Go Sainters!


 

It’s Grand Final day in Melbourne today. Even when my team is not involved – more often than not these days – it remains one of my favourite days of the year.

There’s a special vibe. The sun is out, the birds are tweeting outside, walk up the road, and there will be people bustling about getting their shopping out of the way early to leave the afternoon free or picking up some last-minute snags for the mandatory GF barbecue. Half the shops will have team colours displayed, a few will have scrawled messages urging on one or the other the teams, and the casual conversation is all about the big game. Even people who don’t really get into the footy find themselves infected and happily carried along by it.

This year it’s a little different from others. On the one hand, you have the most loved and hated team in the competition playing: Collingwood. They contest the premiership against the team traditionally associated with party-going: St Kilda (though this team is very dour).

Collingwood has a mixed history: a lot of early success, especially through the 1920s and ’30s. In 1958, when they won their next to last premiership, they were the most successful club in the comp. Since then, they’ve got to the upper reaches of the ladder repeatedly, but, excepting one occasion I can’t bring myself to refer to, they have fallen short of the ultimate prize every time. Their frailties gave rise to the famous Colliwobbles phrase, and in some way, has become part of the sports and the team’s mythology. Elsewhere I likened them to good old Sisyphus, rolling a boulder uphill for eternity only for it to eternally roll down again before it reaches the top.

St Kilda, in contrast, are the equal least successful club in the land. They have one famous premiership and several near misses since, most recently, last year. Importantly perhaps the single flag was won at the expense of today’s opponents Collingwood when Barry Breen famously bounced through a behind in the dying seconds to win it by a single point. There is some poetry in it to hope that St Kilda repeats the effort today, winning their second flag against the same opponent as the first, and nice to think by the same heart-breaking margin.

I am a Collingwood hater. It’s odd to think that on this occasion that Essendon and Carlton fans – the most bitter of rivals – are as one: we want Collingwood to fail once again.

You grow up with this hatred. For me, I recall kicking a football around in the schoolyard with more kids wearing the black and white guernsey than any other. The team seemed to play off every few years when I grew up, though they always found a way to lose. That early success, coupled with teasing hopes and the mythology that grew with it, created a fan base stronger than any other.

It is customary amongst supporters of other teams to deride Collingwood fans. They are feral, uneducated, dishonest, not to be trusted. And it’s all true. Well, maybe not entirely, but Collingwood fans are different. I have the occasional friend and many colleagues who are Magpie fans, and by and large, they are otherwise reasonable and intelligent people. I’ve also spent a lifetime going to the footy and encountering supporters of all breeds in their home habitat. I know different.

St Kilda fans, I always found good value. They’re good to party with. Through their many dark years, I recall how they would loyally traipse to the outer at Moorabbin and cheer on Plugger as he would do everything but carry them across the line. There was an almost cheery fatalism about it. Get us another beer, mate they might proclaim whilst having a go at some opposition pretty-boy (though the blondes all seemed on their side). They enjoyed the contest and hoped for better days but hardly expected them. Besides, there was always a party on afterwards somewhere. They were interesting characters, rough and ready at times, and often bohemian and arty.

Collingwood fans are much more serious. That’s probably a combination of the teasing glimpses of success they have given their fans over the years, keeping them interested, and the different roots of the club, solidly working class. It’s bred a fanaticism in them to get all that they have been denied. More than most teams, they have supporters who seem to live on the success or failure of their football team, much like English soccer fans do: they take it personally.

They are hated and know it, and it seems to me that for many, hope in their football team is tied up in their personal hopes. For all their strength and size, the club has underperformed. For the club to overcome this history and become top dog in a way, I think, validates the hopes and expectations of so many who support her. It is this fraught passion that leads to extremes in one direction or the other. I have seen these up close and occasionally in my face, and they can be repulsive.

I reflected on this yesterday as I made my way into town. Yesterday the traditional Grand Final parade took place, and the city swelled with supporters of both sides come to cheer on their team. Walking to the office, the first thing I passed by dozens of people wearing team colours, mostly black and white. By lunchtime, those dozens had become thousands: 100,000 reports said.

I tried not to be judgemental, and in my mind, thought of Collingwood as the much less offensive Juventus. I looked at the hopeful kids and excited parents: well, they’re all the same, aren’t they? Yet the image that came to me was akin to locusts infesting the city like some biblical plague; or the godless Mongols descending upon our civilisation to rape, pillage and lay waste.

I admire the Collingwood coach and have a lot of respect for the team he has put together. I think they’ll be successful for a while and, on pure footballing terms, deserve it. An incident at the parade, though, only affirmed my dread of them winning it. Nick Riewoldt, the St Kilda captain and one of the stars of the game, stood up to address the crowd in his turn and was drowned out by the baying of the Collingwood crowd. They would not be silenced in what to me was a typically graceless gesture. Riewoldt, unable to be heard, was seen to mutter ‘respect’. If any was needed, there was more motivation.

Collingwood goes in favourites. Form and their performance over the year demand that. I don’t know if it is wishful thinking, but I actually feel like St Kilda will win. There are some solid reasons to back that if hope is not enough.

I think their close loss last year will go a long way towards ensuring victory today. The history of the AFL is replete with stories of success following failure. The bitterness of defeat is not something the players forget and, once felt, is something they’ll do anything to avoid again.

I think Collingwood is more even over the 22 players taking the field, but of the best 10 players on the ground, 6 of them are in the red, white and black, including Riewoldt, possibly the best player in the comp. If he’s at his best today, the Saints should win.

St Kilda has also been the best team in the AFL over the last 3 years and has a stellar record against the best teams and when it counts. They are a tough side, strong-willed and drilled. In Lyon, they have a single-minded coach who has prepared for this moment for 12 months. I expect they’ll be cherry ripe today.

And, if it counts for anything, I think St Kilda has had the better preparation. Collingwood has waltzed into the Grand Final without any real contest. St Kilda has had to work harder, but you would think it has helped hone their game. It will be tougher for Collingwood today, and while I think they’ll be ready for it, any small gap is critical in a game of this nature.

So, St Kilda for mine, just. The first quarter should tell the tale. Collingwood is ferocious starters, but if St Kilda is nearby or ahead, then they’ll be confident.

Saints by 11, and Goddard for the Norm Smith. Oh, and watch out for the fireworks after, win or lose, I expect some action. I’ll be at the Cheese’s watching it, as usual, a few beers, a barbecue and a kick of the footy at halftime, just like half of Melbourne.

Regardless of the result today, there is, as ever, always next year.

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