Loyalty and Symbolism in The Club

By Phil Dimitriadis

The Club by David Williamson examines the political machinations of a failing football club and the power plays of its traditional and emerging stakeholders. The play challenges the hero myth and teamwork ethic that seems prevalent in the celebratory publications. It is a play about relationships and their vulnerability as the club seeks to examine its lack of success and look for the appropriate scapegoats.

The Club is also about the breakdown of ethical boundaries in business, sport politics and personal human relationships. The inflexibility and sanctity of tradition is countered by the need to seek new solutions, keep up with the times and chase success at almost any cost. As Gerry the ‘new breed administrator’ says when questioned about the inhuman nature of trading players like livestock: “the fact remains that there is a market mechanism operating, there is a price on every player” (Act 1, p.36).

Loyalty becomes an anachronism in this type of environment, but not in a symbolic sense. Loyalty is valued because it symbolizes a veneer of conformity, of working through and trusting that success will ensue if the worldview of the committee or board is appropriated. The ego is threatened in some individuals under these circumstances and opposing forces defiantly defend their territory. The young recruit Geoff Hayward and the ageing captain Danny Rowe exhibit the shadow side of the footballer’s archetype that is dedicated to team success, has a selfless work ethic and modestly plays down his own abilities. The characters of Geoff and Danny want some power too. They want to be validated as people whose opinions are valued and when they are not they rebel. Geoff is torn between the desire to feel “like Achilles chasing the golden orb” (Act1, p.43) and the demands of having a real perspective on the ruthlessness and competitive nature of football. He says:

It’s all a lot of macho-competitive bullshit. You chase a lump of pigskin around a muddy ground as if your bloody life depended on it and when you get it you kick it to buggery and go chasing it again. Football shits me. (Act1, p.39).

No wonder the coach often needs the power of a skilled alchemist to blend a team of 40 or more individuals into a team focused on similar goals. Football is only a game to many but it is also a complex network of relationships, which are fuelled by the symbolic rhetoric, political aspirations and economic dependency of the individuals who live their lives within the professional and historical paradigm of a club.

Danny Rowe has his own reasons for rebelling. He is the proud club captain closing in on the coveted 282 games record held by Jock, ex-player former coach, current vice-president and ubiquitous troublemaker. Danny wants to strike, a symbolic assertion of solidarity expressed on behalf of the playing group to demonstrate that it those who play the game that ensure that it becomes ‘more than a game’ off the field. The battle for recognition by Rowe is symbolic of the players’ realization that they need to respected and paid well for their professional gifts. He argues: “If I’m out there risking a fractured skull or a ruptured spleen for a pack of overweight drunks in the grandstand bar then I want to get paid for it” (Act1, p.22).

Rowe’s vitriolic defiance brings us to the question of how the players relate to fans’ expectations. The fans are sometimes seen as passive spectators whose emotions ebb and flow with their team’s success and the performance of the players. To an extent this seems prevalent in most sports, as fans tune in or attend a game, think about it read about, talk about it and then get on to dealing with life’s other vagaries. Fans are more intelligent and aware than they are often given credit for. They understand that the relationship with the players can be like a kind of simulated friendship or platonic love experienced at varying distances. The members that pour money into a club can feel that they are entitled to see their investment accounted for in on-field performance. They are therefore more likely to take a more actively hands-on critical/celebratory role in the fortune of their team.

Most fans in the terraces or grandstands realize that there are illusions at play, drama that is temporal, symbolic and unlikely to last for long. The dilemma lies in the fact that supporters have an emotional, tribal and religious devotion to a club. This means that the players must at least pretend that they are playing for the dreams of their fans and for the love of the club, its colors and its history. Journalist Greg Baum interprets the dilemma thus:

All are knowing co-conspirators in a grand deceit, that the players for their part feel for the club as such as the fans do, and the fans for their part that they can influence the club’s fortunes as surely as the players can. Player and fan are as one, and yet irreconcilable. The only certainty is that for a time, they wear the same colors. (Baum, 05/06/2003, ‘The Age’).

