War and Peace

 

by Damian O’Donnell

A reflection should be just that; a careful consideration of previous events, actions or decisions. It should not be a reaction. I feel that a respectable period of time has elapsed for this to be considered a true reflection.

 

The Bloody Sock Era (1964 – 1975)

The boys’ toilet was like all boys’ toilets; it stank. It was a small brick construction with two cubicles and a urinal, over which was a gap in the decrepit brickwork providing the meagre ventilation.

I remember walking in and seeing a fairly normal sight; two kids standing with their backs arched and their guts thrust forward, holding their willies like a bloke wielding an axe, trying to piss so hard that their urine looped up the wall and out of the ventilation gap. This feat was oft attempted but seldom achieved. Those who did achieve it went into the annals of legends, every bit as revered in our playground as the adult heroes like Phar Lap, Herb Elliott or Walter Lindrum.

As I undertook my more conventional ablutions a couple of other kids entered the dunny and, inexplicably, started to graffiti the walls with a black crayon. They were writing such words as “dick”, “tit” and “shit”. Yours truly was making for the exit when a teacher walked in and saw the vandals in action and, sadly for me, assumed I was in their company. It was guilt by association. My protests were set aside. There is no court of appeal when a teacher has you by the ear lobe.

“All you lot go and see Sister Marie Helen.”

 

This was bad, very bad. Kids only went to see Sister Marie Helen for two reasons; either they were about to get the sack, or they were about to receive the cuts. It was the cuts for us.

Sister Marie Helen was rather robust and forthright. When she delivered the cuts her intention was to make the experience a memorable one for the student. Her technique was to get momentum on the back swing rather than the down swing. This resulted in her momentarily leaving the ground (some might call it an almost religious levitation) before the leather wad came crashing down. Her stroke was as fluid as a perfect five iron, as devastating as a Viv Richards hook shot. The point of contact was an area that extended from the tips of the fingers to a point just south of the elbow.

There was, however, an upside to getting the cuts. It meant that I arrived at footy training with warm hands. Every Tuesday and Thursday night during footy season Mr Patto would be at Petrie Park in Montmorency with the back of his old white Kingswood station wagon open so the kids could climb in and rummage through the milk crates full of footy boots to find a matching pair. If you got there early you might be lucky enough to snaffle a pair of the Ron Barassi plastics, but it was usually the Ted Whitten leathers with the high ankle and the hard toe that I ended up with. They were like work boots with plastic stops nailed into the bottom of them, the kind of boots I imagined kids in the coal mines wore. There was absolutely nothing athletic about them. Often the nails from the stops came up through the sole of the boots and into your feet. A bloody sock after footy training was not uncommon. Still, no one seemed to care. We just loved footy.

I recall my first footy training with the senior squad; Grade four, 1973. Up until that time I was just another little kid who ran around the bottom part of the oval (The Pigeon Club end of the ground) like an aimless chook. A lot of little kids spent footy training picking their nose or with a finger lodged in their bum. But once you entered grade four Mr Patto let you train with the “seniors”. There seemed to be an unwritten rule that no matter how good you were, only grade fives and sixes played in the senior footy team. Grade four was a sort of gap year; footy puberty if you will. That didn’t stop me trying to impress. I wanted desperately to be the first grade four to make the team, to conquer the great heights. Every training session I went full pelt, practicing my Kevin Bartlett throw-the-ball-out-in-front technique whilst simultaneously holding out my arms in mock crucifixion, appealing to the imaginary umpire. Petrie Park was my MCG.

Mr Patto arranged kicking and handball drills but it was the games between the guernsies and the rainbows that we all looked forward to. Those without proper football jumpers (and a few volunteers) put on the slime green guernsey whilst the rest of us, resplendent in the jumper of our choice, were the rainbows.

There were lots of jumpers with black and white stripes (Montmorency was in a Collingwood zone) and loads of black jumpers with the yellow sash and kids running around planting their knees into each others backs and screaming out “Royyyyce!” There were Blues and Hawks and Bombers and Roos everywhere, but there were only two with the blue and white hoops; Luke Hall and me.

