Footy people are the best kind of people
I go to the footy for three reasons. Firstly, I hope to be witness to the perfect moment, that rare blend of the poetic and balletic, when the players channel the ball with an energy and directness which can only be borne of fury’s marriage with grace.
At Brisbane’s affectionately-named Gabba, on this particular night, Carlton managed several of these fizzing instances, mostly at the behest of one Christopher Judd, whilst the Lions’ players fell in their wake like flapping fish churned up by a fast-spinning propeller.
Secondly, I want to be lulled back to my youth, when I too tumbled across the sodden turf in search of that ever-elusive kick to position, handball to advantage, mark to goal.
The passage of time provides a warming kind of distortion; I was an ordinary and often uncourageous player but these days I can only recall the glory moments, dobbing four straight one Sunday arvo, taking a screamer over the back of some mullet-haired thug in the mud at New Town, and slotting a beauty from sixty – no, seventy – metres out on the run after a chain of handballs, three knock-ons and a blind double-turn. Seriously.
Thirdly, and these days most significantly, I want the people. I love footy people.
As a young man, I took my new beau to a VFL match at the now-defunct Princes Park, primarily to see Hawthorn’s enigmatic, shoulder-skirting champion Peter Knights perform some of the aforementioned perfect moments (which, I am still thrilled to report, he did). However, the great entertainment in the match came not from the field but from the spectators, in particular the wizened old ladies who, before the game, knitted club scarves then, as it began, waved their umbrellas in fierce umbrage and hurled abuse like confetti.
Fortunately my beloved is a woman of rare grounding; she relished the exchanges although the game itself, with its zigzag tactics and odd rulings about holding and releasing the blessed pill, remains a conundrum.
The footy people at the Gabba on the aforementioned evening were magnificent.
I write with special fondness of the blokes who camped next to me, in the cheap seats behind the goals, a musty, shadowy lair made more attractive by the easy access to beer and chips.
It is a febrile kind of place, the concrete surrounds somehow steeped in moist scraps of the vitriol that has flown unhindered over the years, the air redolent with beer slops and faint traces of urine.
The plastic seats reverberate collectively with each individual movement; a stray fart shivers down the line. And the people gather in their club jerseys, in their t-shirts (for it is still warm in these northern lands), with their coloured lanyards and fading caps, their rolled-up programs and freebie cardboard binoculars, their plastic cups of Midstrength and trays of rubbery calamari, and I am of course reminded of Bruce Dawe’s sardonic tribute to football’s life-cycles:
In the pure flood of sound, they are scarfed with light, a voice
Like the voice of God booms from the stands
Ooohh you bludger and the covenant is sealed.
Night footy at the Gabba: a young man and his mates straddle the seats and plonk down. He is blond, stubbled, with one of those low-set elasticated bodies that reminds me of an old-fashioned racing car, the chassis of a 1920s Bugatti.
He wears a Carlton jersey and khaki jeans that struggle to cover his arse, stained Dunlop Volleys on his feet. Leans over and says: “Blues?”
“You a Blues man?”
The briefest pause before he laughs himself silly, nearly committing the cardinal sin of spilling his beer. Turns to his mates and says: “He’s bloody Hawthorn! Ha!”
They all laugh while I ponder the exchange. Is it genuinely amusing that I barrack for one of the league’s super-powers or is this some kind of excursion into the absurd, a Pinteresque scene where mere words disguise greater socio-political menace? Bottom line; will they continue to laugh at my irrepressible jests, or beat me to a pulp?
“Since 1970,” I explain, hoping that longevity will be my saviour. Sad old man, stuck forever with the brown-and-gold hues that lightened his childhood …
“Hawthorn!” He settles back into his seat, gobbles chips in handfuls. “You from Tassie?”
“Yeah, born and bred.”
“Hear that?” He turns once more to his mates. “He’s from Tasmania!”
The laughter is loud and continuous. Mate Number Two leans over and says: “Me too!” This doubles the hilarity. By now I am less troubled – they are but merry fellows – although I do have misgivings about Number Two’s profoundly toothless gob.
Somehow he says: “I’m a Burnie boy. You know Burnie?”
Indeed I do, having spent three formative years at nearby Cooee. The Burnie that I recall was home to lumpy boys with tree-trunk torsos and a pulp mill with the sign that stated, ominously: ‘21 Days Since An Accident At This Plant.’
The beginning of the game signals the end of our immediate conversation. Brisbane starts well, prompting various accusations at the umpires – “You’re a blind dog!” – as well as any Lions’ players who dares to disrupt the balance of the universe by kicking goals.
Midfielder Daniel Rich takes a free kick – “Only kick for the day, Richie-Rich!” – then follows it up with another, to be told – “Only kick for the day, Richie-Rich!” This further cements my belief that I have hopped off the bus and fallen into a Sartrian abyss, a spiritual vacuum where repetition reminds us of the pointlessness of existence.
As Carlton hurtle away, courtesy of a precise and pacey midfield, my compatriots turn to the club song as a way of celebrating each goal.
“Da-da-duh-duh-duh! Da-da-duh-duh-duh! We are the Navy Blues, we are the old dark Navy Blues …”
A couple of families, perhaps tired of the group’s noisy exacerbations, shift seats. Fair enough, the language is as blue as their jerseys and at times verve spills into crudity. But these are decent, harmless footy boys, in love not just with the game but with the totality of the experience; relishing the booze and banter, the sitting with mates as their team soars and chip-kicks and tackles and rolls relentlessly towards victory.
These blokes have known each other since high school, come north together to look for work and now, like thousands before and since, populate the various building sites and holes in the earth that characterise modern Brisbane. One coaches an Under 8s team – “Unbeaten mate, bloody legends!” – and another has never washed his supporter’s jersey.
“Mate, Juddy signed it! Don’t want it to fade!”
They ask me to predict the outcome of the 2012 Premiership. “Hawthorn,” I say. Then, magnanimously: “Your boys are a fair chance too.”
“Bugger Hawthorn,” says one. Another growls: “Smash those pussies.”
I leave at three-quarter time, the game effectively over. Brisbane has been ground into their own smooth turf by Carlton’s unabated physical pressure and the tiredness brought on by a short preparation.
At the bus terminal, a dispirited-looking man plonks his daughter and her Lions flag onto a seat and rings home.
“Tell Mum,” he says bitterly, “that the Lions are crap. Waste of money. Never again.”
Ah, I thought, thus travels the fair-weather sailor. Sir, you are not a true footy person.
Acknowledgment: Bruce Dawe: Lifecycles (for Big Jim Phelan)
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