Almanac Footy Memoir: Last of the Royboys

 

 

 

 

Last of the Royboys

 

When I was a boy, footy tribalism was a given in 1970s Melbourne. In most cases, it was simply a case of family loyalty that decided who you barracked for. If your parents supported Carlton, as my mother did, your choice was made for you. Like in many Melbourne households, I was born into the colours. Others, god forbid, were attracted to teams outside the family heritage. I became one of the latter. For me, it was a search for my own identity, a sense of belonging, to bring meaning to Saturday afternoons and life in general. It took two decades and a meandering path through the suburban grounds of Melbourne to reach my goal which culminated one afternoon in 1989 at Princes Park.

 

As a boy I barracked for Carlton. My mother was a mad Blues supporter so I would kick the footy around the backyard wearing David MacKay’s number 43 on the back of my Carlton jersey. But when I was ten years old I committed the first of many sins. In some ways it remains the worst of sins. I switched teams. I remember watching a night series match in 1978 played at Waverley when Carlton held on to beat Geelong by a point. Mum was used to Carlton being a powerhouse team and winning premierships on a regular basis, so didn’t really take the night series seriously. For the first time after a match, I felt sad about a team other than Carlton losing. The Geelong players looked devastated at the loss as they walked off the oval.

 

Geelong were going through a lean spell and were underdogs going into the game. They tried so hard to win. After the siren, Mum told me that she had secretly wished that Geelong would win. I took her pity with a grain of salt. Even then I knew to question the sincerity of a Carlton supporter. Even with Carlton fielding a less than full strength team Geelong still couldn’t beat them. They rallied late in the regular season and made the finals under Rod Olsson, but were easy pickings in the elimination final against Mum’s beloved Blues. That night though, sitting next to my parents, it didn’t feel right to follow Carlton anymore.

 

So I started to barrack for Geelong when I was ten. I left it to Dad to pass it onto Mum that I had stopped barracking for Carlton. She cold-shouldered me for a couple of days, hurt at my betrayal. At the time we lived in the northern suburbs of Melbourne and I had eleven other teams closer to me to choose from but I chose the team furthest away – Geelong. It wasn’t the skills of the Nankervis brothers, the speed of winger Michael Turner or the majestic class of David Clarke that made me follow Geelong. It was their uniform. No other team in the VFL had the numbers of their players on their shorts like Geelong had. I think they pinched the idea from the clubs in the South Australian league. It was the eye-catching sight of the two white stripes on the sides of their shorts next to the numbers set against the backdrop of blue shorts, plus the blue and white hoops of their jumpers that did the trick – I fell in love with the look.

 

Dad, who sat next to me on the other side of the couch the night Geelong lost by a point, was more of a Port Melbourne follower. I didn’t know that, however, until I watched the 1974 VFA Grand Final against Oakleigh. I fancied Oakleigh and sat with the old man watching the game and, as Port pulled away, Dad couldn’t help himself and became quite vocal with his cheering. It was too much for me and I ran from the lounge crying. I got Mum to rig up the small telly in my bedroom, hoping that by the time I could get reception Oakleigh would have mounted a miraculous comeback. Dad’s whoops of joy from the other room suggested otherwise.

 

It wasn’t until the South Melbourne club moved to Sydney that I found out Dad followed a team in the VFL. South Melbourne. South had been so hopeless for so many years he never bothered to bring it up. Initially he supported the Swans relocating to Sydney but then realised he had lost his team, so he gave the game away. I only ever had one or two kick-to-kicks with him when I was a kid. He was left-footed and all his passes were drop kicks. I’d like to think back and remember that they were all accurate passes with the ball lace out rattling my ribcage as it thumped into my chest but, in reality, they were sprayed all over the place. He played baseball for Footscray when he was younger and then when school finished he started working at the TAB. Flemington, Moonee Valley and Caulfield held more allure to him than Windy Hill or the Junction Oval so his Saturday afternoons at home were spent listening to the races.