I loved my jumper. I knew Geelong was pretty ordinary (despite the efforts of Wayne Closter, Ken Newlands and Ian Nankervis) but that seemed to fit my apparent lot in life at the time. I wasn’t a master of the universe like Richmond and Carlton supporters were, I wasn’t part of a great collective that swept across the streets of Montmorency like Collingwood supporters did (after a Collingwood loss mass on Sunday morning was always very sombre), and I didn’t understand the powerhouse club Essendon or the emerging Hawks and Roos. I was Geelong, I was number three child of six, a product of largely Irish peasant stock. I knew my place.

This love was tested in the corner of the shelter shed one wintry day. I had Luke Hall by my side. The school yard lynching squad, which consisted in large part of Richmond supporters, decided to impose themselves. Their tactics were very subtle and cunning; Barrack for Richmond, they said, or we’ll give you a hiding. Luke and I looked at each other and said well you had better get started, so they did with much gusto. But we didn’t relent. Fat of lip and sore of stomach we kept getting up like Cool Hand Luke in the prison yard, and eventually they lost interest. From that point on my Geelong jumper was an armour in all sorts of ways.

At the conclusion of every football season the St Francis Xavier pie night was held at the Pigeon Club. Votes were read out, Mr Patto would present the trophies displaying little golden creatures pulling in towering marks or launching mighty punt kicks, pies were brought out of the ovens as hot as the fires of hell, and we would watch a replay of the 1970 grand final (again) on the big film projector. I marveled at Jezza and Syd Jackson and Big Nick, I was in awe of Brent Croswell and Twiggy Dunne and even Ron Barassi who was so famous he had boots named after him. A game of this magnitude, the MCG arena, the crowd, the noise, the enormity of the occasion was hard for me to fathom, but the scratchy, jumpy black and white film seemed to capture the romance of it so well. Geelong was light years away from this good. The Cats would forever be canon fodder for these colossal teams as they made their rightful way to September. I believed I would spend my life in the corner of the shelter shed fighting a hopeless, albeit very necessary, fight. There was nothing I could do about it. This was the way of the world.

 

The Maroon Body Shirt Era (1976 – 1982)

Like most boys we used to collect footy cards. We’d ride our bikes up to Mrs Ramsdale’s milk bar and carefully select our packet of choice from within her glass cabinet. If we had enough money we might also buy a Big Charlie or a choo choo bar or a glug. This was serious business. Money was hard to come by and purchasing the wrong pack of footy cards could result in a handful of Kevin Sheedys or Cowboy Neals or Wayne Scimmelbuschs. Everyone had these and no one wanted them. Outside the milk bar we would stand and barter as we flicked through each others collections. “Got ‘im, got’im, got ‘im, haven’t got ‘im (sniff the bubble gum smell on a new card) got ‘im, haven’t got ‘im, got ‘im (sniff again)………….”

As you get older football players tend to jump out of the footy cards and into reality. You realize they’re not just bubble gum smelling faces but real living souls. You go to the footy and sit near the fence and see Ray Biffen or Carl Ditterich up close. You see Ian Nankervis trying in vain to repel another attack from deep in the back pocket. You see Keith Greig weave out of a tight spot like Famechon dancing away from Fighting Harada. You see Disco Roach and Gary Malarkey engaged in history making battles on the vast green turf of the MCG. And you could yell at them and be a part of it all. You could even dream of playing out there one day.

This awakening seems to coincide with the realization that there are, in fact, greater things to strive for in life than becoming a primary school pissing legend. Like being cool for example. For boys it must be an awareness thing. An awareness of self and an awareness of girls.

The world is made up of two groups of people; those who are cool and those who are not. There is nothing sadder than a not-cool kid trying to be cool and failing. Funnily enough I didn’t think I was failing. I did, after all, have the maroon body shirt (you’ll look snazzy in that Mum said when she bought it), the Wipper Snapper jeans, and the desert boots with the small silver studs stuck to the sides. When I togged out in this outfit I had the makings of a dude. What I lacked though was the Status Quo flowing locks. These were critical. No matter what I did my hair just grew thick, not long. I was more your Paul McCartney (during his ‘square’ faze) than your Francis Rossi. I didn’t stand a chance.

