Part of the tribe

The experience of being a football supporter is surprisingly unique. You never actually sit down and think it thorough, until you do…and then you end up writing a blog about it. By unique, I am referring to the way  you belong to a certain football club. It is a tribal, parochial association that finds you defiantly proclaiming your allegiance. Yet, unless you sit behind the goals with the cheer squad, your opinion of what the team does and doesn’t do can be diametrically opposed to another member of your tribe.

I had always known it to be true but it was made abundantly clear to me in the wake of the Luke Ball fallout a few years back.  I am an unashamed Luke Ball fan. Even though he now runs around with the black and white stripes on, I still have a little place in my heart for him. The complete humiliation of being one of only two sides to have lost to Collingwood in a  Grand Final for half a century was made more unbearable  by the fact that Luke Ball had every right to rub our faces in it. Ross Lyon deemed Ball surplus to requirements the previous summer and shopped him around, his reasoning for the trade hinged on Ball’s inability to make third and fourth efforts. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. The knock on Luke Ball has always been that he was a touch slow and lacked a penetrating kick; but his second, third and fourth efforts were what I appreciated about him. I have always had a running joke that you know Bally had a good game when he has a bandaged head at the final siren. He goes in hard and gets the footy, he gives an honest contest and he gets the most out of himself.

I remember a mate once complaining about the new found obsession with converting players into midfielders. Getting Stephen Milne and Matthew Stokes to run through the middle seemed counter-productive to him. They were small forwards that kicked you goals by being in the right place – twenty metres from goal and looking for the crumb. ‘If it walks like a duck….’ is how he finished his tirade. I tend to agree. The new era of footballers all being ‘midfielders” is counter intuitive. A player who quacks like a goal sneak is more useful paddling around inside fifty.

While I was happy that Ball was a in-and-under, contested possession, duck, it was not universally agreed upon with my tribe. I had a conversation with a Saints fan about Ball being shopped around and he said without hesitation- ‘Yeah, gotta agree. He needs to go, not  big Bally fan.’ We were on the same side but we disagreed about one of our star players. Notice how I said ‘our?’ If you’re a dyed in the wool supporter you probably didn’t. For those not afflicted you most assuredly will have noticed and constantly wondered what connection I can possibly have to a professional football club.

Looking in, it appears to be delusional that  all you do to belong, is sit passively and watch a group of overpaid athletes run around a stadium, while paying good money to do so. How is that belonging? The random nature of the selection of your allegiances, when you boil it down to the basic stock, just can’t be taken seriously. How can folks live and die on the exploits of a group of men we don’t know? How? Because it feels right!

I have always felt for the poor lost souls of Melbourne who dread the coming of autumn. The way Melbourne becomes a different city. The language changes completely, the  whole rhythm of daily life is reset to take in only two states of being- Pre-game and Post-game. From the moment the AFL season begins, work conversation is a mixture of gloating about your team besting someone else’s  and discussion of the new key issues of the day- Should Goodes go for that? Yeah, it was reckless, he’ll get weeks for that. Are Collingwood gone? Nah, Bucks is just finding his feet, they’ll be right. For those not in  the know it is an undiscovered dialect and everyone seems to be speaking it. I pity the person that arrives in Melbourne for the first time in summer!  Imagine making friends and getting to know the city, feeling at home and becoming comfortable in your new environs….. And then the leaves begin to fall and the curtain is pulled back- Footy’s here! Suddenly all these folk you’d met , who seemed perfectly lovely and sane start talking in this new impenetrable drivel. With bloodlust in their eyes and passion dripping from their tongue they implore you to join them- One of us, one of us! You must make a choice- are you with us or against us. To be fair, there is always a  certain amount of pity shown to anyone in a work environment that gets asked the most important Melbourne question- Who do you follow?; and can only answer- ‘Actually I don’t follow the football.’ People will give you a truly disappointed look, followed by a face that suggests that you have suffered a death in the family.  If you lack the obsession for footy in the cold months of July and August  you get so sick of that look when you don’t instantly twitch -‘Hawkers!’; that you often find a way to belong by uttering something as a follow up.

Generally it is along the lines of- ‘But my grandfather used to follow Carlton, so I guess I’m a Carlton supporter.’ That is an anathema to true supporters btw. We will always be polite to you if you say that… But inside our blood is beginning to simmer. You can’t guess you’re a Carlton supporter, that’s comparable to assuming you can play the piano because you own a heap of Nora Jones CDs! (Thanks to Black Books for the assist there!) Proclaiming your allegiance to one of the royal houses of Melbourne is not symbolic. You are either in or out, like being pregnant there is no third way.

