Almanac Footy Literature: 10 Memorable Passages

This week, the call went out on The Footy Almanac:

 

Ben Fenton-Smith’s mate Dr Brian D. Ruger teaches a sports literature course in Japan. He is keen to include a reading on Australian football and is looking for suggestions.”

 

It resulted in me slowly but surely gaining entry into the Footy Wing of the Sports Literature section of my brain. It took some time, as while I often add to the collection that resides in this particular corner, I rarely have cause to recall, revisit, and reminisce over old favourites.

 

Thanks to the vagaries of memory, I found that it wasn’t whole stories that came to mind, but rather it was shorter passages that were eminently memorable. As such, I offer a collection of ten of these passages here. Of course, this is not really a list curated for Dr Ruger of The Best or Most Literary writing on this sport of ours. Rather, it is best considered as an exhibition, curated for my fellow sports writing devotees, of what one brain has catalogued as ten memorable passages about footy.

 

 

Gary Smith, ‘Aussies Rule’, Sports Illustrated

 

Lovely madness interrupted by dizzying lunacy: boundary umps responding to out-of-bounds balls by turning their backs to the players and blindly flinging the ball as high and far as they could, while the crowd went “Woooof!” and ruckmen and rovers trampolined in pursuit; stern white-coated and white-hatted goal umps looking like men who had come to drag someone back to the asylum, signaling scores with a stern six-shooter bang-bang of their index fingers followed by a snapping semaphore of white flags; a dozen white-suited water-bearing trainers and neon-green-clad message runners sprinting onto the field whenever a player plucked a punt from the air inside the 50-meter line to record a “mark” and earn an unimpeded kick on goal, all of it timed by a field clock regularly at five to 10 minutes’ variance with the scoreboard clock, causing the hooter, as the quarter- and game-ending siren is endearingly called, to startle everyone no matter when it honked. “Don’t tell me that’s not great football,” Nash kept wheeling toward me and erupting, spewing spittle and beer on the poor sap in front of us, and dang if I could gather my wits to reply.

 

Sinead Halliday, as quoted by Martin Flanagan, ‘The Bond of Footy and Family’, The Age

 

Kick-to-kick is a good place to talk, or to not talk … When having a kick, you could speak about worries or wonders and share stories you ordinarily would not. There is something about the movement and the doing and being outside – the wind can whisk the words away, the sun can heal and the rain can cleanse. There is a freedom.

 

Bob Murphy, ‘Cyril on song one of the game’s sweet spots’, The Age

 

One of the temptations of playing this game also happens to be the thing that torments its competitors. Every game of football is different.

 

When the umpire lifts the ball high into the air and the siren sounds to commence play, every player on the field begins the search. No matter what happened last week, everyone starts again. I describe it like a radio frequency: every week that frequency changes and it is this exquisite conundrum that wraps itself around the players’ minds and hearts. The question – can I tune into this game of footy?

 

For those who can remember what it was like to work an old wireless radio, the search for the clearest sound could take you a while. Silver knobs are twisted left and right, the sweet sound peeking through for brief, glorious moments only to go missing again, replaced with the ugly crackle of static. If football can be deemed an art form, then this pursuit made up quite a bit of the challenge. The very best players to have pulled on a pair of boots were able to tune into the frequency of the game time and time again. The truly great ones have access to the buttons of the radio. Cyril played the buttons of the old football wireless like a pianist. At times he would drift in for brief moments, a deft touch here, a sidestep there that would turn the volume up for all of us to enjoy. Then there were other days, generally in the biggest games, where Cyril was the station. He was the song. It was a job for the other players and spectators to find out where he was broadcasting from. All of us feverishly twisting dials maniacally back and forth.

 

Waleed Aly, ‘Fearing for my country’, The Age

 

[In 2005, Aly had been asked by Telstra Dome staff to turn off his laptop, the man saying “You know with the way things in the world are at the moment, especially for dark people like you and me.”]

 

However I am meant to feel about this, I know how I did feel: humiliated. Never have I wanted so much to be invisible. I contemplated going home, but it is against my football supporter’s code of honour.

 

And in any event, it would have looked even worse; as though I had no business there once I was found out. I had no idea who among the 30,000 strong crowd complained, but I could feel their burning, suspicious gaze upon me. I couldn’t shake the thought that some unknown people suspected I might be a terrorist. I wondered if they were also Richmond fans, and for some irrational, tribal reason, the thought embarrassed me even more.

 

All I could do was retreat into the game, pretending I was just like any other supporter. Lying to myself, basically.

 

It was the first time in my life I felt like I wasn’t an Australian.

 

David Wilson as E.regnans, ‘A Portrait of the Supporter as a Young Woman’, The Footy Almanac

 

Little Jenny leaves her rudimentary home of ten summers and walks with her mum to the train station. They each wear the colours of their team. The colours that attract such scorn at school; an eye-rolling, aggression-fuelled reaction that has ensured that Little Jenny has never worn to school the $99 club jumper given to her as a most extravagant, most out-of-character present, more than once. Why did people mock her for wearing this jumper? This very morning, ahead of a trip to a big league game itself, and despite her mother’s entreaty, Little Jenny has again resisted wearing the jumper, by now marginally too small, though she deigns to wear her fluffy woollen hand-knitted club-coloured scarf. Fluffy is good. Her granny had knitted that scarf. Her own granny could perform the magic of knitting. One sparkling afternoon, her granny had sat alongside Little Jenny and revealed to her the ancient ways. And now Jenny could knit. Sort of. There was no such club-coloured scarf as evidence, but there did exist a crooked shapeless patch of yellowed wool, intended as a scarf for her teddy bear, that bore testament to her spluttering progress with the needles. Growing magic.