 

It wasn’t until 1980 that Geelong became a serious premiership contender. Under former player Billy Goggin, Geelong confounded the pundits and finished the season on top of the ladder. I listened to the matches every Saturday in the rumpus room as I kicked my toy-sized Nerf footy around the room, mimicking the action of the game. I started a scrapbook for the finals series. My first page had a photo of Goggin walking his greyhounds on the eve of the second semi-final and underneath an article about Jack Hawkins and Terry Bright getting a lift back to Geelong after their car broke down in Melbourne on their way home after a finals function. Geelong had beaten Richmond and Collingwood in the home and away season but buckled under the pressure of finals football and went out in straight sets. Their fragility in the forward line was exposed when defender Mark Bos, after being switched to the forward line, kicked three goals in the last quarter which nearly got them over the line against the Magpies.

 

Geelong nearly lived up to expectations in 1981. They beat Kevin Sheedy’s Bombers in the first round in front of 37,000 at Kardinia Park, then flat-lined for the next few matches before picking up consistency. The recruitment of Brian Peake and the subsequent drubbing of North Melbourne the following week lifted expectations that they could go all the way. It was a vexing year for the VFL. A record 92,000 jammed into VFL Park to see Hawthorn play Collingwood. The game was never more popular. Even in the rain and cold weather of August, 200,000 fans went to the last round of footy. Yet the umpires went out on strike during the season and the year ended with South moving to Sydney, an upheaval that dominated conversations around town. The VFL’s insecurities were never too far below the surface. In conjunction with Channel 7, the VFL televised a Reserves match every Sunday, muscling in on the VFA’s hold on Sunday footy.

 

Geelong’s best win of the season was against Essendon in the last round in the driving rain at Waverley, to jump from fourth to third on the ladder and end the Bomber’s fifteen-game match-winning streak. David Parkin, coach of flag favourites Carlton, was never worried about playing Geelong. He correctly observed that Geelong could never win a grand final without a proper forward. Geelong fluked a win against Collingwood in the qualifying final, with Mossop and Reynoldson playing their best games. They were unstoppable up front, marking everything that came their way.

 

But it was a false hope. They threw in the towel against Carlton in the second semi, and the preliminary final against the Magpies was over before it even started after prize recruit Garry Sidebottom missed the bus to Waverley. Collingwood coach Tom Hafey used his enforcers to belt Geelong into submission and the classiest and most skilful side in the competition surrendered meekly when it mattered most. David Clarke had been left out of the preliminary final and gave the club a spray in the Geelong Advertiser the following Monday, signalling the end of his career at Geelong. Even when they thrashed a lowly side during the season journalists from Melbourne weren’t impressed. Billy Goggin was happy to foster an ‘us against them’ mentality of the country folk pitted against the city slickers, but when one of your forwards misses the bus to a finals match they deserve the pillorying from the press.

 

My scrapbooks lasted until midway through the 1982 season when it was obvious that Geelong were foundering. I started to lose interest. Their time at the top was fleeting and they crashed down the ladder. Brian Peake didn’t live up to expectations, Garry Sidebottom was cleared to Fitzroy and, while they finally managed to beat their bogey teams Carlton and Collingwood, they lost to every other team, mustering just seven wins. In a game against top team Richmond where they were getting thumped, a desperate Goggin sent another defender up forward. Riverina recruit Bernard Toohey kicked seven goals and nearly won the game for his team. If Geelong had found a proper forward, they would have won a couple of premierships. Their fall from grace was complete a few weeks later when they were thrashed by eleven goals by perennial whipping boys Melbourne. Billy Goggin resigned after Round 21 and his nemesis team, Collingwood – themselves free-falling down the ladder and about to go on an off-season bloodletting spree that would boost the circulation of the Melbourne papers – beat them by five points in the last game of the season. Peter Johnstone, not noted for his kicking prowess, marked at the thirty-third minute with Geelong six points down. He kicked hurriedly, seconds before the siren, anticipating that there was time for a winning score if he goaled. He didn’t. Billy Goggin didn’t see Geelong’s last kick of 1982: he couldn’t watch. It was a cruel way to end his coaching career.

 

I had started going to games on my own by then. I caught the tram into town, then either a bus or a train depending on which ground Geelong was playing at. I was big for my age and looked old enough so I drank beer in the outer and screamed at the umpire like everyone else did. Here I was, sixteen years old, drinking and bludging smokes off other Geelong supporters, then going home to my desk on Monday nights and cutting out match reports for my scrapbooks. After the season ended I packed my scrapbooks away. I had better things to do as a teenager. But for two and a bit years, I’d done a reasonable job for two of cutting out all the clippings of the match reports and stats from each game. There were lots of rugged action shots of grimacing players surging forward with the ball tucked under their arm or footballers flying above the pack for a screamer. At the end of every season I’d glue the footy cards of each Geelong player to the back of the book and my Mum would bung the family typewriter on the dining table and type up the results in the finals series for me. I walked to the shops for the Observer and Press on Sundays and Dad would bring home Monday’s Age from work for me.

