Last Sunday morning a pall of melancholy settled over the Harms household.
Nothing could assuage it: not the morning sun through the north window, not the sound of little feet running from the front bedroom, not the smell of raisin toast.
Not even the reassuring voice of Barrie Cassidy.
“Rainbow,” said young Evie, pointing at the refracted colours on the wall.
“Can we go to the park?” asked Anna.
“Dad,” said Theo, “Is Pluto a planet?”
On closer inspection I realised the pall was mainly over me.
I didn’t like this pall.
Yet I did in a weird sort of way. It reminded me of that other life: life before 2007. When we wondered about the footy gods and Ronnie Wearmouth, and we contemplated Brett Heady and Nick Davis and their place in the Universe. And ours.
We wondered whether life was worth living. And, despite our lot, and the possibility that we were the cause of it (what had I done?), we tended to agree that it was.
Sunday morning’s pall has not gone away. The end of a campaign is always sad. It’s sad because it’s over. But it’s also sad because when it is all said and done: we could have won this. Unlikely: I’ll concede. But possible.
The pall has also lifted somewhat now because, having lived in a state of grace for some time, we now understand the world a little better. We accept that these things happen. We have learnt that all games have context, and that context changes.
The loss to Sydney in the 2005 semi-final was much more than just a disappointing end to a season. It was the end of the world as we then knew it. This loss to Fremantle has a completely different context.
And, while we feel bitterly disappointed, and were left thinking about the 2008 Grand Final, and the 2010 Prelim, and the time we didn’t write that film script, and the time we could have pashed one of the Evans sisters in Grade 9, and all those other times, we were also thinking about the magnificent last six years.
Saturday afternoon. The Swans have just demolished Adelaide.
As I lock the front door I am a little cautious. I think Geelong win, but I have not dismissed Freo.
At the All Nations in Richmond, though, I don’t have a care in the world. The Storm are on fire in the cold and wet, just up the road. I am glad to be in the warm pub. As I tuck into the Weiner Schnitzel the Geelong game is hardly on my mind.
I am man in routine. I am with Freo people who are excited; enlivened by the possible; hoping. Yet they seem sturdy and resilient, quietly confident of a good performance. They even have belief. And they appear so rational.
Neil and Luka have travelled from Kew. Les has travelled from his cottage in Fremantle. A Lyon-skeptic initially, he tells me he has been persuaded by their new coach because he has shaken them up and made them understand what it means to be a footballer, and then hammered a plan into them. Players know what they’re supposed to be doing. He has dispensed with meander, and created a clear path.
“So, have you come over to do a few things?” I ask Les who usually marries footy with other duties and interests.
“No, just for the game,” he says.
“I got here this morning. And I go back tomorrow morning,” he continues. “The plane was full of Freo fans.”
We part company and take up our respective seats.
I have the dubious pleasure of watching with Derek Humphery-Smith, former AFL umpire whose stellar career was cut short by a bout of the bouncing yips. He was sacked after recalling a couple of bounces one Saturday afternoon at the MCG. While this was an act of common sense, it was also a violation of the laws of the game. Now of course umpires are required to recall a wayward bounce. So I like to think of Derek as a pioneer, a man ahead of his time, in the way that in all other areas of his life he is not.
Educated at the Church of England Grammar School in Brisbane, he is reactionary to the core, and bemoans the absence of good leaders like Joh and Attila the Hun. He has recently had lunch with Malcolm Fraser (“He’s a really good bloke”) He played footy at the University of Queensland Football Club where he was known as Humper – but only because of his name. He is now one of those celebrity lawyers who prefers briefs that get him mentioned on SEN, or onto the golf course. During the national anthem he looks disappointed: he wishes it were God Save The Queen.
Murray Bird is also in the crew. He is also an ex-AFL-umpire and Philosophy graduate from the University of Queensland. I used to play cricket against him – nearly 30 years ago. He played for Easts in Brisbane. He’s the bloke who cost Diesel Williams the Brownlow.
And we’re also with Rick Aylett whom I am meeting for the first time. He has strong teeth, but those teeth are nothing to write home about.
We are in the southern stand, on the fourth level. The prevailing wind is from the city end and it’s seriously cold. We could get wet.
“Good seats Humper.”
I am quietly confident, and deep-down expect Geelong to win. From the early comments I reckon all four of us hold a similar view.
“Not many here,” says DHS as the Freo chant reverberates around the stadium.
“Too cold,” says Muz. “It’s on TV.”
There is now a countdown clock, to the bounce. Ridiculous.
There are no huge trends in the opening minutes as both sides concede nothing, although Enright, who has picked up Ballantyne, drops a mark. Eyebrows are raised when Sandilands sweeps a fierce and fast left-handed handball centimetre-perfect inside to one of the runnners who finds Pav.
“Not bad for a big bloke,” says Muz.
Pav, having missed one set shot, goals.
Then Pav gets rid of Lonergan (dubiously?) and marks again. Two-zip.
There is not much concern. DHS likes to watch the Cats and I suspect he is supporting them and may have backed them. (Maybe invested $5 at $1.32) So when Freo continue to apply the pressure which causes a few banged-on-the-boot clearances, one of which falls to Crowley who goals, the first piece of analysis comes.
“Harmsy,” says DHS.
He doesn’t need to say anything else.
It gets worse. The Freo pressure is brilliant. The Cats have no time, and the effect is insidious. The premiers – the champs – have no composure. None. They are reduced to under-age panic. And The Dockers are on a roll.
Further disintegration comes at the hands of near-marks, and blatantly dropped marks. Meanwhile Nathan Fyfe climbs into the air, extends an arm, and plucks a one-hander of sublime skill.
Pav dobs a long one and the Dockers have five.
