Finally

Not with a bang but a whimper did this Home and Away season conclude. Falls the shadow on this season horribilis. Am I Chicken Little or did this season, in slow motion, crash to the ground. Did this season reveal the anxiety we feel for footy’s future?

Are my ageing eyes so cataractous? Is my ageing heart so hardened? Is my ageing view so moisturised by cynicism? Have I been broken by the game’s commercial hammer? With its relentless pounding, on and on, into the spirit and the fun and the excitement of this fine sport? Was this just another season or was it something worse?

How could this year have not been different? It was the end of many things, all sad in their own unique and meaningful way. As the season progressed we became uncomfortably aware of the end of a great era. The Cats, who have dominated for so long, and were as recently as last year, in the Top 4, finally succumbed to that most mysterious and matter of fact fates, age. Was it that long ago that I was lamenting another Hawks loss to this once powerful beacon of football? By season’s end the club had bid farewell to three of its best players (and dare I say, that the game has witnessed in the last 20 years). The Cats did not make the Finals for the first time since 2006. Yes, this is the wheel within the wheel merely turning again but it still left footy fans, whatever your stripe, feeling the game is now bereft of an elemental spark.

Then there was the shocking death of Phil Walsh. It is too personal a tale to retell here but the magnitude of the shock reverberated through the footy community. I think it lingers still in the air that we breathe. We try to tell ourselves that there is a separation between our real lives and the entertainments we follow. We know this isn’t the case but there is a warmth to the lie. That warmth was shattered by the stark reality of Phil Walsh’s death. That it occurred within his family only made the whole thing that much harder to face.

When we heard that Carlton great and lately, Hawks assistant coach, Brett Ratten’s son had died in a car crash several weeks ago it was more than we could bear. Cooper Ratten was just 16 years old. He was a passenger in a car driven by another teenager. The mindless accident occurred in the early hours of a Sunday morning following a local football club event. Again, the story is very personal. That his father is a much known and admired footballer cum coach brought us all into a tragedy that has questions too difficult to face or comprehend. The business of football shrinks in these moments.

Closer to home, in regard to the team I barrack for, we bore witness to the great Luke Hodge as a mere mortal. The game has many great players and each year another batch (Cripps, Hogan) are thrust upon us. However, only a few achieve a status that comes close to being Ancient Greek God like. Hodge is one such player. To see him make poor errors of judgement is a shock to the system. To see three in one year is almost too much. An old bull, who surely knows his youth is but an ember, still testing his might. Sadly, if but for, this year would have gone down as one of the best year’s he has given to Hawthorn and to footy. He has had a ripper and is a core reason the Hawks are still a good chance in the Finals. However, his errors were stark. I suspect the general footy fan finds it hard to reconcile his violence with their idea of him as a usually measured and inspired athlete.

Football just didn’t seem itself this year. It was hard to stay engaged. And this is coming from a supporter of a team that has a chance to win three Premierships in a row! The fixtures (not having each team play each other an equal amount of times) has always bothered me but this year it seemed much more noticeable than ever before. It rankled, got under my skin, itched like a bastard. An annoying sore that just won’t heal.

There’s too many teams. Let me correct that. There’s too many Victorian based teams. Every time I hear or read the phrase, ‘non-Victorian sides’ I want to scream. This is an Australian competition for Polly Farmer’s sake. At the crux of the disjoint in the AFL is this basic problem: Victoria still thinks it owns football. This year there could quite possibly be two teams from Western Australia playing off in the Grand Final. Surely someone finds it impossibly absurd that both teams and all the supporters will fly to Melbourne to play the Grand Final. Surely. The Victorian-centric view of the game must be broken. Will be broken.

The bitterest thing about the 2015 season rhymes with turd. I’m talking about Essendon. More specifically, one Essendon person. Sport implies fairness and honesty and integrity. It values these concepts. It co-opts them as key elements of its narrative, its reason for being. The drug scandal saga dragged on through 2015, with no end in sight, largely, I believe, because (at least) one person refuses to fully cooperate. Deep down, I think we all know that if that one person spoke fairly, honestly and with integrity (rather than with the weasel word script that he seems to have adopted the whole time), then the matter would come to a point where clear decisions could be made, including punishments and so on.