 

Geelong started well under new coach Tom Hafey – resurrected from Collingwood – in 1983. They beat Carlton and Collingwood in the first six rounds. A narrow loss to Fitzroy heralded a decline that saw them finish with eight wins for the year. They even managed to get thrashed by St Kilda at home. No one lost to St Kilda in the early 80s!

 

I totally lost interest when we moved to Queensland in 1984. The beaches, sun and sand, new friends and girls were more than enough to quell any enthusiasm for a game played in the cold and mud almost 2000 kilometres away. I knew that Brisbane joined the League in 1987 and played up the road at Carrara but I didn’t know if they won or lost on any given week. I didn’t even know how Geelong had been faring over the last few years. I sat with Mum and watched Carlton overpower Hawthorn in the 1987 grand final but only because Dad was working and I knew she wanted company.

 

Then one Friday night in August I was drinking alone at the Kirra Hotel and watching an Aussie rules game on the telly. It was the last round of 1988 and I was perplexed because it was happening again. I was attracted to a team not because of their skill or recent success, but because of their colours. Fitzroy were getting thumped by Richmond at the MCG. Both teams were hopeless in 1988 so the match had no bearing on the finals. Fitzroy scored a rare goal in the last quarter, their cheer squad behind the goals waved their flags and streamers, and I stood there in the back room, alone, because no one watched Aussie rules in the pubs of Queensland, and the red, yellow and blue colours of Fitzroy got to me.

 

For a moment, as these Fitzroy supporters waved their flags with the enthusiasm of a last minute come-from-behind win instead of trailing by seventy points, I was transported back to the days of my childhood. It was a time before alcohol and drugs, fights with girlfriends and avoiding people to whom I owed money; a time when football was a constant in my childhood, the most innocent of times to believe in something; a time of watching The Winners with my dad as I lay on my stomach on the floor, my elbows on the carpet and my fists under my chin; watching World of Sport with my brother after the Sunday roast; listening to the radio on Saturdays while playing billiards in my friend’s lounge room; trading footy cards at primary school. I could still remember the fresh, aromatic though slightly artificial smell of the strip of chewing gum in each new pack of cards. It was a time of kicking the footy in the backyard after school on my own or with my dad in the park if I was lucky enough; of filling my beloved scrapbooks after every round of footy. I was transported to a time when I followed Geelong for no other reason than their colours. I had that same feeling again when I saw the Fitzroy cheer squad celebrate the goal.

 

Then my mates caught up with me, dragged me away from the pub and we all went to the Jet Club in Griffith Street and, while I got caught up in a night of music and drinks, that moment of standing in front of the television at the hotel in Kirra, captivated by the colours of a football team, never left my mind.

 

I broke up with a girlfriend in the new year and took it harder than most. So I caught a bus to escape and moved back to Melbourne in February 1989. I lived with my grandmother in the back bedroom of her house in Brunswick. I was on the dole for a bit before I later found work in a warehouse in Preston. As the footy season approached, I used my health-care card to get a concession membership for Geelong. I was back in Melbourne and was swept up in the summer pre-season competition, the around-the-clock dominance of the VFL in the Melbourne landscape, and excited to be part of the Aussie rules scene again. Then, on a whim one afternoon after work, I caught a tram down to the Lakeside Oval to the Fitzroy offices and, with my trusty health-care card, bought a concession membership there as well.

 

The start of the 1989 season had Geelong and Fitzroy playing on different days in the opening few rounds. I was at the MCG standing near the training wickets when Melbourne flew away from Fitzroy, only for Fitzroy to slowly peg them back. It felt unusual to be at a game that didn’t involve Geelong and even more unusual to be half supporting another team. I had never been to a football game that hadn’t involved Geelong, though it was no different really. The Melbourne and Fitzroy supporters around me barracked for their team with just as much passion as any Geelong fan did. Fitzroy forward Richard Osborne put Fitzroy in front near the end of the last quarter before debutant Stephen Tingay kicked the winning goal for Melbourne in the last minute of the game. It was his first game and his only disposal for the match but it won the game for the Demons.

