AFL Grand Final: My weekend in the red and the white

Footy fans across the country dream of the opportunity to see their team in a grand final. However, for the most part, trying to wait for the planets to align in a year so that you can see that happen can be impractical. I received Gand Final tickets this year, knowing that the chance of Brisbane making it to the last weekend was about as likely as Melbourne putting on perfect conditions for the game. But I am not one to watch footy without getting on one team, so I undertook a covert mission to transform myself into a Swannie for a weekend. Fanaticism  normally grows over a lifetime, but I only had 48 hours to turn myself into a full-blood. The Swans certainly make it easy to switch allegiances, even if it is only for the weekend. With rugby converts, a Richmond recyclable and a co-captain  who, only a year ago, was still reeling from an immense personal tragedy, they are a team full of stories. Lacking the star power of other sides, the 22 red and white workhorses proved during the year that attitude outweighs talent. With NSW heritage, the Swans have always been my second team, but there were a few things I needed to work on to fit in with their tragics. First step: Learn the song. All right, Cheer Cheer the Red and the White da da da dum dum, la la la la… Onward to victory!  Umm, better work on that.

Lining up for a cab at Melbourne Airport, in a brown coat sandwiched between people in guernseys, Swans scarves and team shirts, it was clear I needed to work harder to assimilate. While I have long had a rule against buying opposition jerseys, I decided to get on the search for something that would help me complete my stint as a follower floozy. My first major test came with the Grand Final Parade. The Victorian capital gave us finger-numbing conditions, with swirling winds and patchy rain to go with it , as I waited to catch a glimpse of my temporarily adopted heroes through the back seat windows of the passing Toyota Hiluxes.

The Parade itself gave me a chance to get into the atmosphere of the weekend, but the real moment came once the procession was over, with the congregation of people in front of Parliament House for interviews with the captains. My first public rendition of the song went well – definitely convincing. Barely able to bend my fingers, which had switched from flesh to white with the cold, this was definitely a tick in the commitment box in my bid to attach myself to the Swans.   Still lacking in paraphernalia, the search for a Swans-branded accessory was on. Unfortunately, other neutrals had gone my way and almost every sports store in Australia’s football capital had only brown and gold to offer. Hours of apologetic shrugs and attempts at helpful suggestions, led me to the only place in the city with anything red and white left. Scarf or beanie. Opting for a child-sized beanie, I hoped my last-minute purchase would not be immediately obvious. For as lacking in loyalty as I was, I needed to look the part of a seasoned supporter.

While much of my fandom decisions were manufactured, one aspect could not be. With an unbridled anticipation for the day that was still ahead, I knew that enthusiasm would not be hard to draw upon. Like a kid at Christmas, I tossed and turned – forcing myself to stay in bed until 6am, before venturing out into the brisk ‘spring’ morning to gather some alone time with my spiritual home on the most holy day of all (perspective – none). Reaching Gate 2, confronted by a collection of TV cameras and footy campers, I realised a few others were keen for the big game, and in fact some had beaten me there by about two days

But my rendezvous with the ‘G was short-lived, with a breakfast to fill in some of the time until the first bounce. Red sweater, white scarf, I definitely looked the part. But, this was where I faltered – when the emcee asked for real allegiances I could not betray the Lions. Three hours later and my love for the Swans had been renewed and I was ready for our second date in the big time. A brief interlude and we were at the ground. Pie, beer and poncho in hand, I was prepared. A deceptively blue sky disappeared within seconds and I knew it was going to be a crazy afternoon. Unassuming seven-year-olds were being knocked over like skittles in the swirling winds as they enjoyed their moment in the ‘sun’ as we watched from the rafters. Soaking up the atmosphere, it was in the line for our second round that I found I was inconspicuous. The Hawks fan behind us launched into a conversation with a “How do you think your mob will handle the weather?”  My mob? The ones in the country are  probably sinking brews right now, I thought.

Feeling more established than fair weather on the way back to the seat, my allegiance was assured. The banners were up and the anthems rang out. I belted out the Swans song and knew I was attached as the ‘Syyyyddd-nnneeeyyyy’ chant rang out around the MCG. The Hawk who could break a million hearts, Lance Franklin, got the first mark and things looked worrying for the interstate travellers. But true to form, and affected by wind, it drifted and missed. I possibly oversold my new fanaticism when Lewis Jetta launched one from the boundary, leaping from my seat only to see the umpire signal touched. After Ellis scored at the other end, the Hawks looked to be proving the pundits right. But then, Nick Malceski kicked a spectacular goal from the pocket directly in front of us and it was on. It wasn’t much longer and all of my Christmases, Hanukkahs and Kwanzaas had come at once, with spontaneous sprint off between Lewis Jetta and Cyril Rioli. While Gillette were rueing the fact they could not get a product placement in that split second, Jetta was leaving the Hawk in his wake. Inspirational Swan Adam Goodes almost single-handedly took the game into Sydney’s favour, but even he couldn’t negate Hawthorn’s early dominance, with a three-goal gap at the first change.

As the wind played its role in the second quarter, it was those players that make up Sydney’s patchwork of personalities that were making their stamp. Mike Pyke was shouldering the burden left by an underdone Shane Mumford, fellow ex-rugbyer Lewis Roberts-Thompson was contributing in attack and defence. By half time, they had reversed the game and terms like epic and classic were already being bandied about.

In the second half wrestle, the desperation of both of teams became overwhelmingly clear. Goodes should have been given a medal for even being able to stay on the ground after pulling up in a contest and camping in the trainers’ hands during the second, but that’s what the Swans are about. Daniel Hannebery staked his claim on the Norm Smith and Lance Franklin reminded everyone why he is one of the most electrifying players in the AFL. A marathon final quarter was preceded by the pulsating intro to Eminem song Eight Mile, and no one could help but be pumped up. As the Hawks took the early advantage,  the Swans’ history of slow finishes, made  for plenty of nervous Nellies around the ground. Stoppage after stoppage came and went, pushing the time further and further along. With a straight kick the difference, I was beginning to contemplate a return trip in seven days, when Goodes put Sydney in the lead on one leg, Malceski bookended the scoring and my boys for the day got the win for the year.

As I sang “Cheer, Cheer…” after the siren rang out, I knew my transformation was complete. I was emotionally invested, no longer simply attempting to foster some artificial connection to the result, I had ridden the Swans’ emotional roller coaster and felt only jubilation as the 22 came and collected their medals. While I knew my allegiance to the Swans would fade as the sun set on the season and the clichés reigned supreme, but for 48 hours I was officially a blood. And I bloody loved it.

Comments

  1. Dennis Gedling says:

    Great stuff. I was exactly in the same boat when over from Perth and was very elated (and drunk) after the game. I was going for the Bloods mainly for the fact they remind me of Geelong in a lot of ways (hard, honest, respected) rather than my irrational loathing of Hawthorn. It was good to see Shane Mumford finally get his medal too.

    I like the song too I might add. ‘Shake down the thunder from the sky’ is a great lyric.

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