My Grand Finals

They are My Kids and I Love Them

I was born in 1970, the year Collingwood finished on top of the ladder and should have won the flag. I began following Collingwood in 1977, the year Collingwood finished on top of the ladder and should have won the flag (after an agonisingly close draw). Although 1990 had gone some way toward healing the wounds, my childhood story still reflected a lingering sense of unfulfilled promise.

Leaving aside Rugby League teams and maybe Port Adelaide, it makes sense to assume that if your team finishes on top, they should win the premiership. With this weighty burden of expectation I prepared to endure another Grand Final build up as a long suffering Pie fan, as it happened, getting on a plane for Byron Bay with my family, wife Gillian and children Amelie (5) Charlie (3) and Imogen (0) for our annual escape. Amelie had begun her apprenticeship with a strong allegiance to Collingwood in general and Alan Didak in particular. Charlie is mostly interested in Bob the Builder and wears a yellow construction hat 24 hours a day, but has also declared an allegiance to Harry O’Brien, who he thinks is a team. Imogen is still just trying to eat sand. None of them have yet grasped the absolute and universal importance of this football team and the outcome of this game to my general well-being, mental health and sense of inner peace. They are too young to understand that this week I have again become Collingwood and can no longer distinguish between the team, the coach, the players and myself. It is as though I will be personally running out onto that ground on Saturday ready to be shirt fronted by Lenny Hayes.

While the rest of the family enjoy the sand and surf at Byron I begin to develop a migranous headache that lasts three days as I ponder all of the possibilities that might befall me in the Grand Final. Omens are divined from endless news reports, children play about me in a kind of fog-like haze, they could be mine, I’m not sure, they look familiar. I no longer answer their million-fold questions with anything but grunts. My wife continues talking to me, issuing instructions, things to do with nappies, beach towels and baby food. I am a husk of a husband. I nod and say yes, while inside my head I weigh up the respective merits of Nathan Brown and Presti as key defenders, how Swan will respond to not winning the Brownlow and whether Luke Ball’s hammy will make it through the game. I lie awake at night wondering whether it can happen and how my life has seemed to become balanced on a knife’s edge between agony and ecstasy, based on this one game of football. This mental overload magnifies the headache so I begin my pre-match preparation several days early and try to stick to a disciplined routine of coffee, beer and cigarettes. Tellingly, I am not a smoker.

The big day arrives, I take the kids to the beach, counting down the hours to two thirty. I am a bucket of nerves. My game-plan is simple. I will not watch it. Instead I will leave the kids with Gill while I go for a walk along the beach and then around quarter time I will duck into an internet cafe and check the zig-zagging lines and dots on AFL dot.com. When I do this Collingwood will be six goals ahead, Didak will be on fire and I will be able to wander home and watch the second half in relative comfort. It is both fiendishly clever and gutless but it will prevent me from having a stroke.

Gill watches me set off before the first bounce, shaking her head. She is from a normal family, where people barrack for the Swans and watch their side play in Grand Finals. She doesn’t understand my needs as a Collingwood supporter and never will. I walk the beautiful shoreline and think of maths. I am no Mathematician, but I know one simple, beautiful equation, we need to kick four goals a quarter. If we do, we will kick sixteen and St. Kilda never kick more than about twelve. Four goals a quarter and the game is ours. I enter the cafe with my heart in my mouth, I check the scores and it is four goals to one, relief. But then the worm of fate inches horribly to the dot Riewoldt, and the Riewoldt dot kicks truly for a St. Kilda goal and my heart begins pounding like a jack-hammer. I watch a little more until the most despised dot of all, the Milne dot scores the next goal and flee the cafe in abject terror. I walk back to the small flat where we are staying and find Gill and Amelie absorbed in the second quarter while Charlie plays with Buzz Lightyear. The desperate struggle for dominance goes on at the MCG to the sounds of space ranger. McCaffer goals “Greetings earthlings, I am Buzz Lightyear.” O’Brien goals “I have been sent by Star Command to protect you from the Evil Zurg” Cloke misses. “To infinity and beyond!”