Supporters idolize the players and many young kids and adults unashamedly wear the number of their favorite player on the back of their replica guernsey. However, players have been disloyal to clubs and vice versa. Therefore, the supporters focus on the ‘current’ team to bring forth the glory that the psyche so agonizingly craves so it may feel part of a higher more purposeful good. Danny Rowe’s frustration is palpably understandable to the objective observer. However, his outburst would verge on sacrilege to the fans of the club because he is subverting an imaginary innocence that drives the religious fervour of the fans. They know deep down that Rowe is not and never will be the messiah, but it doesn’t stop them from hoping that his captaincy, loyalty and skill may just help deliver the ‘holy grail’ after nineteen barren years. In a sense, Rowe and archetypes like him are the knowing conspirators that Baum refers to, but like the fans, players have doubts about what their purpose is in this drama.

The main question for Knackers: What are our purposes in this ‘drama’?

About Phillip Dimitriadis

Carer/Teacher/Writer. Author of Fandemic: Travels in Footy Mythology. World view influenced by Johnny Cash, Krishnamurti, Larry David, Toni Morrison and Billy Picken.

Comments

  1. Interesting question Phil. As a Bulldogs fan, a couple of my simulated friendships have been sorely tested with the moves of Harbrow and Ward to GCS and GWS, and as a footy fan and believer in ‘loyalty’, I had several illusions shattered by the Ross Lyon/Mark Harvey drama.

  2. ESPN’s Bill SImmon’s wrote a piece on Kendrick Perkins being traded from the Celtics (which still hurts me, but not nearly as much as it continues to hurt Boston) and about how you feel when a player you love is traded.

    To paraphrase him: We are barrackingfor laundry. Whether we want to admit it or not.

  3. Mark Doyle says:

    Phil, an interesting review of ‘The Club’ by David Williamson. However, it should be remembered that it is a satire of personal egos versus team culture, which continues to be relevant in contemporary society. Williamson also did this with another of his plays, ‘The Department’, which is set in a university environment. I suspect Williamson’s idea for ‘The Club’ came after the Collingwood fiasco in the early 1970’s when senior players Des Tuddenham and Len Thompson were miffed at the recruitment of a bloke from Western Australia named Eakins (I forget his first name), who was to be paid more than them..
    Loyalty is an anachronism by club administrators, supporters and the media buffoons in respect of players and coaches. Players and coaches are generally loyal for the term of a contract, but administrators, supporters and the media buffoons often react irrationally and hysterically when a player or coach accepts a better offer from another club. The history of football at all levels demonstrates that players have always moved to other clubs for more money; some examples are Ron Todd leaving Collingwood in the 1930’s to play with Williamstown, Doug Wade, Barry Davis and John Rantall leaving their clubs to play with North Melbourne in the 1970’s, Alistair Lynch, Paul Roos and Gary Pert all left Fitzroy to play with other clubs, Chris Judd left West Coast to play with Carlton and Gary Ablett jnr. left Geelong to play with Gold Coast. All these players and many others gave 100% loyalty to both clubs.

  4. Phil – good question. When Gary Ablett junior left Geelong I was in conflict. The conflict was between the little boy who resides within who could never understand why Ablett (of all people) would want to leave his home (not his club, his home), and the adult with a mortgage, a business to run, and children to feed who understands all to well the realities of making a living and getting ahead. Conflicting thoughts indeed.

    I think Litza might have nailed it – we barrack for laundry. Irrational and crazy but true nonetheless.

  5. pamela sherpa says:

    It is unrealistic to expect players to be loyal these days. Money is what the game is all about at the highest level. Fans getting hysterical about favourite players changing clubs is ridiculous.

  6. Damo Balassone says:

    It is true that we are barracking for laundry, but the question is why? Why do we get so worked up and so emotional over this laundry? The predictable answer is tribalism, but I’m not sure this explains it, as most people who support their clubs live out in the burbs, country towns or even different cities, a long way from the spiritual homes of these clubs.

    If you look at how we start barracking for a particular club – if not passed down from parents – it is usually some trivial incident in the school yard, or some eccentric relative who hands us a beanie or scarf. As we grow older, it then becomes a case of identity. Our sense of identity is linked to this club. It’s a bit like nationalism or even religion.

    Thus, I think barracking has more to do with pride, insecurity and fear than anything else.

  7. Dave Nadel says:

    The Club was written in 1977 – mostly about events at Collingwood in 1974-6 but events at other clubs are also portrayed in the story (e.g. Collingwood did not have a hushed-up sex scandal in the mid seventies but at least two other VFL clubs did) This was really the start of the modern professional period. Football has moved a long way further from the game of suburban loyalties in the intervening 35 years.