 

The next day I was at the MCG again to watch Malcolm Blight’s first game in charge of Geelong as they played North Melbourne. I saw many people in the Southern Stand from the day before, sitting in the same seats, holding their transistor radios close to their ears as they listened to the commentary of the game. The North Melbourne supporters clapped Kangaroos coach John Kennedy reverently as he walked onto the ground in his famous trench coat to address his players in the breaks. It was a weekend of close results. Geelong fell short of the Kangaroos by three points. Dwayne Russell’s four goals nearly won the game for Geelong. Mark Yeates and my pin-up hero from my scrapbook days, Mark Bos, were the only players still running around from when I had last seen them play when I was a teen.

 

The following week I went with workmates to see Fitzroy win their first game under ‘Curly’ Austin when they beat Collingwood at Princes Park. Such was the influence of Fitzroy’s champion fullback Gary Pert that Magpie coach Leigh Matthews instructed his full forward Brian Taylor to drift to the forward pocket to force Pert to follow his man in the hope of negating Pert’s impact on the game. Taylor kicked three goals but Ross Lyon and Paul Roos got four apiece to give Fitzroy a comfortable win.

 

I caught the train to Kardinia Park the following day to see Geelong smash West Coast by ninety points. I sat in front of David Parkin in the Hickey stand. He was taking a sabbatical from coaching and was working for the umpires’ department. He would have been as impressed as I was with Geelong’s attacking forays and their demolition job on the Eagles as they notched up twenty-six goals.

 

St Kilda had won their first two games and were coming off a thrilling win against Carlton after Tony Lockett kicked his tenth goal with the last kick of the day to win the game. The resurgent Saints were the flavour of the opening rounds and 32,000 went to Waverley to see them take on Fitzroy. I sat on the wing surrounded by optimistic, smiling and hopeful Saints supporters. It was a see-sawing game and the lead changed on numerous occasions. It only went Fitzroy’s way in the last quarter when fullback Alastair Lynch ran off a tiring Lockett to pump the ball into Fitzroy’s forward line. Osborne kicked seven goals, some of them freakish. One goal he scored from the boundary line was memorable. Sandwiched between Saints defenders and the boundary line, Osborne managed to squeeze in a kick which sailed straight through. He was one of just a few playing in the League who could attempt to kick a goal from such a tight angle and pull it off. Besides Gary Ablett and Lockett, Osborne, with his athleticism and goal-scoring prowess, was the one player I looked forward to watching.

 

I rested cans of gin and tonic on my lap as I drove Nan’s Corolla down the Princess Highway the next day. After years of dominance, Carlton were free-falling. They were smashed by Footscray in Round 1, lost to St Kilda the next week, and by Round 3 there were already rumours swirling around coach Robert Walls. It was so full at Kardinia Park that I climbed the perimeter fence, resting my arms over the large advertising hoardings on the outer wing near Moorabool Street, to get a better view of the game. A blue-coated attendant would come along every half an hour or so, look up and ask me and the others who had followed my lead to get down. We ignored his requests; he shrugged his shoulders and shuffled off. Carlton’s misery was compounded that afternoon by a seven-goal mauling and veteran Wayne Johnston being shirt-fronted by Ablett in front of the adoring Members Stand. I watched the highlights with Nan when I got home later that evening. I saw myself standing with the others behind the signs when the camera panned out. ‘Did you see me, Nan?’ I asked her as I pointed to the telly. ‘Yes dear,’ she replied, smiling as she leant forward out of her chair to study the screen. She’d raised six kids and a demanding husband through the Depression and the Second World War. Her eyesight wasn’t what it used to be but she knew how to appease people.

 

I walked to Princes Park from Brunswick for the Fitzroy versus Sydney game the following week, admiring the semis and two-storey Victorian terraces that lined the leafy streets of Carlton. Just as in years past when I first started going to the footy on my own, I crept back into my habit of getting to the ground ridiculously early, way before anyone else. I left Nan’s house at ten and had to kill time so I stopped at every pub I encountered in the back streets of Carlton. I remember talking to my mother about going to the footy in the 1950s. She told me that she and her friends walked to most of the grounds from Brunswick because they didn’t have much money for public transport. She reeled off the grounds she had been to. Besides watching Carlton play at home every second week, she’d walked to Victoria Park, Arden Street, Punt Road, Brunswick Street, Windy Hill and the MCG. She caught the train to Glenferrie Oval and Footscray and the trams to watch Carlton play St Kilda and South Melbourne. Kardinia Park was the only ground she never went to. She often made it into the local papers because she and her girlfriends would make their own flags and streamers in Carlton’s colours to take to the matches and these would attract the interest of photographers at the ground.