I take baby Imogen for a walk during the third nursing a baby daughter and a twenty four point buffer. I know that if we win the quarter, the game is ours. It can happen, it seems possible. At Belongil beach I talk to my daughter and tell her that she will grow up with a better life than her father, one filled with hope, optimism and gladness, one where Collingwood wins Grand Finals, she looks at me quizzically. I walk her back to the flat just in time to see Gilbert goal to bring the Saints within seven. I begin going into the early stages of cardiac arrest. I wander off again and sit beside the river behind Byron, heart pounding and begin the same conversation I have had with God every time this happens. Why? Why? Why does this happen every time? What have I done to deserve this? Why can’t they just win? I look at the sky and an aging hippy riding past on a bike. They offer no reply. I sit on the grass like some kind of tormented, Gollum-like creature involved in an inner-tumult. The hippy who has probably spent his life frying his brain with illegal narcotics of every description until he has become a grizzled, ragged caricature of himself looks at me and shakes his head before gliding past. He has witnessed someone more pathetic, more hopelessly addicted.

I summon the courage to watch the last quarter. I decide to accept my fate as more of a man and less of a weasel. I glue myself to the couch. The tense final act begins with Collingwood still clinging to a fragile seven point lead. Amelie climbs on my lap and swings onto my back and then begins issuing the first of a million questions. “Daddy, is that Leon Davis? Does he still have a hamsting injury? Why is he playing, is he winning?”

“Yes, no, yes.”

“Daddy, there’s Dane Swan, I could tell it was Dane Swan because he has got his arms coloured in. Daddy, can I colour my arms in like Dane Swan? Will you help me if I get the textas? “

“Yes, no, maybe, not now, later … “

Davis goals, we have breathing space, Collingwood and me.

“Daddy, there’s Harry O’Brien. Daddy, there’s Nick Molehouse, Daddy there’s Steele Sidebottom, what number is Steele Sidebottom?”

Hayes goals from the fifty. I begin to plead with my daughter for the first time:

“Darling, these are all really good questions but can you ask me later?”

“OK … Daddy, there’s Didak! What number is Didak?”

St. Kilda again, this time through Milne. One point lead, I am freaking out now.

“Daddy, who’s winning? Is Collingwood winning still, what’s happening, is that Nick Maxwell?”

I grab her by the shoulders, “Listen, I love you very much and I promise you if you just keep quiet for the next five minutes I will buy you something really nice after the game OK?”

“OK”

St. Kilda work it forward again, it’s not looking good. My hand grips the couch and knuckles whiten, my face is drained of colour.

“What will you buy me Daddy?”

“I DON’T KNOW, SOMETHING REALLY GOOD I PROMISE, JUST ASK ME LATER!”

Scores are level. It’s all falling apart, if only they could find some run but the Saints have turned it into the game they want, a pitched battle. A battle in which three men are thriving, Fisher, Hayes and …

“GOOOOOODDDDARD!”

The Saint champion rises majestically to mark and then drives a sword through my heart. I bash the couch and scream “NOOOOOOO!” Putting my head in my hands in despair.

Amelie jumps on my back and throws her arms around me.

“Are you OK Daddy? Why did you yell? Are Collingwood winning? What’s happening?”

I can no longer speak. Gill sits on the other end of the couch with the baby trying to make Amelie silent, Amelie hangs from my back, Chalie is in the adjoining room watching Bob the Builder on the portable DVD. It’s over, again. I will never recover from this one.

Somehow, beyond hope, the Magpies rally, push forward and contrive a goal through a scrappy Dawes handball to Cloke and we are in front again. I don’t dare to think it’s over. The clock is down to three minutes. I am now completely paralysed with nerves and anticipation.

The ball is bounced, every stoppage vital. Suddenly the most dangerous player on the field emerges from nowhere. While Hayes begins to dominate the clearances, Charlie appears in front of me wearing his yellow Bob the Builder hat, wanting his Bob the Builder DVD fixed because it has jammed up and stopped working.

“Daddy, Bob the Builder not working”

“What? … not now, I’ll fix it in a minute.”

He screws up his face, stamps his foot and begins wailing.

“I want Bob the Builder noooooow!”

My mind reverts to a virtual cro-magnon state. Boy in way, move boy, watch game. Luckily for him, millennial man returns fleetingly and he narrowly avoids being jettisoned out the window.

I fix the DVD, Bob continues fixing stuff with his team of merry animated industrial vehicles, it lasts exactly thirty seconds before freezing again and mini-Bob appears before me blocking the TV screen once more,

“Daddy Fix the DVD” he whines.