We are very quiet. Muz and Rick are bemoaning the one-sidedness, I am wondering how the Cats can possibly come back. It could easily be nine goals to nothing.
The Cats try to settle. They string a few possessions together but then muck it up. Pods marks but dishes to Chappy who has to stop.
“Chappy,” DHS groans, “why call for it?”
Even Jimmy Bartel has the staggers. He misses Joel Corey with a handball, and a few seconds later fumbles like a man who’s lost his glasses.
It’s a big headstart.
Johnno, where are you?
The second quarter promises a new beginning. The Cats need to get themselves into the game. But they can’t. Freo continue to dictate terms. They keep the pressure on at the contest where they have numbers, and they keep the forward line open. They seem to be running an attacking pattern which allows their forwards to lead straight up the ground.
More marks are dropped. More fumbles. And a few free kicks are missed. Finally, with almost 20 minutes gone, Mackie kicks Geelong’s first. Only he and Joel Selwood have any assurance. The Cats are so rattled that they look for their skipper, even from the kick-outs.
Chappy drops one he should have taken 20 metres out from goal, but then Selwood wins a free to give the Cats their second. He’s at it again in the middle, winning the clearance, and eventually a long bomb to the square is marked by Duncan. It’s a team-lifter. He goals. The Cats have three and are back in it.
We’ll be right now.
But Freo return fire with a sustained period of attack where the Cats can’t clear – putting the footy out on the full three times in a minute or so. Corey, on his own, finally has a chance, but he fumbles a loose ball, is tackled, and the spillage is soccered through.
It’s an even contest now but the Cats are still making poor decisions. Pods marks in the clear as the Cats stream forward. He has a simple over-the-top to the pacey Motlop. But he hooks his kick, straight to the lone defender who is surprised that his dyke-bound finger should prove so effective.
Bartel drops another. Tommy Hawkins can’t get near it.
It has been a half of painful dystopia, the game as it shouldn’t be played. The Dockers have been outstanding.
Surely, the Cats will come back.
They start the second half as they needed to start the first. Motlop goals having roved in the forward pocket. Hawkins creates a couple of contests, but the Cats miss a few times until Stokes gets another one back.
But just when you think it really is on Pav marks and sends a 55 metre arrow through with a graceful, unhurried kicking action. The Cats continue to feel the pressure, and their chains of handball are not quite pure. They put an attack together and Vardy, having demanded the footy at centre half forward, lands an important set shot. The Cats are within four goals.
They attack again. Pods is not rewarded in a text book holding the ball (which will have amused all Hawthorn fans) and the Dockers go the length for Ballantyne to slot through a fine running goal. Freo get on top again and they’re seven goals up. What?
Is this the end? We’ve been with them all season. Willing their weekly comeback. Some successful, some not. Used to playing off a handicap of five goals. But what about 38 points at three quarter time?
Mackie, who has been one of Geelong’s better players pinches the footy and dribbles one through. Then Christensen goals. And the Cats are coming. They attack again and Duncan has it. Hunt runs by and launches from 50. This will bring the house down. It hits the post.
Ballantyne gets a settler and the Cats fire up again. They get to within three goals with 10 minutes of footy left. Surely. But they have a catch-up mentality and turnovers prove costly.
When Hunt goals the belief is there. The Cats can finish over the top.
From the bounce Freo bobble forward to a chaotic contest. The footy is knocked from the defenders and lands in Pav’s hands. He does not panic. With supreme poise he makes time. Baulks. Straightens. Goals.
Superb. Pavlich has all the physical attributes, and the skills. He is the best player on the ground tonight. He’s among other mega-talents who have performed very well: Fyfe and Hill. The three of them have the class of players who lead sides to premierships – at some stage in their careers.
The Cats rally yet again, but it is the gurgling breathe of the consumptive.
Freo, deserved winners, are home.
“Bugger it,” I think.
The four of us sit quietly. The significant Freo contingent belt out their song. It’s like a Frank Walker tiles ad set to synthesised musak. It has the appeal of halitosis. My phone, which I have not looked at, is chockers with messages. I contemplate throwing it onto the half forward flank.
“What do I do now?” I think.
We look towards Scarlo. The absurdity of him walking off to Yo Heave Ho.
What a player! When he arrived he looked like a kid from a skateboard park. He seemed surly. Like someone had made him play. But he grew into his role, built his strength and fitness, and started to use and develop his talents. He had more talents than we first realised.
From the terrace, he seemed enigmatic. He won a cult following. We grew our hair, and if we didn’t have the natural locks, we bought Scarlo wigs. We watched as he handled the big one-on-one tasks Bomber Thompson would set him. In the premiership years when we cheered goal after goal, sometimeswe only noticed that Scarlo had started the attack when we got home to watch the replay.
Scarlo helped change the way the game is played. He had the skills, and such confidence, that at any moment he had more options than most defenders. Ever. That first kick or handball is now the key to getting clear and opening up the game.
He also had determination and eladership. History will record that Scarlo was there as the side was developing, and when it was successful. He was one of the foundations.
He walks down the race with little fanfare. Is that it?
On the tram home the reflection has started. The clunk of the engine. The squeak of the wheels. The bell. Up past the Exhibition Building and I realise I have managed , in my disappointment, to get the wrong tram. I feel terrible.
But I feel pretty good as well. It’s been a tremendous blessing to be in Melbourne at this time.
Although it well might, I suspect history will not remember this as The Scarlett Era. Nor The Harley Era. Nor The Ablett Era. Nor The Bartel Era. There will be another name.
As long as they’re crumbing chicken at the Sawyers Arms, my grandkids will sit in the bar among the Geelong faithful, watching replays of great victories and say, “Tell us about The Selwood Era again Pop.”
And that, God willing, means we are right in the middle of it.
Twitter: John Harms@ratherbeatlunch