Launch: A time to acknowledge our comforting, yet slightly mad, friend

The Footy Almanac 2009

Perth launch speech by Dr Ken Spillman,

delivered at the Subiaco Football Club, 27 November 2009

What an honour it is to launch The Footy Almanac 2009 in Perth – particularly so because the invitation to do so recognises the place of a book I conceived and co-edited almost 25 years ago, The Greatest Game.

At that time, it astonished me that so many of our great writers, historians and academics were football fanatics, yet so few had written on the game that provided focus and structure to their weekends.  There were hundreds of collections of cricket writing, yet practically zero on footy – and, in fact, relatively few books about football at all.  With this in mind I teamed up with Ross Fitzgerald, a former uni lecturer of mine, ex-Melburnian and now a professor at Griffith University in Brisbane, to bring an eclectic mix of writers to the table.  There were some of our best known playrights – David Williamson, of course, and Alan Hopgood.  There were poets like Bruce Dawe, fiction writers like Tim Winton, great journalists like Martin Flanagan, and our top historians of that time, Manning Clark and Geoffrey Blainey.

The Greatest Game was a great success and enjoyed many reprints, and of course these days there we have a great range of footy books to choose from, including some fine collections.  The Footy Almanac is unique among those because it enfranchises a wonderful diversity of footy fans from all around the country, young and old, male and female, and – in football terms – the polish of the pro-journalist and the hardened, boots-and-all Sunday amateurs.

It’s a heady mix, and there’s something addictive about it.  Just as it’s hard to move too far from the TV when an AFL match is in progress, it’s hard to pull your nose out of The Footy Almanac.  This is the third Almanac – which gives it almost as much history as AFL teams in the West – and that’s a great credit to editors John Harms and Paul Daffey, Malarkey Publications, and Penguin Australia.  Long may the success of the project continue!

Certainly the Footy Almanac has attracted wide attention, and it may even be starting to make some of those who make a living from specialised football knowledge feel a little bit defensive.  Take the great David Parkin, for example – a former coach of this great club, Subiaco – who offers a kind of back-handed compliment.  ‘The Footy Almanac has it all,’ Parkin says, ‘flawed analysis, dubious wit and all the melodrama of another footy season, captured brilliantly by these passionate devotees, who think they know what they are talking about!’  I get a sense that even the experts may feel a little threatened!

I’d also like to draw your attention to a quote from the Adelaide Advertiser: ‘It’s the perfect present for the football tragic for whom next season is a season too far away.’  I agree wholeheartedly that The Footy Almanac IS the perfect present for someone whose off-season is a little empty.  You know what I mean – just hanging out for the draft, then the pre-season draft, then news of some player’s drunken indiscretion, then intraclub matches, pre-season matches and so on – so it’s easy to endorse the Almanac as summer reading.

It’s the term ‘football tragic’ I take issue with.  This – or ‘cricket tragic’ – is terminology we hear quite often these days, and I can’t embrace it.  To me it suggests that there is something pathetic about a consuming, heartfelt involvement in sport.  Sport may mimic war — or at least a fairly upright 19th century style of warfare — but it is NOT war.  And while taking the vow to support a club and its dogmas may mimic religion, it is NOT religion and, by virtue of that, has not caused any wars either (notwithstanding the bloodbath Grand Final between South Melbourne and Carlton in 1945, and the hostilities between East Perth’s Mal Brown and Carlton at the Adelaide Oval in 1972 – which, quite incidentally, contributed massively to a battered Carlton team losing the Grand Final of the Australian Club Championship to North Adelaide by one point).

My point here is that wearing a football heart on your sleeve seems, to me, far from ‘tragic’.  It reveals your humanity in the best possible way.  In other parts of the world, neighbours kill each other because they belong to another tribe or worship another god.  Here neighbours can belong to another football tribe, or worship other colours – and all we do is take the piss out of them on a Monday morning.

Entertainment is good.  Football is good.  And it’s taking over the world.  I’ve been travelling a lot over the last twelve months, and you wouldn’t believe what big news the GFC has been.  The impact of the GFC seemed to make people all over the world very nervous, despite the fact that the GFC lost the 2008 Grand Final to Hawthorn.  Now, I see reports that the GFC is easing up – but try telling that to St Kilda!