 

A crowd of 12,500 turned up and after quarter time, Sydney ran away for an easy win with mid-fielders Healy, Williams and Mitchell controlling the game. I found myself willing Fitzroy to win just as much as I’d willed Geelong to win and walked home disappointed at Fitzroy’s weak performance.

 

On the following day, I went with my Footscray mate Joseph to the Western Oval to watch the Bulldogs play Geelong. We sat up the back in the Whitten Stand. In a tight game on a sun-drenched afternoon at a packed ground, Geelong held off the Bulldogs to win by twelve points. I sat bemused at the torrent of abuse directed at the umpires by the Footscray faithful. I thought the umpiring wasn’t too bad but I was clearly in the minority. The Footscray crowd was seething at the perceived bias against their team and there was no telling them anything different. They were grumbling to one another as they piled down the stairs after the game. I made fun of Joseph as we headed to the exits.

 

‘Look, mate, the umpires are all shaking Gary Ablett’s hand. Now they’re running up to say hello to Malcolm Blight.’

 

Joseph, who had sat in his seat with his head in his hands long after the game had ended, wasn’t in the mood for my antics.

 

‘Fuck off, Johnny.’

 

I scanned the back of the Record for next week’s games when we were in the car heading back to town. Fitzroy were at home against Geelong. I pointed this out to Joseph who knew of my conundrum of liking two teams, which he regarded as an unforgivable indulgence. It was unimaginable for him to give up his cherished Bulldogs.

 

‘This will force your hand, won’t it?’ he said to me with raised judgemental eyebrows.

 

‘Don’t have a go at me,’ I pleaded.

 

‘But Johnny,’ he replied with mock pity lacing his voice, ‘Of all the teams to choose from, Fitzroy? Really?’

 

My nana was even less forgiving. She couldn’t care less about football, but having lived in Melbourne her whole life she knew the sacrilege of switching teams.

 

‘It’s just not the done thing, Johnny.’

 

We would sit around her dining table and share afternoon tea when I finished work. I used to watch her cut out the comics from the morning paper and paste them into her exercise book. It reminded me of the days I hunched over my football scrapbooks with the scissors and the glue. If Nan felt uncomfortable having someone else living with her after being on her own for so long, she kept her feelings to herself. I secretly suspected that she was happy for the company as we spent many evenings together in the lounge in front of the telly. She would shuffle out in the mornings in her dressing gown, knock on my door and get me up for work and, after I showered, breakfast was waiting for me on the table.

 

My workmates would scoff at me. ‘You live with your grandmother?’ they would ask. I saw more positives than negatives. I had three meals a day and there was always some relative popping in to say hello. It took me three minutes to walk to the factory where I worked.

 

‘Each of the kids had different teams when they were growing up,’ she told me as she cut away at the middle pages of the Sun. ‘Your mother was Carlton, Christopher was Carlton too. Lorraine was Fitzroy, Miriam was North Melbourne, Fergus was Essendon and Jerome liked the Tigers. Your grandfather followed Melbourne because they were winning everything. Some of them couldn’t be that much bothered but they stuck by the teams they picked.’

 

She knew that there were households where the allegiance of a team had been passed down through the generations. Even for someone as disinterested as Nan, she knew the ins and outs of football instinctively. Aussie rules did that to you in Melbourne. Whether you liked it or not, you were a part of it. There was no escape.

 

For the Fitzroy versus Geelong game, I was at the ground just after the Reserves started. I bought the Record on the street from a pimply and surly teenage vendor and walked to the ground. An ancient pair of tobacco-stained hands reached out from the mesh wiring of the brick hole in the wall box under the scoreboard, and stubbed my membership ticket. I had a routine when I watched Fitzroy play at home. I would walk up the gravel hill and buy raffle tickets off the Fitzroy volunteer fundraising for the club. Then I walked to the bar and bought my rums, then went to the snack bar and bought my pies. There weren’t many people around and, for a few minutes, I had the outer all to myself. Some diehard Fitzroy supporters were already in the ground and watching the Reserves match, their shouts of advice and encouragement echoing around the empty ground. When I settled in front of the open stand on the wing, I plonked my cans on the ground between my feet, put the pies in my pockets, unwrapped my pack of cigarettes, plugged in my earphones and listened to the morning football shows while I watched the Reserves game. As the crowds arrived, spectators would burrow past me to their favourite spot and kids hanging out with their mates would bounce their footballs as they walked behind me. Some newly arrived fans would stand next to me for a few moments before moving away, seeking better vantage points.

