General Footy Writing: That sense of hopeless vulnerability returns for a Collingwood icon

By James Gilchrist

My Mum started following Collingwood in 1953. At age twelve she used to go to VFL games by herself to watch the Richards brothers and Ray Gabelich. Gabbo was her idol. She would travel by tram each week and stand on top of empty beer cans in the outer to try to see over the men in front of her and catch a glimpse of the Magpie Adonis in action.

For Mum, the 1958 Grand Final was the realisation of everything Collingwood stood for, the triumph of the battler over the champion silver tail Redlegs. This same idea could still be recognised some 32 years later when the disciplined warriors of Leigh Matthews beat the more fancied Bombers. Everything else that happened in between was simply tragic (or funny to the malicious). Mum witnessed it all, the outrageous misfortunes of  ’64, ’66, ’77, ’79, ’80 and, of course, horror of horrors, the year I was born, 1970. Each layer of heartbreak just seemed to calcify Mum into a more stoic and cynical figure. A kind of football-following Drover’s Wife, enduring emotional floods and bushfires and constant disappointments to go on to somehow cling to that faint hope of something better. She doesn’t go to the footy anymore, hates the city and all its mad roaring intensity, prefers to patrol the kitchen in rural Victoria, doing her work while keeping one ear on the ABC  broadcast of the love that never left her. But it is love/hate.

“They do this every time, son,” or, “Why can’t they just kick straight and put us out of our misery?” Or, “They always come up for the game against Collingwood, they hate us, son.”

To me, she is as much a Collingwood icon as Bob Rose, a strange thing to say, since she hasn’t been to the footy in twenty-eight years.

Mum’s last game of live football was the 1981 First Semi-Final against Fitzroy at the MCG. I stood next to her as an eleven year old, with 85,000 other roaring fans as the Magpies surged to a lead of nearly thirty points by half-time. Fitzroy then hit back through the brilliance of Murnane, Wilson and Bernie Quinlan, bringing them to within three goals by the last change. The last quarter, a fluctuating arm wrestle, stands as the most exciting game of football I have ever seen. With only minutes to go, the Lions hit the front. After which Ross Brewer and the magical young Daicos restored the lead. Another goal to the Lions again brought them within a kick. In the final seconds, Fitzroy peppered the goals to reduce the margin to just two points. Collingwood were anchored on 19.19 (133) to the Roys’ 19.17 (131). We screamed out for the siren. When at last it came, we were so overjoyed that we hugged every Pie fan within reach. I had never seen my mother so happy or relieved. She bought me a badge with my hero Billy Picken on it. I was over the moon on the long ride home to Ballarat.

Mum has been the director of the Victorian Country Tennis Association for around twenty years. In July 2009 she was offered a ticket by one of her sponsors to a Friday night game at Etihad Stadium to watch Collingwood play the Bulldogs. It would have been impolite to refuse. So after 28 years, she finally ran out of excuses for not going to the footy.

As I watched the game from my couch, cradling a two-year-old son who refused to go to sleep, I wondered what it must have been like for Mum to watch the game at a strange sounding place like Etihad; the ground wasn’t even conceived the last time she went to the footy. What must it have been like for a woman who grew up in the 1950s to be surrounded by the kids of Generation Y as they screamed for the Magpies and the Dogs.

Some things remain constant … again Collingwood establish a commanding lead. Thirty five points at the last change. The opposition was talented but reeling from a brilliant Collingwood team performance. This time the Magpie silk would come not from Peter Daicos, Craig Davis and Leigh Carlson but from Leon Davis, Alan Didak and Scott Pendlebury. The son of Billy Picken was playing, incredibly, for the other team.

And the Bulldogs came back with a vengeance in the last quarter, kicking six unanswered goals to reduce the margin to just two points with six minutes left. My heart went out to Mum. She later admitted to feeling “frozen in time”. She felt helplessly suspended while the Bulldogs controlled the game. She might well have been speaking of her feelings in 1981 and the terrible vulnerability of fate.

Now in her sixties, I worried about Mum’s ticker. Fortunately, the Pies found theirs and held on grimly until Beams’ fortuitous kick found Dale Thomas, who was able to kick the goal Collingwood so desperately needed, a la Ross Brewer in ’81. Griffen’s quick reply left leave the Dogs a point behind as their final foray was marked again by Beams, a player who impressed Mum, despite his over-zealous use of body ink. Mum is prepared to accept anyone, if they are Collingwood.

At home I breathed a long sigh of relief as my son finally fell asleep. Like all Mum’s grandchildren, he is a signed and sealed Baby Magpie Member, doomed to a life of grim uncertainty and terribly close-run things. Being a Collingwood fan has never been for the faint-hearted. Malthouse’s boys had many reasons to hold on that night, including a place in the top four and a chance to prove their credentials against a top opponent. But most important to me was that they gave Mum a chance to relive her life-long love of the black and white, first hand.

I don’t think she will be back again for a while!

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