Round 1 (2012) – Fremantle v Geelong: The greatest of all pests
Subiaco. I am sitting on the wing among rabid Dockers fans. P. Flynn and I have seats near ground level, very close to where the players stand for the national anthem. We are the only two Cats fans within cooee.
The Purple Haze sing in the voice of the expectant: same players, new coach, new approach. They love their boys even though they’ve been let down by them in recent times. That’s what fans do.
“Look at Ballantyne,” says P. Flynn, agitated by his proximity to the Freo goal-sneak. “The little dipstick.”
That’s not like the genial P. Flynn who can see the good in everyone, and would take Freo’s Nathan Fyfe home to meet his mother.
The Dockers go nuts in the opening minutes and it’s five goals to nothing in an instant. We are near the interchange bench and as Ballantyne comes off P. Flynn is at it again, “Look at him. Look at him. Just look at him.”
Agitated. Like his beer’s empty and it’s not his shout.
In just a few minutes of footy Ballantyne has affirmed his status as footy’s greatest pest, playing like the eight year old kid who pokes his tongue out at you then runs away giving you lip. He has niggled and pushed and chirped and thrown the bait at everyone around.
But he’s also influential: quick (which is annoying), skilful (also annoying), supremely self-confident (very annoying) and willing to take the game on (very annoying).
“He’s read the Stephen Milne text book,” says P. Flynn.
“He’s got Milne covered,” I say.
The Cats claw their way back into the game. Chappy, the ever-reliable, goes down behind play. He’s relieving his stomach of its contents and looks distressed. Geelong players remonstrate with Ballantyne.
At quarter time there are words flying everywhere. It’s about to explode. Matthew Scarlett, sporting an Alcatraz haircut, follows Ballantyne towards the Freo huddle, neck extended, head forward, growling teeth so gritted his carotid artery is Parkin-ed.
Surprisingly, Geelong coach Chris Scott has a few words as well.
The niggle continues through the second quarter and Ballantyne seems to be in the middle of it. But the Cats turn in front.
As the players walk towards the sheds Scott and Ballantyne exchange words again.
During the third quarter, after Tendai Mzungu goals, Ballantyne gets in the face of Scarlett. The wise old Cats veteran has had enough. As there is no cauldron of boiling oil in the vicinity, the veteran defender puts Ballantyne somewhere else. On the turf. Scarlett has unleashed a left hook and drops Ballantyne who receives a free kick for his troubles and Freo pocket two goals for the price of one.
Around the nation non-Dockers are delighted and some reach for the chat site: “Should have happened years ago” with some other colourful descriptors of Ballantyne thrown in. While Dockers affirm their affection.
Ballantyne continues to have a good game and is a key player in the Freo performance. With minutes to go he finds the footy on the flank and, with pace and poise, turns way from the defenders clutching at him. He steadies and pops a brilliant pass over the top of Andrew Mackie to Matthew Pavlich who kicks a skipper’s goal.
Freo get the points.
It takes a fair bit of crazy-bravery to choose to style yourself as a niggler, and to pull it off; to ward off the condemnation that accompanies any villain; to at once incite and ignore pantomime anger and use it to your advantage. Not many of us can handle being hated.
But The Pest exists across the codes and across sports. Michael Ennis: pest. Benny Elias: pest. It’s a legitimate role to play, and tactic to use, but only just legitimate. We won’t be building statues to them.
On Saturday evening Hayden Ballantyne was the toast of Fremantle. Elsewhere WANTED posters were being fixed to light posts and noticeboards.
It could make for an interesting few weeks.