 

Fitzroy smashed Geelong in the Reserves match, kicking thirty-two goals. First-gamer for Fitzroy, Darren Wheildon, kicked nine goals. Fitzroy diehards were scratching their heads as they scanned the playing lists of the Record, wondering who he was. I saw players from both senior teams walk out onto the ground in their suits bouncing balls as they inspected the surface of the ground at half-time of the Reserves match. The crowd built up further as the match reached its conclusion. One thing I noticed with Fitzroy home games was that there was no problem filling the outer with supporters of both sides but the grandstands were always sparsely populated. This was in contrast to when Geelong played at Kardinia Park: the member stands were always full.

 

The final siren sounded in the Reserves, the victorious Fitzroy players shook hands with the vanquished Geelong team, the two cheer squads ran on the ground with their banners and the final influx of spectators found their positions for the afternoon. Soon after the banners were raised, the two teams ran out of the race, burst through the banners, then did their laps and warm-ups in front of their cheering fans. The umpires practised their ball-ups in the centre square, then called the captains for the coin toss. Paul Roos won the toss and pointed to the Heatley Stand goals. The players walked to their positions, rubbing their hands to calm their nerves. Roos was at centre half-back on Barry Stoneham, the mercurial Gary Ablett was on the forward flank and Michael Schulze was at full-back for Geelong marking Richard Osborne. Geelong’s on-ball team of Mark Bairstow and Paul Couch were conferring with their ruckman Damian Bourke in the centre of the ground. Mick Conlan and Ross Lyon were on the forward flanks. The umpire picked up the football, checked with the two captains that they were okay to go, then raised his arm. The crowd roared as the siren sounded and the ball was bounced to commence the game.

 

It was a scrappy affair in the first quarter. Geelong were a far more talented side and Fitzroy played negating tactics to quell Geelong’s attacking style of football. Fitzroy led by five points at quarter time, then Geelong had a burst in the second, booting eight goals to kick away. The Geelong fans around me were even happier in the third quarter as they kicked further away, booting five goals to three to lead by thirty-two points at three-quarter time. I stood among the crowd, drinking but sober. I chain-smoked cigarettes. Usually I barracked for one team to win, abused the umpires for ordinary decisions, or booed the best player on the opposing team. But at this game I was subdued. I felt a reckoning was coming.

 

The players broke from their huddles and took their positions on the field. The siren sounded to start the last quarter, the ball was bounced, and then …

 

A shining light.

 

Realisation.

 

Clarity.

 

Matt Rendell thumped the ball forward from the opening bounce and it rolled to the Fitzroy forward line.

 

Mick Conlan grabbed the loose ball, broke away from his opponent and, running across the forward line, snapped a goal in the first minute of the quarter.

 

And with that one goal, after twenty seconds of play, the whole mood of the game changed. It was Fitzroy which got the loose balls and free kicks and scored the goals. Players who hadn’t been sighted all day ran to the ball like gazelles and the Geelong players were reduced to a sideshow. Matt Rendell, who was beaten by Bourke all afternoon, contested the ruck as if he had new legs. The rovers were feasting on Rendell’s dominance. They grabbed the ball from his tap-outs and would pump it long to the Lions forwards. Geelong now looked the second-rate team. Twenty minutes was all it took for Fitzroy to hit the lead. The Geelong fans were yanked from their complacency; Lions supporters were energised, believing that their team might actually win after trailing for so long, and were just as loud.

 

Then the game settled. It was scrappy and dour for the next few minutes, as if the players from both sides were too timid to do anything in case they made a mistake that would let the other team in. Then, in time-on, Geelong utility Darren Troy gathered the ball on the wing, dodged tired Fitzroy tackles and goaled from fifty metres to restore Geelong’s lead. Geelong supporters around me erupted in jubilation.

