Ceaselessly dancing

For as long as sports have been played, the notion that they are zero sum games has stuck to them like superglue. For every tournament, set, game and match, it has been dictated that for a winner there must inevitably be a loser. This fact has not only been fixed to the minds of the athletes competing on diamonds, fields or pitches the world over, but also to those on the other side of the boundary.

 

It has been repetitively argued that sports fans of any denomination feel the peaks and troughs of games far more deeply than those physically involved in them. We are not paid to be there, in fact sadly the opposite. We loyally stand by our chosen teams through lean seasons and our faith does not waiver when better offers arise, unlike the modern day mercenaries at work on the field. We fanatics gleefully celebrate wins that we have no control over and begrudgingly accept the inevitable losses dealt by perennial competition, despite never having to break a sweat.
But what about ties? What happens when the scores are deadlocked? Like life, is there room for simultaneous champions and also-rans or is it impossible to expect that professional sports could ever be so egalitarian?

 

Two-time premiership coach Denis Pagan is credited with stating that “draws are like dancing with your sister.” The common understanding of the former Roos and Blues tactician’s quote is that in dancing with your sibling, you are able to move and shake across a dance floor, but at the end of the night there is going to be no result once the music stops. One would hope so anyway.

 

Although it can be argued that the crass implications of this euphemism do not befit contemporary society, Pagan’s impromptu words do raise the point that those employed within such a results driven industry are not willing to accept an ambiguous outcome.

 

But what then of the fans? Do the devout, yet ineffectual, masses simply have to take these hollow results on the chin?  What happens when abstruse results begin to become the norm?

 

It is at this point that I should preface that I am a lifetime supporter (one by choice, the other via parental dictation) of both the St. Kilda Football Club and the New Zealand Blackcaps Cricket team. Otherwise known as one of life’s most pathetic creatures. So not only should I be completely equipped to understand the esotericism of an important draw, but concurrently, the notion of total success is also entirely foreign to me.

 

Over the course of my twenty-six years on earth, I have never seen either of my teams win the ultimate prize. I carry the scars of witnessing four collective failures at the final hurdle, but it is the additional pair of draws in 2010 and earlier this year that haunt me the most.

 

The hollowness of these ties led me through the standard six stages of the sporting grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, heavy intoxication and a lack of acceptance. I had become inextricably linked with this pair of teams and in turn my happiness or sorrow was dictated by their results.

 

Prior to the 2010 AFL season, I had understood the black and white of winning and losing, but I had never seriously contemplated the grey space in between. Although I never laced a boot, kicked a goal or bowled a ball, these draws have left me hopelessly mulling over the notions of luck, chance and fairness. As friends of mine who had chosen to support superior teams reveled in the ultimate achievements of strangers in familiar clothing year after year, I began to feel as though I was cursed.

When will I, the foolish fanatic, have my day in the sun? Am I destined to go through life stuck slow-dancing with a sibling?

 

I have always believed that to write from the heart is most frugal form of therapy and as I am still unable to move on from a pair of results involuntarily inflicted upon me, it is you who will help carry my cross due to the obscene price of professional psychoanalysis.

 


 

As a child, sitting stationary was never an option. I needed a bat or a ball in my hands as an outlet. Like most adolescent Melburnians, Autumn through Spring consisted of running around my backyard dressed from head to toe in replica merchandise, commentating as I smashed my synthetic footballs into the Hills Hoist for the umpteenth time. I was Robert Harvey pirouetting around imaginary opponents. I was Fraser Gehrig marking on my chest and torpedoing the Sherrin into poor Mrs. Fong’s yard.

 

The warmer months of the year involved me dragging my disinterested older brother Phil out to the garden so I had someone to bowl to. With ball in hand, I was Shane Bond off a slightly shortened run up, and when Phil would eventually let me pad up and face his medium pacers, I was Stephen Fleming, carving another honest innings of well-timed leaves and cuts into the battered backyard hedge.

