The cursed existence of a Roosters supporter

All supporters do it tough at times. Its part of the attraction, addiction even, of passionately supporting a sporting team.  In a cruel sort of way, we need to experience the dark, heavy feeling of despair that lingers for days after a loss to also truly appreciate that overwhelming, sun-is-shining, birds-are-singing, life-is-good elation that takes hold after a win.

But let me you tell you, I know for a fact that we Roosters supporters do it tougher than any others.  I write this with years of supporting evidence and not just the fact that, only on Sunday, the Roosters were once again hammered into oblivion by Manly after a win against the Tigers last week that had us thinking that, just maybe, there was hope for season 2012 yet.

The Roosters have a unique knack of delivering their supporters an eternal cycle of hope – mainly unfulfilled – followed by misery heaped upon disappointment heaped upon heartbreak.  And as we are currently stuck in an extended period of misery, it seems timely to try and explain the perpetual pain that is part of following Easts.

I guess I began caring about the Roosters when I was old enough to do so, circa 1975. Back then, as an impressionable 5 year old, I just followed the lead of my dad and older brother and who were both fanatical Easts supporters, despite us living at Collaroy in the heart of Manly territory.

It was a good year to start caring too, with one of the greatest club sides of all time, full of famous names that still make us Easts fans misty-eyed and sentimental, and of course that massive 38-0 grand final win over St George.  Things went OK for the next few years as well, with regular semi-final appearances and then a fine season in 1980, culminating in a grand final against the Bulldogs.  It was then that I learned what it’s really like to be a Roosters supporter.  Although my memories of the day are now sketchy, I can still remember crying because my brother, who was going to the game with his friends, refused to take me. This reduced me to forlornly decking out the lounge room in Easts posters and streamers and sulkily watching the match on the box.  However, looking back now, I realise that my brother, six years older and therefore much more attuned to the pain of following the Roosters than I, probably had a sense of what was coming on that day and therefore had refused to take me out of compassion rather than the big brotherly spite that I thought was the reason back then.

It was soon evident after kick off that despite being in fine form in the lead up to the grand final, Easts were off their game and were clearly frustrated as a result. This was typified by Royce Ayliffe’s one man high shot and head butt mission as he went after Geoff Robinson and Graeme Hughes amongst others (mind you, having to put up with Graeme Hughes’ smug commentary all those years later, I did come to appreciate and understand the purpose of Royce’s mission).  And then, one of those moments, and there are so many for us Easts fans, that still haunts you at random moments years later: the Steve Gearin try.  Ask any Easts fan old enough to remember and they can probably still recount in poignant detail where they were when they watched this try, how crushing it was that such a sublime piece of play had to rub salt into the wounds of an already lost grand final, and how the sight of Canterbury coach Ted Glossop punching the air with joy made them sick to the guts.  Years later, when I was packing shelves at Woolworths to get myself through university, I was working alongside a woman whose surname was Gearin.  I jokingly asked her one day if she was related to Steve and, of course, she was. She was Steve’s wife. See, there was no escaping it. She went on to tell me what wonderful memories she had of that game, that try and the celebrations that followed, while all I could muster was a miserable little spiel about how much that try had crushed me and reduced me to tears and how, years later, I still dwelled on it. Pathetic, I know, but absolutely true.

The mid-eighties were pretty lean and forgettable for the Roosters with one of my few enduring memories being the dread of turning up to my high school in Manly on a Monday to face the taunts of the other kids about how much the Roosters had been beaten by that weekend.  Still, I remained resolute in my pride and passion for the Roosters and this was rewarded in 1987, when the Roosters got to within a whisker of a grand final appearance.  My memories of season ’87 are nothing but fond, and include regularly driving out to Henson Park with my brother in his old Holden Premier, parking in the narrow side streets and trudging up to the gates to be greeted by a packed hill and a usually white-hot Roosters side.  The highlight was surely the 26-16 win over Manly that ended Manly’s 11 game winning streak. I can remember sitting close to the fence and as the players lined up just before kick-off we could hear Easts prop and hard man Tony Rampling pointing at the Manly players and yelling at them about what he was about to do to them. It was inspiring stuff, particularly as he proceeded to brutally fulfil is promises.  Of course, Easts went on to lose narrowly 10-6 to Manly in the finals that year in what was a classic, tough game that could have gone either way.

