A grand old flag: the emblem of the teams we love
It’s about time I came clean. Some 31 years ago I masterminded an elaborate swindle involving the starving kiddies of Africa and some of my closest family and friends where I fraudulently solicited $17 by falsely claiming to have completed the World Vision 40-Hour Famine.
In truth I only completed some four hours of the famine which, from memory, started just after breakfast on a Saturday morning, and immediately fell apart shortly afterwards at the Unley Oval, home ground of Adelaide’s Sturt Football Club.
I wrongly told Dad and Uncle Bruce that I had to go to the merchandise caravan to buy another badge for my duffle coat (with Phil 16 Heinrich stitched on the back in blue letters) but snuck off instead to the rear of what is now the Jack Oatey Stand where they used to make the greatest steak sandwiches in recorded human history.
Steak sandwiches so good you could smell them from Unley Road. Steak sandwiches with a siren-like quality which left you powerless to resist their charms, even if all your schoolmates and uncles and aunties were paying 10 cents for every hour you went without food in solidarity with the children of Ethiopia.
So I bought one, hid behind a pylon and wolfed it down.
I was reminded of the steak sandwiches in the course of conversations this week with Sturt-loving friends whom I’ve enlisted to write this collaborative reminiscence ahead of Sunday’s grand final, and a number of them cited the sangers as one of their fondest memories of Unley in the 1970s.
It’s remarkable that after three decades so many details endure - how even though, as an adult, your mind becomes filled with issues involving work and family and mortgages and superannuation, you can still remember in an instant that Rick Davies was number 24 and Paul Bagshaw number 8 and Jim Derrington number 17, on and on through an entire team of 20-odd blokes who hung their boots up long ago.
But many of the memories aren’t so much about the sport itself, or the players, but who you were there with, even how you got there.
The Adelaide Advertiser’s national political editor Mark Kenny is a fellow Sturt tragic. He provided this wonderful memory of a childhood in double blue, back in the libertine days when governments hadn’t yet passed dumb laws which prevented people from having this kind of fun:
“My Dad used to take us to Sturt games at Unley Oval on his motorbike. Back in those days, helmets were optional as long as you stayed below a certain speed (25 mph I think). I would sit in front of him, virtually on the fuel tank, and my older brother Shane, would sit behind him. We even took my younger brother Martin sometimes - meaning there were four of us on the bike coming down from Belair.”
Via twitter, several fans obviously pointed to the club’s victories as their defining memories.
Chris Illman recalled Matt Powell’s 20-plus possessions in the 2002 grand final to win the Jack Oatey medal. Russell Williams was at the 1976 Grand Final where Sturt went in as underdogs but in front of 67,000 standing fans at Footy Park thrashed Port Adelaide by 41 points.
Being born in 1969 I’m in the shocking position of being young enough to have no memories of 1976 and old enough to remember everything about 1978.
As such my most intense sporting memories of my club are imbued with a desperate sense of sadness and an enduring sense of injustice at the umpiring of Des Foster, the winning goal kicked on the siren by Norwood’s Phil Gallagher, but more painfully and precisely, every hideous second of what unfolded where Dad and Uncle Bruce and I were standing in the south-western pocket at Footy Park.
Dad had let me move down a few rows to press my face against the fence. I was standing behind a hideous old Norwood-supporting hag who appeared to have crocheted herself into a wooly red and blue tube and was propped up on a folding chair with a thermos and a foam esky full of sandwiches which she was (only) sharing with her Norwood friends.
When Des Foster awarded what was either a free or a mark to Gallagher - to this day no-one really knows what it was, and Foster himself admitted in 1993 that he got it wrong - a Sturt fan next to me exploded (as did half the crowd) and screamed “Foster you useless little runt”.
The Norwood woman misheard and turned around and abused the man for using such foul language and an argument ensued, during which Gallagher goaled, at which point I lost it and kicked a hole in the woman’s esky and she started gesturing towards the police. I ran back in tears to Dad and Uncle Bruce and we left the ground in silence, and I cried myself to sleep for the next two weeks.
Not with standing the small fact that we’d kicked 3.68 (or whatever it was) to lose by a solitary point, it ranks as the greatest sporting travesty of the modern era.
It’s also kind of silly.
On a much more real note, the strongest moments of genuine sorrow and despair in the modern history of the club should give pause to those who dismiss sport as a frivolous and meaningless pursuit, a waste of time which ultimately means nothing.
They were the near death in 1987 of our once-in-a-generation footballing hero Peter Motley in a car crash in Melbourne while playing for Carlton, and the death in 2002 in the Bali bombings of 22-year-old Sturt reserves player Josh Deegan and club veteran and trainer Bob Marshall.
The thing that makes sport so important is this. It involves a beautiful network of microscopic communities - Mark Kenny and his brothers on the old man’s motorbike, me, Dad and Uncle Bruce, as much as it pains me to say it, even that crocheted red and blue lady with her busted esky - which are united by a shared sense of belonging and a shared sense of hope, optimism and pride. At its most superficial it’s the thrill of a win, the friendly jokes with friends who barrack for the other lot, a steak sandwich in the outer, the simple pleasure of sitting on the couch watching old tapes.
But at its most profound, it’s a shared and enduring sense of anguish at an event such as Peter Motley’s crash, or the horror of Bali which was shared by so many clubs, from Sturt to the Coogee Dolphins to the KIngsley Tigers to North Melbourne, because we are all part of these clubs, and these clubs are a defining part of us.
Go the Double Blues.
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