A club is bigger than the team.

Sport is often a reflection of life, to many it is the very essence of life itself. As watchers and supporters we invest emotionally and financially, our wellbeing, our sense of self, our place in society is so often determined by the fortunes of our team, our sport. We are not a nation that goes to war over sport nor do we accept violence as a means of proving one club’s allegiance is superior to another. It’s stronger than that. Sport and our team’s success allow us to ride a wave of euphoria greater than any drug and we want more.

Sport is a religion; it generates faith, passion and hope, an escape from our everyday life where we live vicariously through the success of our team.

As a 15 year old sport obsessed teenager, my family moved to Melbourne from Brisbane, same country but totally different culture. We moved to a new world, from a tropical climate to the Arctic Circle, where four seasons could be seen in one day and most importantly, from a Rugby passion to an Australian Rules religion.

Fortunately I played both codes and first kicked a ball for the Mayne Tigers, a Brisbane club linked to Richmond Tigers. I remember in our preparation for Grand Finals, we would gather at the club house on Thursday night after training and watch a film of Tom Hafey’s Richmond tigers enduring pre-season torture, players the ilk of Sheedy, Bartlett, Clay and Royce Hart. The old black and white footage introduced me to another world and offered my first glimpse into how football dominated Melbourne culture.

The seeds to my football journey were sown in the first house that we moved to, Bridport Street South Melbourne, a kick from Lakeside Oval, home to the South Melbourne Swans. Living this close to a VFL ground meant I had to barrack for the Swans, how could I support any other club, South Melbourne is my home, it’s my club, it’s become my identity in a new city and school and it is now my colours for life, red and white. It is the club for which my moods will swing erratically from one week to the next, it has become my joy and my despair but no matter the torment and ridicule, it is my team.

I remember the Saturday mornings of a home game at Lakeside in the 1970s, going to the South Melbourne market, feeling the buzz and listening to the chatter about the hopes for the game, stall holders displaying their colours. The procession of supporters from the market pouring down Clarendon St to the ground after closing time to make the 2.00pm start.

Living so close to the ground, I would dash home from school sport, grab lunch, wait for the first siren before grabbing my red and white scarf, membership card and then dash over the road to take my place in the stand.

Lakeside Oval was the most striking ground to watch football. Sailing boats gliding over the blue Albert Park Lake would colour the background, accompanied with the gracefully swaying palm trees, the green bowling club where balls would disappear and then the oval itself, surrounded by a mass of red and white supporters. The ground was usually always a mud pit with green wedges on the wings. The terraces were full of characters and the half time coin collection for the end of season trip was always a dangerous proposition, with coins flung from every direction and collected in a stretched out blanket, the cheer squad trailing behind and collecting the misdirected coins.

Supporting a club became your identity, where you could strike up a conversation with a stranger because you support the same team, or you could question someone’s character because they barracked for Collingwood. I would always be envious of my friends who supported Carlton or Richmond as their team nearly always played in the big matches and then in the 1980s I would feel the same about Hawthorn and Essendon supporters. A school friend played in the great Hawthorn team of the ‘80s and I would secretly wish them well but my heart was always for the red and white. Being a Swans supporter meant you were familiar with disappointment, we had some great moments, but that was it, a moment here and there, no sustained success.

South Melbourne’s lack of sustainable success escalated into a battle for survival, its finances so perilous that the only option, as presented by the powers to be, was to move interstate to Sydney.

My club, my identity, is moving to a city that doesn’t understand the rules of the game let alone the culture that it is so closely aligned with. As a supporter I had to accept its fate, I wanted a club to support, I couldn’t change colours and I had invested too much emotionally.  While the Sydney Swans retained the red and white and the swans logo, they remained my team and now my club.

Throughout the 1980s I continued to support the red and white from a distance, I watched their home games at the SCG live on a Sunday and often went to the Melbourne suburban battlefields to watch their away games. This often meant sitting in hostile environments, enduring abuse from rival supporters but at least I still had a team.

I would watch supporters from other clubs with envy on Grand Final day. Melbourne would come alive with football fever, your team would be discussed in the media every day during the grand final week, and the only talk in town involved the two competing teams.

I was fortunate to have friends with MCC Members Ladies passes and would be invited to watch the Grannie with them. I lived on top of Punt Rd Hill, overlooking the G and would see the colour and atmosphere build. Watching the pre-game entertainment on the TV gave me a sense of timing; I would walk to the MCG down Punt Rd, cross over the Brunton Ave footbridge and find my friends in time for the players entry onto the ground and the release of the balloons.

Every time I made this walk I fantasised that it was my team, how great it would be walking towards the G knowing the Swans were four quarters away from glory.

