That which I most feared has come to pass.

By Stephanie Holt

For 43 years I’ve had one dream – or, at least, one that’s endured unchanged. A St Kilda premiership. And for almost as long, I’ve had one dread. Meeting Collingwood in a Grand Final. There are two ways to rewrite the script of ’66, and only one bears contemplating.

It doesn’t help that I’ve managed to surround myself with Pies fans – mother, aunt, best friend, husband, sister-in-law, boss, students … I’ve secured some recruits, like claiming my best friend’s girl, my goddaughter, for St Kilda, but the most significant of them I can claim no credit for. In June 1992 the Saints and the Pies unknowingly played for a prize precious beyond measure: the allegiance of an unborn child. Though my heart was torn my resolve was strong – let the teams decide. A sell-out game at the ’G, a lockout, most of it watched from a bar at the Hilton. The TV cameras were there for one of footy’s rarest rituals, and that night we watched a mixed bag of friends, both Pies and Saints, zipping past, waving to the cameras, as the gates were thrown open at three-quarter time. Chris and I were there too, but we didn’t make the news. As the rest of our group entered the stadium, I was still waddling, eight months pregnant, through Yarra Park. But get there we did, and watched as the Saints got over Collingwood by a point. A week later Lydia was born, three weeks early and clearly eager to claim her birthright, and I set to knitting red, white and black booties.

Somehow my husband’s Sydney-based nephew has thrown in his lot with the Saints too. Something Lydia and I, of course, have shamelessly encouraged, most recently by getting him down to Melbourne to experience a Preliminary Final.

We get the result we want and the boy’s happy, but by next morning the excitement that we might be on the brink of the long-awaited next one, is offset by a deep bass note, the knowledge that – even if it comes – ten, twenty, thirty years hence it might still be the last one. So I lead the lad out Sunday morning, hoping for those unpredictable glints and grace notes that fix a memory.

We walk into the new day in our footy scarves. His is pristine (‘We have to go early,’ he’d urged me, ‘so I can buy a scarf. Will there be somewhere at the ground to buy a scarf?’). I’ve got two on, the rather stylish 2010 members scarf and a scratchy, suspiciously dog-smelly one picked up at a two-dollar shop a few years ago, an emergency scarf at best, but I’d ended up wrapped in both for our wintry just-won Qualifying Final and they have become this campaign’s uniform.

We gather armfuls of newspapers at the milk bar. Spread them over a café table next door, up to our elbows in stats and stories and photos of the game. Hear ‘Dawson’ and ‘Gwilt’ punctuate the gentle buzz of the almost-empty room. Realise that the Dad a few tables away is carefully explaining to his kids the back-story of a small black-and-white photo on a front page.

There’s a similar framed photo – a crudely photocopied fragment of a newspaper front page – in my lounge room, and I’ve already explained its significance to Jeremy. A gift from some of my game day Sainter mob to my husband, it’s an image that so impressed a little boy that it turned him into a passionate Pies supporter: Darrel Baldock, holding a Premiership cup, dowsing himself with champagne, resplendent in souvenired black and white stripes. (Even then, of course, life went on. When the real estate agent who sold us our flat dropped in to sort out some final paperwork, he’d taken one look and said ‘That was my uncle!’ Not Baldock, it turned out, but one of the men on the missing scallop boat found the same day.)

As Jeremy and I head home, a fellow coming down the footpath lurches briefly towards us, spits out a ‘Pies’ll smash ya!’ and is gone. The lad lights up, in thrilled confusion. Mission accomplished.

Midseason we had a bad run. Roo was gone and the Saints were looking shaky. And we had three funerals in a fortnight. Men of another generation, such different lives but each remembered as a lifelong fan. Bob, father of one of my oldest friends, whose children recalled him pottering round the rambling garden of their rather grand family home in Canterbury wearing his increasingly faded Fitzroy beanie. Ernie, our country next-door neighbour, whose son’s brief, plainspoken eulogy evoked so much that the funeral director’s well-meant bush sentimentality missed, a father who taught a boy to swim and ride a bike and kick a footy, to always vote Labor, and to barrack for the Bulldogs. Lindsay, whose son I first met under the SnowDeli sign at Moorabbin about twenty-five years ago, an eager Australian on the international stage – an officer on a battleship, an executive director of the International Monetary Fund, an enthusiastic traveller – who grew up in Elwood and loved the Saints all his 93 years. Ernie had seen one premiership, gloried in it, and went to his end still rallying for the Dogs’ games on TV, still stirred by the dream of another flag. Lindsay had been there in ’66, satisfied then, and modestly hopeful thereafter.

For Ernie and Lindsay, there’d been a long wait, before and after, and one indelible memory between. But I came to the Saints during the summer of 1967, and have no memories of my team winning a Premiership. Instead, I have memories of losing Grand Finals, just the three of them, fraught, misremembered, faded to a few frozen frames the further back they go, muddied by the pseudo memories of TV, the received emotions of folklore.

2009. Too close and still so raw. So many moments replayed, revisited over and over. And ones no camera captured. A heartbroken daughter, mascara staining the cheeks where her favourite players’ numbers – 11, 19, 26 – had been painted, while our boys steel themselves for the presentation. Looking down at my Record as we drift through Yarra Park and thinking I must have been so engrossed in that extraordinary final term that I’d failed to record our fourth-quarter goals. Then realising we hadn’t kicked any. My mother the next day, Collingwood to her bones, telling me she only wished Geelong had beaten us by one point.

