The Cats that ate Paris


by Ken Haley

As a lifelong St Kilda supporter, I’ve never been afraid of lost causes. The heartbreak years fall into two classes – those when we could believe feel that Cup within our grasp – 1965, 1971, 1997, 2009 and 2010 (there has only been one of glory, as the entire world knows) – and those when our boys were so woeful we wanted to hibernate until October. I could list those years too, but heartbreak is a condition prone to recurrence through vivid remembrance. Leave wallowing to the hippos, I say.


A year after I became a convert – from my ambulant days via ambulance days – to seeing life from the comfort of a wheelchair, I spent a number of months in nursing home named after St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.  On the downhill run to the finals, the mighty Saints are no longer the lost cause they seemed to be after eight rounds, though we’re still some way off applying the quarter-after-quarter sustained intensity we’ve become accustomed to seeing from Collingwood and Geelong.


The year I crossed Europe from north to south, from May to December, was 2007, in many parts of Europe its wettest summer on record. In the matter of most significance to a diehard St Kilda fan, though, it was a year like most others in our then 111-year VFL/AFL competition: the red-white-and-black brigade were good in patches – sometimes very good – but at the business end of the season just not good enough. (We finished one spot outside the eight, which I regarded as a mercy, given my certainty that we would have been summarily eliminated come finals time. This year, even if we’re sixth or seventh, having shown incremental improvement, I’m not so sure it’d be September curtains.)


That year, I’m told, there was a good deal of what I suppose the sociologists of the game call sympathetic transference. Many Saints fans, denied the prospect of seeing their side victorious for the first time in over 40 years, hoped (and, I should add, prayed: we’re not Saints supporters for nothing) that this year it might be the turn of another club in the wilderness for a similar length of time.


It wasn’t painful to barrack for the Cats. Geelong, after all, were a team whose similarly open style of play true Sainters had admired as the game evolved in the Noughties through the flood and the spread (until 2011, when Nature took its cue from the AFL and delivered everyone spreading floods). And, if the football gods had seen fit to keep us waiting more than 41 years for a flag, then perhaps – having smiled upon the Swans two years earlier after 72 years – Geelong had come as close as a team can to earning September glory by divine right.


And so how would God divide the spoils between the Power and the glory of feline supremacy?

Only that last Saturday of the month would tell. But here was I – 16,000 km from the centre of the action – in Paris which has many attractions but kicking le pigskin ain’t one of them.


Fortunately, before leaving home, I’d taken a hint from my old colleague Geoff Slattery and bought a book by Melburnian sports maniac Tony Hardy, titled A Race Around the Sports World, in which the author had structured his globetrotting around the timetable of sporting events on different continents – a great idea compellingly brought off. And one of those events was the AFL Grand Final watched from an early-opening brasserie in Paris.


So, having fully acknowledged his work as my inspiration in the matter, I claim no originality for choosing the same destination as Hardy on that particular morning in late September 2007. But, just as everyone’s journey is different, no two grand finals are the same. So it was with a sense of excitement that, missing an alarm clock, I ordered an early phone alert from Cyril, the receptionist at the Belle Epoque, the only affordable hotel I’d been able to find in the City of Light’s 11th arrondissement. And here is where I’m going to bench myself for a couple of minutes and take up the tale as I tell it in my newly released memoir, Europe @ 2.4 km/h.


“My 5am wake-up call left me one hour to push the 3km to Les Halles and the Café Oz, which is really a bar. As I pushed across pre-dawn Paris this wet, braw morning it was hard to picture the excitement among 98,000 fans at the MCG, the highest attendance at an AFL grand final in years. But that was not going to stop me from trying.


“On the Rue St Antoine, which I almost missed (it’s one of eight roads that converge on the Place de la Bastille), I met a family of power walkers decked out in Kangaroos beanies and scarves, a true display of fanatical devotion since the Roos weren’t even playing today.


“Perhaps 150 people, most of them wearing Geelong colours, were waiting for the bar doors to open. When they did, I secured a front-row position in return for telling those at the head of the queue what the weather would be like at the MCG today (‘overcast but no rain’), intelligence relayed by a woman at the end of the queue who’d been talking on her mobile to a friend at the ground.


“By quarter-time (Geelong 5.7 37 to Port Adelaide 2.2 14) the sleepyheads who arrived closer to 7am had brought the spectatorship strength in our Great Northern Stand up to 250. Laconic Australian humour would announce itself from time to time. Late in the third quarter Geelong were thirteen goals ahead and streaking away when a male voice somewhere in the ruck behind me could be heard to say, ‘They’re not playing well, Port Adelaide’. Then a disappointed female spectator told a new arrival, ‘There’s been a bit of fighting but you really want a mêlée.’ (And we say pardon the French!)


“After Geelong had trounced ‘the Power’ by a grand final record margin of 119 points, a result that sent this crowd delirious, I conducted my own post-match interviews. It’s more than a game for any fan who cares, but for the expatriate what is ‘more’ tugs at the heartstrings. Paul Dillon, 30, once of Swan Hill but away from home for eight years, said he felt “the magnetism of Australia growing stronger” (I’ve always said we’re a lyrical bunch beneath the surface). ‘I’m going from an Australian pub in the morning to a friend’s wedding in a 13th-century chateau this afternoon,’ he told me, scarcely needing to spell out that no one back in the wide brown land would be spending the day like this. And then Paul, an instant media celebrity, did a second interview, with Natalie Vella, from Melbourne and new in town, who within weeks would be presenting contemporary Australian music to Internet users from Paris.”



Excerpt from pp 174-175: Europe @ 2.4 km/h, by Ken Haley. Published by Wakefield Press, August 2011. RRP $32.95










  1. johnharms says:

    Love it, Ken. Love the rhythm. And to be reminded of one of the great days in (all of) human history.

  2. Clearsighted says:

    The end of WW2 saw the Liberation of Paris. The end of the Geelong GF drought, saw Liberation IN Paris.
    Great read, Ken.

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