Geelong, too was trying to be cool and failing. Like the 1980 season when they finished on top but disappeared out of September faster than a Barry Price stab pass. I was at Waverley Park to watch the Cats play Collingwood in that Preliminary Final. I hoped we would win but I somehow knew we wouldn’t. The Cats didn’t have a Jezza or a Barry Cable or a David Dench or a Geoff Southby. They were a team cobbled together; they wore their pants too high and cut their hair too short. It was all wrong.

Into the last quarter when the game was in the balance the Pies began to play like winners. I think it was Rene Kink (who had long hair and was a hair dresser) and Craig Davis who kicked goals out of their arses and it was all over. The margin was 4 points and twenty years. My old man said later on that he couldn’t believe the swearing that emerged out of the mouths of his babes. He reckoned we would have fit in beautifully with the diggers in the trenches. Upon hearing this news at home Mum was most displeased; so displeased that the ice cream and chocolate topping were withheld after dinner.

In 1981 Geelong tried again. This time it looked real. The Cats had coaxed Brian Peake across from WA continuing the tradition of the Polly Farmer trade. Peake arrived at Kardinia Park by helicopter. We got so wrapped up in his arrival that we all ignored the fact that he was approaching pension age when he agreed to leave his native West. Everything about his arrival was so un-Geelong. This was a club that traditionally greeted new players with freshly made scones and a cup of tea not whirring chopper blades and a noisy throng. I watched his arrival on the TV. I think it was on World of Sport but I can’t really remember. I’d probably just returned from mass and was most likely wearing my snazzy body shirt at the time. We would have sat in front of the telly with our ham steaks and eggs and watched the saviour step down.

But I wanted to believe that the Cats had others too. Peter Featherby was still getting a thousand kicks, a young bloke called Michael Turner was cutting up the wings, Jumping Jack Hawkins and Neville Bruns and Robert (Scratcher) Neal and Gary Malarkey could hold their own against anyone. Then the Cats beat Collingwood in the Qualifying Final even though the Pies finished above them on the ladder!

Could this be it?

No.

There was still something missing. The Cats were like the Colt from Kooyong; well manicured and groomed but flaky under pressure. The Pies reversed their Qualifying Final loss and beat the Cats in the Preliminary Final. This time it was Craig Stewart’s turn to extract goals out of his rectum, not to mention a wizard called Peter Daicos who came from a place called Macedonia, where ever the hell that was. I wished he’d stayed there.

Once again the Cats would be left off the dance floor on the last Saturday of September. Indeed between 1982 and 1988 they didn’t receive invitations to the September ball at all. Strangely there was a sense of normality to this.

Whipper Snapper jeans and body shirts were also out; all the cool kids were wearing Lee jeans with the thick leather tag and Miller shirts with a glistening silver thread woven through them.

The ‘’coup de pied dans les tripes’’ Era (1983 – 1998)

In 1987 I discovered what happens when you sleep in a Parisian park. The alarm clock is a kick in the guts by a gendarme.

“Se lever!” he said as the slipper sunk in right to the kidney.

Startled and winded I lifted my head and saw a multitude of other backpackers copping the same treatment. I didn’t know what “se lever” meant but I assumed it wasn’t “welcome to Paris”. Despite the alarm clock I found the French parks pretty safe and comfortable and used them more than once as a place to rest my weary head. They were also cheap.