 

Over time Little Jenny notices her mother and notices the fluctuating emotions of her mother and understands that this club and its fortunes are inextricably linked with her own. And Little Jenny knows this to be a dubious thing. Why should the result of a footy game determine her own fate?

 

And so Little Jenny grows to both resent and love this thing called a footy club.

 

John Harms, Loose Men Everywhere

 

By the time I’d finished my arts degree I didn’t know very much at all. The few history lectures I attended showed me human folly and human tragedy. So did the Geelong Football Club. The books I read and the films I saw directed me to contemplate the struggle between good and evil. So did Saturday afternoon matches between Geelong and Collingwood. I could listen to Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’ and feel the sadness. I could listen to the commentary of a match from Kardinia Park and feel the same thing.

 

Football, I was starting to realise, was about many things; more things than I had ever consciously thought as a child. When you are a child footy has an effect on you. It makes you feel things, think things, know things. Only you don’t realise that footy is having an effect on you. You just experience it all.

 

Stephanie Holt, ‘Saints 2004: A Game, a Jumper, a Song’, The Best Australian Sports Writing 2004

 

Lydia, concentrating on doing everything right, takes the stage right on cue, hands of a jumper as Leigh Montagna is introduced, turns and heads off stage. It doesn’t stop until Stephen Milne accepts number 44 and sweeps a grandmotherly type off her feet. This is our day, and we feel ready for anything. In cheerful cacophany, we rouse ourselves for the club song.

 

‘He asked me if I’d like a kiss,’ says Lydia, when I pump her for details, afterwards, and though she’d been too nervous to answer, she is delighted by the brief, gallant brush on the cheek she received. ‘He’s really really nice,’ she tells me.

 

We head off to buy a Leigh Montagna badge. Lydia’s beaming fit to burst.

 

*

 

Less than two days later, we wake to the news that Stephen Milne and Leigh Montagna have been accused of sexual assault. Less than two days: just long enough for Lydia to tell and retell the story of her wonderful day; to fill her Dad in with all the details, to ring her uncle and her grandmother and recount her special role; to come home from school to report that one of the teachers had been in the crowd, had recognised her up on stage.

 

Martin Flanagan, The Game in Time of War

 

What sort of player was I? Scared, mostly. Originally, playing footy meant the joy of green grass zipping past beneath my feet, the heightened excitement as the ball came near. I was eleven or twelve when a boy from the toughest school in town with a name like Gerard MacCarthy swerved up to me as a match was about to start, poked his lean, pale face into mine and said if I went near the ball he’d smash me. His words numbed my being. I suspect the ghost of Gerard MacCarthy was somewhere on the ground every time I played thereafter. I did master my fear for one game, my last, a grand final, and learned too late that with concentration and application I might have gone at least some of the way towards living with my shadow.

 

Martin Flanagan, ‘The glue that binds – footy’, The Age

 

We went by train, standing in a crowded carriage. You backed into me like I was a tree trunk. I put my arm across you. Through all the train’s sways and lurches, we moved as one. I’d been a bit worried about taking you to the footy. Parenthood comes with a certain instinct, an awareness of where your kid is at all times. Have I, as a grandfather in his 60s, still got that awareness? And the world is an uncertain place right now. These had been my dark thoughts in the night but, by the time we got to Richmond station, I knew there was no way either of us was going anywhere without the other. As they say in footy, we had touch.

 

Bruce Dawe, ‘Life Cycle’

 

And the tides of life will be the tides of the home-team’s fortunes

— the reckless proposal after the one-point win,

the wedding and honeymoon after the grand-final…

 

They will not grow old as those from the more northern States grow old,

for them it will always be three-quarter-time

with the scores level and the wind advantage in the final term,

 

That pattern persisting, like a race-memory, through the welter of seasons,

enabling old-timers by boundary fences to dream of resurgent lions

and centaur-figures from the past to replenish continually the present,

 

So that mythology may be perpetually renewed

and Chicken Smallhorn return like the maize-god

in a thousand shapes, the dancers changing

 

But the dance forever the same?—?the elderly still

loyally crying Carn… Carn… (if feebly) unto the very end,

having seen in the six-foot recruit from Eaglehawk their hope of salvation.

 

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About Edward P. Olsen

EPO is equally passionate about sport and sports writing. While others toil away at the local indoor sports centre re-living their futile childhood dreams of being one of the best of all time, he types away at home re-living his futile childhood dream of being one of the world’s great columnists.

Comments

  1. Kasey Symons says

    This is a great collection Edward, some great stuff here. Do you have the link to the full Waleed Aly piece?

  2. Hi Kasey, I couldn’t find a link online, but had an old photocopy… If you’d like a copy, shoot me an email at edwardpolsen@gmail.com and I’ll flick you through a scan.

  3. Well, Edward P Olsen, I remain humble and grateful in your assessment of the above list.
    That is a super idea.
    And that is a super list.

    Here’s another passage for readers to consider.
    I posted it at The Almanac on the day R Flanagan won the Booker Prize:
    https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/celebrating-richard-flanagans-man-booker-prize-2014-footy/

    Many thanks.

  4. Ben Fenton-Smith says

    Excellent list Edward!

  5. Ben Fenton-Smith says

    … and a good extract E.regnans … I didn’t know about that one.

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