    In 1977, players were zoned and in the case of Melbourne (inc. Geelong) based players they were likely to be playing for the team that they barracked for as kids. There was a greater expectation of loyalty from both players and clubs. Since the 90s players are drafted from all over the country and apart from father/son draftees there is no logical reason for the players to feel any loyalty to the clubs – although they may feel loyalty to their team mates and coaches.

    The Club (which I think is close to Williamson’s best play) is such a good play precisely because it portrays a competition in transition. The values that the VFL, its officials, veterans and barrackers had held since 1896 were set against the new professionalism of Allen Aylett, Laurie Kerr, Graeme Richmond (to some extent), Ron Joseph and the soon to emerge player managers such as Geoff Browne. The game wasn’t quite as professional as Williamson described it in 1977. But by 1984-5 it was.

  8. Stainless says:

    What makes participation in the “grand deceit” much easier is if you adopt a club as a child. In the innocence of childhood, the magic of the game and the heroes that play it are all-important. It takes hold and never lets go. Even as you become aware over time of the machinations and human failings that Williamson portrays, that magic never fully leaves you.

    I “follow” a bunch of teams in a range of sports. But Richmond is the only one that I feel genuine passion for. Why? I think because I started following them at age six when I knew nothing of organisational politics, divided loyalty and the conflicts these create. Even though Richmond has for decades been the textbook example of an organisation racked by conflict, politics, ego-tripping and general mismanagement, the childlike sense of magic returns whenever they take the field. No other team I’ve followed does that to the same extent. I can only assume it’s because I adopted them later in life, and with a more acute sense of the reality of their circumstances – and of human nature.

  9. Phantom says:

    Pity we don’t have zoning these days Dave. Geelong would be very good now that the Blues can’t pilfer everyone they want from other clubs.

  10. Peter Baulderstone says:

    Good stuff, Phil. I reckon I can understand this one. FA must be the only place where footy nuts debate Homer’s Greatest Hits (and I don’t mean Simpson).
    I reckon Knackers have but 3 purposes in the tapestry of our great game:
    – To point out that all the Emperors of our code have no clothes;
    – To glory in our own naked innocence;
    – To take umbrage when other Knackers refer to us in the context of Point 1.

  11. Many fascinating comments. I think that we barrack for more than laundry. When we talk about the game it is the brilliant, the brutal and the uncos that we remember. Maybe we are more condemned to barrack for the colors because players aren’t allowed to express their personalities as they did in the past.

    Perhaps it is a lack of relationship with place that distances us. Cat fans are fortunate as they are the only Victorian team with a genuine home ground. I wonder to what degree this played a role in their recent success? The tribalism exists in memory and is to large degree manufactured by the hyperbole machine.

    I felt this acutely when I went to Vic Park after the 2010 GF. I expected to find at least 2-3 thousand fans making their own celebrations. Less than 200 turned up and it was a damp squib. Instead of celebrating I felt somewhat flat as I realised the kids mostly experience the brand and live vicariously through the passionate relationships of those who found meaning in being part of a territory.

    I’m certain Williamson was inspired by the events between Ern Clarke, Murray Weideman and Wayne Richardson in 1976. In 1988 a similar thing happened with Capper, Cronin and Knights at the Bears. Almost a carbon copy. I love ‘The Club’ because it uses footy as the stage to explore a myriad of human foibles and strengths, including those of the cynical fans still clinging to their naked innocence in an attempt to maintain a meaningful relationship to the game and its heroes and villains. Appreciate the feedback and the discussion. Great stuff Knackers.

  12. John Butler says:

    Phil, ‘it is the brilliant, the brutal and the uncos that we remember’. So true.

    Why I follow Carlton is a question I’ve wrestled with often (yeah yeah, cue jokes). I know it was because of Jezza, yet I have no clear recollection of why it was Jezza – no specific moment, etc. Unless I absorbed the 1970 GF mark by osmosis.

    Yet having made my choice, the fervour becomes more obvious with time. Football was on a more human scale 30 or 40 years ago. A game at Princes Park (or Vic Park for that matter) was a very different experience to today. You were physically closer to the players. You could move around in the outer. You got to recognise characters in the community that came together each Saturday.

    These things all built a bond.

    Nowadays, sitting up high in the stands, the facilities are better but I don’t get quite the same sense of communal feeling any more. Some of that is inevitably due to the difference between being 20 and being almost 50. Those early experiences are formative.

    But that ‘lack of relationship with place’ is felt.

    Cheers

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