 

I loved both of my teams innocently and in totality. On the compulsory weekly visits to Sunday school, I did not pray for an end to famine or prevailing peace, I selfishly prayed for trophies.  I adored my teams when they won, but forgave them for their sins when another routine beating was dished out. These shortcomings of theirs acted as inspiration for my impressionable young mind, as for many years I was certain that I would be the first ever St. Kilda premiership captain that also opened the bowling for New Zealand. I was adamant that a rosy future for the Saints and Blackcaps would begin once my voice broke. It was only after years of middling amateur performances and the pubescent discovery of tobacco that this ambitious dual career evaporated.

 

As six packs replaced sports drinks every weekend and I began to grow horizontally rather than vertically, it was left to the hands of others to deliver the sporting success I craved. My agency shrunk to the size of my batting average, but the naïve hope I had cultivated as a kid never diminished. So what if it wasn’t going to be the name ‘Carmine’ that the masses at the Docklands or Eden Park would cheer, someone far more capable than I would eventually deliver the silverware.

 

We couldn’t lose forever.

 

Could we?

 


 

It doesn’t require a boffin of the oval ball code to understand St Kilda’s history of perennial underachievement. Since the club’s formation one hundred and forty-six years ago, the Saints have saluted on the final Saturday in September only a single time and then only by a single point. Generations of faithful fans were no longer alive when Darrel Baldock raised the cup in 1966 and those born in the last fifty- two years have only grainy footage to connect them to this ultimate success. To truly put this history of failure in to perspective, statistical trends suggest that you are more likely to see Haley’s comet twice than you are to witness a St. Kilda premiership. That is of course if your name is Ponce de Leon or your favourite beverage is unicorn’s blood.

 

To state that New Zealand Cricket is in anything other than the commencement of a potential golden period would be to peddle a mistruth akin to those of Charles Ponzi. At the time of writing, the Blackcaps are classified as the second best team in the world at test level and third in the shortened fifty over format of the game. This rise up the rankings can be attributed equally to consistent performances at home and away, the ever dependable bowling performances of Trent ‘Lightning’ Boult and of course, the generational genius of the bearded batsman Kane Williamson. But for every peak, there must invariably be a trough. The Blackcaps outfits of my youth were mired in mediocrity, save for a solitary piece of peripheral silverware in Kenya at the turn of the millennium. Champion players were flanked by borderline fill-ins and close series results were celebrated in a similar manner to victories. The New Zealand cricketing public knew no different – near enough was good enough it seemed.

 

Although this era of New Zealand Cricket is without doubt at a high point, it is yet to bear fruit. For this contemporary period to be truly successful, tangible awards must be obtained. At Olympic level, the sole victor receives a gold medal around their neck. A champion pugilist is invariably presented with a gaudy cummerbund. For footballers and cricketers alike, cups are awarded to the teams with sole real estate atop the competitive summit. Supporters demand this success of the professionals that wear the uniforms of their chosen tribes. These successes in turn act as a metaphorical hat stand for the devotee in the crowd. For when the going gets tough again, the fanatic of a past champion can always re-watch these historical successes and bathe again in the glory of victories past.

 

It is at this stage of proceedings that I suggest you get comfortable.  I’d also recommend you find yourself a stiff drink, as I, once again, press play on my irrepressible, recurring nightmares of the last decade.

 


 

On the 25th of September 2010, after winning seventeen of a possible twenty-four games, the Saints – clad in their questionable clash strip – marched onto the Melbourne Cricket Ground in front of just over one hundred thousand powerless spectators. Their rivals that sunny afternoon were the reviled Collingwood Magpies, coincidentally the same team the Saints managed to conquer over four decades prior.

 

After failing in the previous year’s Grand Final, St. Kilda’s bottled disappointment, that they had promised to uncork in a bid for premiership glory, had the taste of a dubious vintage. By the end of the first half the Magpies had near doubled the Saints total score, thanks in no small part to the standard Dane Swan dominance in the clinches and a tin-arsed torpedo goal by the mop-topped Thomas from beyond the fifty metre arc.

 

At this point on my parent’s couch, my teeth and fists were furiously clenched in an identical fashion to the protagonist from Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’.