Still, although it was Manly’s day and ultimately Manly’s year, the Roosters had given us hope of a fine season in 1988.  A top three finish, a great side with the right mix of old and young, a new state of the art home ground with the just completed Sydney Football Stadium and even the signing of Rugby super freak Brett Papworth. What could possibly go wrong? Well, everything of course, because it’s the Roosters. Starting with a shock defeat to St George in round 1, things just got worse, with a season ending injury to Papworth, loss after loss, and the firing of coach and club legend Artie Beetson. Indeed, season ’88 set the tone for a very, very dark period in the club’s history. This period is variously referred to by Easts fans as the “late eighties”, the “early nineties”, the “Fairfax years” or the “Vautin years.” Use any term, ask any Easts fan, and they’ll know what you’re talking about.  60 point floggings, coach sackings, playing in front of more dogs than men at Henson Park, Paul Vautin – these were lean years with absolutely no reason for supporters to remain loyal. Although suckers like me did.

Things obviously got brighter in the mid-nineties, with Gus Gould and Brad Fittler coming east and bringing with them some much needed positivity to the club, renewed supporter interest and some memorable wins. Yet, Easts being Easts, despite years of consecutive semi-final appearances with Gould as coach, there was to be no premiership.  The most painful loss for me during this period was the 1998 semi-final loss to the Broncos in Brisbane.  All was apparently set for our first grand final appearance in nearly twenty years, with the side on fire and fans expecting Gus’s best motivational tactics to get us over the line up in Brisbane.  I can still recall driving around to my brother’s place in my jersey, cracking a beer with him and confidently sitting down to watch our passage to the grand final. Well, 46 Broncos points and only 18 Roosters points later, the smiles were gone, the jerseys were off, the beers sat warm and only half consumed and that familiar feeling of being teased, tantalised and then savagely let down by the Roosters had yet again taken hold.

Season 2000 delivered more of the same.  Gould had taken off after another ignominious finals exit in 1999 and Graham Murray had taken over as coach.  There was little expectation amongst fans or media, but the side started to build momentum in the back half of the year.  There was a great Friday night win over the Broncos when Luke Ricketson’s try saving tackle on Wendell Sailor had us all starting to believe that this side was actually pretty good and might just have a chance of winning the comp.  But then, in the first week of the finals, in typical Roosters fashion, they put in a terrible performance to go down to Parramatta and it looked like another season going to script.  Still, all was forgotten a few weeks later when the Roosters played Newcastle for a spot in the grand final.  What was so great about this night was not only the fact that Easts fought back from a 16-2 half-time score line for their first grand final appearance in twenty years, it was the manner in which they did it, scoring tries that could only described as audacious in the circumstances. Seeing Andrew Johns throw his mouthguard to the ground in frustration at full-time only made it sweeter.  I still clearly remember going berserk with my great mate Dave – hugging, screaming, pointing to the Roosters emblems on our jerseys – while his girlfriend and mine (now wife) watched in bemusement and probably a great deal of embarrassment. It was perhaps my most joyous moment in all my years of supporting the Roosters.

But then, and if you’ve got this far reading my tale, you’ll know what comes next.  A grand final against the Broncos when, other than Shannon Hegarty nearly getting over the line early, the Roosters never looked like winning.  As the old league saying goes, they’d played their grand final the week before and just as our hopes had been up, the Roosters made sure that they quickly came down again.

