The Return of Football

 

My niece wants me to take her to the football. I’m not so sure. We’re Bulldogs supporters. The whole family is Bulldogs, apart from a couple of irritating Tigers fans who are always trying to rub something in.

She comes over in a red-white-and-blue scarf even though it’s twenty-five degrees outside. It’s the first game of the year. I can’t take footy seriously in this weather.

            “Nobody’s going to the football today,” I tell her.

“But we are,” she says, bounding up the hallway with a little backpack strapped on. She’s only five years old.

            The Bulldogs are playing Collingwood. I want Collingwood to lose so badly that they’ll never get over it. That would be worth seeing. Maybe I want Collingwood to lose more than I want the Bulldogs to win, I reason, as I pack some game-day snacks into a bag.

            We catch the tram to the edge of the city. “We could go to the museum instead if you like,” I say. My niece stares out the window, ignoring me.

            She conks out halfway through the Fitzroy Gardens. I have to piggyback her the rest of the way. I trudge onward in the unseasonable heat, head bowed like a bullock, not wanting to see how close or how far away we are. We’ll miss the first bounce. I haven’t been to the footy since the Bulldogs lost the second home-and-away game last season. We lost nearly every game after that. It was the same story the year before. And the year before. Not enough tall men.

            Everything is new at the G. We circumnavigate the thing, looking for an entrance that is not dedicated to some kind of member. A grey-haired official tells us we’ll get a seat in the Ponsford stand. I look to where he is pointing. That is bloody not the Ponsford stand. It’s a monstrous steel construction that’s blocking the sun from the ground. Where are the wooden, sun-kissed seats?

            We sit at the edge of the Great Southern. The place is packed out, and the game is fifteen minutes in – that’s fifteen minutes less of suffering, I tell my niece. She is gazing lovingly at an over-sized, fluffy top hat in team colours worn by a kid in the next row. It’s the kind of thing she will never be allowed to buy.

            First up I try to make out the players for her: there’s Jonno, mincing around and grinning like a hyena; Our Chris, with his action-figure size eight head atop his size eighteen body; my new favourite, Spud Murphy, the son of a priest and a nun; and the bald-headed Eagleton, the most unlikely looking football player in history. “What is he? He looks like my father’s accountant!” I overhear someone say. The rest of the team is just a blur of young, fast legs.

            She points to the blonde-mopped Cooney, last year’s number one draft pick. “Is that Luke Skywalker?”

            “Maybe,” I say. He’s not the son of a priest and a nun, but he has that kind of hope pinned all over him.

            Collingwood has kicked three goals straight, to our nothing. After the fourth, some barbarian in stripes yells: “Suck on that, Doggeees!” It seems like there are fifty thousand Collingwood fans in the stadium, and about forty for the Bulldogs. I settle into the comfortable groove of losing and pull a packet of Doritos from my bag.

            My niece and I play other games that do not involve watching the game at the centre of everything. We see how a woman knits fluffy, spangled wool into what looks like a fancy cat’s tail. We point and laugh at grown men wearing face paint. She tells me she really wants to have her face painted – she wants to get what those men have got. We dawdle to and from the toilets at the half-time break. We lose our seats and miss the bounce again. We decipher the food smells around us. “That smells like a meat pie!” “Those chips have got vinegar on them!” We talk about how delicious Doritos are. We eat some more. Then she falls asleep in my lap. I turn my attention back to the game and wonder if maybe we should think about leaving.

            Then, someone kicks a goal for the Bulldogs. And soon after, there’s another. I look to the scoreboard – an old-fashioned type that has to be manually updated and only shows goals and points, not the aggregate score. It takes me a while to work out, by adding up all the single points, that the Bulldogs are within a goal of the lead.

            An unfamiliar sensation occurs deep in my belly. It is the feeling of investment. Usually at this point – deep into the final quarter – I would be shutting down and packing up to leave. But now, out of nowhere, leaving is no longer an option.

            I watch in disbelief as the ball – sure to have hit the post in any other game – sails through the goals for a third time. An impossible angle made possible by a Bulldogs veteran. The Bulldogs are in front.

            “Oh God, I hate this,” I say to my sleeping niece. “This is worse than losing.” I turn panicky. Winning this game might change everything. For starters, I might have to fork out for a membership. My senses strain to breaking point. I want to shut my eyes and block my ears. I’ve learned that watching and listening doesn’t help win games. I want this to be over. I want the siren to blare in a soul-less and indiscriminate way. I pray they don’t stuff it up.

