Stick it up ’em

All I want to say is that yesterday brought the best news for a long time. I don’t write about it a lot these days, but I’m still a passionate supporter of the Essendon Football Club. Like so many I remain steadfast and determined that we should rise again. Like so many the events of recent years have left me bitter and cynical, but I’m inspired to overcome that. Stick it up ’em, sums up my attitude.

It’s an apt sentiment after Michael Hurley re-signed yesterday for a 5 year extension of his contract, after being widely (and happily) reported that he would walk. I was always pretty confident he would stay – everyone else so far, and he’s a very loyal, heart and soul kind of player. The news yesterday is a huge poke in the eye to the rabble who represent the AFL media, and a great fillip for the club.

This year could have been completely disastrous. It hasn’t been what you would have hoped, but after the events of February better than it could have been. In fact it’s been a reasonably positive year.

We’ve only won 2 games, but we’ve played with spirit and passion. More importantly the young players on the list have been exposed to top level competition and come along in leaps and bounds. The blended team next year – the current and the returning – will be a formidable unit, and there’s good reason to expect meaningful success in the next few years.

I don’t forget what’s happened. I still yearn for justice, or even truth, but I’m sceptical we’ll ever have it. The ban on the players was the result of a manipulated decision. It was contrived to set a precedent, regardless of the merits of the case. We were set-up from day one, and the players in particular, and the club more generally – and us, the supporters – have been made to feel the consequences.

Well the best revenge is to stay strong, and to achieve success. We’re well on the way to that, and the signing of Hurley is an indication of things to come. Despite all, we’re on the way up. Let the haters hate. It’s a small man’s pleasure. And then lets rub their noses in it.

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.


True grit

Leading from the front, Jobe Watson

A couple of months ago my footy team, the team I have followed and loved all of my life, found itself at the centre of the biggest scandal to hit the AFL, perhaps ever. Like most supporters, and many sporting followers, I was dumbstruck. In the frenetic days after I did not know what to think. In the worst case scenarios doing the rounds my team might have been rendered irrelevant by the extent of the penalties. There was high dudgeon, innuendo, slander, and conjecture that ranged from the puerile to the extreme.

Naturally I followed this very keenly, reading every snippet I could, following up on every report, and trawling the internet forums peddling hope, despair and conspiracy. It consumed a lot of my mental space, but I didn’t write a word of it here. I couldn’t face it. Even as I began to feel more confident about the situation I still witheld writing anything on it. What was I going to say? Really, I didn’t know anything for sure and my conjecture would add nothing to the tale, and so I chose to remain silent.

All throughout this the club I have loved all my life have conducted themselves with great dignity. Regardless of the outcome of the various investigations – and I am much more hopeful now than I was before – I will remain proud of the quiet strength, resolve and honesty with which the club has acted. These may sound the words of a one-eyed supporter, but compare their behaviour with that of large sections of the media, who have become rabid and ugly, and the other clubs which have been subsequently implicated. My club, the essendon football club, has acted with classy restraint, dignity and common sense.

It helps greatly that the club is led by men of the highest calibre. I doubt even the clubs harshest critics can say anything against David Evans. He is the sort of man you want as President of your team. He’s a passionate and devoted Essendon man, his father a legend of both the club, and later in AFL administration. He is what they call ‘good people’. When this bombshell broke he was there calmly owning up to the possibility of untoward practices at the club that he helmed. Neither he nor anyone else shirked responsibility or sought excuses. At his behest the club was opened up, the investigators invited in. It was then, and ever since, a great example of strong, humble leadership.

At his side of course was the Essendon coach, the club legend non pareil, James Hird. James Hird, the golden boy. One of the greatest players to take the field. The messiah to legions of fans. Good looking, intelligent, articulate, passionate, he has personified the club more than any other for nearly 20 years. That day in that press conference he looked drawn and shocked by the turn of events. He expressed his utter ignorance of whether there had been transgressions or not. It was not an excuse, but an admission of fact – a ticking parcel had lobbed in his lap. Was it a bomb, or an alarm clock? Like Evans he spoke with dignified restraint, and like Evans invited resolution to a state of affairs that bewildered them all.

Legal imperatives have meant that they’ve been unable to say much more than that ever since, and the majority of the players nothing at all. The club leadership has played a straight bat even to the most flagrant of slanders. They’ve denied nothing, made no excuses, sought no sympathy, and in fact have instigated their own independent inquiry into the events in question. Though much of the initial reaction was rabid, I think they have earned great respect from most footy followers in the dignified way they have acted.

