I spent most of the 1989 Grand Final bouncing on a trampoline in a backyard on the outskirts of Geelong. It was the first instance I can recall where I actually cared about the result of the big game. Being a St.Kilda supporter meant that it hadn’t really come up until then. My family were staying with friends and by association we were caught up in the thrill of the Cats first taste of relevance in many a year. All morning I heard excited conversations around town and the consensus was that the Mighty Cats had this one. Hawthorn’s dynasty was about to be consigned to history. With every new pronouncement of Geelong dominance, I clearly remember becoming more nervous. My allegiance to the Saints should have meant there was very little reason for anxiety. After all, I shouldn’t have cared less who won. Certainly that had always been my stance up until that point but I had finally got caught up in the fever of Grand Final day.
If I watched the Grand Final before 1989, it was in between rushing outside to kick the footy in the street. 1984 was only awkward because the girl up the road was a Hawks girl and my mate Lucas wore his red sash with considerable pride all day despite the poor three quarter time score line. I don’t have a memory of when it all turned but I do have a memory of the news filtering out to the street where we were busy kicking a battered old Sherrin that the Dons were coming hard. The girl from up the street skulking off, her brown and gold scarf being dragged on the ground behind her. I felt some sympathy for her sure but I really just wanted to kick the footy some more. When I finally sat down to see the highlights, I was convinced Leon Baker was the greatest player I had ever seen. I understood that standing up on the biggest stage made you go down in history but I still didn’t understand the importance of victory.
Truth was, I had no reason to understand why Mike Brady was so keen on September. St.Kilda weren’t even borderline horrendous throughout my childhood; they were actually the perfect definition of basket-case. Almost wound up at least twice before I was old enough to understand that football clubs aren’t magical entities that exist outside the realities of the world. I realise now how lucky I am to still have a club to support. But as a kid I was certain the Saints were as infallible as their namesakes. Still the idea of them making the Grand Final was an impossible dream. Even with my faith in the Saints blinded by childhood innocence, I knew premierships were for others to contest.
Then 1989 happened and I came face-to- face with having some skin in the contest. I wanted the Cats to win on two fronts- We were friends with folk who supported them and perhaps more specifically, they were underdogs, up against the behemoth that was the Hawks in full dynasty-mode. It was a heady mix and as the game unfolded I began to feel the dread of hopelessness. The horrible knowledge that no matter what you do, you can’t effect the result. You just have to sit there and take your medicine. The men who play the game have an allegiance to the contract they are handed. It is always the supporters that care for the guernsey they wear, that ride every second. It’s always an affront to hear footballers talk about who they supported as a kid (especially when they loved your side but now play for someone else.) The reality is they have no option but that reality has no place in club allegiances. Football might be governed by a draft but those who watch it are governed by their heart.
There is a thin red line of obsession, a dedication to the clan you love that footballer’s have to cross in order to play the game as a profession. It is an impossible line to comprehend as you sit watching the team you adore on the biggest day. The distance between athlete and supporters is never further apart than during the Grand Final. Sure footballers want to win but their motivations are centred on the band-of-brothers they belong to. You only go in for your mates.
1963 Geelong premiership captain Fred Wooller is certain in his belief that football clubs exist to win premierships for their supporters. My experience is contrary to that assertion. Football clubs exist for their supporters certainly but they survive on their hopes and dreams. There is a promise you undertake when you join the fight.
If you believe in something, you can’t abandon it.
Footballers don’t have that luxury of lifelong commitment. During the torment of the 2009 Grand Final I found myself strangely jealous of the players involved in the contest. For while I was dangling by raw nerves watching through a haze of stress, those at the heart of the battle could lose themselves in the maelstrom. While the crowd suffer exquisite agony throughout, obsessing over the scoreboard and the momentum swings that take the game away and then suddenly bring it back again; players can switch off that distraction by throwing themselves into the fray.
The death of the dream comes in the shadows the members wing as the final quarter plays out. Sometimes it comes earlier of course but I suspect players only feel the strain of defeat as that darkness descends across the arena. I have always thought of the shade cast by the Member’s side of the ground as the perfect metaphor. The end of the contest falling within the natural cycle of the ending of the day. Dusk isn’t darkness proper but the light it casts is a hinterland. Those who work in film know that dusk and dawn are similar in the light they shed. Therefore one teams dusk is another’s dawn…The distance is as immense as the day in between.
The first occasion I had to see the Saints in September was 1991. I remember no other emotion but pride. Looking back on the day I can wonder the ‘what-ifs.’ An incredible shoot-out between Lockett and Brownless ended with a narrow Geelong win. It was a cracking game with so many vignettes that still perch in my memory. My favourite Tim Lane tun of phrase comes from that game. The ball loose in the centre, Lane announced the arrival of Nicky perfectly when he called- ‘Winmar, glides onto the ball like velvet.’
I soaked in the contest, defeat seemed irrelevant, for I had lived a quixotic journey with my Saints and for once they had rewarded me with a modicum of success. This was what it was like to participate in the end game. We had made it and we gave an honest contest. That was all I needed. It was also the end of my footballing innocence. That moment raised the stakes. No longer did I feel satisfied with making the finals, now I needed to win. When we won a final the following season the stakes got raised again. With every step forward in September more chips get pushing into the middle.
Now I want a premiership.
Four heartbreaking Grand Final defeats only makes me want it so much more. The only way to articulate it fully is through the mundane. Leaving the 1997 decider I was greeted with a table full of Weg posters commemorating the Crows breakthrough win. It was the first time I realised how badly I wanted one for my side in my lifetime. I want a caricature on my watch.
This week is always bittersweet for those no longer involved. I still love the build-up. The entire week is marched to the beat of two different tunes that eventually fall into lockstep at 3pm Saturday. This battle is ‘to the death,’ ‘no more tomorrow’s’ and a hundred more cliches. I have only witnessed the agony of second place but it doesn’t dull the pursuit of ecstasy. I have witnessed the Grand Final from the outside looking in and I’ve been on the inside, desperately wanting victory to favour me. The missing piece is the happy ending. Will that satisfy me? I don’t know….but it will be sweet relief.