Finals Week 2 – Hawthorn v Melbourne: Out of the Swamps of Sadness

Hawthorn versus Melbourne,
14 September 2018

By Jonathan Rivett


Being an Australian rules fan is a dangerous business. There’s the hazard that comes from sinking into a bog of endless grief (more on that later). There’s the risk of becoming so one-eyed you dump every principle you have into a dumpster outside a dodgy anti-ageing clinic and assert your team’s righteousness no matter what they do. And then there’s the menaces of language.


Any fan of the AFL who isn’t extremely linguistically vigilant, for example, would assume (simply via osmosis) that the word “laconic” means languid or unhurried.


And thanks to a prominent figure in AFL journalism and his column on the AFL website, the same might soon go for “Sliding Doors moment”.


Now, to be fair to this writer, perhaps he once knew what the term meant, but imperfect evolution took hold. Whatever the case may be, his column doesn’t remotely reflect the premise of the film in which Gwyneth Paltrow lives two parallel existences, one where she happens to catch a train, and the other where she just misses it.


A Sliding Doors moment is Jack Gunston at the MCG on Friday night running in to what seemed like an open goal in the third quarter and hitting the post.



Before I get to that, let me tell you how I got to be at the MCG last week watching with a now-familiar feeling of numb resignation as Gunston slipped out the back and advanced towards goal.



Dad took me to my first games in 1988.


The Cold War was thawing, but The Doomsday Clock was at six minutes to midnight and paranoia was still the order of the day.


I remember there being a tension in the air during those matches. I have to assume it emanated in part from the public who believed that, at any moment, the Reds would be attacking. But also, surely, it rose up from under the MCG, drifting out from the Melbourne change rooms like bitter cigarette smoke. It was in those rooms that John Northey proclaimed to his charges that the world was against them, that conspiracies to suppress them and their deserved success abounded.


At the age of five I couldn’t possibly grasped the full meaning of this. But that acrid smoke must have entered my lungs and bloodstream because I still believe those conspiracies abound to this day. I am the rancorous product of a Northey-era childhood.


In any case, I was in.


It was the disquiet in the mild late winter air, the cads in the crowd making Dad laugh with their raucous quippery, the red against the almost-black blue of the Demons’ guernseys. It was Ricky Jackson. It was Strawbs O’Dwyer. It was the old Cordner Entrance with the brickwork and the trees. It was the entirely functional bowels of the ground – no thought for commerce or aesthetics – and then the rise up the steps that led you from grey concrete into the green, sometimes floodlit, theatre of football.


I was in.


What followed is sketchy. I can’t, like some people, recount games with pristine clarity. Instead, I have to divide my 30 years of following the Demons into eras.


The first era is the Golden Country. I look back at it with the wistfulness that Winston Smith from Nineteen Eighty-Four looked back at his childhood before the totalitarian nightmare of IngSoc.


The Golden Country ends in 1996, the year of the Melbourne-Hawthorn merger. I was 14. A group with the temerity to describe themselves as “men of courage” decided to give up on my football club. They convinced the majority of Melbourne members that a Frankenstein’s monster was the only way to “save” the club; the proposal only failed because Hawthorn members voted no.


I become awake to the fact that I went to the football each week with people whose views were repugnant to me; why should I care if I offended them?


This heralded the era of Yelling.


To use a phrase more banal even than “Sliding Doors moment”, footy became an outlet for me. Understanding more acutely with each passing year what Northey’s paranoid smoke really meant – that everyone was out to get, to scuttle to amalgamate my Demons – I shrieked my fury into the MCG ether.


In this period, 1998, was as close as I think we got to It.


In 2000 we made the Grand Final but a Flag that year would have been theft. Jean Valjean theft – stealing from Essendon is morally right and makes the Universe an altogether better place – but theft nonetheless.


From there is The Descent. Not so much a distinct era as a long, slow slide into what I think of as the Swamps of Sadness from The Neverending Story. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, get onto YouTube and revel in the life-affirming moment when Artax the white horse gives up on the world, sinks into the mire and succumbs as his owner, Atreyu, begs him to endure… in what was a G-rated children’s film.)


My feet began to get wet in 2001. We finished 11th that season, having made a Grand Final the year before. In 2002 we were back in finals. But in 2003 we managed only five wins for the entire year.


Lots of people talk about our three consecutive finals appearances between 2004 and 2006. Very few people talk about how underwhelming they were.


Neale Daniher was sacked in 2007.


After that, The Descent became faster, the Swamp fouler and denser.


Dean Bailey was on a futile mission in a period when deliberately losing was, absurdly, considered the best way for bad teams to become better teams.


And then came Mark Neeld. Remember the totalitarian nightmare I mentioned earlier?


By the end of Round 2 of the 2013 – a 148-point loss to Essendon – I was like Artax, up to my neck in the black muck of despair just before the screen fades to black.


You might think The Descent ended the moment Paul Roos walked through the Red and Blue doors. I thought that would be the case initially, as well.


I could think of no better person to coach the club. Progress, though, was painfully slow.


Yes, it’s hard to rebuild a society after it’s been ravaged by tyranny, but eleven wins in the first two years was distinctly un-promising. Dire losses to Carlton and Geelong in the final two rounds of Roos’ last season as coach seemed like three steps backwards after two steps forward.


And the less said about Round 23 of 2017 the better.


So, when in the third quarter on Friday night Bayley Fritsch realised he had to leave his man to make a contest on the half back flank, misjudged the flight and let Jack Gunston run on to an evenly bouncing ball with no Demons between him and the goal, my reaction wasn’t “Oh, this is a disaster!” it was “This is natural and inevitable.”


The goal would have put Hawthorn within nine points after Melbourne had refused to allow Hawthorn to kick consecutive goals for the whole, gripping quarter.


He missed. The train doors closed.


I’m glad I don’t have access to the universe in which Gunston made it onto the carriage, kicked the goal and got Hawthorn to within engulfing distance.


For a long while it seemed that, one way or another, I was going to spend eternity in the footballing equivalent of the Swamp of Sadness. The Demons would exist forever in a state of hopelessness, perhaps sometimes reaching out and valiantly grasping for mediocrity, and I would either stand in the morass with just my nose above the filth, or I would give up on them like the “men of courage” had given up on them in 1996.


It has been, as you can imagine, a monumental relief to confirm over the last four weeks that a new era in my footballing life has begun. The Jack Gunston miss wasn’t the beginning of it; but it will be one of the first of the most interesting stories to come out of it.


The screen faded to black on me in 2015 but in the next scene nobody was mourning my footballing death.



Jonathan Rivett is a freelance writer. He occasionally still shrieks his fury into the MCG ether, but mostly he just sits and quietly fumes at the relentless injustice of it all.


This piece was originally published at Balcony Banter.

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  1. Jonathan, I’ve thought the same thing about that column you mention. It is to Sliding Doors what Alannis Morrissette’s song was to irony.

    Enjoyed the piece.


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