This is a football competition however, and the only score that counts is on the premiership ladder. Last night the 2013 AFL season began. The first game of the season was Essendon playing Adelaide over there. This is a tough assignment. Adelaide were a goal short of making the grand final last year. At home they’re near unbeatable, winning 13 out of 14 last year. It’s a home advantage worth about 4 goals minimum I reckon. On top of that Essendon are coming off a season where they/we dropped away drastically. And, of course, the traumatic effects of the ongoing investigations – and related uncertainties – were an unknown factor.

My own sense leading into the game was that these ugly recent events had served to bond the club – the team, the administration, the supporters – tighter than ever before. For the club it’s inevitable that a bit of an us against them dichotomy would arise. Beyond the walls of Windy Hill (etc) is an hostile world, much of which is baying for blood. Within the walls there is brotherhood made tighter by leaning upon each other. What was routine in years past has become a kind of therapy in these fraught days. Playing the game becomes more than just a fun job, a meal ticket, it becomes a kind of salvation for players who have no other expression. This is what they do, this, they remember, is what they love, and these are my borothers in arms. A shared threat can galvanise a group.

For the supporters we are forced back to remember why we love this club. Despite the media frenzy and dire accusations the response from the supporters has been magnificent. They – we – have rallied around. In part I think it’s because we see how unreasonable and unfair much of the coverage has been. For the most part there has been a lack of objectivity, and in some instances totally unbalanced vitriol. It’s worth remembering that the club is guilty of nothing as I write this, and I’m not sure exactly now what it stands accused of – different now I think to how it started.

As a supporter I know I have been given pause to reflect why, and how much I love this footy club. I guess it’s easy to take such things for granted. Then it becomes threatened, and you feel how much this club means to you. You recall the great memories, the fantastic moments indelibly etched on your mind. As someone who has followed the club since I was a boy so much of my development occurred in parallel with the rise and fall of the club. Gee, I remember standing in the outer in the rain watching them train in the eighties. I have vivid memories of sitting beside my dad in the R.T. Hird stand (James’ grandfather) watching game after game in the seventies. I grew up with the great players, was there at many of the stellar moments. It’s rich inside you, and worth so much because it is yours – ours – as well as theirs/ You can’t throw that away.

Like every Essendon supporter I went into these opening game full of hope. I wasn’t certain, but I thought the team would rally well. During the week Hird had spoken about how the off-field events had made the team stronger. He was convinced they had taken another step towards being the elite we aspire to. Adversity had forced from qualities that had been dormant previously.

I sat on my couch and watched as Adelaide raced away to a 22 point lead in the 1st quarter, having had the first seven scoring shots. From then on in it was just Essendon though. That resilience came to the fore and they ground their way back to level, and then ahead. Despite Adelaide’s quality it didn’t really seem ever in doubt. There was quality in the team, a steeliness that wouldn’t allow it. Whenever adelaide threatened Essendon responded. By the end of the game we were going away. Then the siren went and the emotions overflowed.

So much of sport is catharsis, but never more so than in situations like this. After a long, tough summer the cork had popped. This was vindication of some sort. Here was belief. This was unlikely faith rewarded. The players came together as you rarely see. The coaching staff hugged each other. In the rooms after the theme song was performed with a rousing gusto.I felt a soaring pride. This is my club. This is the history and heritage and meaning and spirit of the black and red I have followed all my life. In these difficult days, this was true grit.

Who knows what lays ahead? For now there was this, a great moment, common human feelings, players and supporters alike, unbottled. It was a win for the ages. We are Essendon.

Big Sunday

An aerial view of the Melbourne Cricket Ground...

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It’s Sunday a little after midday in Melbourne and I feel an undercurrent of excitement. It’s a big day today. My team take on Carlton in the elimination final at the MCG. There’s a lot on this game. Obviously it’s important -you win and you advance, lose and the season is over. Adding so much more to that though is the history between these two clubs. This is no ordinary final, this is a play-off between two teams who have a history of storied, dramatic games played out, and supporters who hate each other.

It’s an interesting thing this rivalry. There’s a good stastitical basis for it – these are the two most successful clubs in the game – but it has become much more than that in recent years. I think Carlton are my most hated opponent, but it wasn’t always the case. I admired their premiership winning teams of 1981/82. In 1986 I barracked for them against Hawthorn in the decider without too much angst. By the time we played off against for the 1993 flag it was different though. We won that day, I was there and thrilled, but the thrill was greater because we had beaten a club I had come to despise.

