Monday, April 2, 2012

Rd 1: Melbourne vs Brisbane @ the MCG

I had a rush of blood to the head this week, and did something I’ve never done before: I became a member of my football club.

I grew up in Adelaide with an SANFL “Footy’s Best In The Flesh” sticker on my bunk bed. Norwood was our team, and I ran around Under 7s training with Gary McIntosh’s number 14 on my back. Whenever State of Origin footy came to Footy Park, a parent would take a bunch of boys along and we’d chant “S-A” and “We hate you ‘cos you’re Victorian” all night long.

All the same, even in the 1980s it was hard to ignore the game across the border. On winter Sunday mornings my brother and I would leap out of bed to watch Drew Morphett present an hour of VFL highlights on the ABC. It was the era of the great Essendon teams, and in the backyard he’d be Leon Baker and I a diminutive Billy Duckworth.

1987 was the year I became a Melbourne supporter. The Demons had a graceful, ageing champion in Robbie Flower; a South Australian gun named Steven Stretch on the wing; and the young Irishman Jim Stynes, whose famous blunder in the 1987 Preliminary Final was the kind of tragedy that weds a young fan to the team. I’ve been waiting for redemption ever since.

I’ve written elsewhere about my existential angst as a Melbourne fan. Being an interstater, and politically of the Left, it can feel rather odd to support the MCC team. A few years ago I flirted with the Crows and the Bulldogs, but neither ever took. I think the turning point was when Liam Jurrah burst onto the scene - but it might just as easily have been when Jimmy came back to save the club from extinction. Here were some people I could care about, and a story worth telling.

I was eleven years old and jumping around the living room when Jimmy won the Brownlow in 1991. Last week I was moved to tears when he died. It’s a funny thing, crying at the death of someone you’ve never met. I guess I cried for myself really, for the dead man I will be and the child I’ll never be again; but also for my family and friends, and for Jimmy and his, and because reading all the obituaries I felt happy and sad at the same time.

So Jimmy’s gone - and Liam Jurrah is out indefinitely with a bad wrist, a family feud and a pending court case. But this week I joined the Melbourne Football Club anyway. I chose the eleven home games membership, general admission seating, for $195. I don’t like Etihad Stadium. I’ll probably make a game or two there, but really I want to be at the MCG.

I’ve never had many mates who actually barrack for Melbourne. One of the few who spring to mind is a lovely bloke named Dave Lafferty, a Queenslander mate from the student activist days. One night at the New International Bookshop I had an unusual rush of customers - there was a big event on upstairs - and Dave appeared out of nowhere and started making coffees. I hadn’t seen him for years. We both lived in Footscray for a while, and went to a few games but then he disappeared again. Are you out there, Dave? The ‘G misses you, and so do I.

For Round 1, 2012 my fellow Dee is Pete Coles. Pete’s a brother from a men’s circle we both sat in a few years ago. That’s a story in itself, but suffice to say that while we’re not best mates, we’ve been through some real bonding experiences together. He’s a big, gentle man with flowing red-brown hair, a muso and youth worker and a bit of a hippie. In fact, as we head into the ground I joke we’re the hippie faction of the Melbourne supporters, both in our sandals, Pete with his prayer beads and me with my sushi.

Less of a hippie is Jerome Small. I hope I’ll go to many games with Pete this year - perhaps even find a few more Dees who want to join our faction - but I also want to sit with friends who support the opposition. Today, that’s Jerome. He’s a Lions man from back when they called Fitzroy home, and his story is a bit like mine. He gave up on the footy altogether when Fitzroy folded, then wore an Essendon scarf to a 2001 Grand Final barbecue - but found himself jumping instinctively to his feet when Alastair Lynch marked on the lead in the first quarter that day.

Fast forward a decade and Jerome’s back in his old Fitzroy scarf. He’s a big, gentle man too - a construction worker and one of the most authentic socialists I’ve ever known. As we take our seats in the Ponsford Stand, up in Level 3 so we get an overview of the action, I wonder if he and Pete will find a political argument today.

After a minute of applause for Jim Stynes, a fitting variation on the minute’s silence, the ground announcer invites us to remain standing for the national anthem. Jerome sits down in disgust, declaring “I’m not going to stand up for a song that’s full of lies!” I wish I had his gumption, and resolve not to stand next time myself. As the song plays we discuss the increasing proliferation of national anthems and calls to patriotism in AFL footy, on Anzac Day and beyond. An Irish ballad would have been much more meaningful today I reckon.

Before the first bounce, I knick Jerome's record to perform an impromptu quiz on both clubs’ history. The players have their pre-game rituals, I have mine. I ask for a tip, and Jerome prevaricates while Pete plumps for Melbourne by 40. Inspired by his confidence, I tip Melbourne by four goals.

We lose by 41 points.

It’s a scrappy game. Neither team looks great in the first half, but in the third quarter the Brisbane rucks are well on top and Simon Black and any number of young midfielders are carving us up. Given the Lions won just four games last year, it’s a disastrous start to our season.

I still enjoy it though. There’s a masochist frame of mind that comes naturally to any long-suffering supporter. I’m not one for bagging my team, but I repeatedly wonder aloud what Jack Watts is doing in the centre bounces so often - Pete reckons the coach is trying to toughen him up, and we have a not entirely generous chuckle when young Jack comes off with the blood rule. We both acknowledge that the team has not a single star, perhaps not even a genuine A-grade player. It’s a depressing thought.

Even when we do kick a goal it seems more the result of persistence than skill. At one point we seem certain to score as two players close in on goal with the ball at their feet; Aaron Davey attempts to soccer it through but only succeeds in falling over, and thankfully the ball lands in Brad Green’s hands for a goal he seems embarrassed to celebrate in the usual manner. “A comedy of errors” I suggest. “!” shoots back Jerome.

The real highlight of the day - and keep in mind here we are the hippie faction - is that Jerome gets to see his team win. “GO LI-ONS!” he bellows with increasing regularity as the realisation dawns that a victory is on the cards. I particularly like how he looks up the young players in the Record, then shouts their names for all to hear: “We LOVE you Pearce Hanley!” “Mitch Golby you are a STAR!”

When the final siren blows Pete looks pretty keen to get moving, but we stick around so Jerome can enjoy the song, and the celebration continues as the players and staff salute the fans up our end. Jerome’s not too keen on coach Michael Voss, whom he calls “son of a cop”, but when Jonathan Brown shows his face – recently reconstructed for the third time – Jerome reckons he looks in pretty good nick. In fact we can hardly see the man, but it’s an optimistic moment.

As we leave the ground, Pete and I plan to reconvene for Round 3 against the Tigers, and I tell Jerome I’ll probably see him at the Marxism conference at Easter. It’s been a good day out with mates I haven’t seen much for a while.

If Melbourne don’t improve dramatically, that might be the story of my year as a club member. We all know a week’s a long time in footy, but Perth is also a bloody long way away – and we’ve got the Eagles over there next weekend. Things might just get worse before they get better.

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