Twelve years earlier. 1997. Finding our seats in the vertiginous outlands of the Southern Stand; excitedly spotting folk with whom we’d bonded in two crazy nights sleeping in a ticket queue and in the frenzy of open training; falling over each other taking pre-game photos; our boys lined up for the National Anthem; fifteen minutes of play, and me thinking only ‘settle, settle …’ (meaning them, but I could have given myself the same advice). And then nothing. Things learned perhaps, but not remembered. Nothing till David is introducing me to his Dad outside the ’G and Lindsay – courteous, composed, fatalistic – is suggesting we might meet again the next year.

Back a quarter of a century. 1971. Ten years old. Just one image. Me pacing a scoria-covered driveway in suburban Ashwood, clutching my beloved trannie to my ear – the key to an enticing new world of pop music, fuel for my voracious appetite for footy – as a win slipped away.

Perhaps I remember the 1966 grand final, perhaps there’s really one game, not a cumulative impression, when I think of footy on the old black-and-white TV at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. But I can’t be sure and Mum doesn’t recall. ‘We might have watched it at their place,’ is the best she can do. Mum’s been reminding me all week that ‘Grandma always liked Collingwood to go in as underdogs.’ It would have been a nervous viewing, a heartbreaking end.

If I can laugh at Chris’s identity confusion, I’m no less deluded when I sit, occasionally, in front of the grainy footage of those final moments, trembling, heart racing, willing the siren to sound. As if Barry Breen’s kick might yet wobble the wrong way. As if Bob Murray’s mark might yet spill to the ground and into Collingwood arms. As if Allan Jeans might yet be shaking the hand of a victorious Bob Rose.

Brownlow night we gather as we have for over twenty years, in what used to be a catch-up for the footy mob a few weeks after our last game. That ritual then became a Preliminary Final wake, and has now become the official start of our Grand Final week. There’s lots of comparing tickets, checking plans, making predictions, calming nerves.

Over a few drinks and snacks (David and Fooi have done us proud – the wine’s from ‘All Saints’, the nuts ‘Santos’ brand) I belatedly unveil a new gadget. This is a masterpiece of marketing: the official AFL ‘Grand Final Memorable Moments’ bottle-opener. Made in China. Half price at a sports shop in Mildura, snapped up back in Easter but forgotten till now. And as I lever off a bottlecap, a crackly soundtrack rumbles to life. Through the static and crowd noise, comes the voice of a bygone age: ‘Breen … Saints in front … Murray … Hit the boundary … Allan Jeans … St Kilda …’ By the end of the night, it’s been played once too often, gasping its way to silence.

I just want some premiership memories to call my own.

Comments

  1. Stephanie – if you replace the word “St Kilda” with “Geelong” and predate this September 2007, your thoughts were mine.

    We had 1967, 1989 (forgetting the out-in-straight sets 1980 and 1981 debacles), 1992, 1994, and 1995 to ponder. Its agonizing.

    But when the Saints win one (and they will) the memories of the losses will become something of a celebration. You’ll look at them as the mountain you had to climb, the burden on your back that you successfully endured. You’ll even smile when you see all the old footage because you’ll know that those losses contributed a little to what you are today. You’ll also smile because you’ll know that it’s all over.

    My children, all under 15, have been spoiled by Geelong’s success a bit. They expect the Cats to make the grand Final. Their life experience will be different to yours and mine. Not necessarily better, just different.

  2. Dips,

    I have one succinct comment about paragraph 3.

    ‘What you talk’n about Willis’

  3. David Downer says:

    Cin cin Steph,

    Nice read. We’re riding it with you, albeit my family allegiances are all one way. My wife asked me the other day if we’d still be together if she were a Collingwood supporter. I remained silent. After further prodding, the most assuring response I could provide was “next question”.

    Oh to taste that premiership feeeling, once, just once. Surely it’s not asking too much!

  4. David, glad to hear you are still kicking! How were the unruly mob?

    Stephanie, being a Saints fan is made up of all these memories, some that belong and some that are borrowed. We share a history of sorts with the Doggies, but the club ‘culture’ makes us different. The party club and he battlers. No matter how far both clubs have evolved.

    I didn’t bond with the club until about ’74, (I was 8). And being a fan of VFL in Brisbane then was not altogther common amongst my peers. Fortunately my primary school’s winter sport was Aussie Rules, when we were surrounded by league schools. I don’t know how that came about, but I have been grateful for a longtime. My High School played the traditional sport of RU…

    I grew up not expecting success in an era dominated by North Melbourne, Hawthorn and Essendon. Getting older meant no expectations. Until the draft. The levelling of the playing field, and still the ‘burning, yearning wait’ (Hunters and Collectors? or was that Nick Cave?)

    And now, when it means so much more, to be so close to that taste.

    I think the anticipation is controlled because the possibilities are limited. While I would love to blow them away by half time, the chances are remote. More likely is a close game which could go either way. Or heartbreak in being smashed. In a perfect world, the demons introduced to the Collingwood mindset last weekend will induce a capitulation of epic proportions. Ahh, the dream, the taste…

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