Footy: A blue and white trail to new grandeur

I marvel at the crisp, clean lines of North Melbourne’s new Arden Street edifice each time I pass. It is a truly impressive, and long overdue, development in the evolution of the club.

Not having yet been inside the facility, I also wonder at the magical qualities which must surely lie within. For I have not yet read or heard an interview with a North player or official this pre-season which is not prefaced by a glowing endorsement of the club’s new head-quarters and all that it contains. I am overjoyed that the Kangaroos resisted the AFL’s dollar-laden overtures to send them north; I am as “excited” as Andrew Demetriou about the new-look Arden St; but I am also prone to a wistfulness that something intangible was lost when the shambolic combination of old grandstand and huts were demolished.

Eugene’s emails tell me that I am welcome to visit the new buildings, and I look forward to doing so. But I do also wonder what the ghosts of Shinboners past, my great-uncle Roger among them, would think of the new North Melbourne.

Upon returning from service in World War Two, my grandfather and his brother settled in Birmingham: two Irishmen in the English Midlands. Whilst my grandfather married and started a family, my great-uncle Roger remained a bachelor. Ned, my grandfather, was quite the lad, enjoying a beer or three after a hard days’ slog. Although Roger led a more Spartan existence, rarely touching a drop, he maintained a passion for sports, and in particular soccer. Moving to England’s second largest city had afforded Roger the opportunity to support either Birmingham City or Aston Villa, but he chose neither. He settled upon a smaller, battling club. And so each Saturday, my great-uncle would journey to The Hawthorns, the home of West Bromwich Albion. WBA were (and remain to this day) perennial under-achievers, constantly punching out of their weight division for little success. But year after year he would buy a season ticket and sit amongst the same supporters, cheering on his blue and white striped heroes.

My grandparents and my great-uncle migrated to Australia in the mid-fifties, around the time of the Melbourne Olympic Games. Influenced by his building-trade work-mates, Ned was suddenly a Carlton supporter. Roger, however, shunned the bigger, more-fancied clubs. He settled upon a smaller, battling club which had seemingly been punching out of its weight-division since its introduction to the big league in 1925. And year after year he would buy a season ticket and sit amongst the same supporters, cheering on his blue and white heroes.

The Hawthorns was half a world away from Arden St, but maybe not so far after all. It was a family joke that the only true loves of Roger’s life were the West Bromwich Albion and North Melbourne Football Clubs. He helped found the North Social Club (he was a Life Foundation Member) and was always a member of the Northerners coterie group. Each season Roger eschewed his complimentary grandstand tickets for the pleasure of sitting at the fence.

In September 1975, he gave his football-loving but non-aligned great-nephew a ticket to the VFL grand final; it took only a Doug Wade goal and from that day onwards my blood also ran blue and white. Roger even generously gave me $500 worth of NMFC shares when I turned 21, which I only recently gave back to the club.

I have now been fortunate enough to witness North win four premierships, and maintain a belief that I will live long enough to see even more. As a child in the seventies, I spent many a Thursday night with my father and his uncle,  watching training sessions at Arden St. The heady atmosphere was intoxicating: there was a sense that the preceding generations of struggle had all been worth it and that the club’s destiny, in the form of one Ronald Dale Barassi barking out orders mid-oval, had arrived.

Football was so simple then. The unfettered access to all areas that this young supporter had would leave today’s fans envious.  Arden St was like my second home. The plethora of memories I retain from those times include:

  • Barassi lining up the players against an internal wall in the dressing-rooms and drilling passes at them. The instruction was that each player had to mark the ball on his hands, with Brent Crosswell being the only player able to repeatedly comply.
  • More than once asking big Mick Nolan for his autograph (just to get near him and his sheer enormity), and he always reaching down for my book and replying “Most certainly!”
  • Stan Alves receiving wild applause at the final training session prior to the drawn ’77 grand final, as he strained every muscle in his determination to play in a premiership;
  • Ping-pong tournaments in the rooms, played with the ferocity of an MCG final;
  • John Cassin belying his on-field hard-man image, always stopping to say hello although he did not know me from a bar of soap;
  • The camaraderie amongst the players, leading me to believe that the good times would never end;
  • Phil Baker hobbling to his car (was it ’79?), and my sudden realisation that there would be no more “long bombs to Snake”… it was an epiphany: the good times were over.

I am so fortunate to have these experiences, as well as the memory of Roger sitting at the fence taking them all in.

The new facilities look wonderful, and in time will produce their own memories for North players and supporters (Drew Petrie holding aloft a premiership cup on the balcony, maybe?). When I walk through the doors of the new facility for the first time, the ghost of my great-uncle Roger will accompany me.  And I am sure that whilst feigning indifference, he would be mightily impressed, and would approve of North’s new grandeur.

About Darren Dawson

Always North.

Comments

  1. pauldaffey says:

    Top piece, Smoke.

    Heart and soul.

    The more the years go on, the more I love Mick Nolan. What a folk hero.

  2. John Butler says:

    Great stuff Smokey

    Brent Crosswell almost rated up there with Jezza when I was a kid, even when he left to go to your boys.

  3. Richard Naco says:

    When I was growing up in Adelaide, my best mate at high school was a passionate Shinboner. We never understood why, especially as they were seen as playing in a foreign league during those glorious days for the SANFL (remembers 1973 again, and sighs).

    I think I understand Beetles just that little bit better after reading this. Ta.

  4. smokie88 says:

    Paul,
    My abiding memory of Mick Nolan is of him being a true gentleman. He was so courteous! And as mentioned in the article, it was never too much trouble for him to sign an autograph.
    John,
    Tiger Crosswell was a freak, and definitely one of Barassi’s favorites. Along with Carey and Blight he is in my personal top 3 North players. I still get tingles down my spine when I recall him running down to the back-line in the 77 g f to stand the dominant Peter Moore. The North supporters around me were in raptures.

  5. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rocket says:

    Have been reading Adrian Chiles (BBC Match of the Day 2 presenter) book on following West Bromwich Albion called We Don’t Know What We’re Doing …
    have developed some understanding of what its like to follow the Albion. Always expect the worst.

    Clearly the colours of North Melbourne must have appealed to Uncle Roger – who when he discovered North were also perennial underachievers when he first started following them in the 50s he must have been rapt!

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