 

Post what I can only presume was a rousing half time lecture from coach Ross Lyon and a stressed smoke on my end, the tables began to turn. Goals to Riewoldt, Goddard and the unlikely Gilbert had the Saints within striking distance. My balled fists had relaxed, but my fingernails were now in serious danger of departing over the next half an hour.

 

The last waltz of the big dance was as tight as a pair of Mick Jagger’s trousers. Almost ten minutes elapsed before perpetual pest Leon Davis extended the Pies lead and had me on the verge of an untimely teenage aneurysm.
The doomed familiarity of the unfulfilled season prior had well and truly begun percolating. With my desire rapidly turning to despair, the Saints rallied a final effort at eternal glory. A long range goal to the ever reliable Lenny Hayes was followed by a crafty nudge and set shot by our own nuisance, Stephen Milne. Minutes later after Skipper Nick Riewoldt’s arrow-straight snap was touched on the line by his counterpart, the horizontally airborne Nick Maxwell, the scores sat deadlocked at sixty-one apiece.

 

We were neither home nor adrift. The finish line was visible, but we were arc-welded to the only other horse in the race.

 

Was this the moment my childhood prayers were to be answered or would a secondary summer of sooking await me?

 

After Brendon Goddard rose like Achilles in the shadows of the Ponsford stand to take arguably the greatest Grand Final grab of all time (sorry Jezza), I was certain it would be the rosier of the two fates. As Goddard’s straight forward shot sailed through the big sticks and eroded Collingwood’s game-long lead, I vividly remember screaming to my Dad that if the class of 2010 could deliver a flag, I wouldn’t care if we never won an another game – a deal I am still selfishly willing to strike.

 

Following a Travis Cloke stab goal, a mighty Hayes clearance and a malicious bounce that still pervades my nightmares, the Mecca of football was stunned silent. For only the third time in one hundred and thirteen seasons, the final siren had sounded with no winner and no loser. The ultimate decider had raised more questions than it had answered.

 

No tears fell from the eyes of the faithful in the stands. No cheers were audible to contrast them, except for those belonging to league boss Andrew Demitriou, as the cash registers rang acquisitively in his head at the prospect of two finales rather than one.

 

I wouldn’t have to wait another year for a shot at glory, but I was forced to wait another week. Although anyone with middling football recall or access to the internet will tell you that the Magpies reigned supreme then and the Saints’ form has been diabolical since.

 

Like Dusty in the mid-Sixties, I’m still just wishin’ and hopin’.
Excuse me, I think I’ve got something in my eye.

 


 

Did you need a top up before I fire back up? Better make mine a Speights this time. I promise to make this second historical meander a touch more succinct.

 

In July of this year, the Blackcaps won their way into a second successive World Cup final. Four years prior, at the same barrier, the wheels fell off within the first minutes of play, but the plucky boys in black were back.

 

They surprisingly toppled the heavily favored Indians in a two day one-dayer (don’t ask me; I failed year ten mathematics) and progressed to play the tournament hosts at the home of cricket – Lords.

 

After predictably losing his opening partner Martin Guptill early, Henry Nicholls took the shine off the new ball and notched up his first half century of the tournament. With some handy runs added by skipper Williamson, keeper Tom Latham and the enigmatic utility Jimmy Neesham, the Blackcaps managed to grind their way to a total of 241 after facing their full fifty overs.

 

Over the course of the six weeks of the tournament, the New Zealanders had managed to defend smaller totals due tight bowling and stingy efforts in the field. As I sat alone well past midnight on the other side of the globe, I had faith that the job could be done and the game won, I just had no idea who the hero would be. I just hoped he was clad in black rather than baby blue.

 

The old adage with sport is that the cream rises to the top when the game is on the line. Colin de Grandhomme’s previous bowling figures had – quite fairly – never drawn this comparison. Often spoilt milk would serve as a better metaphor for his outputs. However, on that bizarre London afternoon, he had somehow been cast in the leading role of champion rather than his usual jabroni part. After bowling his allotted ten overs, forty-one of which were dot balls, de Grandhomme only leaked twenty-five runs – a truly Herculean effort.