The arm-wrestle on the field intensifies while another begins on the couch as Charlie’s mother saves his life. She sits on the couch with one child pinned under each arm in an iron-headlock, writhing to break free as I crane forward in desperation watching each and every contest as if my life depends on it.

The clock runs down, Hayes gathers and roosts to full-forward the ball breaks one way, beats Johnson and I see the nightmare taking shape in silent horror, Milne is set to latch on to it as he has done a million times before and speed to an open goal, then somehow, incredibly, it breaks the other way … for a behind.

“It’s a draw” cries McAvaney in disbelief. “We’ll see you all here next week … “

Amelie has broken the tag to again find her way onto my knee.

“Daddy,why are you staring like that at the TV? Daddy? Daddy?Daddy? What’s a draw?”

A week later the situation is somehow the same but mixed with a different emotion. I sit in a packed Ballina airport my attention locked onto a raised TV screen. Amelie and Charlie are clambering over seats playing tag, disturbing elderly and middle-aged travellers, knocking over luggage, making too much noise. Gill struggles valiantly to feed Imogen from a jar while the baby grabs her plastic spoon and flicks mashed food across the terminal, hitting one lady in the face. Some people are laughing, others stare at me in disbelief and shock, their stern expressions suggesting clearly that I am the worst father in the world. On the screen Didak has just fashioned an impossible right foot goal. Soon after, Harry O’Brien wins fifty and kicks truly from the boundary and kneels in ecstasy, Bjorn Borg style. It is ours, tears well in my eyes.

We board with ten minutes to go, struggle to get the kids seated, follow instructions, buckle up. We begin our ascent. I feel an immense inner calm and peacefulness with an image caught in my mind of Collingwood players passing the ball to each other around the backline in the time-honoured, time-wasting ritual of the victor. After the pleasant sensation of changing pressure and the dull burning of the jet engines we are told we can now use electronic devices. I switch on a pocket radio and plug in at twenty thousand feet to hear a familiar voice. It is Mick, also known to my family as “Nick Molehouse”

“They are my boys and I love them.”

I am the worst father in the world and one of the worst football fans in the world and I am on Cloud Nine.

About james gilchrist

James Gilchrist is another Collingwood tragic who enjoys reading, writing, music, travel and teaching. A father of three, he teaches at Genazzano College, writes for the Footy Almanac and waits ever patiently for that next elusive Magpie Premiership.

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    You’re a very tolerant father James.

    This is the one thing about the Magpies win that’s made me laugh. (well, maybe the beer bongs story as well). :)

  2. Andrew Fithall says:

    Great work James. What a wonderful result after the torture of the first week. And you have told the story well. I can assure you that eventually the roles get reversed. It was my children who were telling me to be quiet on Saturday.

    It would be remiss not to point out that Nathan Brown has now taken over from Mick McGuane as the most recent SPC Ballarat graduate to have played in a Collingwood premiership.

  3. Gripping story James.

    Makes me not want to have children!

  4. Outstanding, brilliantly written. I share every minute of the inner turmoil, stress, pain, paranoia and ultimately ecstacy. I’m of the opposite persuasion on game day though, cannot bear to miss a second of it live, for somehow deep in the footy gods universe I feel my coaching and directions from either the TV or terraces will somehow be heard and drive the pies to victory. Floreat Pica.

  5. PS. Love the AFL website “dots” line, especially the Milne dot.

  6. Many thanks for the comments guys. Andrew I was rapt for Nathan Brown, he is a great young bloke. Hopefully he can kick on from here.

    Ramondobb. Thankyou! I understand your superstitions. I have mine as well. I wish I could watch the Pies with the same fortitude as you. Hopefully after this wonderful season I’ll be able to do so.

    Best, James.

  7. James
    Thank God you’re alive. The last couple of weeks have been a bit like pulling survivors from the rubble.
    One of my Collingwood crew has a sister who also can’t listen or watch when the stakes get too high. She wanders the streets and slinks into churches, hands over her ears: “Not listening”.
    There’s no doubt a story in itself about how you ended up in Northern NSW in this of all weeks. Devoted family man or petrified Pie? Probably a fair bit of both.
    Great reading, anD almost as gripping as the real thing. I look forward to comparing notes and anecdotes over a beer.
    MOC

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