Memories are made of this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to grass roots

Where I used to live in Hawthorn there was a small oval that in the summer cricket would be played at, and in the winter footy. I would walk by often a game in progress with a sprinkling of crowd and camp followers lining the boundary as amateurs in white would knock a cricket ball around, or else in the winter mechanics and clerks and suburban dads would squeeze into their guernsey to chase around a leather football for the day. With the back door of my home open I could hear the distant sounds of the game, someone yelling for Johnno to kick the ball to them, the occasional slap of foot on ball, the cheer of the crowd as one side or the other scored.

I would stop occasionally with my bag of groceries to look on, before moving off towards home. It was always heartwarming in a way to watch these weekend gladiators take to the game with relish. It seemed somehow authentic, an unpretentious reality that brought back to me memories of when I did the same.

For all of that I hadn’t attended a game of local footy for many years. This weekend I saw two.

On Saturday I set myself to travel the short distance to Box Hill oval to see the Box Hill Hawks take on the Bendigo Bombers (or is that Gold?) in a game of VFL football. I had an ulterior motive. VFL is the next level down from AFL, and a number of players from the AFL team I support were playing for Bendigo. And so off I went, driving through the side streets around the oval looking for a park while people streamed in all directions towards the ground. It reminded me of the days when the main game – AFL as it is now, but once VFL – was played on suburban grounds. It was the norm when visiting somewhere like Windy Hill to have to circle and loop looking for a place to park. More often than not we might park on the centre nature strip in Brewster Street, before we too – Dad and I – joined the throng heading towards the looming ground, kids selling records, attendants in blue coats, the click of the turnstile before entering the ground proper and to an atmosphere I’ve never yet experienced in modern AFL games in their flash, big stadiums.

On Saturday then I got out of the car and joined the rest heading towards the oval. It was cool, as ever I remember it, and I wore a thick woollen coat with my hands shoved in the pockets. I paid my entrance and entered the ground, walking by the hill where most of the Box Hill supporters in their brown and gold seemed to be, past the small, sheltered grandstand, and onto the grassy area where I took a place by the fence.

The game began, an untidy, unskilled affair at first. From time to time the ball would come near the boundary line where I stood and I would see the players up close. I had forgotten this immediacy. I listened to them to call out to each other just as they did back on the suburban oval in Hawthorn, and the thump of body on body as tackles were applied. From the boundary line coaches yelled instructions; resting players called out their encouragement while sucking on a bottle of water; and the trainers came and went.

I was near the Box Hill bench. When I was not watching the game I found my eyes being drawn to the comings and goings there. Coaches murmured instructions into the ears of resting players, and the medical staff looked after the various minor niggles, inquiring as to this or that, taping up ankles, and so on. As it happens the Box Hill doctor and physio were both blonde and very attractive, even dressed in the baggy brown club tracksuit.

At 1/4 and 3/4 time I went onto the ground to listen to the coaches address. This was a novelty, the right of every paying customer in local footy, but not possible in the heady environs of AFL. I walked across the turf punctured everywhere by the stops of the players boots, and the odd gouge in the soft earth where a player had gone to ground. The boys gathered at first into their little groups – forwards, midfielders, defenders – while their line coaches addressed them. Then they came together in a single huddle while the head coach calmly addressed them, issuing instructions, pointing out areas of improvement, urging them on. The players listened attentively, occasionally raising their voice to answer or agree, quietly urging each other on in the manner of football clubs all over the world.

I watched on. Around me were another hundred similarly watching and listening, gathered in an orderly arc around the players, some, like me, solo, others with mates, and often, fathers with sons. On the periphery of the huddle were the big names of the club, the AFL coaching staff there to watch the game hoping to see who would impress. Among them were the legends in their casual weekend clobber, Hird and Madden, sometimes quietly talking among themselves or else looking on as the VFL coach directed proceedings. How egalitarian it felt, as if we, commoners all, were allowed to rub shoulders with royalty.

The game improved. Rain fell and stopped and fell again. Gradually Bendigo got on top, and in the performance players elevated themselves into contention for the seniors as Hird watched on. About me the crowd, probably in the vicinity of 3-4,000, called out, or complained as ever about the umpires. Next to me a couple of injured Bomber players looked on as they talked between them of the things around the club, and their plans for the weekend. Behind me a senior player watched with his girlfriend and what seemed his extended family. Occasionally he would kick a football a couple of metres to a kid who wore a guernsey with Heppell printed across the back.

I left when it got dark, about 10 minutes before the end and the game safely won. It had been fun.

Yesterday by contrast I went to watch my nephew play for the Canterbury Cobras U11’s. It was a cold, rainy day. I went with Rigby to the ground in the midst of suburban streets. I met up with my sister and her kids and looked on as the kids played out on the muddy ground. The Cobras were getting done.

Much of the game seemed untidy, with huge packs of players following the ball. Amid it there was surprising poise and skill from these pint sized kids. It seemed incongruous to watch as occasionally some of the more physically developed boys struggled, lacking both confidence and coordination, while some of the smallest showed played with a calm certainty and uncomplicated belief in their skills in a manner that seemed well beyond their years.

Was it like this when I played under 11’s? I don’t remember it being as untidy as this, but then I was on the field in the middle of it, and saw it through a child’s eyes, and not those of an adult seasoned and expert in the ways of the game. I recalled those kids in the team who had that extra level of skill, the Steven Websters of my time. They were the most committed, they lived for the game and practised at it while the rest of us figured we had better things to do.

I remembered how much I hated training back in those days. Sportsmen in my observation either dislike training, or thrive on it. Back when I was 10 and 11, and later, it felt like a drag, like homework. Strange it was that I’d happily kick a ball around at lunchtime at school, or in the street with my mates after it, but recoiled from the regimented need for it at my local footy club. For the most part I found it plain boring doing laps and kicking drills. In the depths of winter it became miserable, cold and bleak, with every bump stinging in the chill. It was different playing. Because you were involved the conditions seemed almost irrelevant – I remember once starring in a school match playing on a bog heap that sheep occasionally grazed on. And because you were competitive the conditions were secondary to winning the contest. I played from u11’s and then for the school, having the odd day out, and capable occasionally of the mercurial feat, but mostly no more than mediocre.

As I did the day before I walked onto the ground at 1/4 time and listened to the coach give his address. The team was down by 6 goals and the coaches message was reassuring and upbeat. Just keep at it, and it will come, perhaps not today, but one day. Fair enough I thought, the kids need encouragement – but they also need instruction.

I remembered when I was a kid how it important it seemed to have a task, to be given that direction. Kids, I think, need something to focus on, even if it doesn’t mean much. I’m no expert, and certainly no children’s football coach, but I would have thought it beneficial if the kids were given small targets to aim at, and as far as possible individual instructions. We know it’s not about winning at that age, but know also how discouraging it can be at the wrong end of a flogging. Purpose, shape, structure, belief – these are the things I think matter.

I went home in the next quarter with a very happy, and muddy, Rigby. This was my weekend of getting back to grass roots footy.