            “Come on lads!” I call, as some new young player dashes forward from the centre square. When did these men become boys? They used to have beards and moustaches, when I was my niece’s age.

            The dash is followed by a pass to Jonno in front of goals. He puts it through, then springs around like a ballerina, leaping into the arms of our ruckman, Darcy. The other players form a solid clump around them, as fierce and tight as a fist. From somewhere far off, the Bulldogs’s chant gathers momentum and works its way towards us. Soon we are in the middle of it, and it is irresistible: Booool… DOGS! (clap clap clap), Booool… DOGS! (clap clap clap).

            I wake my niece.

            She doesn’t know what it means to not lose. “Where are all those people going?” she says. Collingwood fans are leaving in droves. We can hear, echoing all around us, the sound of plastic hitting plastic as their seats slap shut behind them. The balance of power is shifting. We can afford to smile and relax.

            Collingwood players start to look ridiculous as they struggle against defeat. Tarrant’s biceps appear implausibly big and useless when he drops a sitter; they seem to get in the way of the natural folding action of his arms. Rocca’s white shorts are unflattering as he trots back to his mark after missing a goal. “Look  at his arse,” says an emboldened Bulldogs supporter next to us, “you could rent that out to Hoyts!” Meanwhile the Bulldogs are becoming speedier, surer, lighter. Their teamwork is effortless, as if it was choreographed, rehearsed, and they are merely going through the motions. Goals rain down. Nourished Bulldog fans thrive and multiply.

            The siren goes, as usual, just after I’ve stopped thinking about it. My niece looks embarrassed by my overreaction, but she stands on her seat and makes a timid attempt to join in the celebration going on around her. We sing the Bulldogs song twice. The team of the mighty west! I love this song. It still has a pre war quality about it, despite being updated some years ago as part of a Bulldogs rescue-and-rejuvenation package. We wave our players off the field and I thrill my niece with my coarse, piercing whistle.

            We join the blissfully wrung-out throng of the last to leave, making our way slowly down many sets of stairs. My niece doesn’t need to be carried. As we surge through the exit and are deposited back into the real world, someone says: “My favourite part of the game was when Collingwood didn’t kick a goal in the last quarter.” When it comes to Collingwood, spite is never relinquished.

            I call my brother to coordinate the return of his daughter. He’s watching the delayed telecast.

“Don’t tell me anything,” he says, panic in his voice. I can’t even tell him that panic isn’t necessary.

            At the train station my niece and I practice keeping straight faces for when we get home, just in case the replay is still on. She frowns and smirks simultaneously like a smarmy politician.

“I can’t do it!” she says, cracking up laughing.

            We get into a conversation with a couple of corn-fed middle-aged American women on the train. They’ve come to Australia to spread the word of Jesus’s love. I commend them for starting on the Broadmeadows line. They ask us about our day, and then come all sorts of questions about football. They don’t understand Aussie Rules. One of them asks my niece, “Why do you think those players go out there every weekend without any padding or protection? They’re totally exposed.”

            She shrugs her small shoulders and rotates her wrists so that her palms are facing the heavens, “I don’t know. They just do.”

            “Kind of like Jesus,” I say, and with a rush of pride, I think about those boys – young men – risking egos and mounting public displays of emotion, week after week, even when their own supporters have grown disheartened and can no longer bear to watch.

            “Yeah,” says my niece, although for her, Jesus is just another expletive. “Footy’s so amazing.”

Comments

  1. I don’t know which year Jo and frankly I don’t care.

    When and where is a ‘red herring’, It’s the result that counts.

    I just love stories with happy endings.

    Great read.

  2. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    2005?

  3. Mick Jeffrey says:

    Easter Monday 2005 I believe, we (Doggies) should claim Easter Monday as our own.

  4. Jo Bowers says:

    It was the first home-and-away round of 2005, can’t remember if it was Easter Monday. They’d just re-opened the G after renovations. I took some poetic licence with a few details (I’m no journalist), hence Rocca in white shorts, though I believe it was a Collingwood home game. I did overhear someone in a (different) crowd make that suggestion about Rocca’s white shorts though…

  5. Steve Fahey says:

    Great read Jo, even though you said nasty things about the Pies (where is all the zen acceptance of all things and beings obtained from yoga ????)

    It was 2005 and the worst part of the game for us was Bucks doing his hammy again and missing much of the season.

    Uggh it was painful… but it has been erased by subsequent joy !

  6. Jo Bowers says:

    Ha! Well, I wasn’t practising yoga in 2005, Steve. Thanks for your comments, and for reminding me about Buckley’s hamstring injury – I’d forgotten about that.

Leave a Comment

*