I’d left Australia behind to see the world; well a part of it anyway. With a backpack, a sleeping bag, a vague geographical knowledge of Europe, a pipe, tobacco and £10 per day to live off I hit the road. I got locked in Irish pubs for the whole night and commenced a passionate and frenzied love affair with the local Guiness, I ran across the roofs of houses in the old city of Jerusalem (with some local Arab kids who assured me that the Israeli solders wouldn’t shoot), I camped for a few days in a Bedouin village, I travelled up the Nile River from Aswan to Thebes on a felucca, taking in the Valley of the Kings on a diet of felafels, bananas and local beer, I saw Chuck Berry play live in Barcelona in a mosh pit of tequila slammer fuelled lunatics, I visited Jim Morrison’s grave and the Palace of Versailles in consecutive days and couldn’t figure out which one was more ornate, I caught a ferry at John o’Groats on a whim and landed on the Orkney Islands which is home to some of the most magnificent single malt whiskey distilleries in all of Scotland (I particularly recall Scapa Flow). I nearly died of food poisoning on a gorgeous Portuguese beach and was saved by a spaced out German medical student whose last words to me before he left Portugal were “See you in the next world, man”. I went to Rome and unashamedly wept at the beauty of the Pieta, I out sprinted Spanish police after a boozy session swimming in a fountain, I took a wrong turn in Amsterdam late at night and learned more about human anatomy in two minutes than all of Mr Delaney’s biology classes did at school, and I sat in the hills just outside Florence with a flagon of wine, some crusty bread, and a lump of cheese and wondered how a city gets to be that beautiful. These are some of the things I remember.

I also recall a young American girl who approached me on a train station as I was leaving Firenze.

“I have an afternoon to kill in Florence” she said, “What should I go and see?”

After trying to get my mind around the concept of killing an afternoon in Florence I suggested that she might go and see David (meaning of course Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Statue of David).

“Oh really?” she said, “David who?”

I also recall getting the footy scores. These were the days prior to the google machine and the internet. One had to rely on local embassies and newspapers. During 1987 it seemed to me from afar that the Cats were having as big a roller coaster ride as I was. They missed the finals by a few kicks; about as many as I copped from the French constabulary.

I returned to Australia in 1988 and the Cats returned to the lower echelons of the ladder. But in 1989 a bloke called Gary Ablett took on the footy Gods and almost won.

Gary Ablett (senior) is the greatest footballer to pull on a boot. The idea that anyone can be compared to him is a nonsense. He has his own category, like Bradman andEinstein and Wild Man Fischer. He seemed more interested in celebrating his skills in short delightful bursts than laboring over them repeatedly. He wasn’t about statistics and averages and possession counts; he was above such banality. He took the game to places it had never been and will never go again, like the mark in the opening stages of a State of Origin game against WA in 1999, or his sensational grab against the Demons at the MCG in 1989 where he marked the ball on his right hamstring, or the Gary Pert grab; a soaring incomprehensible effort that defies description. After he decamped from Gary Pert’s shoulders and hit the deck his team mates all turned to the scoreboard to watch the replay like they were watching the luna landing on TV.

Ablett was Ablett.

But even with Ablett the Cats faltered at the last hurdle four times in seven years; 1989, 1992, 1994 and 1995. They failed because Ablett had become bigger than the club and maybe bigger than the game. Not even his team mates really knew him. Perhaps Gary didn’t really know Gary.

The 1989 grand final was one of the great grand finals. It was brutal, skilful, colourful and close. Ablett kicked nine. The Cats lost. They were praised for their tenacity and endeavour, but the Hawks held up the trophy. In 1992 and 1994 expectations were raised then dashed. The West Coast Eagles and Peter Matera cut Geelong to pieces.  By the time the final siren sounded in the1995 Grand Final, and as the Blues reminded themselves that they are in fact the navy blues, Cats fans felt like they’d been kicked in the small intestine by a grumpy gendarme. It got to the point that the Cats’ complete failure in 1996 was a blessing; like when the local bully is repeatedly punching you in the face and finally stops, kind of blessing.

But additional kicks in the goolies were coming. The Cats had rediscovered some mojo in 1997. They had a young champion as captain called Leigh Colbert and a team that no longer relied on Couch, Hocking and Ablett. But the finals series was like 1980 reincarnated. A poor performance against North in the Qualifying Final then an outrageous decision by a maggot in the semi final against Adelaide saw them propelled out of the race.

Colbert left Geelong along with pride, confidence and self respect.

 

The Era of Multiple Explosions (1999 – present)

Our oldest daughter Clare was a projectile vomiter when she was a bub. It was like a scene out of The Exorcist, only without the deep raspy voice and the 360 degree head turn (though her nappies sometimes caused me a 360 degree head turn). She would sit peacefully in her high chair and lull you into a false sense of security. You would send spoonful after spoonful of mashed potato and pumpkin with sliced up lamb chops and beans into her mouth. It was so easy that you hardly ever had to resort to the “here comes the helicopter” routine with the plastic spoon, in order that she would take the food. (Is it any wonder we nicknamed her “Bhudda”).

