Like my Eagles, I am just going through the motions with footy this season. Maybe it is our crap form. Maybe it is the loss of 3 winnable games with bad goal kicking. More likely it is the scrappy, mauling defensive style of the modern game. And the commercial exploitation of our indigenous game by the rich and powerful.
I have my own themed rounds as antidotes. Round 1 was the “Hope Springs Eternal” round. Round 3 was the “Finals Contender” round. Round 5 the “Hysterical Abuse and Wake Up to Yourself” round. Round 7 the “Blind Loyalty and Support” Derby round.
By Round 8 I am spent. In my heart I know that at best we will fight out 9th spot with Richmond and the Kangaroos. The players are working hard, but our skills are modest. Nothing to get too excited about. Nothing to get too despondent about.
Round 8 is the “Blank – Insert Emotion Here” round. But the Avenging Eagle and I are off to the footy because that is what we do. We are footy people, and the tribalism and occasion is as important as the game. This is the only AFL game in the country today, and there is a clear late autumn sun after days of rain.
But only two thirds of Eagles members share my interest. There are 14,000 empty seats vacated by those with continuing Mother’s Day obligations; shared pessimism about the Eagles; disinterest in the no-name Giants (there is not even a flash of Orange in the crowd); or boredom at the mechanistic manipulation of the modern game. No matter the Avenging Eagle and my Croatian outlaws are all gathered in our usual section on the first tier of the City End stand.
My hopes for the game are for signs of life in the Eagles midfield; Nic Nait; or our forward structure. I clutch my St Jude’s Medal. For the Giants I want to see a good game from Stephen Coniglio, who I have followed since he was a 16yo at Swan Districts Colts. I am disappointed not to be able to see Jeremy Cameron in the flesh, but maybe Patton, Giles or Shiel will dazzle with youthful talent and exuberance.
By quarter time we are 4 goals up, but the game has not risen to any standard. We are just bigger and stronger. The boisterous beer brigade to my left have stayed away this week. Family duties I surmise. There places taken by mum, grandma and 2 wide-eyed enthusiasts in Eagles jumpers.
At quarter time mum is badgered for money for chips. She hands over $5, and the boys rush off with expectant gazes. This confirms that none of the family are AFL regulars. The boys return with a soft drink and disappointment.
Early second quarter goals and we are 40 points in front and I am bored. So is junior. He keeps gazing intently at my scribble in the Footy Record. I tell him that if he can make sense of any of it, then he has a career in medicine (or pharmacy). That he takes an interest is more captivating than anything on the ground.
I have an ancient system of hieroglyphics handed down from my grandfather, who initiated me into the footy tribe on the mound at Thebarton Oval in the 60’s. I have followed his ancient coda for over 50 years, with some additions but no subtractions. Goals are I. Points are X. Scores at the end of the quarter are multiplied in my head by 6 and manually added without cheating reference to the electronic scoreboard. Mental games to ward off Alzheimer’s. Our lead or deficit at the breaks is circled under the box score (+24; +33; etc).
Two additions to make my reporting accountable and personal. At the end of each quarter every Eagle is given a ?, X or O – depending on whether they have won, lost or performed adequately in the quarter. Best players are allocated strictly on the sum of their ticks and ok’s. It avoids being influenced by media hype or starry deeds late in a game.
When I take my seat a half hour before the game I jot all the things that I think might be of interest about the game. “John Lennon – Mother – the howl of anguished pain for in case we lose on Mother’s Day.” Simon Katich in his pink T shirt – the Western Scorchers Big Bash captain returned as mentor and waddler (‘runner’ is overstating it) for the Giants.
Most hearteningly Neale Daniher is taking his methodical trudge across the ground at the rear of the Eagles coaching phalanx, same as he did for last week’s derby, and as he did for years are our Footy General Manager, before that distinguished Demons coach, and the most gifted (but cursed) of a quartet of tough Essendon footballers. It takes more than a degenerative muscle disease to keep down a Daniher.
On the opposite page I jot down quirky observations from the game (Mark LeCras bump – gone for 3 I note pessimistically; Josh Kennedy stutter back – only sporadically; Jack Darling – classy and competitive – one off; Heath Shaw – not interested; Josh Hunt – honest; Rhys Palmer – horrible turnover) that might fit into a match report.
The Eagles switch off 10 minutes before half time and there are 4 late goals to the Giants to inject some doubt about the result. We are 5 goals in front, but nothing about the game is engaging. Bruise free footy. No physical pressure or intensity from the Giants, and they disappointingly fumble even more than we do. Kids should have skills even when they don’t have strength. But skills executed under pressure are another thing.
The kids next door have refined their execution though. They hit up grandma for $20, and march off knowing that this time their dreams will be fulfilled. After the plunder has been consumed I quiz junior about whether he plays footy. “Morley Bulldogs,’ he proudly announces and my memory cogs twirl through past games and Almanac articles. 2012 Book; Page 235; Eagles v Suns; Round 14; Jules and Blake debut at the footy with mum and dad.
Two years hence and I ask Blake (the chatty one) how Morley Bulldogs went yesterday. “We beat Beechboro Swans by 112 points and I kicked 2 goals.” I enquire about the wide margin. “They were all Year 2’s and we are all Year 3 and Year 4.”
