Go with grace


Father and son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The view from above


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Royal blood


Many years ago it seems now, I used to go to the footy and watch a stellar collection of players represent the team I barrack for, Essendon. In the the eighties they were a great team that enjoyed much success. I was there every step of the way, from the outer at Windy Hill to the grandeur of the MCG. I roared and cheered and cursed and lived by the fortunes of the team. I had a lot of favourite players, but my favourite probably was Tim Watson.

In a team chock-full of legendary players Tim – or Timmy – Watson was probably the most popular of all. He made his debut in 1977 when he was just 15, the second youngest on record. He was a dynamic player even then, big and strong for his age, a mop of floppy air, with the dash and exuberance of a kid who doesn’t know any different. He captured the imagination of supporters of all clubs. Over time he developed into one of the best players in the competition. His was a rare, but prized combination of gifts. He was big, but he was also quick. Anyone quick enough to catch him – and there were few – weren’t strong enough to hold him; those strong enough to stop him had no chance of catching him. He was skilled and fearless and charismatic. He was exciting to watch, capable of breaking a game open within a few minutes of dynamic play, and features in many iconic moments of the club. He grew into a good looking man, articulate, and a natural leader who eventually became captain.

In a team of truly great players – some all-time greats – he was close to the best, if not the best: Simon Madden was pretty good too. Like a lot of great careers his had a narrative swoop – a knee injury took him off the ground for over a year, only to return even better. He retired after the disappointment of 1990, then made a comeback as in the fairy-tales, to play in the 1993 premiership. He won 4 B&F’s, an AFL players award for the best player in the comp (1989), a few media awards along the way, and played in three premierships. He even won a father of the year award back in 1993 – how apt that seems now. Now he is a media figure, affable, articulate, and the father of Jobe Watson.

It’s that last label which may now stick longest, for last night Jobe did was his father was never able to do: he won the Brownlow medal for the best player in the league.

Jobe is a very different player to his dad. He shares his size – about 190cm – but has none of his father’s raw power or speed. His gifts are much less obvious, and have been honed by hard work rather than being gifted to him. His success is the product of character, as much as it is of soft hands and a quick mind. He has been a very good player for a number of years now, and captain of the club for the last few. He is an outstanding man as well as player, a leader voted best in the comp by his peers, and steadfast in the face of the greatest challenges. This medal is just reward for that.

It was no surprise that he won last night. Watching the season unfold it looked like he had a grip on it from very early on. I think he has a lot more ahead of him, though I’m still not convinced that he is better than his dad. I might change my mind in a year or two.

It’s always strange to watch the offspring of great sportsmen take the field. Many fail, but a surprising amount become champions in their own right. As a supporter you feel a sense of kinship different from the other players in the team, as if you are watching club royalty. Jobe was born to it, the son of a club legend who spent many of his childhood years playing around the club. You watch a player like him come on the scene and you think, well I remember his dad. There is that automatic attachment.

While Jobe might play different from his dad, it’s clear that he is his father’s son. Jobe is very different from the stereotypical boofhead AFL footballer (eg last years winner, Dane Swan). He is articulate, thoughtful, intelligent, humble without being false, a thoroughly decent person. It’s a credit to his family, to whom he is openly grateful and affectionate. It’s almost inspiring to see that, simple as it might seem. I watched last night as Jobe responded in his calm and sincere way to the questions put to him, and the open and unaffected way that he answered, the big, kind eyes. In the audience Tim looked on, looking very proud, and his wife – Jobe’s mum – Suzie beside him, one of the great partnerships it seems.

What a loving and supportive family, I thought. What a great example. How lucky we are to have someone like this win the medal, and what a great role-model he is.

I have in my collection of football memorabilia a VHS tape with the highlights of Tim Watson’s career. There’s an interview with Tim that must be from the early nineties, with a very young Jobe by his side. Tim was affable and easygoing, Jobe cute and clearly adored his dad. Strange to think that 20 years on it’s now Jobe who has the spotlight, and a great win it is, not just for Essendon, or football, but for decent values.

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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