In 1995 the Swans reserves were in the Grand Final. A friend found me a ticket sitting with Carlton members. Paul Kelly won the Brownlow and did the lap of honour; our reserves would never make that lap.

Carlton won the Flag that day and the closest I came to pride was watching former Swan Greg “Diesel” Williams, carve up Geelong and win the Norm Smith medal.

It was a great day but no cigar.

The following year, 1996, due to work commitments, I moved to Sydney.

I was finally going to see my team play Home games again after 14 years. The number 14 has mysterious qualities for Swans.

I was living in Redfern, a good walk from the SCG, down Cleveland St, cross Anzac Parade and my Red and White family would be assembling. I would take my members seat on the wing in the O’Reilly Stand, wearing a polo shirt and cap, with my original South scarf, I would sit there and think how great this is? Is this not the best way to watch football?

Plugger had arrived and Sydney loved him, the Rugby media loved him as did many of the League players. At work I would hear diehard League supporters chatting about not just Plugger but the Swans.

Footy had arrived in Sydney.

Rocket would take the Swans to a Home Preliminary Final, foreign territory to me.

The SCG came alive and the Swans would come from behind to beat the Bombers with Plugger’s kick on the siren that would take me to Melbourne and the MCG on Grand Final Day.

After the Prelim Final, I was in the Social club and noticed a group of past players walk quietly out to the middle of the SCG.

There was Browning and Round and many of the other pioneering players that moved from Lakeside to Harbour side. They stood in a huddle around the centre, sipping on their Crown Lagers and sang the song, it was a quiet reflection perhaps of the battles they endured, the flag they flew for so long, the colours they wore.

The SCG was dark and still out in the middle, the past players slowly made their way back to the boundary and up into the stands, I stood there in the empty rows of seats, put my beer down and clapped them off.

Something so meaningless in terms of a gesture but I appreciated what they had done.

I finally made that walk down Punt Rd, over the Footbridge towards the MCG bathed in Red and White. My scarf flying proudly as I strutted into my seat, finally experiencing that feeling that my Club was part of the main show.

I also did that walk on the way home, except the smile was gone and I had to endure the overflowing emotions of North Melbourne supporters as I trudged my way back up the Punt Rd Hill.

All was not lost that year, the Swans gained a new respect from opposing teams, Sydney embraced the Club and the Players.

I would go on to watch a few more Grand Finals and a couple of Premierships in 2005 and 2012.

My South Melbourne romance had endured the long distance affair and my identity was intact, I had a Club and not just a team.

About David Parker

A keen observer of all things sport and a Swans tragic, David likes to dabble in sporting documentaries including the Max Bailey doco for Fox Footy. David is currently filming a documentary on the Australian Cycling Men's Team Pursuit squad as they prepare for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Comments

  1. Neil Anderson says

    Really enjoyed your story of following one of the old Melbourne suburban teams in South Melbourne.
    So many similarities with me following Footscray over the decades. Both Clubs struggling financially with reputations for being down-trodden battlers. Both Clubs changing names, In Footscray’s case to be more inclusive for the expanding western-suburbs. The cynics suggested the name-change was due to the name ”Footscray’ having a stigma when it came to marketing the Club.
    South Melbourne’s name-change to the Sydney Swans was of course the obvious one and has proved to be a powerful brand- name forty-four years later.
    Sometimes when almanackers agree with everything about an article they simply comment with the word ‘ditto’. Here is a couple of dittos from me:
    Living so close to your local ground you ended up with the Club’s colours for life.
    The half-time collection of coins as they carried the blanket around. At the Western Oval we had the Footscray-Yarraville band playing ‘Sons Of The Scrays’ to accompany the volunteers who were ducking the coins.
    Envious of friends with teams that were always playing in finals and big matches.
    When the South Melbourne won in 2005 it wasn’t the same as the Dogs breaking the long drought, but at least it gave our supporters hope that we could do the same one day.

  2. Thanks Neil. An interesting story, my son’s best mate is a mad doggies fan and he went to a footy clinic last year at Western Oval wearing his Swans No 15 jumper. At the end of the clinic every doggies player signed the back of his jumper of which he is now equally as proud as the swans signatures. If not the Swans in 2016 lets hope the Scrays can.

  3. Dave,

    Football tears at the heart and we have only our memories to keep us going.

    If I could only go back in time to “feel” what it was like at a suburban ground. The smell of the mud, second hand cigarette smoke and stale beer. Lining up at the outside toilet only to be overcome by the fumes of the overflowing urinal once you arrived to do your business. Aah the days!

    The footy was tough and so was being a spectator but in some strange way, the harshness of the outer was somewhat like doing your bit for the team and you were with your tribe, safe.

    Good story.

    Cheers

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