Cue the Ricky Stuart years.  A premiership in 2002, which was fantastic.  It was a great side, with Brad Fittler and others players around him like Craig Fitzgibbon, Craig Wing, Luke Phillips and Adrian Morley all at the peaks of their respective powers, and young guns like Michael Crocker, Chris Flannery and Justin Hodges on the verge of long, successful careers.  Sure, there remains a question mark in most  league fans’ minds as to whether we would have won that grand final had the Bulldogs not been stripped of their points, but I’d like to think it was the culmination of years of building a side that would have beaten the Dogs anyway.

As for the remainder of the Ricky Stuart years, losing to Penrith in the 2003 grand final sucked. Big time. And yes, the Scott Sattler ankle tap on Todd Byrne is filed next to the Steve Gearin try in my memory bank of moments I’d like to forget but can’t, along with an array of butchered tries, soft tries conceded and killer refereeing decisions too numerous to recount.

Then, on top of that, losing to Canterbury in the 2004 grand final was easily one of the lowest feelings I’ve experienced as an Easts fan. Fate was supposed to deliver a Roosters win, not only to silence the naysayers who claimed that Canterbury would have won the 2002 grand final had they been there, but more so on behalf of any decent minded rugby league supporter who was still appalled at the Bulldogs Coffs Harbour sexual assault allegations from earlier in 2004.  At half time, with the Roosters in front, it looked like fate might be playing ball, although in hindsight a dubious disallowed Roosters try just before the break was perhaps a sign that fate was in a cruel mood that night.  Then, the second half unfolded like a nightmare. The Bulldogs scored, the rain came, they scored again, the Roosters dropped the ball, more rain came, the Roosters dropped more ball, the Roosters made breaks but the Dogs made miraculous tackles and then the siren went. Game over, another case of great hope dissipating into bitter disappointment for us Easts fans, and the beginning of a couple more winters of discontent to rival the early nineties.

In addition to the lack of on field success during those years circa 2005 to 2009, what was most disappointing to Roosters fans was the way the club seemed to tear itself apart after so many years of building a winning, successful and seemingly strong club and culture.  All of a sudden we were back to buying quantity over quality, reminiscent of the infamous transit lounge days in the mid eighties to mid nineties, and not re-signing players like Bryan Fletcher, Adrian Morley and Craig Fitzgibbon who were clearly Easts men through and through but apparently had no place in the new era.

Worse still, in our quest to fit as many ex-Bulldog players under the cap as possible, we were letting young players like David Shillington go, who had publicly stated he loved the club and didn’t want to leave, and James Tamou, a local junior who was killing it in the Under 20s at the time. Both have now gone on to prove themselves amongst the best props in the world. Then there was Jamie Soward, who dripped talent and potential but apparently wasn’t up to first grade standard, so was released to St George. In games between the clubs since, Jamie has typically turned in a blinder as a none too subtle reminder of what the Roosters gave up. I also think of a player like Blake Ayshford, another local junior, who couldn’t even get a look-in in the grades and so went off to another club where his talents were recognised and appreciated. It kills me just thinking about this litany of ineptitude.

And what did we fans get in return for staying loyal during this time?  Players like Willie Mason and Mark O’Meley who, as Supergrass once sang, were clearly In It For The Money and put in the performances to match; the signing of no-name Brits like Mark Edmonson and Jordan Tansey whose brief, pointless stints with the club aren’t even deserving of being remembered; and Chris Anderson as coach, with his ill-fated one marker policy that lasted all of one match and a string of huge losses that rivalled the early nineties for consistency of hopelessness.

Then came Brad Fittler’s era as coach, which started like a fairytale and ended as, well, a fractured fairytale.  All Roosters fans loved what Fittler had done for the club as a player and, particularly after getting the team to the finals in 2008, wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt as a coach as the team’s fortunes started to decline in 2009. But by mid-season, there was no benefit to be given when the team was stuck in a mire of woeful, dispirited, and heartless on-field performances and a string of disgraceful off-field incidents.  The club’s first wooden spoon since 1966 beckoned and then spanked the club and, of course, us long suffering supporters hard. It was truly the nadir in my many years of supporting Easts and it was particularly painful given how quickly it had arrived after that relatively sustained period of success and stability of the early 2000s.