This matter is grave and cannot be swept away. You can argue about the AFL’s role or whether other clubs get away with testing boundaries all you like. You will just go around in circles. In this case there is enough information and evidence on the public record to know a couple of simple things. One, something happened. Two, someone knows more than they’re letting on. The shadow this matter has cast over the competition and the game is long. There is no warmth in the shadow only a swirling stinking wind that has gathered us all up in its vortex, leaving us smelling bad, dizzy, confused, disorientated and lost. But mostly very sad.

It was a fitting that Essendon played in the final game of this sorry Home and Away season. Possibly the most meaningless game of the season. And they won. So what. That’s what a whimper is.

Finally the finals are here. The season has dragged its spent and sorry carcass to September. And if I can (on the turn of a coin) be contrary to what I have been ruminating on, what a fantastic final 8. Spring could not have provided a more refreshing 8. For all of what the season will likely be remembered for, please let it be remembered for the teams that got to September.

Some teams will only last a week but six other teams are truly in the hunt. Before the first bounce there is not a standout side. Going into this weekend the Swans are the best performed team over the last five Rounds. And Adelaide. And the Tiges. The least performed team is Freo, the team that sits atop the ladder. West Coast have been put to the sword. The Hawks have wobbled (others now know they bleed, and as you know, if it bleeds, it can be killed). How good are the Dogs and Roos? It’s hard to say.

How much will home ground advantage provide? The Hawks are the only interstate team to beat the Eagles at Subi. That was only five weeks ago. Can the Crows shut down the Doggies at the G? Not sure. The Swans have form so that should nullify Freo’s advantage. Shouldn’t it? I think the Roos will find the going tough against the Tiges.

It feels good to think about footy in this way. I haven’t engaged footy full on this year but the blood is pumping a bit more this week. There is a purity to the teams and games and action. The finals are not Melbourne-centric for a start. The two main finals will be played a long way from East Melbourne. That’s a good thing. Next week and the week after at least one game will be played outside Victoria.

More than that, the evidence is in that the expansion plan is working. The Finals is not the province of the old brigade. Only one (two if you count Swans South Melbourne link) of the eight teams playing finals has been in the VFL/AFL since before 1925. The three expansions teams of 1925 are represented. Every other team is part of the expansion plan. The eight sides featured in this Finals series have won 38 of a possible 119 Premierships. Remove the Hawks and Tiges from the equation and it is down to 16 Premierships. Take out Sydney’s three Premierships as South Melbourne and it is 13 Premierships. The stakes are high. This is truly an exciting Finals campaign. Could footy, this year, finally reveal its inner beauty, even to this hardened, cataractous, cynical observer? I desperately hope so.

About Rick Kane

Up in the mornin', out on the job Work like the devil for my pay But that lucky old sun has nothin' to do But roll around Heaven all day

Comments

  1. Grant Fraser says:

    Beautifully done as usual Rick. I share your views about the season, and most importantly how difficult it has been to stay engaged, even as a Hawker. Something has been out of whack, but I can’t put my finger on it.
    But the spring brings the finals – a time of rebirth. The cream rises, the stakes are high and the passions intensify. Finals have a habit of cleansing the memory, rebooting the love of the game. Most of all, finals bring into stark focus my oft uttered adage…”the best thing about winning is not losing.” We ride each bump with a grin if we triumph…and we sit, stony faced, if we do not prevail. I love this time of year, and I hate this time of year.
    All we can wish for is another duet at the Almanac launch…but I just don’t know. Ask me in October.

  2. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Great stuff Slim. After a tumultuous year lets hope that the ‘footy’ is remembered in this finals series. FYI it is the first time since 1961 that neither Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon or Geelong have participated in a finals series. And we know who won it that year! Hawks v Bulldogs GF ?

  3. Superb Trucker. I concur with your thoughts here. I grappled with the season all the way through, and not because the Cats took a dive. Indeed, it was probably Geelong’s demise that kept me interested.

    Besides the fact that the season is too bloody long, footy was consumed with its own importance. A diabolical problem. Matters off the field will kill the body like malaria. I hope the finals are magnificent. Is there a fairy tale in the wind?

  4. Valid point Phil,but to really test your footy knowledge when was the last time those four and Richmond missed out on a finals series ?!?

    Glen !

  5. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Glen! I don’t think its happened since Richmond joined in 1908. One of those 5 have made it every year besides 1961.

