By Brad Carr
I’m an Eagles supporter who lives in Melbourne. The most common question I get asked is, “Why do you barrack for West Coast?”
The conversation normally goes along the following lines:
Local: “Who do you barrack for?”
Me: “West Coast”
Local (contorts face uncomfortably): “Eeeeww (pauses). Are you from over there?”
Me: “Yeah, originally”
Local: (relaxing facial muscles) “Oh, that’s all right then.”
It’s as though following a team from out of town is (initially) abhorrent, but has some credibility attached to it if it’s reflecting a sense of loyalty to one’s origins.
The initial abhorrence is sometimes just interstate parochialism, but sometimes I also think it’s that West Coast, Adelaide and Fremantle are still perceived by many as “artificial” or “made-up” clubs, despite the passing of two decades. We’re considered to lack the proper standing that can only come with time, and (for two of those clubs) to have an insufficient failure-to-premierships ratio to really understand the game. And so, I think a bit of explanation is warranted in our own defence.
There are plenty of Eagles and Crows fans in Melbourne and Sydney, and after-match functions after away games often become ‘reunion’ occasions, among old school and uni friends who have similarly made the move east. Most have not only remained loyal to the footy club, but also see the team as their key connection with their ‘emotional home’.
Probably nothing unique about that. Where it gets different for those of us from the West (at least those aged 30+) is that, because our state was split in two when Perth’s second team debuted in 1995, we had to choose our footy team during adulthood. This brought a far more complex set of factors in selecting a team that most others might relate to.
Victorians found themselves barracking for Carlton because Dad had decided it for them, or Hawthorn because they were the top team when they were in primary school, or Geelong because they really liked their pet cat at age 5. I similarly barrack for East Perth in the WAFL (indoctrinated by my Grandfather at age 4), but decision-time for AFL allegiances came (in my case) at age 19.
Eagles or Dockers? Which way do you jump? You’re a West Aussie, you’ve followed the Eagles for the last 8 years because they were the WA team taking on the eastern-staters, you’ve maybe enjoyed barracking for both teams through the first six weeks, but now the Round 7 derby is here and you’ve got to make a choice.
I think it was a unique situation in the AFL, at least to this point, pending how things evolve in Qld & NSW over the next few years. Even in SA, the 2-team structure there cleaved fairly neatly, between essentially Port and the non-Port parts of the SANFL (and with feelings heightened all the more by Port’s attempt to join the AFL in 1990), so really no choosing to speak of there.
Ultimately, WA footy fans chose along a number of different bases.
First, there are the obvious factors. Let’s start with WAFL club loyalties. East Freo & South Freo obviously identified more with the Dockers, whilst Claremont coach Gerard Neesham took half his WAFL team with him to Freo Oval. Those of us who had grown up following Perth teams generally hated both Freo clubs, and so had no reason to naturally identify with a team called “Fremantle”. Even so, I have a cousin who was a diehard South Freo fan and who has remained as a rusted-on Eagles fanatic, and I know of Subiand Claremont fans who now won’t wear anything that isn’t purple.
Secondly (and equally obviously) is success. If you revelled in the 1992 and 1994 flags, it probably made it easier to stick with the blue and gold. And equally, the love of the underdog drove others to jump on the Freo bandwagon (and those people haven’t had their philosophy tested ever since).
Then there’s the issue of the ‘disaffected’ – those WA fans who had started out with the Eagles, but by 1995 had grown a bit sick of them or thought they were too big for their boots, and so were ready to jump onboard a new WA team – and here’s where it starts to get a little more obtuse, particularly for those from outside the WA.
Part of this was about Malthouse. I rate him, respect him, and continue to be grateful for what he did for our football club, despite the identity of his current employer. But he alienated others. His media persona was curt, grumpy and one of impatience or even intolerance. Viewed by the public through the media lens, many fans saw Mick the same way as a jilted journalist would/did.
Not only that, but he (for want of a better word) ‘Victorianised’ the Eagles. The team bulked up, and learnt to play solid body-on-body football – the sort they needed to play on the short, muddy suburban Victorian grounds of that era, as opposed to the open, fast, free-feeling football that we played on the longer, rock-hard, bouncy grounds around the WAFL. Our club also became intensely professional, which also had the by-product of being less accessible to the general public, especially with the advent of the then-new concept of lock-out training sessions.