It may surprise, but I wish it wasn’t the case. Healthy rivalry is fine, but when it becomes personal it’s ridiculous. As it happens I have a few friends who are Carlton supporters, had girlfriends who swore by the blues, and a nephew who has inherited his dad’s devotion to them. When I look back I can think of many Carlton players I’ve admired, and some I count as a kind of favourite. I love SOS as footballer and person. Ken Hunter is one of my favourite ever non-Essendon footballers. And I think Craig Bradley was a ripper player and person. End of the day it’s just a different coloured guernsey.

I date my dislike of Carlton to the ascension of John Elliott. Many Carlton supporters remain devoted to him, despite what he did to their club. To me he is a coarse and corrupt blow-hard, much more a figure of disrepute than respect. Many Carlton supporters celebrate the arrogance he brought to the club, but to my mind it is the wrong sort of arrogance. John Elliott was always quick to disrespect other clubs, to belittle though less successful, or less well of. He epitomised the blue-blood, patrician sense of entitlement that Carlton came to be associated with. He had no humility, no real perspective of the game as a whole. To play on his own words, I think he’s a pigs-arsehole. I think he’s a pretty ordinary individual.

Essendon gets called arrogant too, and that’s right – it goes with the territory of being successful. I’m an arrogant Essendon supporter, and been called that dozens of times. Arrogance is different to hubris though. I’m not impartial, but I like to think my club has always been respectful even as it has been arrogant. John Elliott was never that, and consequently has tainted my perception of Carlton and created this bitter rift between the clubs.

John Elliott is gone now and today another day, and another chapter in the rivalry.

Carlton go in as warm favourites. That’s fair enough. They’ve had the better season, and in general terms are more advanced in their journey towards the top echelon. The pressure is all on them. I’ll disappointed if we lose, but not devastated. Devastation may await Carlton though if they succumb. Besides the deep disappointment of being eliminated early three years running there is the strong possibility of off-field fall-out. We go in with little to lose; Carlton plenty.

On our day we’re as good as anyone in the comp. Our best has been better than theirs, but they have been much more consistent over the season. The weather may play a part, and will likely favour them – it’s grey outside, it’s been raining and may rain more. Still, you start even. I have a buzz about this – I sort of don’t expect to win, but we’re in with a chance. I haven’t felt this tingly for quite a while. I won’t be there. I’ll be here at home watching, glued to the screen and riding every bump. I’ve made a bit of day of it. I’ve made some pot stickers earlier I’ll chew on as the game gets going, and stocked up on a few treats to enjoy along the way. This is grim competition, but it’s also great theatre. I can’t wait.

Regardless of the result today I think a great future awaits my club – better, and brighter, than for Carlton. This is one year, but they come one after the other.

Staying true

An AFL match between Essedon and Adelaide Foot...

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Last few weeks, for whatever reason, I’ve missed watching my foot my team play live. A couple of weeks back I was out for drinks and dinner with friends in Carlisle Street while they took on the undefeated Cats. It’s a sign of the times that as we slurped up boutique beers and tucked into high-end pub grub on a cold winters night that both JV and I were tracking our respective teams on iPhone apps.

We won that night, against the odds and all expectation. In the pub restaurant where we sat that was occasion for great joy amid a couple of very dedicated Essendon fans watching the telecast in the next room. I was pleased too, though kicking myself for having missed such a memorable win. The good news was that I had recorded it, and so returned home at some time close to midnight and watched the game from start to finish. It was the best game I’ve seen all year, pulsating and exhilarating as Geelong kept coming and my team kept resisting. In the last minute or so of the game was an electrifying passage of play where the ball was kept alive through a combination of taps and nudges and quick handballs, resulting in one of the most electrifying goals I can remember, and one I’ll never forget. It ranks right up there with the Zaka goal.

Last week I was partying in Thornbury when my team took the field. It was a bad bit of scheduling, though little I could do about it. Normally I’d have been there, shivering in the members area of the MCG as the boys took on Richmond. This was another memorable match. On this occasion we trailed for most of the match before careering away with it. We kicked the last 10 goals to record an easy, but impressive win. I returned home to watch that on the teev also.

Last Friday night I finally caught up with the boys. There were times I felt like switching off, or at least tossing a shoe at the screen, but it turned out to be another great match. This time we trailed by 6 goals at half time playing away in Adelaide. This time we kicked 9 of the last 10 goals to win a tough game. No need to stay up to watch the replay, though it didn’t stop me from turning over to the broadcast of the Tour de France and staying up to all hours.