With Fittler’s departure came the somewhat surprising signing of Brian Smith as coach. Smith had himself just overseen a period of much drama and turmoil at Newcastle, where he appeared to have fallen out with several senior players and fallen foul with supporters and others within the club with his attempts to change the club’s culture and playing roster.  To Easts fans, he hardly seemed the man to oversee the restoration of discipline, stability and success at our club.

In fact, all was going to script with Easts’ season in 2010 when they were whipped 60-14 by Canterbury in the early rounds.   But, by season’s end, they had turned it all around, with some wonderful attacking performances, some gritty and spirited come-from-behind wins, and a reborn, well-behaved and firing Todd Carney leading the way.  The fans were given every reason to dare to dream when the team made the grand final and, even in the face of some truly appalling refereeing decisions in the first half, all looked good when the Roosters went into half-time with an 8-6 lead. However, I can distinctly recall thinking at half-time about how we had blown the half-time lead against the Bulldogs in 2004 and praying that there would be no repeat.  Well, pray I might, but I should have known that it would go to hell in a handbag in the second half.  A Mitchell Pearce forward pass early in the second half gave St George possession (passes travelling forward, or into the stands, or into opposition players hands have unfortunately since become a defining feature of Pearce’s game).  St George scored soon after and then scored again, and again and again….It was painful, even more so as my 6 year old son burst into tears with the realisation that our dream of a premiership was just that – a fanciful wish.   At that moment, I also found myself questioning my parenting skills knowing that I had passed on to him the king-sized albatross of supporting the Roosters.

And so to the present day.  Season 2011 was a shambles and nearly rivalled 2009 for insipid team performances and off-field dramas. We were given some hope for 2012 after the team put together four consecutive wins to finish the season and assurances from the club that the troublemakers had been weeded out so that we now had a happy and united playing group.  I even attended an off-season fans forum with the coaching staff where the overwhelming message was one of positivity, eagerness and a successful 2012 beckoning.  We swallowed it too.  Stupidly, as it turns out.

Mid way through the season, the team has racked up several 50 point drubbings, a player has been arrested for an incident involving his ex-girlfriend, club stalwart and all-round nice guy Sammy Perrett is being perplexingly released to Canterbury, rumours abound that there are rifts between coach and players, and news reports have it that Sonny Bill Williams will be signing a massive one year contract that will allow him to continue his professional boxing gig during the season.  You couldn’t script a greater fiasco.

And what do us Roosters fans do? I’d say a lot of them just sit back and accept it, because we’re so conditioned to disappointment, failure and incompetence.  Some, such as myself, even question whether its worth committing our time, resources and, most importantly, our emotions to such a cruel and unrewarding cause.  Why do we put ourselves and those close to us through such a cursed existence? All I know is that, whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, caring about the Roosters and wanting them to succeed and to be a club to be proud of is part of my DNA.  It’s a pathetic but undeniable part of who I am. And so I’ll live through the pain, just like I’m feeling this week, in the eternal hope that there’ll be something to crow about sometime soon.

Daniel Keary

June 2012

About Nick Tedeschi

Nick Tedeschi was the chief rugby league writer at Punting Ace for five years after a career in politics and bookmaking. He has written freelance for a number of organisations including Back Page Lead, Crikey and Betfair and now runs his own website. He writes an annual NRL betting preview and is a diehard Canterbury fan who lists Craig Polla-Mounter, David Stagg, Tony Grimaldi and Daryl Halligan as his favourite players.

Comments

  1. Increadible, and I thought Tigers fans did it hard!

    Great article Dan, I very much enjoyed reading it.

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