 

At the following centre bounce, Rendell tapped the ball to pint-sized rover Wally Matera who kicked hurriedly into the forward line. Roos had been pushed up forward by coach Austin. He pounced on the loose ball, snapped for goal and missed. A point. Scores were level. Thirty-one minutes had passed. The final siren wasn’t far away. I had a quick look at the crowd around me. There were frantic and fierce looks of desperation on each face as they willed their team to win. The umpires were getting a bucketing every time they blew their whistles, even if they made the right decision, such was the frustration of the fans not wanting to give the other team an advantage of any sort. From the behind, Schultze kicked long. The ball spilled from the pack to the ground, Matera sharked it again, ran forward and passed to an unmarked Kevin Caton. He was miles out from goal on the half-forward flank. He was almost on the wing. His opponent Ablett was standing the mark a few metres outside the fifty-metre arc. The Fitzroy players rushed to Caton, motioning him to calm down. He took his time as he walked back, lined up the goals, then walked in and kicked.

 

Time stood still. The crowd was deathly quiet and we all craned our necks to watch the ball as it sailed high towards the goals. The ball toppled end over end; it travelled sixty metres then thumped into the top of the goalpost. Fitzroy were in front by a point. There was panic all over the ground as the players rushed to their positions. Everyone knew that there wasn’t much time left, thirty seconds perhaps, a minute at most. The post was still reeling as the Geelong full-back Schultze kicked the ball straight up the middle of the ground, hoping his team could win the game with one last play.

 

The plan failed. The siren sounded while the ball was still in mid-air. The game was over, Fitzroy won!

 

It was bedlam. Fitzroy fans were jumping up and down around me, celebrating their last-gasp, come-from-behind win. Geelong supporters, open-mouthed in shock after witnessing a dramatic loss having led by nearly six goals, trudged crestfallen to the exits. The Geelong players rested their hands on their hips, rooted in their spots, confused and bewildered as they looked at each other as if to say, ‘What just happened?’ The Fitzroy players celebrated together in the centre of the ground as Lions fans jumped the fence to get close to their victorious heroes. I found myself jumping in the air as well with the nearby Fitzroy supporters. The Geelong players from my early days deserved better treatment, but my old heroes were replaced by new ones.

 

The Fitzroy timekeeper kept pressing the siren, the theme song kept blasting out of the speakers, and the scoreboard attendants were raising their fists in joy in the gaps between the cards. One Fitzroy old-timer in front of me was so happy tears were running down his cheeks and he was hugged joyously by other Lions supporters. I looked to the cheer squad at the Heatley Stand end. They were waving their flags and streamers. The same flags and streamers I had seen the previous year at that hotel on the Gold Coast – had the football gods been trying to tell me something that night at the pub? Had I been barracking for the wrong team all along? No matter, I was taken for now.

 

I rushed down to the merchandise store at the back fence by the side of the Hawthorn stand, bought a Fitzroy scarf from the smiling volunteers, wrapped it around my waist and headed to Royal Parade. The tram back into town was full of joyous Fitzroy fans and devastated, quiet and sullen Geelong supporters. Young and old, drunk and sober, the Royboy supporters on the tram belted out the theme song:

 

‘We are the boys from old Fitzroy,
We wear the colours, maroon and blue …’

 

I was happy, ecstatic. I knew that this was it. This was final. After twenty-three years, I’d found my team. They might get thrashed every week but I’d be there to support them. I’d never let them down, they’d never let me down.

 

The tram pulled into the depot at Elizabeth and Flinders Streets, and the commuters spilled out. A bunch of blokes my age, all wearing Fitzroy gear, were heading up Flinders Street. They looked like they were going to keep on celebrating at the first pub they could find. I followed them, knowing I’d be welcomed with open arms.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Great Read, can’t believe you would go to a match and almost be barracking for both sides

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    That’s the thing about football Paul. Well played.

  3. Frank Taylor says

    Great piece Paul, just riveting.
    You nailed the era and the times so well.
    Very unusual piece in that even that while the idea of changing clubs is virtually unthinkable and yet you pull it off so well. (Mind you, I’m a Pie supporter so the idea of leaving Carlton appeals somewhat….) However your love of The Game shines through.
    A great read and I look forward to more in the future.
    (Perhaps the next chapter reveals – do you follow The Brions?)
    Loved it.

  4. John Harms says

    Welcome Paul. This is a cracking piece.

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