2. A collection of memories.
When you’re growing up, there’s three stages of awareness in regards to football.
- Stage 1: you know football exists, and generally there’s an inclination toward one team or another, (although at this stage, allegiances are still malleable, unless you’re born into a family who program you early).
- Stage 2: having that casual interest in whether your team’s won or lost, and if they’ve won, even asking by how much. At this point, there’s a knowledge of a few players and an inkling of your favourite, (although your favourite might, in reality, be a spud, but he’s become your favourite because he’s signed your footy or somebody’s given you his number on your jumper or whatever the obscure connection might be).
- Stage 3: knowing your team and watching them.
I was late to Stage 3, which is weird given I had three older brothers who all followed Collingwood, and two of whom went every week, (and the other regularly). I was introspective and hyper, nerdy and bookish, although I did regularly play sport. When I played cricket, I wanted to be a bowler, modelling my action on Jeff Thompson’s, albeit left-handed, (although I batted right-handed). Footy, I was a left footer with an ungainly style, but a sharp(ish) kick and a good mark.
However, while I wasn’t going or watching games regularly quite yet, I did all the other regular footy stuff. I played footy matches with cousins and at school. I played kick-to-kick with my brothers. I bought football cards and lamented how I rarely ever seemed to get Collingwood players. Xavier Tanner for North Melbourne – he was somebody I got a lot. He must’ve been a gun. They must’ve made five Xavier cards for one of every other player. I also got in friendly banter with other kids about rivalries I didn’t understand.
I was getting hooked into Collingwood, though, in that organic way kids do, subverted bit by bit, until there was no escaping it and it became my reality, as if supporting Collingwood was a form of schizophrenia.
There was no escape. Which is the way it should be – not just with Collingwood, but any team, (but really with Collingwood; why would you want to get hooked into another team?). I don’t understand the dynamic where kids support teams that their parents don’t. I have a friend who supports Richmond. His son barracks for Hawthorn because Richmond has been crap since 1982 and Hawthorn won the 2008 grand final. How difficult is it to say to the kid that he can have free will or a roof over his head? That’s what allegiance is. Blood. Not whim. My cousin did it recently when discussing who his daughter would support with his Essendon-barracking wife.
‘Does she want to support Essendon or does she want her father’s love?’ my cousin asked.
There were other guys who lived down the street my brothers age, and they’d play footy, cricket, and stuff. Sometimes, being the goofy little brother, I’d tag along. They anointed me Fabulous Phil Carman – probably because I cried a lot and threw tantrums, not that I knew that was the connection. Instead, they told me how good Phil was, which was true, and I imagined myself like Fabulous Phil, taking marks and dominating games.
My brothers brought me the plastic numbers which were the rage of the day – none of this jumpers with numbers printed on, or ironed-out. You (read: your mum) sewed the plastic number on your back, which looked real good – even if felt weird whenever you flexed – until they got a rip in them. Then it was just a matter of time before they tore the whole way through.
Still, awareness of the actual footy was something peripheral. During grand final week in 1977, I saw on the News that some baker baked a cake with heaps of black and white layers in expectation of Collingwood winning the flag. One of my brothers watched the game at home with his friend. I watched with about as much attention and investment as seven-year-olds have, unaware that our gun CHF, Phil Carman, was out suspended, seriously harming our chances; of how Collingwood threw away a match-winning lead; how administrators celebrated the win before it occurred (allegedly popping champagne bottles open); or how iconic Twiggy Dunne’s game-saving mark would become, leading to the flat punt which would tie the scores, resulting in only the second draw in VFL grand final history.
There were hopefulness for the replay. Of course there would be. This was another shot at it, even if Carman was again unavailable (although they tried to get him off). I wasn’t aware of the stories that followed, of (allegedly) coach Tom Hafey training the players into the ground, so they were flat come the replay.
Which was a loss. Of course. Situation normal.
There are your three certainties in life: death, taxes, and Collingwood in grand finals.
1978 was a bust (with Collingwood bombing out in the preliminary final to North Melbourne), other than for being given a new player to like in Rene Kink. Kink was broad-shouldered with ripper definition in the arms and bore a passing resemblance (for a kid at least) to Lou Ferrigno, who played The Hulk in the tv series The Incredible Hulk. It was a nickname Kink would earn as he stacked on the muscle.
I was becoming aware of other players, too: there was the Charlie Chaplainesque appearance of Ray Shaw; the graceful hunchbacked loping of Peter Moore; the Beatlesque head and seeming ungainliness of Billy Picken; the Oompa Loompa brutality of Stan Magro (and, fast-forwarding briefly, after he flattened Carlton’s Alex Jesualenko , I was always disappointed whenever I saw Magro and he didn’t flatten somebody – the expectation was he always would). The list went on. Of course, these were a kid’s impressions, and similarities were correlated to a fleeting understanding of pop culture.
By then Fabulous Phil was on the way out, and I was too young to appreciate that many couldn’t forgive him for being unavailable for the 1977 grand finals. I’d develop the disappointment retrospectively, the way you do with Collingwood. It’s a birthright you grow into. It didn’t matter that I didn’t experience it at the time. It’s like inheriting a blood oath. A black and white blood oath.
In 1979, I watched raptly as Collingwood took on Hawthorn in the Escort Cup (night) grand final. It was the first tension I felt following a match unfold, being aware of the scores and what they meant to the contest. After we won, captain Ray Shaw vowed that was number one, now for number two – the actual flag. Again, being a kid, I was too young to appreciate how hard premierships were to win. And that vows aren’t always fulfilled.
I was hardly aware of our fluctuating fortunes that season, or the grand final itself – other than we led. Then we lost. And Wayne Harmes tapped the ball back in from the first row of seating. Years later, I read Wayne Johnston’s autobiography and he mentioned of that incident that Harmes should be given credit because he chased the ball down, while everybody else slowed to a canter, expecting the ball to dribble out. He’s right. Even if the ball was out when Harmes tapped it back in.
Anyway, this – footy – was still all new to me. I thought such things as injustices shouldn’t happen, but started realising they could happen.
I just didn’t know that while they shouldn’t happen, they would happen to us more than they wouldn’t.