Next week we play Carlton, and I’ll definitely be there. Should be a crowd in the 80-90,000 vicinity, and it’s half as good as the last game between these two teams – a draw – then it will be a real cracker. Can’t wait.


Always remembered

Anzac Day is just about my favourite day of the year. Yesterday it was fine and mild. I headed off early to get myself a seat at the MCG for the big match. Bought a badge at the ground, one of the marinated chicken rolls I like so much, then settled in for the game. IMG_0091

As always it was very impressive, and very moving. The two teams burst through the same banner before lining up across from each other for the last post and the national anthem. Everyone stood. In the silence you could hear the flag flapping in the breeze. In the national anthem 90,000 sung along to the words everyone now knows so well.

It was a cracking game, worthy of the day. We lost, which was no great surprise, but we gave them a fright, and played with intensity and heart. I left satisfied knowing that we are the real deal, thinking that we are ahead of everyone else in the comp but Collingwood. That's a big call, but I've seen no other team this year approach the intensity and skill on show by the two teams yesterday.

Last night I watched some of the programs I had recorded earlier. I watched the pre-game show, which featured interviews and conversations with the usual experts, but unusually also featured social commentators and journalists. Anzac day is the big day in Australian culture, and yesterday was deep immersion.

I found myself greatly adffected by what I saw. Many times I found my eyes glistening with emotion. Interviews with old diggers relating their stories. Commentators putting into some kind of context. And in the background looming was the big game.

There is occasional controversy over whether a big game of football devalues the day, or commercialises it. I find the arguments specious rubbish. I'm loathe to get into discussions about what people fought and died for because it becomes trite in the expression – however, if I want to attribute any meaning to it then I would suggest these men marched off to war to preserve the lifestyle and freedoms we all so cherish. Football may seem small beer, but it is a good part of our culture and in its way representative of those hopes.

Football is not life and death (though it feels it sometimes), and it doesn't pretend to be. We fight for 4 points, and no lives are on the line. Only the very lame draw those parallels. It is who we are though, proved by a crowd yesterday of 90,000 and a TV audience of millions, including thousands of ex-servicemen. It's part of the life these great guys fought for, and a day like yesterday the perfect celebration of what they stood for.

What is also often overlooked is how a game like this has put the spotlight on the Anzac tradition. The teams, the AFL, are very respectful of the day and what it means. The hype and and aura of the game feeds into the Anzac legend, which the teams and the media pay homage to. I truly believe that this game creates awareness, and in the periphery of it educates as each year other stories are highlighted.

The other argument is whether the day should be the sole provence of Essendon and Collingwood. Not surprisingly there are many envious of the tradition and granduer of the big Anzac day clash. For me it's a no-brainer. These are the two biggest and most popular footbal clubs in Australia. Support for them is tribal and vociferous. Between them they have created this tradition around which so much has accreted. They have made Anzac day this celebration, and it is the tradition and the rivalry between these two clubs that has made it so.

To change that formula would be to diminish it. The magic is in the tradition and the clubs who have built it. It would lose the glamour and mystique if it was just another home and away match.

Footy is a good way. This is a great season so far, and the Bombers are looking good.


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The sport of Gods


Last weekend I went to a big game of footy at the MCG. Carlton versus Essendon is always hotly contested regardless of the scores on the field. The two teams hate each other, and that fierce rivalry extends to the crowd. I went with Donna, a typical Carlton supporter who hates Essendon above all others. We sat in the tightly packed members area amid supporters in the blue of Carlton and the red and black of the mighty Bombers. I was pretty relaxed, as I usually am, but desperate for a win against this mob. Donna was a bundle of nerves. I’ve been to about half a dozen of these games with her, and only once has Carlton won in that period. By the end of the day, that stat remained unchanged, though in unexpected ways, and Donna was literally all a tremble.

Great rivals make for great contests. A crowd of 80,00 helps, but there is so much history between teams like this that it will always be a desperate battle. There’s a buzz in the air as the players take the field, a crackling tension almost as the ball bounces and the crowd roars and the ball whizzes from one end to the other, bodies careen off each other and the crowd stills and roars like at the Colosseum. It’s wonderful theatre.

