Footy: How I seduced my wife (with a little help from Max Rooke)

By Richard Naco

It was Saturday 11 June 1995 when sheer dumb luck introduced me to the most amazing woman in the world.  It was the Matisse exhibition at the National Gallery (in Canberra), and although this was beyond the normal scope of my activities, I took the advice of friends who had ventured forth, and cruised for a peruse myself.

And met Her.  Intelligent, articulate, witty, and just drop dead gorgeous.  Much as she is today.

It was only when she called me at home that evening that I realised that she lived in Sydney.

I was living in Canberra at that time.

So, for fourteen months, we basically courted via Greyhound.  Every Friday evening, we would (in turn) catch a Greyhound coach after work and commute to the other’s city, returning home on the Sunday evening.  (Telstra did pretty well out of us as well.)

Come 1996 and the Conservatives’s victory in the federal election. Before you could say “Amanda Vanstone” they had initiated their long-held policy and annihilated the Commonwealth Employment Service, and with it my public service career.  (In order to maintain the facade of some sense of balance, I will concede that the Coalition only really accelerated the Death of 1000 Cuts policy that the Labor Government had been following for years by then, and that at least Mr Howard’s way was quicker, cleaner, and left me with a huge pay-out/ bribe.)

I moved to Sydney in August 1996, and we were married in Bali in the following March.  And are basically living happily ever after.

That is the context for our tale.

The beauty of our relationship is that it involved incredibly little compromise on either of our parts.  Our tastes in all the good things in life are very similar, our values are identical, and our views of life, the universe and everything are very closely related.  But there was one glaring anomaly:  sport.

My wife hated sport with a passion.  Especially football, of any code.  My personal theory is that it is because she grew up literally a dozen houses away from the main entrance to Belmore Oval, the home of the Canterbury Bulldogs (of Rupert’s Neanderthal League – the NRL being incapable of even getting three initials in the right order).  We joke a lot about Collingwood fans in the AFL, but if you want to see truly ugly fans, catch a train on the Bankstown line – it literally dissects the territory of the Bulldogs – when they are playing (and especially if they lose), and you’ll understand why every station has about 10-20 police waiting for them to disembark come game days.

Trust me on this: these are the fans we do not want to convert from Thugby League.

Back to the Ripping Yarn: I am the complete opposite to my beloved in this one respect.  I have often given up on the tragedies of the front page of newspapers during my life, but I have never ceased to cherish the moments of heroism and hope that so frequently populate the sports pages at the back.  I coached basketball for twenty years in four states, and flirted with the upper echelons (I went far further in that sport than my talent or intelligence warranted); I started the South Australian Gridiron Association (and coined that highly marketable set of initials, which was subsequently scrapped); and have long loved many many sports, both male and female.

Favourite team?  I have a bucket load, in various leagues and sports around the world: Glenelg FC, Arsenal, New Orleans Saints, Adelaide 36ers, Boston Celtics, Monaco FC, Adelaide Lightning, Sampdoria, Glasgow Celtic, anything from LSU – the list drones on (and on).

The agreement we had to have was that I would not inundate our mutual time with endless sports, but would confine my passions to one competition only.  For some time, that was the NBL, but the self-inflicted implosion of that competition eventually led me to drop basketball, like so many others who are never to return.

So I became a dedicated observer of the AFL.  For about four years I watched – keenly, but basically dispassionately.  I fell deeper and deeper in love with the sheer beauty and spectacle of the sport, but as I had connections to about half of the teams, I really felt for none of them above the rest.

That all changed when, after the 2008 Grand Final, I found that I really cared about the Geelong Cats, and even though I took Cam Mooney to his word and accepted that their window of opportunity was almost certainly gone (his pre-final interview), I committed myself to supporting the Cats.

Now all I had to do was convince my wife and child to do the same, and a blissfully united domestic environment was on the go.

Luckily, although my wife is very much Sydney born and bred, she has a long cherished love of Melbourne.  So half way through the 2009 season she expressed a desire to fly south for a weekend, and basically do the whole Melbourne thang: shopping, culture, and perhaps even a game of footy (only in order to experience the MCG with a large crowd, you understand).  I got to choose the actual weekend.

So it came to be that on Friday 24 July she and our lad picked me up from work and went on to the airport, to fly south for two nights.

We ended up seeing the Pompeii exhibition at the museum on the Sunday (but missed the Dali at the gallery – dammit), and as nice as that was, it that plays no other part in our narrative.

Saturday morning, on the other hand, was quite revealing.  This was our Great Retail Raid, and we wound up – as one so often does – at DFO.  We meandered through the shops for a while, until, on a whim, I went in to a sports store selling discounted footy gear and bought myself a Geelong scarf.  My son became envious immediately, so while his Mum checked out yet another women’s clothing store, I took him in to said sports store and let him pick out an item (he chose a Cats’ beanie).  And as soon as we walked out of that shop bedecked in our tribal colours, Melbourne changed completely.