All of a sudden there would be a pause, a small intestinal rumble, a look of consternation on her face, and a slight reddening of her cheeks. You had about half a second to run for your life. A mush of foodstuff mixed with baby bile would erupt and spray across the room like a head exploding in a Tarantino movie. It was incredible. If The Greens saw it today they’d attach a hydro electric power plant to her mouth and we could sell electricity back into the grid.

I wanted to vomit like this after the Cats lost the 2005 Semi Final to the Swans at the SCG. With three seconds left we were in front. With 2.98 seconds remaining we were behind. And just like in 1980 it was a bloke called Davis who caused the mayhem; Nick Davis. On this occasion I wasn’t sitting in the stands at Waverley Park, I was standing on the couch in my lounge room.

Why wasn’t someone standing goal side of him? Why was the goal square left unattended? Why didn’t we have a third man up to belt the ball to the boundary line? Why did Nick Davis choose this quarter of this match to play a blinder? (I asked a similar question about Stuart Dew in the 2008 grand final). Why didn’t someone just knuckle him after he’d kicked his first two goals early in that last stanza?

The Cats had been rumbling for the last two seasons (they made the preliminary final in 2004) and were surely ready to explode in a grand final. They just needed to make one. It wasn’t to be in 2005. I went to bed with a bruised hand, a dent in the coffee table and a mental picture of Nick Davis with an ice pick in his forehead.

Little did I realize what joyous days were just around the corner. The journey would soon come to an end. And what an end! In 2007 it was if the Cats were grinding Port Adelaide into the turf just for me, expelling the enormous want that had been building up since those days at footy training with Mr Patto, making the beating in the shelter shed and stop nails in the feet all worthwhile, eliminating the sad memory of 1980 and the maroon body shirt, routing the devastation of four lost grand finals in the Ablett era.

It was like watching a David Attenborough documentary where an orca whale is playing with an injured seal pup before eating it. It tosses it around, tortures it, taunts it, provides it false hope by letting it swim briefly away before launching another attack to resume the torment. In decades past Geelong was the seal pup. After 2007 Geelong became the orca.

If I could indulge in one gripe it would be that I didn’t see the Cats win a flag as a kid. It would have sparkled like Christmas Day sparkles for little ones. There would have been a magic to it that can’t be replicated in adulthood; the sort of magic I saw on the wall of the pigeon club watching the old black and white film. I also saw it in the beaming smile of my daughter Kate after the 2009 premiership. She heard my keys in the door as I returned from the MCG and was waiting for me as I burst enthusiastically through the door, like gronk returning to the cave with a fat deer carcass.

“Dad!” she squealed in her little girl voice, “Dad, the Cats won gramfinals!”

Epilogue

We have cousins who are a bit older than us. Actually they are second cousins but who’s counting? They are responsible for my brothers and me barracking for Geelong. It was a simple matter of handing down a football jumper to my oldest brother who handed it down to my second oldest brother who…………..you get the drift.

After the final siren sounded at the conclusion of the 2007 grand final, Leo (one of the aforementioned cousins) was standing at the back of the room with his arms folded contentedly across his ample chest. He had a smirk on his face; a Mona Lisa type smirk that portrays an inner glow and an unexpressed exhaustion. As pandemonium broke loose I sought him out. We embraced like we’d just escaped from Alcatraz.

“They can’t hurt me anymore” he said, “They can’t hurt me anymore.”

God bless you Leo.

 

 

About Damian O'Donnell

OK - which is the odd one out: Love the Cats and flannelette shirts, especially in winter. I get on extremely well with red wine. We just seem to hit it off. Love horse racing in Spring. Used to love cricket. Go to Stawell every Easter and contemplate life around the fire. Love water skiing, especially in summer. Love a great oil painting. Will read most things put in front of me. Thought 'The Sorpranos' was the best TV show ever made - by miles. Run an accounting practice in Melbourne's suburbs.

