Follow that dream: the fairytale of Jonathan Simpkin

It’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for today’s Grand Final, my cats having been turfed out last week by the worthy old foe. None the less, I will be tuned in, and will have an oar in the water for Fremantle.  It’s been a topsy turvy season for the grand old game, with Essendon being accused of all kinds of shenanigans, while trying to get a leg up on its equally sheisty competitors. Ross Lyon; a coach who went west for the filthy lucre is poised to be blessed with the bounty of all the marbles, AND all the tea in China. While a number of his colleagues have received the long clearing kick from the backline. Punted into oblivion, their years of planning, training and scheming now just an asterisk of failure beside their names.

But there is hope for the hopeless. The success of Mathew Knights at the cattery being catnip for their clouded ambitions. The late, great Steve Connolly’s brother, Rohan, just asked me via the magic piano, if I thought Lance “Buddy” Franklins holding out on signing an already lucrative playing contract, would affect his performance in today’s Grand decider. I replied, I bloody well hope so, and clicked send. May he be blighted with “TURF TOE” and be put out to pasture, that Fremantle may deliver the coup de gras. Once  again the specter of La Bron James and his “I” statements looms large across the one professional team sport I still love.  For a week I have followed the soap opera of Richmond’s Dustin Martin, as my ever hopeful and hungry, one eyed fellow footy tragic, Warwick brown, wrings his hands and frets as to Master Martin’s ambitions.  I now know that widdle Dusty had it wuff gwoing up. (Sic) I learned that his Dad is a big bad Kiwi “bikie” who looks nothing like Jax Teller, and other useless things about a still slim life of twenty one years. Reality never does look real until it’s too late.

How ironic for Dustin, and his one valuable commodity. The one that separates him from the reality of an industrial award and a factory job in Clayton, that he has had to retreat from his Oliver Twist demands of “Please Sir, I’d like some more!!“  To be confronted with the reality that his troubled stock price is a little off the mark, hobbled by the knowledge that market forces are in play. Will the Tiger army have him back with his yellow and black tail between his legs? Of course they will, but on less money.  Because money talks and bullshit walks, right, yar bloody well right it does.  It truly is a razors edge for professional athletes, one that divides the glory of awards and accolades from pain and obscurity.  The best hope being a Mathew Eganesque reinvention of the self, the worst being a faded Jim Krakouer drug mule drive into the western desert sunset. As Bruce Springsteen gurgles his way through the hoary verses of “Glory days, that pass you by in the wink of a young girls eye.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not banging on these guys for putting their hands up for a fair share of the pie. I do it every day.  I try and sell my services to the highest bidder and sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Only the slimmest loyalty is demanded of me as I ply my trade in shark infested industrial waters.  It’s the way the world works. The old chestnut of, a closed mouth never gets fed, being one of the truest and best roasted chestnuts I know. Life is short and you are a long time retired. (Unless you are a great Grandfather who happens to sing for the Rolling Stones, but that my friends, is a life seemingly immortal in a transient world.) Most of us are on an egg timer and time is running out. Life is finite.

This year I missed most of this footy season.  I consumed it in typed snippets, lovingly snail mailed from the home front. I followed my Cats tilt at the flag with a damp enthusiasm, not unlike a man who consumes powdered eggs and soy bacon.  You eat it up and it does the job of nourishing you, sort of. I was hogtied by my own continuing ballad of good and evil and prevented from roaming free across the paddock, from scouting the ball as it clears the pack, that I might blaze away at the big sticks.  My trap sprang shut and my ambitions for season 2013 were in a crimp of my own making.  It gnawed at me, especially as my always whacked out circadian rhythms settled down to sleep, knowing that half a world away it was game on.  It was a surprise to wake one morning and find a preliminary final in the offing and realize Scotty had beamed me up. That I had been delivered that I might barrack, or in the local vernacular, root for my team, and catch up on all that had unfolded while I slept – The good, the bad and the ugly.

Charlie Dickens knew how trouble finds good, yet flawed men, and exploits their passions.  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” (SIC) Alas the Kennet curse was defied and 2013 ended with a whimper not a bang and left us with only two prize fighters still on their feet. Warily eyeing each other across the ring as my mob, and  what has become of South Melbourne slunk away to enjoy cold beer, fancy dress and a mad Monday.

So here we are, ticketless to the big dance and feigning mild interest on that last Saturday in September. Can Ross Lyon justify the faith of the suits, the bankers, the emotionally invested members and deliver the holy cup west, or will the tightly wound little Hawk, Alistair Clarkson deliver the heave ho off the top rope in the battle royale? Only time and tide will testify to the result and it will only matter to those who truly care. For the rest of us the comings and goings have already assumed center stage. The futures of the Dustin’s, the Daisies and the Didak’s pose questions begging answers. But what of that most loyal servant and stealer of Grand finals past, Paul “Chappy” Chapman.  What will become of him and his dodgy hamstrings? Will disgruntled Don, Steven Crameri, be a Dog come springtime? Just like any society it seems there is only care and concern for the elite in the headlines.