We’d been completely ignored till then, but it was as if those blue and white hoops had suddenly coloured us in.  There were four games in Melbourne that weekend (over a quarter of a million attended), and footy colours were Everywhere.  And from the moment my son and I stepped out as clearly identifiable Geelong supporters, we almost literally got swamped with anonymous passers-by engaging us.  It went from a cone of silence to every second person wishing us well.  Fellow Cats fans welcomed us, and there was a considerable amount of good will proffered by fans of other clubs.  My wife was staggered by it, but we two newly hatched Cat Men revelled in it.  Even strangers wearing the strip of the enemy for that afternoon nodded to us, as though the context of the mutual ritual we were to share later that day was far larger and more important than mere tribal loyalties.

Come the afternoon, and we returned from our hotel by tram – still being engaged by utter strangers – and alighted at Confederation Square for the walk to the ‘G.  There are many in our midst here who view the MCG as their second home, and I really hope that their familiarity and comfort has not come at the cost of some of the sense of awe that is the realm of the first timer.

My wife – with only NRL crowds as any precedent – was immediately struck by the general good humour and civilised manners of the throng (don’t laugh – and remember that we weren’t playing Collingwood) as it wound its way alongside the Yarra, over the footbridge, and in to the that vast theatre of dreams.  The ‘G is really a wonderful piece of architecture: so perfectly scaled that its immense size does not become apparent until at least three-quarters of the way through that leisurely advance.

Stopping only to buy our lad a flag, we eventually found our way to our seats & settled in (we were on the ground level, at around the left 50-metre mark on the left wing at the Punt Road end).  A family of Geelong supporters seated immediately in front of us (really lovely folks from Colac) turned and started chatting to us, while a young bloke in a Hawthorn strip next to me also started chatting as well.

The story of that wondrous Round 17 replay of the 2008 Grand Final has been recounted many times before, so I’ll save you the blow by blow description.  Needless to say, I was putting on a brave face as the Hawks’ domination slowly but inevitably came to be reflected by the scoreboard.  The Hawk sitting beside me and I were equally in awe of the Buddy Show of the second quarter (we both came to the conclusion that Geelong would be better off protecting the pocket and allowing the Hawks shots only from straight in front – they missed some incredible sitters that day but nailed all the impossible circus shots).  The leather-lunged Hawthorn followers on the concourse behind us became ever more louder and more blood thirsty as the game progressed towards what seemed like an embarrassing slaughter.

My son was having fun, although it took me a little while to convince a nine-year-old that you only waved the flag when the Good Guys (in the navy and white hoops – like on the actual flag) kicked goals, not when they kicked points, nor when the other mob were doing their damndest to utterly spoil Dad’s Big Day Out.

By three-quarter time, the Cats were down by 22 points, Matty Scarlett and Harry Taylor were gone with groin injuries, and my family was gently probing to see how upset I was going to be when we got killed off.  I was even offered an early escape, but fortunately opted to do the right and proper thing and stay to the bitter end (a no brainer, basically).  One minute in to the final stanza and Guerra missed from pretty much in front after a mark, before doing the Hawthorn thing and nailing a shot on the run from the boundary (and almost as far out as his set shot) thirty seconds later.

Then before we could even blink, Chapman passed out of the centre a minute later to Hogan, who kicked a belter from beyond the 50-metre line.  Seventeen and a half minutes of agony to go.  My immediate reaction was relief that at least the Cats weren’t going to lay down and die, but my wife jumped to her feet and yelled to me, “We’re going to win this!”

I looked at her in disbelief (the entire family from Colac turned as well – and probably quite a few in front of them), and started to mumble something about it being unlikely, but that at least we were making some sort of signs that there was a pulse, but that …. .

“You’re wrong,” she cut in, “we’re going to win this game!”

The surreal (I had to use that adjective – it’s since become a Geelong tradition) nature of this struck home right then.  I said to her, slowly and softly, “What’s with the We?  You hate football.”

“This is brilliant,” she replied as she sat down, “and we are going to win”.

Hawthorn drove forward immediately, but a free to Mackie and a 50-metre  penalty turned away that sortie.  Then with a little over fifteen minutes to go, Travis Varcoe sliced though a scrimmage pretending to be a ruck contest on the edge of our square, goaled, and the margin was down to 16 points.  Suddenly I was on my feet roaring, my son was belting me in the side of the head with his flag, and my wife was just screaming out “Yessssss!”.  Suddenly, the Hawthorn leather lungs behind us were silent, and the blue and white army was in full voice.

A minute later and Joel Corey unleashed a long bomb from 48 metres and we Cats fans were all on our feet going utterly nuts with delight.  I still felt that it was too big an ask to expect to actually win the game, and that this brave display would run out of puff as our injuries and Hawthorn’s inevitable retaliation came in to play.  But like a complete grommet riding Pipeline, I just hung on for dear life and rode that wave of euphoria for all it was worth.