Sounded like the best summary of the Eagles and Giants that I had heard today. In the third quarter the sun starts to set over the western stands and over the Giants. I can’t see much beyond the centre and the large TV screens have bigger ads for multinational telecommunications extortionists than pictures of the game. The bright sun is unpleasant, and the game largely invisible, but Blake is keeping me entertained.
He has the bright enquiring mind and short attention span of the 9yo. The game is of less interest than his immediate surroundings, so there is an endless stream of ‘what are you doing’ and ‘why are you doing that’ to keep both of us entertained. I feel like my Grandfather, and it is good to find another soul to whom I am more than an obsessive train spotter.
Blake shuffles a deck of glossy ‘Footy Fix’ cards. “I’ve got 3 Bulldogs,” he announces. I console him and ask if they are tradeable for a Jack Darling. He doubts it. Footy exchange rates are very local. In my mind I am shuffling my own deck of the smaller Scanlans Gum VFL cards (Bobby Skilton my most precious) and the bigger book of Mobil SANFL stars (Lindsay Head, Freddy Bills, Geoff Kingston and the rest of my West Torrens gods). I remember the big cardboard sheet of Coca Cola bottle caps rescued from deli’s across Adelaide and Yorke Peninsula. Why do people bend them getting the bottle open? A creased cap gets disfigured when you belt it back into shape for gluing flat on the team sheet. What do you mean, people want the soft drink more than the bottle top? Adults sure are weird. The expectant peeling of the cork seal with the finger nail of my thumb, hoping it will reveal a rarity like the South Adelaide #22 I need to complete the sheet.
The game is boring. The memories engaging. The timeless rituals of childhood replayed. Footy players were my first (and probably last) gods. Meaning divined from a speccie; or a missed last minute snap; or the annual unexpected win over a stronger team. Why do we always lose Grandpa? That’s our lot in life son. That’s what Eagles supporters do. Get used to it. It makes the wins more special.
Now Blake is getting excited by something unexpected. Action on the field. Josh Kennedy has 5 goals to half time; and 7 to ¾ time. Everything he touches turns to gold. For the most part the ball flies unerringly off his boot with the graceful draw of an Adam Scott 5 iron. When it doesn’t, the helicopter punt dips wickedly and sneaks in at the near post to the surprise of team mates and shock of the Giants goalies gathered at the far post. He wheels after marking outside 50 and blazes to the top of the square. The ball sails through at half post height, and he has the amazed look of the golfer who just caught a flier out of the rough.
Not only has he kicked 7, he has kicked 7 straight. This from a team that had more misses last week than Swish on Rockwiz. Last week the weight of expectations from Julia’s intimidating presence was too much for us. We were reduced to a pool of inconsequential sweat by our own fears and expectations. This week the questions are being asked by a team of gawky, genial adolescent Brian’s. We have the skill and knowledge; we just can’t find it when it matters. Maybe there is a future for Swish as a sports psychologist?
“Can he get 10?” “He’ll get 10. I know he will because me and Jules are here.” Now the bloody kid has got me interested. And believing. Out of the mouths of babes. Josh pots them from angles, from marks, from snaps. He could pot them from his derriere today, but that won’t be required. He kicks 11. Straight. He has the ball on a string. I am enjoying this, despite the game resembling child abuse. I hope the Giants are all over 18. I don’t want to be sharing in any Jake the Peg moments.
“Can we win by more than 100 points?” “I know we will because me and Jules are here.” A couple of consolation goals leave the margin in some doubt, but Blake is not to be denied. We win by 111 points. I enjoyed it, despite the lack of any serious contest. Thanks to Blake, Jules and Josh.
The Giants are denying a lot of VFL, SANFL and WAFL clubs the chance to develop young men until they are 21, and their bodies are mature enough for the pressures of professional sport. Gillon and greed have a lot to answer for.
I gave Blake’s dad a copy of the 2012 book last year, and he has clearly watched enough of The Voice and Master Chef to understand celebrity. I tell him I will try to weave him into my match report on the game by Tuesday. He nods approvingly.
“See you next time you get to come to the footy,” I encourage him.
“See you on the website,” he responds, quietly tallying the accumulated ‘likes’ and schoolyard cred.
Another convert. And an old man’s faith in the enduring magic of footy restored.
WEST COAST 5.2 11.5 21.5 30.8 (188)
GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY 1.2 6.2 9.3 12.5 (77)
GOALS: West Coast: J Kennedy 11 M LeCras 4 J Darling 3 D Cox 2 J Cripps 2 M Hutchings 2 A Gaff L Shuey M Priddis N Naitanui S Selwood S Wellingham.
Greater Western Sydney: D Smith 2 W Hoskin-Elliott 2 A Phillips A Tomlinson J Giles J Hunt J Kelly J Lamb R Palmer T Greene.
BEST: West Coast J Kennedy, M Priddis, S Hurn, C Masten, M Rosa, D Cox.
Greater Western Sydney: C Ward, T Greene, R Palmer, T Scully, A Tomlinson.
Umpires: Jacob Mollison, Dean Margetts, Robert O’Gorman.
Official Crowd: 29,391 at Patersons Stadium
3 – Josh Kennedy (WCE)
2 – Matt Priddis (WCE)
1 – Shannon Hurn (WCE)