What we’re talking about, when we read the Footy Almanac, is footy results and – more importantly – footy entertainment.  Even reading through the biographical notes is entertaining.  Consider this from John Weldon: ‘Following footy is like fishing.’ Weldon writes, ‘You wear ridiculous outfits, you’re always cold and wet, you’re perennially waiting for The Big One; and your wife doesn’t get it.’  Now the last part of that is not universally true, of course – but there’s always someone who doesn’t get it, and it’s always a joy when someone does.  In any case, there’s a fate much worse than a wife, husband, or partner who doesn’t get it – and that’s a wife, husband or partner who does get it, but wears the wrong colours!

On the same page, we find the bio of a guy named Bill Walker – not the multiple Sandover Medallist from Swan Districts but a namesake.  He says he was ‘cruelly overlooked by VFL scouts when they took Brent Crosswell from his Launceston school’ but adds that the oversight ‘did allow him to play three premierships with Old Scotch B-grade in the early 1980s’.  So there was consolation.  Let’s look on the bright side!

Optimism and pessimism are all part of the football mix.  I rather like the resignation expressed by a sixteen-year-old writer from Yarra Valley, who says he is ‘a passionate Richmond supporter who looks forward to seeing his first Tigers premiership with his grandchildren’.  By my calculations, he’s preparing for a wait of about forty years.

Tim Rogers (whose bio notes, by the way, describe him as ‘40, of no fixed haircut’) is best known for rock stardom in the band You Am I, contributes a very eloquent introduction and I’d like to give you a glimpse of it.  He’s a North supporter.

As I peer around in chilly wonder at the surrounding throng, I think to myself –

‘Does that dentally challenged barker three rows down experience the same chest-swelling when his team runs out through the banner?’

‘Does grandma with the Tupperware covet a store of outrageous comments to be uttered during a close last quarter?’

‘Does the teenage lad who spends far to many waking hours on his hair ritually put on superstitiously proven undergarments that will bring sweet victory?’

‘Does everyone here muse on the commitment forgone in their youth that could have given them a shot to be out there?’

Rogers goes on to observe:

‘There is an absurdity to all spectator sport.  The pain of a loss.  The elation of a win.  The vigorous affection for a club, a business that regards you as a merchandise and membership opportunity.  That on approach to whichever stadium, and in whatever state of despair I stride, I flex my upper half and furrow my brow as if preparing to take my position as North’s only 40 year-old centre half-forward.  It IS a little absurd, possibly delusionary.  But I love it.  In the way I love, and have devoted my reflexes to playing in rock’n’roll bands.  Me, dull-skinned and desperate, playing for the possibility of a truly sublime moment every night where this dark, devil-delivered music can catapult me into ecstasy.  Footy, in its physicality, its uncertainties, its majesty and its awkwardness, delivers this equally.  To me.  And how.   Somehow, against all logic, a gig in an empty bar far from comfort or adulation can develop into bacchanalian splendour.  In Round 21 of a rather nondescript year, North can snatch a gut-exploding win.  And so it goes.’

There are some wonderful descriptions in the Footy Almanac.  I like this one, from Richard Holt writing on a Round 7 Essendon-Hawthorn match at Etihad.  It’s about one of the better WA products of late:

‘Paddy Ryder has legs like springs.  He’s one of those rare players who doesn’t so much climb opponents’ shoulders when he takes a screamer as land on them.  From the time he leaves the ground to when he returns, ball in hand, somewhere in the world someone has taken their first breath and someone else their last.’

And here’s another memorable passage, this time from Nathan Jarvis, who writes about the antithesis of success:

‘I’d like to talk about failure.  Gross, public, irredeemable failure.  The kind that wakes you in the middle of the night to remind you that you are a loser and to tattoo on the inside of your eyelids the stark reminder: Yes, that really happened.  The kind that resembles the feeling you got as a kid when that chair your mum told you not to tip back on actually did start to really tip back.  But an eternity of that feeling.  A car-crash of that feeling.  No one likes losing.  Footy would be more fun if your team won a lot.  You’re probably some smug, happy type who is reading this because you like to read all sorts of footy stuff now the Hawks/Cats/whoevers are winning again.  You’re probably the type that likes to mock the footy-afflicted; the poor schmucks who front up week after week, year after year, to chow down on their allotted dose of failure.  Well, good for you.  Get some popcorn, do whatever it takes – get comfy, prepare to chuckle.  You cruel freak.’