 

With the English required run rate climbing steadily and my moronic mind allowing itself to relax, Ben Stokes stabbed his dagger through the hearts of New Zealanders everywhere. His unbeaten eighty-four, four of which came in the most fortuitous fashion, was enough to level the scores and force a super over.

 

Cricket fans the globe over can fill you in on the finer details, but as I told my housemates the next day, I refuse to talk about the semantics.  In short, we didn’t lose, but we didn’t win either. I was back living in the space between. My only crime was asking for just a little bit more.

 

The legacy of these two terrifying ties is that both sport’s governing bodies have now enacted laws that state no final can ever end in a similar fashion. Altruistically, I feel the right call has been made and would not wish the emptiness of uncertainty on sporting fans of any denomination. Selfishly, I can’t help but resent the fact that I have twice been used as a breathing crash test dummy.

 

I guess next time I’ll either know the ecstasy of victory or the anguish of defeat. At least there’s something I can hang my pair of hats on.

 


 

In the dubious 1997 film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s acclaimed ode to fandom ‘Fever Pitch’, the protagonist, (undoubtedly based upon Hornby himself) sits alone drinking in the middle of the night whilst staring at a VHS of his team’s past glories. As he ponders, the fourth wall is broken by raising the question that’s plagued any fanatic with a one track mind – is his life shit because his team is shit or is it the other way around?  I’ll admit, this did speak to me, not so much due to the solo imbibing, but more the notion of my identity being inextricably linked with the achievements and failures of others.

 

I’ve often wonder if my characteristics of pessimism, cynicism and, at times, masochism were genetic or were borne and cultivated by perennial subjection to supporting sporting bridesmaids. Ambiguous results do nothing to keep these dogs at bay. They just confusingly throw hope into the already bellicose mosh pit of personality traits.
The question holds weight as these negative characteristics often transcend my weekend fanatic persona and scarily pervade my daily life.

 

It seems the only difference between myself and a decades old, one dimensional film character is that I’m not partial to scotch and I don’t have a plethora of grainy videos of success to peruse when night’s at its darkest.

 

When Brendon Goddard soared, marked and goaled in 2010, Australian rocker and diehard Saint Tex Perkins did not share my feelings of elation. In a 2018 interview with two-time All Australian Bob Murphy, Perkins spoke of the dread that engulfed him in a moment where every other red, white and black disciple was delirious. The musical legend feared that his identity as a footballing fan would have changed forever had the Saints prevailed, due to their unrivaled history of mediocrity. I see sense in this romantic ideal now. We do over time become the living embodiment of our teams. Just ask any Carlton supporter. However, in that tiny period of time, I had everything I had ever wanted.

 


 

Would a win for either of these teams change me? Does the downtrodden masochist within me really even want things to change? Of course, but I am aware that it is completely outside of my control. Attaching your emotions in life to an ever changing group of athletes in familiar clothing is not the most intelligent way to procure happiness.

 

Barracking for a team shares the same level of inanity as opening your front door and screaming for snow in January. It is true, you can make your own luck in sport. It’s just bloody hard when you have your hands full with beer and hot dogs.

 

What then for the future? Am I hopeful? Sure, it’s a prerequisite for even the most pessimistic fan. It’s a dichotomy we all understand. Have my expectations become tempered and in turn a tad more realistic? Sure, I only have to remember that it’s another long four years until the next world cup and that the Saints haven’t made the finals in nearly a decade.

 

However, I can’t give up now. I can only dream of one day being able to take the needle off the same record, kick off my once blue suede shoes and rest my disfigured feet. Until then, the ice must only remain around the champagne.

 

If you’re still with me, your next one is well and truly on me. It will have to be a quick one though, as regrettably, I’m still required on the dance floor. Things are looking up though, as I’m pretty sure this DJ takes requests.

 

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

 

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About Ed Carmine

Lit student, luddite and lover of the game.

Comments

  1. Mark ‘Swish’ Schwerdt says

    You don’t choose your teams Ed, they choose you.

    Well played.

  2. Cheers Swish.
    Truer words never spoken.

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