It’s fitting that I drove from Middle Park to Williamstown for the VFL on Easter Monday.
My grandmother lived in Middle Park until she passed away of cancer a year ago. On Christmas days long past, young me would walk along the seafront wondering what was over the other side of the water, and how on earth you could get there?
That’s Williamstown, champ. Point Gellibrand, to be specific. You just drive over the West Gate.
Luke Beveridge has spoken before about how much he loves the drive over the West Gate. I love it too. The shipping containers. The cranes. Signs of busyness. But still, I always feel I’m leaving the bustle of the city behind. I avoid the outside lanes. It’s a long way down.
Off the bridge, I turn left (Bevo would go right) towards Williamstown FC – Liam Picken’s former club and a VFA powerhouse of old. Now, the Seagulls are one of the five remaining (and much-discussed) standalone VFL clubs. They’re the most recent standalone premier (2015).
Of the other five, Frankston is battling to be readmitted to the VFL.
Port Melbourne is in debt and its players went without pay for their winning effort last weekend.
Coburg ran out valiant 2-point losers on Saturday to Collingwood, who fielded no less than 18 AFL-listed players.
Almost as if to stifle the optimism from Port Melbourne’s opening win and Coburg’s efforts, North Ballarat went to Punt Road on Sunday and lost to Richmond by 188 points (33.21.219 to 4.7.31)
That hideous scoreboard (for all involved) was the reason I skipped a date with the MCG in favour of a windy afternoon on the other side of the bay.
I’m glad I did.
The Williamstown Cricket Ground is an absolute beauty, perched right on the ocean. Shipping boats float behind the ball ups. There’s no protection from the wind, though. I dread to think how many fingers have been frozen by the icy winds rolling in off the bay in the deep dark depths of July.
In 2011 Victoria’s oldest military bunker was discovered at the ground, while the grandstand was redeveloped.
It’s overcast and a bit nippy, but certainly not cold enough to warrant the eskimo-style winter coat I’ve gone for. The only seagull in sight is the Towners’ mascot. The only seagull-like noises are squawks for the ball.
A scuffle breaks out between the players after a knock.
Casey looks the cleaner side early on and they sneak out to an early two-goal lead. Both sides made the top four last year. As Williamstown work their way into the game, it’s obvious they aren’t going to cop a flogging. They trail by 7 at the first break.
Walking across the ground to the home side’s huddle, I notice how hard the square is. It’s cracked, harsh and rock solid earth, devoid of grass in places. Cricket season isn’t long gone.
The Seagulls are getting a bit of a whack. Not a full-on spray, just a stern talking to, as if they’ve been playing up in Grade 4 Maths.
The coach’s rev up their players.
Senior coach Andrew Collins is urging them to be better in marking contests and to stick their tackles. One of their forward line themes, he says, is making it happen. They’re getting out-marked and making sod all happen. His words don’t fall on deaf ears.
The second quarter begins a shift and it starts early. Good team pressure leads to an early goal from livewire Michael Gibbons, which levels the scores. A few minutes later, Gibbons is involved against, causing chaos near the behind post and pinning his opponent holding the ball. He nails the snap to put his side in front.
I find myself sitting near an elderly couple. They’re flicking between explaining the game to an English girl (a tough task), and ship-watching. Their ship-talking is just as marvelous. Where is this ship going? What’s it carrying? Navy or cargo? How many on board? It’s a game you can easily lose yourself in as the footy floats by in the background.
Casey stays in touch with a kick from Jack Trengrove just before the main break. But if the second quarter shifts the terms of the contest, the third quarter gets rid of any such terms. The Towners slam on four unanswered goals and go into the final change up by 31.
Michael Gibbons prepares for a snap at goal.
They’ve been dominant for two quarters now, looking more polished, more precise and harder at it than their AFL-affiliated opponents.
Choking on a chip is probably the only way the Seagulls can come unstuck. They resist the temptation of fried potato and run out 23-point winners.
As I leave the ground, I notice #WeStandAlone painted onto the turf beneath the grandstand. The club has been tweeting the tag throughout the game.
For now, they’re standing alone quite comfortably, and I hope that remains the case. For less than 100 bucks, it’s pretty easy to buy a membership and support any of the five standalone VFL clubs, including Frankston.
Our game would be much poorer without them, their histories, their grounds, their colours and their stories.
I’ll be back at the little ground across the bay soon. I suspect I’ll be needing my winter coat.