Being Relevant.

There are only two positions available to the eighteen AFL teams at this juncture of the season-Relevant or not.

Forget the debate about what the also-rans want and need, that is static, important only within the narrow band of those directly involved. The hierarchy of this footballing calendar is decided. All that remains is a mad scramble for sides two or three games out of the finals equation to find the will to push towards an unlikely finals charge. They are hoping to qualify for relevant while all the while knowing theirs is a futile challenge, to be dashed in the first week of the post-season.

The pattern of the final month of the season follows a well worn trail. The only difference with this season’s climax is the dark shadow that grows ever wider, creeping insidiously towards the holiest of footballing rituals. Finals footy is in peril.

The majority of us have spent most of this campaign ‘ignoring’ the red and black pachyderm, while at the same time, feverishly dissecting every new tidbit that bursts forward from the shadows. Now, with the increasingly unlikely scenario of Essendon being removed from finals contention, we ready ourselves for the storm.

I say ‘unlikely’ with the same certainty of every media outlet. I have no feel for what might happen and I defy anyone who claims they do. Essendon’s saga offers a rare alternative to the status quo to finals lead up and it makes folks jittery. The possibility that a team could earn a place in the final eight only to be excluded for off-field indiscretions sits uncomfortably in the football community. It also confers a whiff of relevance upon sides still fighting to dance in September. The rites of passage for finalists is being desecrated. That the Bombers have been in freefall over the last month at least produces a more palatable plot twist to begin the final act. Hollywood screenwriters would be proud of the Dons understanding of the lead-in to the denouement. They have lost a chance to finish top four and with it the relevance they need to be a finals threat. If they now also lose their chance to play in September, at least they won’t feel they have lost a cup….

Point being, I guess, is that listening to the noise that surrounds the league is fun but mostly pointless. Every one has a perspective, some are pragmatic, some biased through loyalties. Others are simply wildcards thrown on the table to cause controversy. Secretly we love them all because they are what makes passions and loyalties cement into a religious-style fervour for our boys. The classic example of that passion was played out by the Essendon faithful sporting Mexican sombreros to the match. It might not have been a very strongly positioned point but the net result was to prove that Caroline Wilson was wrong. It was only by semantics and the use of ‘New’ in front of Mexico; but the vitriol the Dons have for Patrick Smith and Wilson needed a release valve.

This is by no means an attempt to enter the complicated debate that this season has become. Far from it. It is merely to point out how the tribes we all belong to work. If you are a figure within the orbit of the AFL there will never, ever, be agreement on your worth. One tribe’s legend, is the opposition’s dirty rotten scoundrel.

Once upon an era ago, James Hird was universally admired by all. He was the type of football-savant that made you realise while you were watching him play, that you would remember his genius on the field well after he left it. Snapshots of his sheer brilliance inhabit my memory, to be replayed at the mention of his name. I have always had the theory that you remember batsmen by their signature stoke. Boon’s crashing cover drive, Border’s vicious square cut that had a windmill flourish to complete it. The sight of that stroke is invoked by their mention. I have begun to realise that footballers might have a similar position in our minds-eye. The difference being that rather than a signature move, it is through well chosen descriptive words that we know them. Hird is invoked by the words- Time and poise. He was never rushed upon the field. It is an immense irony that his career as coach has begun to spin out of his control because of the lack of those very qualities.

What the Essendon crisis has done to the football clans is produce the unwanted grey of the world into the pristine black and white of sporting endeavour. There are many theories as to why the organised sporting contest became king. Millions of words have been spent trying to understand why sport came to such prominence that it towers over society in terms of the attention it receives.

The suggestion that it is a replacement for militaristic tendencies, a war minus the shooting, as Orwell suggested, has never washed with me. Athletes have never entered the arena of organised sport expecting to be killed. Soldiers have never had that luxury. I am more willing to believe that we as a society, fell in love with sport because it offers us the opportunity to remove the complexity of the world. There is no fixed and certain position we can rely upon in the world at large. No absolute right or wrong, just shades of grey that shade our world either lighter and darker.

That’s why I think we love sport. On the field of play there is no room for grey. It is right or wrong in its purest form-Win or lose. Sure, there’s still no guarantee the best team will win but we have structured the contest so that it gives all involved the same opportunities. We can come to terms with upsets in footy for the simple reason that there is no greying of the ideal, just honest contest that proved that winning is obtainable with belief. It’s what makes us want to witness the underdog defeating the champ. We perversely want predictable contests with unpredictable outcomes. Ironically we have grey area in our need for certainty…

When the reality of the world touches ‘our’ sport, the consequences are dramatic. Cheating is treated as betrayal. Even the hint of dishonesty is enough to fuel outrage. Martin Flanagan wrote a powerful piece on James Hird that suggested that Hird was clear in his understanding that he played a child’s game as an adult. He had made a career out of something he participated in for the sheer joy of it. That sense of childish delight has been beaten out of him this season. What Hird represents to footy fans has changed so dramatically over one season that it is hard not to feel a tinge of sorrow. He has become the villain to those outside the Essendon circle, while at the same time becoming a deity for the red sash.
Everyone has an opinion of James, the tribes have taken sides. It has come to extremes but the pattern is the same. You make your call on his integrity from the side of the fence you are on.

Richmond meanwhile, are the most relevant they have been this time of the year for a decade. The army is marching, yet they dropped a game in frustrating fashion. Carlton need to be relevant, Richmond already are. In that regard it wasn’t hard to see this result coming. The Tiges were never going to be desperate enough after the celebration of the previous week’s finals confirmation but when Robert Walls’ decided to speak his mind, the battle lines were clearly defined. Sure it’s difficult to pinpoint a time when Wallsy didn’t tell us what he thought, but his takedown of the Blues season arrived in print right before the contest and given that most of his observations were adhered to by the Blues, it wasn’t hard to sense a certain tiger-ish growl of displeasure. Rob Walls once coached the Tiges, had things panned out he could have been exulted by the yellow and black. That he is merely respected is due to one unavoidable truth- Wallsy is a Carlton man. He may have coached far-and-wide but when all is said and done, footy folk always know where your heart lies.

The loss to the Blues came with little angst though, other than a disappointing fizzling out of a first quarter Roman candle. The Tiger clan for once simply shrugged and focused on finals to come. After so long in the wilderness it must have felt good to just let a poor result go.

It is an enviable position to be in for the also rans. St.Kilda played out their Groundhog Day, being swept aside by Sydney and the only relevance the match had was the whiff of top four positioning it gave the Tigers. Relevance is never a grey area. Teams who are done know the sense of futility only too well. As great as success feels,the taste of irrelevance never really goes away.


  1. daniel flesch says

    Great piece ,Tom. Abundant insight , literary merit and relevance . You said no-one can safely predict outcomes , but here’ re my gueses. The Tigers will play 2 Finals for one win and one loss. Essendon’s lawyers and spinners will drag This Sorry Saga out as long as they possibly can , ultimately to get off on some obscure legal technicality – possibly as a result of sloppy work by the AFL’s hired guns. (Does EFC have “Hird” guns ?) A token fine will be levied , no other penalty imposed. Hope i’m seriously wrong on all counts, and will be pleased to admit it.

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