It was a wonderful game too. The re-born Essendon took control early and looked the goods. Then, in a few minutes, two season-ending injuries to key players turned the tide of the match. It’s tough to win, to even be properly competitive, with two players down. Gradually Carlton evened the match up, and early in the second half looked like they might skip away. Each time they got to a couple of goals lead though the Bombers would hit back against the odds.

The last quarter was like that also. Essendon kicked the first goal to go ahead by that margin before Carlton kicked the next three in a hurry to grab a handy lead. That Essendon was able to fight back once more was a testament to Essendon resilience, to a few quite remarkable moments of football, and a combination of laziness and panic by Carlton.

With a few minutes to go, Carlton led by a point. Then Garlett marked in their forward line within range and, looking over his shoulder, decided to play on. Bad move. On his tail was the oldest player in the competition, Dustin Fletcher (BOG for the match), who chased and then desperately lunged with his long arms to bring Garlett down and save the day.

Not long after, Carlton was in control of the ball with that lead when they kicked backwards and then out of bounds on the full. A hurried kick forward, a spill from a pack, and then a snap from the boundary line by Zaharakis saw the scores levelled. Moments later, the siren went: draw.

As an Essendon supporter, I was happy. We had no right to be so close, given the handicap of our injuries. It was a terribly gutsy effort by the players and might just be the making of the team. Backs against the wall, and they never gave up.

Tomorrow is another game that epitomises that spirit – the annual Anzac Day match between Collingwood and Essendon. This is the biggest game of the year outside the finals. There’ll be 90,000+ there tomorrow, and I’ll be one of them. Collingwood is the reigning premiers and top of the table; Essendon is the glamour team of the moment, playing purposeful, attractive football led by a favourite son. Tomorrow’s game has extra significance because James Hird, our coach, was a hero in so many of these matches – he won the Anzac day medal three times. You can bet he’ll get the team properly geed up for the occasion.

Collingwood goes in favourites, and that’s fair enough. Essendon knows they’re the underdogs and have boldly selected a team that might prove a masterstroke or backfire badly. I love the thinking, though: let’s attack. I hope we win tomorrow, and I think we’re a chance if we get our defensive pressures and our run going. Regardless of the result, I have a strong feeling that we’re a real contender this season. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think we can go all the way.

On a related note, I have to comment on the early death of one of my favourite players growing up. Alan Noonan died last week after a long struggle against cancer. He was 61. If I had a duffel coat when I was young and had the number of any player – as was the custom in those days – it would have been the number 10 of Alan Noonan.

My dad and I went to the footy most weeks from the time I was about 7 until 15, and pretty well every week, we played at Windy Hill. We had reserved seats in the Reynolds Stand, of which I still have many very vivid and exciting memories.

Amongst the players I watched week in, week out, my favourites were Noonan, and after him Graham Moss. Noonan was a very good CHF, underrated by posterity, but a powerful competitor, a good mark and a booming kick. He was a good looking man, I guess about 6’3″ in the old vernacular, dark hair long in the fashion of the day, high cheekbones, a big porn star moustache. Well muscled, he seemed to always have a year-round tan, his skin slick with the liniment they applied pre-game. His look was rugged, masculine and somewhat brooding. As you can probably tell, that very young me wanted to be him.

Strange to think he’s gone. I’ve not the personality type to have heroes, though certainly, I have admired many. Alan Noonan, I think, was one of my few heroes and the very first. For an impressionable kid growing up in the tumult of VFL, sitting in the crowd as it roared and cheered and drummed its feet on the wooden floor of the stand, chanting Esse-en-don…Ess-en-don… joining with all my might, enchanted by the colour and spectacle, the noise and wonder, small still, impressionable, impressed as I was by the clever men who sat beside us week after week making witty, intelligent comments on the game, the thump of boot on ball and the waft of liniment coming from the ground, lifted by it, transcended by mysterious passion and carried onwards by the moments collecting all on the field I was in a kind of childish heaven. Others would come, others great and many who remain, but in those days, it was the sight of Alan Noonan roosting the ball through the big sticks from 60 metres out that was my idea of absolute bliss.

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A footy fairy-tale

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 17:  James Hir...Image by Getty Images via @daylife

I was like a giggly kid on Sunday. For the last 7 months I have like every Essendon supporter keenly awaited the opening of the 2011 football season. The return of the most beloved player in living memory as the team coach was every supporter's wet dream come true. Delightful as that was the list of top-line and legendary coaches joining James Hird as assistants left all of us wondering if we would wake up to find it was just a dream.Was it too good?