I wonder if we might guess who that guy barracks for?  I probably don’t need to tell you that it’s a team from a place that is only a train ticket away, where fish and chips are great, but the only footy team you need to worry about has a very long history and wears red-and-white in a competition once followed fanatically by all and sundry in this part of Australia.

There’s certainly plenty of humour in the 2009 Almanac.  Tony Roberts, who writes as an impartial observer of the St Kilda-Geelong Grand Final, concludes with his consoling remarks to a St Kilda supporter.  He told her:

‘Among the followers of long-term AFL clubs, St Kilda and Footscray fans are uniquely blessed: only two flag droughts apiece.  Across history, those who barrack for other clubs have endured up to a dozen famines.

‘Apparently, she took this philosophy lesson rather well.  And personally, I don’t mind that creative, if rather twisted, view of things.  It puts a whole new perspective on the forty-nine year premiership drought endured here at Subiaco, which ended in 1973 but which was, at least, only one drought and not two or three.’

Speaking of the Subiaco Football Club, it is represented in the Almanac by premiership player David Mapleston, who writes entertainingly of a far from entertaining game between West Coast and Melbourne in May.  Having said that, the beginning of his account may explain why he, and his Subi teammates, were not premiership players this year.  I quote selectively: ‘I woke up on a Sunday morning with a sore body from footy, and a hangover from a cracking house-warming party held by Subiaco teammate Ben Randall.’

Some of us will know that Ben is the son of Subiaco president Neil, but thankfully Mapleston has the good grace not to mention that.  He continues:

‘The alarm rang violently at 8.30am and I made my way to our beach recovery session with the Camry on autopilot.  It took me until I was a hundred metres off shore swimming towards a little white buoy to truly wake up.  Then fear set in, and every shadow under me became a great white shark.  I kicked hard after the second lap around the buoy and clambered up onto the sand a few minutes later, in a far worse state than when I’d started.  Back at home I enjoyed one of those invigorating hot showers… and a moment of clarity, after which I resolved to get my life back on track…  Later that day, I made another promise to myself… I won’t be letting the Demons or the Eagles get in the way of another perfectly good Sunday.’

To me, not letting the Eagles get in the way of a good weekend is wise, but Mapleston’s message is even wiser than that.  It’s about life – and it’s a necessity, I think, for true football fans to become philosophers of a kind, and to enjoy the ‘moments of clarity’ of the kind Mapleston refers to.  It can start very young.  Damian Watson recounts his experience of watching a Carlton-Melbourne game ‘after suffering the agonising feeling of a Grand Final loss in my Knox under 16 football team and surviving a hectic week at school’.  As Watson says, ‘one of the great things about footy is that it enables us to forget everything and focus on the action on the field’.  That’s footy.  You can be ‘in the moment’ – totally present – which is what the masters of meditation strive for, and has been a universal source of clarity or ‘enlightenment’ over many centuries.

Yet Rob Clarkson – who describes himself as the ‘only North Melbourne supporting, expat Tasmanian residing in Sydney who is not the captain of the Australian cricket team’ – reminds us that footy can also be removed from this zone of philosophical awareness, passion and focus.  It’s true, as he says, that through radio and TV it can instead be just part of the background noise of a household or a task that needs doing, a conversation we only half listen to.  He writes of cooking a chicken, and some Bolognese sauce, during a Sydney-Port game, and observes:

‘Just like Dad always would, I finished my cooking at around the time of the final siren: a happy chore completed.  And though I couldn’t give a stuff who won this match, that’s very different from saying I couldn’t give a stuff if the match hadn’t been played.  We make much of the delight, pain, elation and frustration our footy can provide us.  But, sometimes, it simply chats quietly to us; a comforting, yet slightly mad, friend.  It’s good to have it there and it’s really not a whole lot more complicated than that.’

That’s footy too, to many of us – a ‘comforting, yet slightly mad, friend’.  Sure, it can disappoint and infuriate us – but the thing about this friend is that there’s always some hope for him.  And that means there’s hope for us, too – the ‘us’ that is the other half of the friendship – and always will be.  I’d like to declare the Footy Almanac launched with the words of a famous St Kilda supporter: DO YOURSELF A FAVOUR!

Thank you.

Disclosure: Dr Spillman is a vice-patron and the historian of the Subiaco Football Club, and a Carlton supporter.

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