The Aussie battlers will be left to rove the pie crumbs and fall in where they may, until they once more find the opportunity to strut across the stage in full costume. The blokes numbered twenty two plus in the clubs footy equation, the ones who make up the list numbers and staff the twos. On a fair quid, but not in the big time, their names known only to diehard members and the now, surplus players own kinfolk. There will be small notices in the fish wrap and one or two will wriggle through the net and go on to greatness. The rest will pack up their what ifs and move on further down the road. It’s become a ritual when the contractual umbilical cord is cut and the now drifting player is floated free, that he is feted as a top bloke and a most staunch, clubless, club man. It will be noted that he came in via the Mordialloc under 16’s and that he was just happy to be around the club rubbing shoulders with the likes of an Abblet, a Watson or a now balding Chris Judd.

Last Monday gone, with the sting of losing a preliminary final still a stone in my shoe, I cast an eye at the Brownlow medal count. I‘ve always enjoyed the Brownlow. Over my 50 plus years it has become predictable and comforting, much as a warm bath is in winter time. Maybe it’s because Charles Brownlow was a Geelong man. Perhaps it’s the plunging necklines of the WAG’s dresses, or the opportunity to watch a drunken dickhead like Brendan Fevola throw his livelihood away. I really couldn’t tell you why it gets my unbridled attention: just that it does.

It was delivering its usual rubber chicken, stage managed drama, with the expected suspects loosening their ties and trying not to look like imbeciles as the votes were tallied. Those eliminated from the upcoming big day out nursing Crown lagers, seated as they were, in a tight knot of tables. Elbow to respectful elbow with their club brothers and peers from the other teams that are the spine of the competition, their mere inclusion trumpeting the success of their young lives.  It was a tight race boiling over into round 23 with my man Joel Selwood of the Geelong Football club charging heroically to the lead. My team, the club of my Father, the second oldest professional football club in the world, founded when America was on the cusp of a catastrophic civil war, was about to add another trophy to its heritage. Fair compensation for a season denied.

It was a nervous wait, for bringing up the rear was the son of the gun, who would ultimately deny Joel a well-earned victory. The gum on his shoe, Gary Ablett Jr, who had left Geelong high and dry too graze in the golden, pastures of the Gold Coast. The son gone for the sun, the well-respected veteran of our wars saluted and remembered at the setting of the sun. His Dad, Senior, the greatest to ever play the game- and I’ll fight you Shinboners,  you Dogs and Hawks on that score if  you have the heart to step outside. A young man who has my respect, because he dared to make a run at his own dream, and chose to follow his passion and his heritage. I always thought, or perhaps wanted to believe that Gary Ablett Jr, Jacob Dylan and John Lennon sons would be the best of mates. That should their worlds collide, on an end of season/tour trip in Las Vegas they would compare notes, and salute each other’s courage for daring to follow their Fathers. (Maybe they could all shag Miley Cyrus and St Kilda players could film it on their I- phones and share it with the twitter verse.)

At length, as the cameras record history in the making,  Gary crosses his fingers hoping for a two vote that he might tie and share the accolade with Joel, binding them for eternity in the old testament of premierships and Brownlow medals, as they are sliced and diced in the years yet to dawn.  He is humble in the knowing that he is going to win. He plays for a team that is finding its future week by week, day by day. When the confetti drops and the champagne flutes are filled, he speaks with passion, even profoundly, about his Dad, and his brother Nathan who found the coalface too daunting. He talks about mates at Geelong and Torquay, surfing, skateboarding and how he just wanted to say bugger this dream of playing footy at the elite level. For him, for a while, the Modewarre under 16’s was enough, just as the Mordialloc under 16’s and the rest have paved a respectable exit for the delisted lesser lights of the competition.

It’s a cruel game is Australian football, a hard game, for hard young men. I’m going to let you into a little secret. The most scared I have ever been was when I was in an all-in bar fight at the Seaford Hotel. I was a young member of a club; we paraded our specialness and collective invulnerability ahead of our arrival. A small guy, a rover, stepped up. Words were exchanged and Hell boiled over. I was smacked across the face with a bar stool and a young bloke was on top of me trying to gouge my eye out. Buried under the pack I found courage and strength I didn’t know I owned to rise up, beat the dog off and find my way home. My blokes had scattered, roaring away, road rebels all, but the local footy club stuck to the consequences.

The group, the pack, the belonging, and then you’re gone cut from the protection of the tribe. A prospect waiting in the wings hoping for the leading lady too turn an ankle and surrender the colors.  I turned on the internet a few days ago and visited the Geelong Football Clubs website.  In the twilight of my day, Cameron Yeardley and Ryan Bathie, strapping young men once considered to be the foundation of a bright future had been dispatched.  I surfed over to Adelaide and Stiffy Johncock had also surrendered to the call of time. Tough calls on young men, and grey beards made through gritted teeth. Yet as always a hero is required, especially on the last Saturday in September. The twitter twittered, and poor Brendan Whitecross’s knee was possibly forever fucked. With barely a minute to midnight, who could step up? Enter Jonathan Simpkin, having just played a dominant role, in the not quite ready for prime time VFL Grand Final, he stood fit and poised to run out for the franchise. A rejected Swan, a neglected Cat now rebranded as a mighty Hawk.

