ago to watch St Kilda take on Essendon. She found as that exciting game progressed that she was instinctively following the underdogs Bombers against the unbeaten Saints. That was a great and exciting game, a perfect introduction to AFL, and on that day a brave and daring Essendon team inflicted on the Saints their first loss of the year (decided after the siren). And so she was set, an Esendon supporter.

This will be her second game. I'll take her into the MCC members where I sit and look to instruct her in the finer points of the game, but I dare say there will be moments when I get carried away in the action. And I must remember to bite my tongue for a change.

It should be a great game. The weather will suit our opponents more, but I have a lot of faith in my team. In two years they will be the champion team every other wants to beat. For now that is a little while away, they are young and inconsistent but capable on their day of beating any team in the land. That is what I'm counting on.

Soon then I'll eat my roll and then climb into the jacket I normally take with me skiing. I'll board a tram, meet with my English lass and then together we'll enter the modern Colosseum that is the MCG, and watch the action unfold…

We win, well I'll be there again next week and will happily enjoy an ale or two after the game today. If we lose, well, the ale won't taste so sweet, but there is always next year after all.

Go Dons!

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