Being a St.Kilda supporter, I will constantly get the other, well intentioned statement- ‘Oh, the Saints are my second favourite team.’ It never used to not bother me much, it is a seemingly meaningless statement meant to make you feel pleased that someone has half an eye on the fortunes of another. Nowadays it gives me the shits! What you’re really saying, completely unintentionally I grant you, is that the Saints are the loveable losers you can’t help but feel for. A cuddly teddy bear of a side that tries so hard but never gets any further than that one solitary flag so long ago it was in black and white.  It’s easy to love St.Kilda, they never feel like they will ever be a threat to your team. I actually envy Collingwood supporters! I know, nuts isn’t it? But the truth is people hate them because they have absolutely no sense of humility at all. They ‘know’ that the Pies are the greatest team in the comp and that is all they need to be aware of. A woman I worked with, who was  a Geelong supporter, tried to ingratiate herself to her partner’s family by trying the whole- Collingwood are my second team gambit…and do you know what they told her? We don’t need you. You can’t have Collingwood as a second team, you’re either for us or against us. Cop that!

What a seriously disturbing insight that is. It proves the point I have always made though, Collingwood are hated by everyone because of that complete lack of humility. They are the very definition of one-eyed. They are hateful to anyone who is not wearing black and white stripes and are certain that we are all out to get them. And you know what? That’s not a criticism! I love that- passion so obsessive that no other point of view will ever be tolerated. It makes them  the perfect  enemies for everyone. It is so much fun to hate Collingwood. Everyone is on your side if you play the Maggies card. It brings every tribe together.

This goes back straight back to that original assertion- Being a football supporter is a unique experience. We all have mates we go to the footy with, who support the same team and sit with you ripping the umpires and cheering the boys on. They love the same team and you tend to agree on most things pertaining to them but you will never be 100% on everything. Ever. There is a Luke Ball around every corner. For example, I don’t like Stephen Milne. Don’t get that twisted, I appreciate him and marvel at the fact he’s kicked 500 goals as a small forward. I  can see his immense value to the team and cheer for him when he plays-on, once again and screws the snap across his body to score another goal…. But he irritates me so much that he will never be a fav. I know several Saints supporters who claim him as their favourite player and I go to games with them quite happily. We just don’t agree on Milney. Choosing a favourite player is the very definition of the uniqueness of being a supporter. In the confines of a team game, there is always room for you to appreciate one player a little more than the rest. There are the obvious fan favs of course. A wander around the ground before the match will enlighten you of that. Counting the popular numbers on the back of kids guernseys will tell you Nick Riewoldt is the king of the Saints. The number 12 gets the nod by about 5:1. (Milne’s No.44 is next btw!) You can also ascertain who other teams love by doing the same thing. (I suspect Carlton Guernsey’s come with a No.5 already on them such is the ubiquitous nature of Chris Judd’s number.)

I’m more a fan of Lenny Hayes than Rooy and Milney. I also have a huge amount of time for Sam Fisher. When I see them play a blinder, a part of me is strangely proud- I chose them to be my fav and they are proving me right!  It’s non-sensical, but deeply satisfying. What has begun to fascinate me recently though,  is the insularity of our support. For the entire winter we are all obsessed with the AFL but from wildly conflicting angles. We are together in our love of the game but separated into our own huddles. When I talk to someone from another tribe, they have to tell me how their season is going. I have no idea how the Roos are travelling, all I know is what  the Saints need to do.

My revelation in relation to this began not so long ago, when I decided, for reasons I still don’t rightly know,  to apply to be a statistician at the Coburg Football Club, who are aligned with Richmond in the AFL. It meant spending a whole day on the weekend sitting with a pair of binoculars calling every single action in the game, while someone beside me punched that information into a computer. It was sadly the best fun ever for a massive footy nerd like me!  But what it  really meant was that I got to spend my afternoons with blokes who were obsessed with football as much as me…..The difference was they were Richmond supporters. For the first time I was a aware of how different a season is on the other side of the fence. I had never thought about it before, yet standing in the middle of a gang of hardened Tigers supporters I heard another version of the  language of winter. The football season is viewed through a prism. You know who you are playing in the next month, who’s injured, out of form, coming back from the twos. You know what position you are on the ladder and how many wins and losses you’ve had. The only time you know that kind of detail about any other side in the league is when they make that list of teams you play in the next month. You take note of another team when you are watching a game not involving your team but you commit to them for the two hours of the game. What goes on beyond that is not your concern. Every side is a microcosm of the greater competition. You are so obsessed with how your team is travelling, that the minutiae of Richmond’s season is a mystery to you. What I got to see during my term at Coburg was the way the world of the AFL works for others. I couldn’t but help to go along with the ride. Even several season’s later I watch Richmond games in a different light. The mates I made doing stats helped me to care about the Tiges but the insight into how a club works from the inside actually gave me a bigger insight into the game.  I see Jack Riewoldt run around the MCG and remember when he was drafted to the club, a skinny bloke from Tassie, lining up in the goal square at Coburg City Oval. I can vividly remember him sauntering up the players race at Geelong in one of his first games for Richmond singing- ‘Some day you’ll be a man,’  casually hand balling to himself. It was a truly enlightening moment. Jack had always seemed confident (he had his No.8 stitched into his custom footy boots  from the outset at the Burgers) but here he was entered in the big stage of Kardinia Park against the biggest of opposition singing an admittedly appropriate refrain!  He seemed to have not a care in the world.