It was no dream though, there they were living and breathing and injecting hope into the multitude of passionate supporters. In that there was a danger I think everyone Essendon supporter felt deep in their heart. What if it was a disappointment, like Voss? What if all our hopes would be dashed and revealed as childish dreams? What then, what would we feel, how would we recover? What if the great man has feet of clay?

There's a lot of naive hope in following any football team, but then that is one of the great pleasures of being a supporter. We suspend disbelief and occasionally common sense in barracking for the team we grew up loving. It's not about common sense or even pragmatism. The church may not like it, but following a team hard is like being part of a religion in which you all share a common faith. It is all about rituals and symbols and blind adherence to the word – and the word is the club.

Following a footy team will often test that faith. From week to week and season to season hope surges and retreats, it causes us to blaspheme sometimes, to question and doubt; our faith ebbs and flows, but rarely if ever is it broken.

In that context then James Hird has returned to the club less as the prodigal son than as the messiah with his band of apostles. As coach he said the right things and guided the team through a pre-season that was impressive and demonstrably better than previous years. There was reassurance in this, some relief. It was not the real thing though, not yet: that would come with the season proper.

The season proper began for us on Sunday. We went in as underdogs against one of the powers of the competition. I wanted a win, but I was happy to see effort, performance, improvement. For all the hype James in the end is only human (allegedly), and it was my more prudent self suggesting to keep a lid on it, it's a long journey, let's just take it one week at a time…

And Essendon took the field and wiped the opposition from it.

I watched laughing often with delight and the sort of ecstasy that bubbles up unexpectedly when you really it isn't too good to be true. I yelled and clapped and hollered as my beloved team played with  an authority I have not seen for many a year. They were quick, they were bold, they were tough, they were exciting, they were disciplined and they were ruthless. And they won big.

I doubt Hirdy could quite believe it himself. I know it is only the beginning; I know it is a long season. I know there will be disappointments along the way. Nothing is certain, yet I also know now what is possible with this team. And I know as I was never sure before that we are on the right. And I even wonder now if James might not just be the messiah after all.

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The great man returns

James HirdImage via Wikipedia

I'm sitting at work diligently doing my stuff. I'm writing emails and thinking about the things that need to get done and the people I need to speak to. I'm in a motivated mood, but at the back of my mind is the news that thrills all Essendon supporters: James Hird, the Messiah in waiting, is poised to return to the club.

Then news filters through: a press conference at 10. That can only mean one thing, as I feel the excitement build as I continue working. I'm discussing a curly issue with one of the managers here when I glance at my watch and see it is a couple of minutes to ten. I cut our conversation short and hurry back to my desk. I plug in the earphones and tune into the webcast, and sit entralled, the world around me forgotten, as the great man is confirmed as our new coach. He speaks, his words like honey to my ears, his passion and commitment on show, his intelligence and innate leadership clear for all to see.

I am officially excited now. I feel a buzz. I love this football club, have done since I was a small boy. I share the passion that Hirdy has, when he speaks like that he is one of us, a fan, and in his case now, a servant of the club we all love. We have lost our way in recent years and fallen from our ore-eminent position. As much as anything I think it is that which has Hird returning home – he could not watch without acting.

Sitting there this seemed to be the club I remembered, powerful, proud, ambitious. The mojo was back. That was a feeling shared by thousands of excited Essendon supporters across the web. Hird is a man adored, revered even, for his feats on the ground and for the exceptional man that he is. He is ours and he has come back to save us.

Well that's hyperbole, but that was the general feeling. In popular sentiment there is nothing beyond James Hird, no feat too great, no hill too high. There is a huge risk in this appointment as an untried coach, yet I share this confidence. I have seen him do so much that I find it hard to doubt him. In any case, the benefits are immediate – the club surges, hope returns, excitement fills the heart of every true Essendon man.

I read the comments and the press torn from my work. Speculation remained as to who would assist him. The dream team was mooted, enough to make me giggle with delight. Couyld it be? Really?

Then there seemed more substance to one of the later rumours. Bomber Thompson, the coach of the mighty Cats – winner of two of the last three flags – was said to be resigning so that he could return to the club he himself captained to premiership glory long ago. This was too much. This was too good. This was supreme, sublime, wonderful, the coup of the century on top of the appintment of the century. Is it?

As I write this I do not know. Right now it's very good, but if there is any truth to this then I can say honestly that this day, September 28, is one of my happier days in recent memory.

Woo hoo! Go Bombers!

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