Compounding this, many resented the demise of the WAFL competition, and that far from getting the sort of “national” competition that we had in mind (perhaps one that might have looked like a major US league or the Sheffield Shield with 1 team in each city, or one in which East Perth, South Fremantle, Norwood and Sturt competed against Carlton, Collingwood and Essendon), national club competition emerged instead through the form of an expanded VFL, and some would say that we were just allowed to have the Eagles as one little thing to appease us.
In this environment, some actually came to see the Eagles as the agent of Victorian imperialism – and that our club was the compliant little pawn of the Vics. Suffice to say, there wouldn’t be too many Victorians (or Eagles fans) who would see it that way, or see themselves as part of such an unholy alliance.
For me though, the choice to stick with the Eagles was actually about pain. The moments of pain that you go through with a footy club, and which leave you bonded to the club as a result.
In 1991, my father and I flew over from Perth for the Grand Final, enduring the loss (and lesson) at the hands of Hawthorn at the coldest place in the world (in both climate and soul), Waverley. I still wear the scarf Dad bought me in the car park on the way into the ground.
More so, though, the reason I barrack for West Coast is Chris Lewis.
I’ve always had a bias in favour of Aboriginal people. Throughout our nation’s history, they’ve been mis-treated, marginalised, and stereotyped. Such has always angered me, and so I’ve always wanted to see Aborigines do well, to inspire their own people but also to prove the knockers wrong. With my family originating from Geraldton (a town 400 kilometres north of Perth, and with a substantial Aboriginal population), I was exposed to both great and disappointing stories at different times.
Later on, I was playing footy for East Sydney when a new bloke rolled up at training, an Aborigine wearing a jumper with the WA Country logo on it, the black-and-blue of Chapman Valley, near Geraldton. I was very proud that he had great words to say about my family; my father was known to him as a friend of the Aboriginal people (Dad had been the local member of parliament, and has always prioritised their cause), and my Grandfather had a good reputation for how he treated the Aborigines he hired to help on his farm in earlier times. It meant a lot to me, and not just as a geographic connection with the ‘emotional home’.
So, with my mindset, as an 11-year-old in early 1987, whose number did I want on my back? I thought about Andrew MacNish (18) who was a young WAFL and state-of-origin star in 1986 but who had injuries and never really went on, and Geraldton heroes Chris Mainwaring (3) and Murray Wrensted (32). But when I first saw young Lewy in a pre-season match, I had to have 28.
It’s been very pleasing that, over the last 15 years, the AFL has done a terrific job of encouraging and supporting Aboriginal footballers, and celebrating their role in our game. But it wasn’t always so.
In the 1980’s, WA’s legendary Krakouer brothers made their way to North Melbourne. They starred, but they also highlighted an inequality. On a weekly basis, they would take to the field and chase the footy, while all day having an opponent (or 3) in their ears calling them every abusive name under the sun. Eventually, they’d lash out and hit the abusive opponent, and often get suspended for it, while the antagonist walked free.
The unfairness would be compounded by a football media that should’ve known better. Rather than expose what was happening, they’d instead label the Krakouers as “volatile” and “undisciplined,” and in doing so reinforce the prevailing racist stereotypes. Not surprisingly, this all-too-familiar phenomenon reinforced a deep sense of injustice on the part of Aboriginal people, and (in an era when state-of-origin football was at its zenith) on some broader parts of the WA football public.
Post-Krakouers, Lewis was to be the next brilliant Aboriginal star to follow this same fate (to be fair, the less prominent Michael McLean of Footscray and Brisbane was also copping it at the same time). Later, when Lewis retired, his former coach Malthouse wrote about this at some length, noting that he feared Lewis would be remembered on the eastern seaboard as a petulant hot-head, and that such was grossly unfair. Hear hear, Mick.
So, after enduring frustrating weekend afternoons watching this brilliant young player being targeted, and then listening to the Monday evening news to hear what happened when the same young man had to front up to the VFL/AFL tribunal to cop their wrath while his assailant walked free, there was no way I was going to jump ship and leave the Eagles.
Perhaps if it wasn’t Lewis, it might have been someone else. Other supporters would have similar tales that trace back to their own favourite players of that era. Perhaps Matera, the skinny-but-great Dean Kemp, the aggressive Woosha. But for me, it was Lewy.
So, thank you Chris Lewis. Thank you for the service you gave our club, but also thank you for enabling me to enjoy what I now refer to as “the greatest day in the history of the world” (the 2006 Grand Final), and for saving me from a lifetime of purple-wearing misery.