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.

About Joe

Born and raised in County Derry. We had a crackly video of the 1986 International Rules Series in our house, and my brother and I watched it over and over. Saw my first footy match in 2005 when Fraser Gehrig destroyed Carlton at the Telstra Dome. Been hooked since. Celtic fan.

Comments

  1. Stainless says:

    Wow!

    As a fellow cynic, I’d pay good money to read more stuff like that, Joe!

  2. John Butler says:

    Sweetly timed cover drive to the fence to get off the mark.

    Welcome Joe. Always good to have another Bluebagger on board.

  3. Djlitsa says:

    Brilliant piece Joe, really enjoyed your description of the two games and the differences of the experience. Totally agree with you about dying inside – when I saw Edelsten in the box it was the closest I’ve been to giving it away.

    I look forward to more pieces for season 2017 and I hope we give the Bombers a good shake this week.

  4. hmmm…corporate boxes. Don’t confuse a meal, a junket, a concert and sport.
    I’m a Doggies man.
    Had best seats Friday night for the Swans game. Not a fan of Docklands nor Friday nights.
    Saturday morning we went to the Western Oval for the VFL practice match. Wonderful.
    Left there early for MCG Hawks v Adelaide. Thought it was a really good game.
    Also attended Carlton v Melbourne on Sunday. It was terrific.
    I’ve learned that people go to sport for differing reasons. For many it is an outlet. They want to boo, to scream, to be totally invested. I don’t like the stress. Maybe it’s my Sheffield Shield upbringing! Give me the second round of the Open Championship or a midweeker at Kyneton.
    I’m glad that I went on Friday night to memorialise the Premiership, but I enjoyed the rest of the weekend’s footy more so.

  5. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    And I thought your tweets were good Joe. More please.

  6. Earl O'Neill says:

    Great work, Joe.
    Folks, read this aloud to an audience, the rhythms are wonderful, the last para is a song.

  7. Chris Daley says:

    Terrific read

  8. joehuddler says:

    I’m floored. Thanks for the incredibly kind comments everyone.

  9. E.regnans says:

    Love it, Joe.
    You painted a picture and got them all to fit.

    Nailed it.

  10. The big fella - Brad says:

    Damn near bought a tear to my eye! Brilliantly written and makes me miss going to the footy, especially cheering on the Blues with you mate. Looking forward to the day I’m back in Oz, drinking beers, eating pies (out of the wrapper, none of this plate nonsense) and enjoying the ups and downs. Hopefully more ups than downs.

    Loved the photo of Bolts and SOS!

  11. Dave Brown says:

    You’re not allowed to start that well Joe; discourages the rest of us. Absolutely nailed it – footy is so much about what we value (and who values us). Mirrored your experience of the AFLW and am giving the AFL a miss this year. Will be investing my time and meaning (and $) at my state league club and local club where they see me as something more than a wallet to get into.

  12. Rick Kane says:

    I picked up my daughter from footy training yesterday evening. They were finishing the session, with goal practice from ever tightening angles in the pocket. Pepper slotted one through (over the umpires head) on an impossible angle to win that game. We all cheered.

    At the other end of AH Capp reserve the seniors and reserves were in full training. The Darebin Falcons just getting on with business. In the middle of the ground about 10 or so people were letting their dogs have a run and a play. As I waited for Mercedes to come out from the changerooms two young women, one pushing an old style boundary line marker passed by. One of the young women looked up as she passed and gave me a dazzlingly bright smile. It was Katie Brennan, AFLW Footscray captain and Falcons’ best kick. I felt like a 14 year old. I think I even grabbed for a pen in my shirt pocket to get an autograph.

    Great account of the value of footy Joe. And its hollow centre. It is hard to put your finger on exactly what is slipping away (and it is even harder to ascertain whether it is just an age thing) but something most definitely is. I have enjoyed footy as a game (that competitors and fans can recognise each other) much more through local footy and women’s footy than I do with the AFL. I always feel with AFL that I am supposed to pay tribute to its majesty. And don’t even start me on the gambling. That is its worst nightmare. Yet I cannot get enough of the raw contest that is the game itself.