I died a million deaths over the next five minutes as Hawthorn seemed to be on the verge of reasserting themselves, but misses to Franklin and Rioli, then a dropped chest mark by Roughhead, followed by yet another miss by Franklin conspired to keep things close.  (It was during this period that the Channel 10 broadcast team expressed their awe at the sheer wall of noise that was being generated at this game.)

Then the Hawks cracked.  The Cats finally split the zone defence, and a Joel Corey pass to Tomahawk, who handballed on to Matthew Stokes as he scooted past resulted in another Geelong goal, and the margin was one measly goal.  We were on our feet and chanting “Gee – Long, Gee – long”, and the indomitable fighting spirit of the players had infected all of us in the terraces.  It was at this point that I can honestly admit that I dared to believe, but credit where credit is due: my wife had had The Faith for almost ten minutes before me.

(It’s only as I write this now, that reflecting on those events leads me to pay tribute to the Hawks’ fans in our part of the ground, because this must have been incredibly hard for them to stomach, but none of them got narky and one of them walked.)

Kennedy missed for Hawthorn from 30 metres out/straight in front with six and a half remaining, then Jimmy Bartel placed the ball perfectly for Max Rooke (my favourite Cat) to mark in the square and goal on the run at the 24:20 mark.

One-point game!

The game teetered on the edge for three and a half minutes then, before what can best be described as a rolling scrum developed immediately in front of where we were sitting.  First Hawkins, then Varcoe and finally the mad, magnificent Max Rooke tore the ball (or, in the case of Max, himself while being held by four Hawks) out of the grasp of opponents resulting in handballs to Ablett and then on to Bartel who snapped … .

A behind: game tied away.

Within forty seconds, Kennedy had the ball forty out as he raced goalwards, but perhaps freaked out by his miss earlier that quarter he handballed to a rampaging Franklin, only for Andrew Mackie (“Go the Bays”) to come from seemingly nowhere and lay on a literally game saving tackle.

One minute and ten seconds later, Jimmy Bartel took the mark just before the final siren blared, and The Behind he subsequently kicked sent us all in to totally mind-numbing delirium.

My wife turned to me as we stood belting out The Song, and said, “THAT, was The Most Exciting Spectacle I have ever seen!”

Seduced there and then by Aussie Rules football, three weeks later she also became a Cats’ fan.

But that’s a whole ‘nother tale … .

About Richard Naco

We are Geelong.

Comments

  1. pauldaffey says:

    Richard,

    We’ve had a magnificent recent series of fans’ reminiscences, and this surely adds to it. A few things:

    I’m always curious when Sydney people love Melbourne. I’m not sure why.

    I had to laugh about the word “surreal” becoming a byword for the experience of Geelong fans.

    The walk from Fed Square to the MCG is one of the best things ever built in Melbourne.

    You brought that Hawthorn-Geelong game alive again. I remember listening to the last quarter while watching a rather drab local game at Northcote Park in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. The Cats wouldn’t lay down. The word “indomitable” came to mind.

  2. Richard,

    Great article and from a fellow Sydneysider. That game was a cracker(I barrack for neither team) and I enjoyed again the recent replay on 1HD.

    Your shopping expedition reminded me of an omission in my own story. It was about 1993 when I was in Melbourne for a conference/training course or some such other Telstra Junket. During the lunch break I went for a wander and found Victoria Markets. There I bought a Magpies cap, and a very cheap one at that.

  3. Richard,

    This is, quite simply, a BRILLIANT piece of writing!!

    I’m always thrilled when Sydney-siders take an interest in our game, I’ll admit, I’m just starting to get into the whole NRL thing myself (kinda helps that Melbourne have a superb team :-P)

    Until the 2009 Grand Final, this was the single most exciting game I had ever been to, it was brilliant. I felt many of the newspaper reports didn’t quite manage to grasp the emotion and excitement of the game, but you have captured it perfectly! Well done! It was just like being at the game all over again.

  4. Peter Flynn says:

    Richard,

    Time to take the very lovely down to Kardinia Park for a game.

    A counterie at either the Sawyers Arms or the Lord of the Isles.

    Aaaahhh how good is life!

  5. Richard – don’t bother going to Kardinia Park.
    Firstly, as a visitor, the only tickets you will get will be in the open down near the fence in a pocket, and secondly it will be raining and blowing a gale off Bass Strait!

  6. Mark,

    …but that’s the whole point of the experience!

    Richard’s next duty to his superb family is to introduce them (and himself?) to the joys of the KP outer, before standing room disappears (as I fear it will – I couldn’t get a straight answer out of Stuart Fox before he left) in stage MMXIV of the ground “modernisation”.

    And Richard, thanks for a riveting and strangely affecting read.

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