As he was at Sydney and Geelong, he was a hopeful and optimistic young man, just happy to be in the big time. It was almost Podsiadlyesque.  He was obviously charged up, yet quiet and adamant that he could stand the test.  He had followed his dream and it had led him to the MCG on that last Saturday in September, the dream of a pig skin chasing child soon to be realized. As the greats of yesteryear looked on from the grandstand he lined up on the bench, the green substitute vest advertising his arrival as the 22nd man picked. The last spoke in the wheel: the envy of the 352 other wannabes, pushed to the sidelines through a brutal twenty five weeks of attrition.

He played a handy role, burning on in the last quarter, providing some fresh dash and the clichéd “big body” when Fremantle were challenging.  Finishing his grand final dream with the rubber down and the shiny side up, six touches, a medal and a lap of honor with his more well regarded colleagues. The tall handsome leading man, who would soon fly away from Glenferrie leading the parade.  A grin splitting his face from ear to ear, knowing in his heart, that come the autumn season he would no longer be everybody’s best buddy. The now delirious mob would soon be hooting and hollering for his head on a pike. The Fremantle Dockers lay sprawled and gutted on the turf. The defeated coaches, already scheming for another crack, the “what ifs” leaden in their guts. Perhaps a recycled veteran ala Brian Lake, maybe an out of contract  and rejected J-Pod leading out of a forward pocket. That could be the margin of victory.

There’s a lot I don’t care for in modern footy, and one of my good football mates on line feels the same way. He no longer wants to watch the game. He’s even sworn off the community cup.  He hates Andrew Demetriou and his Meatloaf coveting suit with every fiber of his being. I sent him a video of Leigh Mathews ironing Andrew out, with the now near banned “bump” and even with the prescribed ten plays, he remains on strike and won’t put his duffle coat back on. Today, as the storm tossed ships lay safely docked in their friendly home ports, the crews will disembark. Some battered by the tempest will throw their Jonah’s outboard to the tide. Before the champagne has been guzzled down the soaring Hawk Buddy boy Franklin WILL fly the coop. The odious, tanking, salary cap rorting Blues will hold their collective breath until they turn purple and the cratered Bombers will try to fly, up, up, to win the Premiership flag.

I find myself wondering about my own dreary old duffle coat, long gone into mothballs. The number five I stitched onto the back of the colors worn proudly across the generations of my life. The revered number carried into battle by Polly Farmer, G Ablett Snr and nimble little Travis Varcoe.  The patron saints of Grand dreams contested on that last Saturday in September. There’s a cold wind blowing and I can feel it in my bones, change is coming.  The Grand Final is now just a statistic and it is time for some to be pushed and some to be shoved, while others will march off into the sunset on their own terms heads high, backs straight.

It’s going to be days, if not weeks, before the dust settles and the horses are traded.  Names I have come to know across a decade will be gone and the statistics attached to those names will dictate my feelings. I might even bite my lip when the Hell’s Angels favorite player, Allan Didak is put out to pasture, and I fucking hate Collingwood.  The lamentation of the hypocrite in me demands that I give a teary farewell to the great spine of the Geelong Football club, Josh Hunt, Joel Corey, James Podsiadly and most egregiously Paul Chapman. Even as I am wondering if they’ll stitch us up next year, as they seek to continue their careers in foreign colors.  I’m already crossing my fingers, hoping that the unsung premiership hero, recruiting guru Stephen Wells, is down at the muddy creek scouting shiny stones.

I now live far away from the penetrine and orange slices of yesteryear and I wonder why I still care about grey Melbourne winters and football.  I suppose it is because the code was beaten into me on the muddy bog of Murrumbeena Park, long ago when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.  The dreams of a young boy now gone salt and pepper grey, but still loyal to the club, haunt me. The cynic in me co-signs the agreement that this is the way it is, but what is left of my wide eyed wonder hopes that there’s one little boy with a duffle coat, and that as he cuts away the brown and gold stitching of number 23, now worn and gone, that he can still summon the dream.  Because if he can’t the game means nothing. It’ll be just another day at the office for the businessmen. That little boy is out there, because I know him and I’m hoping, just hoping, that he follows that dream as flawed as it now is, and sews Jonathan Simpkin’s number 32 on the back of that duffle coat and wears it loud and proud for as long as he is able. That the little boy believes in the fairytale of Jonathan Simpkin, the rejected Swan, the neglected Cat, the mighty Hawk who lived his dream.


  1. One of the great all time sprays, Ron. Equal parts contempt, contemplation and compliments.
    So many brilliant zingers from “money talks and bullshit walks” (explains why I work for peanuts) to the western desert mules. The obituaries of staunch clubless clubmen. And only care and concern for the elites in our headlines.
    The only false note was equal ranking for the Ablett, Dylan and Lennon offspring. I think you were drinking ‘salt water’ when you did those rankings.
    My only request is that next season you write these more regularly as the dust is settling, not when it is caked deep on the Flemington stable floor.
    More please.

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