Comments

  1. “At the conclusion of every football season the St Francis Xavier pie night was held at the Pigeon Club.” Just wondering whether in the sixteenth century the famous Jesuit would have known what was in store for him.

    Great read Dips.

  2. “d”

  3. Great read, Dips.

  4. Beautifully written reminiscense, Dips, although I have to say I have very different memories of the 1980 and 81 Preliminary Finals than you do.

  5. Dips – what a great read. I’m also so glad that you included 1997. I clearly remember an
    Adelaide Uni flag day being soured by the Camry crows and the infamous non mark.

    Thanks so much mate.
    Go cats

  6. Terrific piece Dips. Thanks on behalf of all us Geelong supporters, especially those of us who were belted up by young thugs at school (often Collingwood and Essendon supporters I recall) for daring to wear the hoops in their presence during one or other of Geelong’s less than prosperous eras. Trust me, 1957 and 1958 (back to back Spoons) were not happy years for us Cats fans.

    All worth it now. We just needed a little patience.

  7. David Downer says:

    Absolute ripper Dips. Very funny. Well done

  8. Sydney Malakellis says:

    Good suff. Being a Cat fan I remember clinging on to the 2002 VFL Grand Final win (David Mensch, you star!) knowing full well I’d never see the real thing.

  9. Sydney Malakellis says:

    Just found this. Compulsory viewing for every Cat. The last ten minutes of the 2002 VFL Grand Final. Ablett, Bartel, Chappy (with hair), Kelly, Stevie J… Wow

  10. Enjoyable read, Dips. Even for us non-Cats supporters.

  11. Cheers chaps.

    Besides the “d” I left out in various places (refer J Harms 1st comment) I also have Ablett taking a screamer in 1999 – after he retired. I’m sure I meant 1989………….maybe it was the 1984 State of Origin. Time to re-check google.

  12. Wonderful stories. Beautifully written. I’m not jealous of your premierships (we have our share). But I am jealous of your unconventional overseas adventures. Great read.

  13. what d?

  14. JTH – just my pathetic sense of humour.

    PeterB – those overseas adventures are the ones I can remember! I reckon there is a book in the idea of people’s overseas adventures stories.

    .

  15. Dips, “those overseas adventures are the ones I can remember” AND prepared to share publicly. ;-)

  16. Pete – yes indeed. There was the time in the Sinai Desert I was offered 2 million camels for a woman……………………..

  17. Richard Naco says:

    Outstanding!

  18. Dips – I met a Bedouin at the Christmas Island Detention Centre who claims he took the illegal boat to Australia to find a nippy little bloke in blue and white hoops who absconded still owing him 1,999,999 camels. I told him I knew a bloke who knew some blokes who…………….

  19. Dips, this is a truly wonderful piece of writing. You capture the eras and the resonances they have to your life beautifully. The internal war of the fan is utterly subjective and that’s what makes every fan’s story interesting. Many struggle to express it, but you in both mnemonic detail and emotion.

    Great to see you last night. Hope we can catch up and talk at length about the subtleties of fandom again soon.

  20. Thanks Phil – appreciate it.

    The Almanac launch was a ripper night. Great to see so many Knackers in the one room at the one time. What a wonderful thing it is.

  21. Great writing! Passing time weaves distortion, but my memory of the 1980 final against the pies is (and it’s from a radio call), from a goal attempt late in the game. Peter Moore close to the line puching the ball back INTO PLAY with the official in charge deciding upon the third of two options – he awarded a point!!!
    Game over! Can somone confirm or deny?

  22. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Enjoyable read even for a non cats man and , Dan Crane 97 was the great day of 5
    Ad Uni Flags I had been to footy park and on walking in to the general havelock with ,
    Gordo guys were having battles with the premiership shields so I said to gordo let’s get out of here as being on the committee I didn’t want to spend the rest of the night panicking . 2007 for a lot of crows supporters ranks as a great day as port well and truly got there pants pulled down . Yes a huge turn around by the cats and I reckon just for the exciting brand of footy they play a he’ll of a lot of peoples so called , 2 nd side
    Loved the paragraph about , Clares projectile vomits all up very well written and entertaining thanks , Dips

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