On Footy Value
On Sunday I watched two games, in two very different ways. I think I’d like to talk about it.
Now… where to start?
I know. Come with me back to 2005, to a beach bar in Goa, south west India. The big fella’s name is Brad and we’re playing guitar for free drinks. Over many gin and tonics, I got him to agree to support my football (soccer) team, Celtic. In return, I’d be a Carlton fan. Never heard of them, never set foot in Australia. Easy trade.
Twelve years later I’m standing on Victoria Parade at 8.30am on a Sunday morning. I’m waiting for Yi-Jiang, my Uber driver, to pick me up and drop me at Arden Street Oval for a VFL practice match between Werribee and the Northern Blues. Yi-Jiang wants to know if it’s an important game. I resist the urge to tell him how desperately Carlton need Harry McKay to come good, and just reply “nah.”
It’s one of those mornings at the Oval. Chilly, but bright and clear and it feels good to be there. There are a hundred or so people on the other side of the ground, but I’ll stay here. I want to watch the forwards, look for ‘little sprouts’ as Brendan Bolton has instructed me to.
There’s a man smoking a pipe. I can smell it and it’s an old memory. There are two women laughing. There’s a woman on a bench with a laptop and a coffee. There’s a young guy with sunnies and a giant sooky St. Bernard. The traffic is slow and soft past the Oval. I can hear the birds above it.
The ball comes in my direction quickly, and out of nowhere. It’s picked up on the boundary right in front of me, but before Blaine Boekhorst can speed off I hear the giant meaty slap of a tackle on him. It makes me wince and shake my head even though it’s pretty routine. His mate picks him up, and they trot away to contest the boundary throw in. A little bloke near me comments on the size of the ruckmen, and then the ball is away to another part of the ground.
At quarter time I go out onto the ground, but the coaches are calm and I can’t hear them. I try to take a candid pic of two Carlton people, but I think perhaps they see me…
The game plays itself out and I silently marvel at the huge effort, second efforts, and team effort from all these tough men, finding their way in the brutal world of footy. Some of them desperate to launch their careers, some trying to hang onto what is left of theirs. The wind picks up, the leaves of surrounding trees rustle and the sun disappears. I have enjoyed my morning. The standard was strong and I just loved the sounds and smells. The simplicity of leaning on the fence, the proximity to the play, and the bare honesty of the players’ endeavour in front of the tiny crowd.
The final siren sounds, and rubbing my hands to stay warm, I head for home. I felt good about everything. The bustle of morning, the coldness of the air, the sight of young parents pushing a stroller, or a weary Dad with kids trailing after him asking questions he doesn’t seem to hear.
I felt good about the team, the season and the day ahead. After a trip home, I would be off to the MCG to watch Carlton play Melbourne in the real thing.
My work colleague came upon these tickets from a client. This is a genuine one-off for me. I don’t think I’ve ever even thought about watching footy in a corporate box before – yet here I am being greeted by a smiling lady with a Liverpool accent. She wants to take my coat.
Before I know it I’m drinking chilled white wine, and there are plates of canapés and little sliders touring the small room. The ‘box’ consists of a bar, and two rows of soft brown leather seats and then the glass plate at the front. There are televisions, and binoculars. People are telling me what they do for a living, but I want to see the warm up. I’m not wearing clothes I normally would to go to a footy game. There’s a dress code you see. It feels a little weird, but no big deal. I tell myself.
It is a Melbourne home game, and loud rock music is blaring around the grand old stadium. The flashing advertising hoardings are lit up in Melbourne’s colours and little trident pitchforks dance around Membership adverts. Then the hoardings change to advertise a Toyota SUV, or some vitamin supplements; all complete with garish, blazing, angry, explosive imagery. Grrrr. A type of funeral bell tolls around the famous ground – presumably a confused reference to Demons? No-one is sure.
I was relieved that I couldn’t see the Carlton banner as I was still cringing from the last one. I’m still cringing now to be honest. The banner jokes are the Western Bulldogs’ thing. They are Danny McGinlay’s thing, and he does it better than any trendy Flinders Lane marketing firm because he loves the Bulldogs, loves footy, and is a professional comedian. He is something real, who created something real, which has enhanced his club. Please Carlton, stick to hovercrafts and cheesy celebrity donors in the coaches box. Actually, don’t do either of those things. That was just self-deprecating humour. Please don’t do anything that makes us all die inside again. Please, Carlton.
Things calm down when the footy starts. The wine is flowing around our little box, and someone in a blazer requests party pies at half-time. Perhaps on some level he is grasping for something simple and long-lost amid all this superfluity and excess, however his request just seems… superfluous and excessive. We got them. Served on weighty white crockery as the HT siren went, and just as a man with a microphone was asking three people from the crowd to use him as a stepladder to attempt speccies on the ‘G. It was to promote a sponsor or something. The TV’s told me what price the bookmakers were offering on Carlton to come back and win.
I won’t pretend I wasn’t having fun. I was. Football, food, wine. Everyone was enjoying themselves, I’m human, and it was a novelty. However, then something real happened.
Right in front of me, a young indigenous kid called Samo Petrevski-Seton kicked his first ever goal at the top level of Australia’s indigenous sport. It was a touchable moment. While people chatted around me about umpires, comebacks, and Demons fans heading off to the snow, I heard nothing. I sat and watched that young 18 year old from Hall’s Creek – a place in the East Kimberley region near the Northern Territory border and home to just over a thousand people – go back and split the big posts at the MCG with a kick as beautiful as his story. Then he turned to celebrate in front of the crowd like he’d been doing it for years. At that moment nothing else mattered. Not the wine, the advertising, the odds, or the pulled beef brisket tagliatelle with pesto. It was a moment of nourishment for the soul, almost hidden amidst an afternoon of indulgence for the body.
If I have hidden a vague message within this little ramble, I think it has got something to do with value. Oscar Wilde famously quipped that a cynic was someone ‘who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing’. As an avowed cynic, I believe that to be terribly harsh. However, it is a lovely description of a type of person you encounter in life, and often found around “elite” sports. They might be boorish, not always very bright, and are commonly found in places such as BigFooty or your family barbecue. People to whom image trumps substance. People who you feel miss the entire point. People who think Dave King would make a great coach.
Value, of course, relates to what is valuable to you. However, if you are a normal person in Australia who doesn’t sit in corporate boxes to watch football, it also frankly relates to money. My day amongst the flashing advertisements and decadence at the `G cost someone hundreds of dollars. My morning amongst the birdsong at Arden St cost me a $9 Uber ride, and that’s only because I slept in. A Northern Blues membership will cost me $30 this year. I’ve previously lived in Eltham where I had membership for $50 which included a free beer at each of the home games! The Panthers (a creature native to Eltham) got to a prelim that year when no-one had given them a hope and it was one of the most fun seasons I’ve ever followed. The heartbreak when it all slipped away at Preston City Oval was real. The players and fans were gutted. Gutted. $50 for that season. All the highs and all the lows.
I was there at Princes Park when they had to lock the doors for the first game of the wonderful, inspirational AFLW season. I told friends afterwards that it was one of the best nights of any sport I’d ever been to, anywhere. There was a buzz in that fine old ground that glorious Friday night which you don’t get to experience often. I like to think it was because everything was real. Real. Nothing was added. All the bullshit was gone. The old suburban ground, the looks of wonder on little kids faces, the heartwarming human-ness of the players and their unfettered joy at lifelong dreams realised, the buzz on the trams from the city, the people standing in aisles, and the realisation that this was something new and overwhelmingly good that we would be able to share in from now on. As a cynic, I remember what the price was that night. It was free. The value though, is now impossible to measure.