The intimacy of being in a  club’s change-rooms opened my eyes to how different my experience as a supporter has always been. I think perhaps the fact that I wasn’t a Richmond supporter helped me realise the gap even more acutely. It is a long journey from the lounge room to the rooms after a match. I saw blokes covered in mud, sweat and blood, absolutely spent, who I have ripped from my comfy sofa.  I have bashed players for being hacks and duds my whole life, while watching them from a moulded plastic seat in the outer….  But nothing about my footballing journey prepared me to look that bloke in the eye after he’s put in four quarters.

I know this is starting to sound a bit dramatic-  But the inherent truth of football is that it exists on so many levels all at once and we very really allow ourselves to step back to see that. We approach it from our own angle and enjoy it in our own way. My point is- The closer you get, the more detail you see. I equate it to standing in front of Jackson Pollack’s Blue Poles. When the NGV had Blue Poles on display several years back,  it was the only painting in the room. A huge canvas, dominating the space so completely, that when people entered, they immediately stood as far back  as they could. It is the right choice, at least initially. From  a distance you can see the blue poles and the obvious structure of the composition. You can understand what Pollock wanted it to say. What fascinated me though, was that people looked at it from that distance and them filed out of the room. They didn’t feel the urge to walk closer, to explore the texture and the detail. I spent ten minutes just staring as close as possible, taking in the way the seemingly random paint dribble clearly had purpose and structure. How it was applied in sequence and  why it talked to the overall composition. the footprints of the artist in the corner, the brushstroke that wasn’t edited-  I saw a smaller universe inside the whole. I now see that the smaller universe is where we all belong as football supporters. We don’t get the chance to step back and see all of the picture very often and frankly it’s worth the look.? Melbourne is fuelled by a unique obsession. Wheels within wheels, forever spinning at different rates but all interconnected.


  1. Lovely article Tom. Look forward to your next one

    PS. The Blue Poles metaphor is a beauty

  2. ramondobb says

    Outstanding piece, Tom. I belong to the grateful tribe that accepted your fave Luke Ball with open arms and can absolutely see why you still hold feelings for him. As part of the Collingwood tribe, we’ve had the great benefit of seeing his third, fourth and probably fifth efforts. We’ve also seen his humble responses to the inevitable loaded questions the media bombarded hiim with every time he came up against your tribe. It’s often difficult for a tribe to accept one from another but with Bally I reckon he was accepted fully from just about day 1 and he’s all class. Your dilemma over the 09/10 cricket season I think was that you had your other fave Lenny Hayes (who from the view from our tribe appears to share vary similar status as Bally) in the same side and Boss Ross couldn’t find roles for two similar types.

    The tribe is a fascinating concept and I agree on most parts of your piece. As part of the Pies tribe I love the Us versus Them, we hate everyone, we don’t have second teams and we don’t want to be anyone’s second team. As you say it, you are either in or out. Those in the tribe from my era have seen so much heartache, but it just fuels us to keep fighting on and makes us celebrate to the max when we have had the ultimate success. Like the Chumbawamba song I reckon “we get knocked down, but we get up again”, I think that might be one of the reasons why other tribes don’t like us, win, lose, draw, top or bottom, we keep coming back for more and keep punching on.

    My wife and one of my best mates belong to your tribe, and I do feel for them at times, but deep down I am really hoping for outcomes that assist the Pies tribe in any game that I watch. The tribal approach to footy is a truly selfish and one eyed approach to an aspect of life which is a guilty pleasure that we don’t get to have with any or many other aspects of life, and as Maxwell Smart would say “aaaaaaaaaand loving it”!

  3. You’ve nailed it, Tom, in a brilliantly perceptive piece. Years ago, Garry Hutchinson concluded a review of a match Footscray won, reporting some vanquished supporter saying that it was OK that his team (maybe Melbourne) had lost, as it was “good for football” that a battling team won. Hutcho’s observation was: “What would be good for football is if we hated Footscray winning, because they did so habitually.” I guess that applies to the Saints as well.

    The other tale that your contribution dredged out of the recesses of my memory was with respect to the Magpies and your friend’s wife’s futile attempt to insinuate herself into the status of associate supporter. Alan McAllister allegedly said “If you used to barrack for Collingwood, you never did.”

    I also love your reference to our favourite players. I find that I have players in opposition teams whom I admire/respect, and wish to see do well.

  4. Richard Naco says

    Outstanding piece.

    I love the reference to Blue Poles (a truly amazing work), and I fully understand and accept every element of your article. Bar one.

    Cheer squads are every bit as diverse as the truly committed members of their tribe who opt not to wave flags, walk banners on and off the paddock pre-game, and sit behind the goals. I have three favourite Giants, and as far as I know, they are favoured by me and me alone in our group (which is pretty easy when said group numbers about a dozen).

    GWS is quite comfortable being the second favourite team right now (about half of the cheer squad has stronger allegiances to other tribes). It’s a necessary survival strategy in these tenuous formative years, but we will know that we’ve truly arrived when that is no longer the case.

    Our long term aim is to basically be hated by everybody else.

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