  6. Ta Phil, i’ll take that. While you’re on a roll how many times have Western Bulldogs nee Footscray, Hawthorn, North Melbourne and St Kilda all participated in a finals series. Off the top of my head i can recall a fair few times in the last two decades when at least the of the teams played in the finals,but struggling to recall if /when there was a quadrella . Over to you Phil ?

    Glen!

  7. mickey randall says:

    Rick- I enjoyed your contemplations, and especially your inclusion of ‘cataractous.’ I think the finals could redeem the season. In some years these are just a bit of mucking about prior to the top four inevitably playing off in the preliminary finals, but 2015 might be different.

    I hope so.

  8. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Glen! 2008 was the last time. This great site helps with these questions: http://afltables.com/afl/seas/season_idx.html

  9. Dave Brown says:

    I agree with your sentiment re. the Victorian game, Rick. Sadly not the premise – this has never been a truly national competition because it has always been merely an offshoot of the VFL. That comments conversations revolve around the last time various Victorian teams played in finals in the VFL demonstrates most people believe that, too. That said, if there was another stadium that could give the AFL the $ return on grand final day the MCG does, anything is possible in this world.

  10. Fair point on the MCG, D Brown.
    Even the final of the cricket World Cup was played there.
    Probably ticks more boxes than any ground in AUS or NZL.
    ==
    Recognisable narrative, Trucker.
    Beautifully written.

    A lot comes down to perspective, I guess, and attitude.
    So while It’s important to point out where we and society and footy could be improved, it seems equally important that we affirm the things we may be in danger of taking for granted..

    I’ve always felt that the season really starts now. Game on.

  11. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Dave, I agree that the comp is an offshoot of the VFL and the attached history pre-1987 strengthens the ideal. Not enough historical gravitas is given to WA, SA and Tas comps in particular. Do we start the National history at 1987? Truly National comp comprised of 2 teams per state as the elite competition? Feasible?

  12. Peter Fuller says:

    Rick,
    You’ve excelled yourself with this reflection on what ails the contemporary sport, which we all love. As I was reading, it seemed you had gone too far with the glass half-full version, but that was balanced by your hopes/expectations for the finals series.

    From my perspective, the virtue of old age is that I sense that I’ve seen it all before, which reinforces my natural optimism. In the early 1980s (at least in Victoria) the popularity of the game could no longer be taken for granted. Remember when basketball seemed to pose a serious threat in the late ’80s/early ’90s. Since that time, Australian Football has restored its status; although that doesn’t justify complacency, and there are still significant challenges. I endorse a long-distant observation by that grand writer (and occasional Almanacker) Brian Matthews:
    “Ah footy it’s a great game, it’ll take some real first-rate bad management to stuff it up.”

  13. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Rick, you are truly King Cataractous.

    Bring on the finals, if only to see the Hawks in their clash strip.

  14. My entirely one-eyed perspective, Phil, would be to consider the AFL as having started records wise in 1991. It was the first time that all the currently represented traditional football states had a side in the league. It was also the point SA football dropped any pretence at attempting to prevent players moving. I know it would never fly for so many reasons (including we would probably have to agree Craig Bradley is the State league / AFL games record holder), so when it comes down to it we should acknowledge what the AFL is and why it is the way it is.

  15. Trucker Slim says:

    Thank you for your comments and kind words.

    Here’s a weird thing: In this essay I couldn’t even bear to include the vilification of Goodes (that at one point seemed like it would snap this season in half). It was just too terrible to think through. That was the nadir of the season for me. Was that our worst face or our real face?

    David Wilson in his essay approaches the same sort of theme as I have, but from a more circumspect position. Then there’s the comments on this piece and David’s. There’s a groundswell of agreement that something is rotting …

    Yet DW and others are right. There is goodness as well. One of the highlight of the year came in the last round. It was the banner that Carlton and Hawthorn ran through together. That moved me.

    Cheers

  16. Beautiful piece of work. I think you have captured the year perfectly.

  17. Matt Quartermaine says:

    Excellent piece Ricky. Agree the Goodes was the nadir for me and the Bombers never ending saga has elicited sympathy for their supporters from me (never thought I’d say that). Now I can’t wait for the Hawkes fans stress of maybe not winning the triple- cue eye rolling from all the other supporters. Let’s see what happens when the best ruckman in the comp is playing. Well done sir.

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