Cheers and jeers: what makes a fan?

When my team, the Western Bulldogs, has a terrific win, we stand on the seats, belt out the song, fly scarves out car windows, and bask in the reflected glory of the victory.Friends and workmates congratulate us afterwards. ‘Great effort by your boys!’ ‘Wow.. you guys played well on the weekend!’

‘Thanks,’ we say, as smugly as though we were the ones who stood in front of the thundering footsteps of a fearsome opponent, ran ourselves into exhaustion making position for a team-mate, or placed our heads over the ball in a milling pack.

Meanwhile another club not known for its success has had a shocking start to the season. Melbourne’s performances have been, well, diabolical.

In their first loss, their fans left in droves at three quarter time, but those that stayed till the end gathered near the race to abuse and boo the players and their coach.Afterwards their captain Jack Grimes said ,”Walking off the ground, when you hear some of the stuff they’re saying, you think, ‘Fair enough’. It wasn’t good enough what we dished up today. I’d be frustrated too if I was sitting there as a Melbourne supporter.”

A few years ago the Dogs were woeful in a match against Fremantle. At half time as the players trudged towards the race, already well out of the contest, there came a noise that I don’t recall hearing before at a Bulldogs’ match (except when directed, most legitimately of course, towards the umpires).

Bulldogs’ fans were booing the players for a perceived lack of effort.

I can still recall the startled expression on the face of Luke Darcy as he glanced towards the crowd and realised these most passive of supporters, conditioned to failure, were baying for blood. So many years, so many bad times, but this is the first – and I reckon only –  time I ever heard the Bulldogs playing group whole-heartedly booed by most of their supporters.

Afterwards there was a vigorous debate on websites about whether the booing was justified. Is it a fair call to boo mediocrity, just as we acknowledge marvellous feats? Do fans, who shell out money to keep the team on the field (many of us have signed up ‘for life’) have the right to voice their disapproval of a crap performance? If you’re a real fan, should you be philosophically taking the good with the bad?

In the case of the Melbourne fans , I’ve wondered how the well-publicised tanking efforts have influenced that complicated relationship between fan and club. I can’t help think it has in some ways diminished their unspoken ‘contract’, the idea of hanging tough no matter what, to see their team over the past few years, deliberately trying to lose games.

In 1996 my team, playing as Footscray for the last time, lurched from crisis to crisis both on and off the field. A ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary, ‘Year of the Dogs’, showed the season through the eyes of mother-and-daughter fans, Pat and Jenny Hodgson. Their love and loyalty for the team is poignant, the more so after regular thrashings of 100+ points quite as awful as what the Demons endured last week. ‘Poor darling boys’, says Pat after one such hiding.At one point, we see a training session of the besieged club at the Western Oval. It’s the depths of winter. The camera pans back to see Pat and Jenny, decked in their scarves, huddled under an umbrella in the pouring rain. They seem to be the only supporters there.

The players run past in a dis-spirited looking bunch. Pat leans over the fence to applaud them. ‘And they’ll get another clap,’ she says defiantly, presumably to the bemused cameraman.

I saw Jenny and Pat recently at a game at the MCG last year, a nondescript match around 16 years further on. There have been good times and bad since then. I’ve never met them but I think I know where they stand on the issue of whether to boo or not boo their team, and what it takes to be a fan.

About

Author of 'The Mighty West: the Bulldogs journey from daydream believers to premiership heroes.' Available at all good book stores and probably a few mediocre ones as well. Indoctrinated as a fan of the Bulldogs at an impressionable age. Caught unawares by the 2016 premiership, I have been blogging about being a fan and sometimes about the actual on-field performances of the Western Bulldogs at bulldogtragician.com Twitter @bulldogstragic

Comments

  1. Neil Anderson says:

    Enjoyed your ‘boo or not to boo’ story Kerrie. Almost a study in fan sociology.
    What a year to make a Doggie doco. One of our lowest years on record. Hardly won a game, sacked a coach but the last five minutes filmed in early 1997 showed training under new coach Plough and a hint of better things to come. By the end of season 1997 we were one kick away from a Grand Final but the built up expectation during the year made that prelim loss one of the worst I’ve ever experienced. Talk about a rollercoaster ride for fans.
    I finally left the MCG making my way through yahooing Crow supporters and found somewhwere to stay before the long trip back to Western Victoria.
    For some reason I stopped at Highpoint next morning to see an early showing of ‘Year of the Dog’. I think I just wanted to be surrounded by Bulldog people in my misery and a chance to see the new doco.
    I’m not sure if it was the answer to see something that could have been alternatively tittled “Dog of a Year’ but at least it showed rays of hope at the end under the new regime at Footscray.
    It would be interesting to interview Pat and Jenny about their rollercoaster ride.

  2. Kerrie s says:

    Neil, I saw ‘year of the dogs’ the week BEFORE the infamous preliminary final, in the week off. A time of enormous excitement and anticipation. I marveled at how far our club had traveled in one short year, from a rabble every bit as woeful as this year’s melbourne, to a team that was playing with confidence and assurance.

    And then came Jarman…!

    Pat and Jenny are fans at the purest level aren’t they? They feel every bit of their boys’ pin, but never turn on them, rubbish them, or get infuriated. They’re always sure that they’re trying and doing their best. Bless!

  3. Mark Seja says:

    Great article Kerrie! You took the words right out of my mouth (to coin a phrase) in relation to the “modern day football supporter.” I often wonder what it means to the individual when they pay their membership at the start of every season. Does it give them the right to pillory their team when they are not playing to some perceived expectation? I see nothing wrong with rational, sensible debate – even friendly banter between rivals, but recently I have seen the underbelly of the rabid supporter. It’s as if their membership card gives them some sort of right to yell obscenities, spit at players and generally breach recognised standards of behaviour. To me, the word supporter means exactly that. Support your team through thick and thin. After all, you have made the decision to pay your membership fee. It gives you the right to an opinion, but it also comes with a responsibility to do so in a “supportive” fashion.

  4. Phil Hill says:

    My car won’t let me hand my scarf out the window. The bloody sensor in there somewhere makes the window go down when there is anything in the way.

    I have thought about what the large increase in membership will mean for the crowds that go to games. Since people will follow their money, people who would have in the past simply not attended their underperforming team, will be more likely to use their paid membership ticket to come along.

    This may change the “tone” that occurs in the crowd.

    However I have not seen much change at Brisbane’s games here in Melbourne and the atmosphere at the Geelong Hawthorn match(I went to this one) was simply marvellous.

  5. Loved your article Kerrie. My wife the Avenging Eagle is a strict loyalist, like you and Pat and Jenny. She has stuck my me, the Eagles and the ALP through thin and thick (Julia – you’re testing her patience). In the end her loyalty is generally rewarded, and is all the sweeter for the trying times.
    As an ex Eastern Stater/Sainter she got me into Eagles membership in the dog days of Ken Judge’s coaching tenure. It made it easier for me to ‘transition’ knowing I wasn’t jumping on the gravy train. Just transferring from one basket case to another closer to my adopted home.
    Through those years and the desperation of 2008/9/10 she insists that we never leave early and always claps ‘her boys’ off. After a thumping she says “that’s when they need us most.”
    I am not so accepting, but her example has toned down my rants and raves to a large degree.
    “Faith is belief in the absence of proof” – thanks for proving it once again Kerrie.

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