  13. This is great Joe, touches truth on so many levels. I think elite footy itself is still terrific; in fact AFL footy is probably the best its ever been in a lot of ways. Remember when Daicos was a freak and an exception? Blokes I’ve never heard of are dribbling those in from the boundary any old Thursday night nowadays. The thought of a prodigy like Johnny Greening being belted senseless by a thug and never the same again; I don’t miss that.

    What I resent about elite footy is needing to actively screen out all of this; the advertising, the odds, the noisy and irrelevant match day experiences, Bruce and BT gilding the lily, and the parasitic industry of pundits that need confected controversy and to fill their airtime/columns.

    Still, those of us in footy territory are really wonderfully fortunate to have the choice; we can engage with elite footy to the extent we wish to. We can enjoy the incredible passion and athleticism of the AFLW, as well as go to see the local product with the can bar and car horns after goals and eavesdrop on the coaches in the breaks and maybe even mind the scoreboard while the attendant pops out the back for a dart. I believe in appreciating what we’ve got.

  14. Hi joe , excellent reading, and the contrast you make between the two places.

    Each have much to offer, the down to earth suburban-ness of a game in a local place; compared to the offerings of the big stadium, within which experiences can vary enormously, as you describe.

    When I’m given the choice between members area seating and Tigers members area seating; I always choose Tigers members area… and no it’s often not pretty and nice and. carefully curated… but it is real.

  15. joehuddler says:

    These comments are brilliant reading, and genuinely thought-provoking. For those who may not know, this article I wrote began life as short burst of about ten tweets where I contrasted my feelings about the two games. I was then encouraged by Craig at Footy Maths Institute to write it up, and i’m so very glad I did.

    I’ve had a pop at the AFL before. I bet we all have. Twitter urges you to be punchy, and I guess I punched a little – but I really didn’t want to bash the AFL in the above. I just wanted to write about my day, and the sentiments it churned up.

    The two little words at the end of my Bio, “Celtic fan”, define my relationship with big sport throughout my formative years. I’ve lived and breathed that role. Travelled Europe to sing songs in cobbled town squares and make friends with locals in taverns. Give them a Celtic badge, teach them a song, make them smile and hopefully love Celtic just a little bit too.

    The sporting authorities of European football make the AFL look like a bonanza of scruples and integrity. They are often compromised by either criminal-level corruption, or – honestly – racism, on a systemic level. So, I tend to water down any criticism of the AFL off-field, as I have that lens to look through. I’m not sure I should, but I do.

    We all know the truth about AFL on-field. There is no more hard-earned victory in world team sports than defeating a well-match opponent in the AFL. It takes an absurd level of heart, desire, guts, will, discipline, skill…..and I could keep that list going for a paragraph. The sheer size of the oval, and number or moving parts just adds to this. It is gruelling on every level, and as it has hit the “elite sports” era of sports science, that has peaked. I remember BBB Barry Hall during his final couple of years at the Dogs saying that the game was the toughest it has ever been in his career. A career which took in very different eras.

    I guess what i’m saying is that I meant no disrespect. AFL footy is real, dramatically so; and as Kate shows above, so are the clubs and their fans. We all know this, and I didn’t intend to dismiss that. I just think that, as 4Boat (brilliantly, may I add) says, there is so much “entertainment” that you now have to block out. We don’t particularly enjoy being a captive audience subjected to advertising and corporatisation. We’ve paid to be here, to wrap ourselves in the blanket of this old game, this old club, this old ground, for an afternoon. It’s an escape, a reward. It seems many of us have felt that the efforts towards “match-day experience” (and the subsequent, and inevitable, corporate sponsorship of that) at the AFL have overlooked that a footy experience can be more profoundly enhanced by the total absence of peripheral trappings.

    Therefore, I am lucky. I live in the inner-north of Melbourne where each Saturday morning the local suburban ovals bustle with readiness for a day of competition. You pass the chatter of the cafes, smell the toast, coffee and bacon, say g’day to a dog tied up outside a shop, rub his head if he smiles at you and wags his tail. Find a spot on the boundary fence, a grassy hill, or in an old grandstand, where the sun is not in your eyes. Think about what you are looking for today. Who you are looking for. Talk to a stranger. Explain your funny accent. Settle in, survey the setting and await nothing but the siren.

Leave a Comment

*