4. My First Game.
I started to watch the replays regularly. Channel 7 had Seven’s Big League on at Saturday night, hosted by Peter Landy, which replayed a quarter from two matches, and provided highlights of another. That’s all the games which were covered. Because of Collingwood’s H&A success and popularity, they were replayed often. Then there was the Winners on Channel 2, with Tim Lane and Drew Morphett. Sometimes they had a different game. Usually, they didn’t. But they might show a different section from the same game, and it was always interesting to get the viewpoint of different commentators.
I’d sit transfixed in front of the TV, following Collingwood’s progress, and starting to memorise the players. I wrote out all their names and numbers, which helped me to remember them. One peculiarity that occurred to me was their uniform: when Collingwood played home games, they wore black shorts; when they played away, it was white shorts. That’s changed now, but I always thought Collingwood had different identities, depending on their attire. When they were in black shorts, they looked crisp and efficient; when they were in white shorts, they appeared workman-like.
At the end of Seven’s Big League, Peter Landy would sign-off by saying something like, ‘I hope your team won’, which always annoyed me. Sure, I guess the sentimnent was nice enough, but not everybody’s team could win. It was almost an unwitting slight.
Inevitably, my brother John invited me to come watch Collingwood play South Melbourne for my first game ever. I was informed of a family tradition before I went, though. Every first game my brothers had attended, Collingwood had lost. I dreamed that I’d be different. Of course I would be. Collingwood wouldn’t let me down.
The game was at South Melbourne’s ground, Lake Oval. The day was overcast. It really looked as if it would rain. I dressed in a duffel coat and bought a Footy Record outside the ground. There were people everywhere, many of them sporting their colours. South Melbourne’s white and red really stood out. There seemed more of their supporters than ours, although it probably was an illusion because their red is such a distinctive colour, emblematic to them. It happens with any club who have that one bright colour which really stands out. See it at a game, and you immediately correlate it with them. Black or white doesn’t stand out the same way in a crowd.
We went in through the turnstiles, my brother John paying for me, and filtered our way through milling people and up onto the wing. It wasn’t packed – not as I’d get to know in later years, where people were squeezed together, shoulder-to-shoulder. But for a little kid it was busy enough. It was the biggest number of people I’d ever seen in the same place.
I left my brother and friends and weaved my way through people to get to the fence. The fence had one row of seats around the perimeter. You could only get a seat if you showed up insanely early. We hadn’t. But because there were people seated at the fence, it meant standing behind them gave me an unencumbered view. Adults standing around me were generally forgiving of a kid pushing his way to a better vantage point. I can tell you now that the attendance was a stunning 25,375.
I waited in anticipation for the Reverses to finish. Players cantered off. Cheer squads went on. Up went the banners. That was impressive, and not something you ever saw on TV broadcasts (bar for grand finals). The players ran out to their clubs’ theme songs. The crowd cheered. The players warmed up, lined up in their positions. The siren went. The game started.
Then I proceeded to be underwhelmed on a number of fronts. The first thing you note as a stupid, uncomprehending kid is the lack of commentary. It’s not like watching on TV, where you’re told everything. When you’ve gotten so used to that, the absence is – in its own way – deafening. Then it’s the way they were always playing on the opposite wing. I mentioned that to my brother and he said it just seems that way, and the people on the opposite wing would think the same. I could swear that it was that way, though. (It still is today, damnit.) Then it’s that the players don’t seem as buff and impressive as they do on TV, although maybe that’s because in person they appear almost – almost – human, but on TV they’re deified.
However, you do get caught up in the competitiveness, in the desperation of the game and the feats only players at this level can perform. Their abilities inspire you. I was okay at footy, and watching firsthand, I immediately wanted to be playing. It started a pattern that would follow me for years (and particularly when we lost): I’d want to get home and have a kick of the football, (when I couldn’t get my brothers to play, usually kicking it out of the drive myself, chasing it down, and then having shots on the run). Sometimes, I’d replay games in my head, or create scenarios that involved barnstorming comebacks.
More than that, I wanted to play for Collingwood and crush opposition.
In the first quarter, we established a small lead, although partly thanks to South Melbourne’s wastefulness. Still, the score at the break was 3.3 to 1.6. I knew things would be different for my first game! In the second quarter, they overhauled us, though, to lead by 9 points at half-time. It didn’t get any prettier in the second half as they extended their lead by a couple of goals. I kept waiting for Collingwood to do something, to actually start playing proper footy and kick goals. That’s what you were meant to do, weren’t you? But it was an ugly, scrappy game. Whenever we reined them in – teasing a comeback (something I’d be programmed to expect over the years) – they’d pull away and re-establish that buffer.
This wasn’t meant to be happening. My first Collingwood game was meant to be a win, so I would be unique from my brothers. But it just felt as if Collingwood couldn’t get their game together. I was too young to understand strategies, to really notice if one player’s opponent was getting the best of him, or whether another player was simply having a quiet game, but collectively it just felt as if things weren’t clicking for us, whilst they were for South.
I didn’t recognise any of their players – although their side did contain such names (as well as icons of South Melbourne) as Graham Teasdale, Barry Round, Mark Browning, David Ackerly, Rod Carter, and Paul and Tony Morwood – but they had a skinny blond kid on their side who looked too thin for football. He was ugly, too, with a narrow face, protuberant eyes and a big nose. At least that’s the way he looked to me. He seemed ubiquitous, and whenever he got possessions they were always right in front of me. He became an eyesore, and the focus of why we were losing. I hated him instinctively. I checked the Footy Record and found that his name was David Rhys-Jones.
The game finished with Collingwood going down by twenty-five points. On the drive home, I sat mutely in the car, more so disappointed that my first match hadn’t been a win, as opposed to it being a loss for Collingwood.
But now I was underway.
Saturday, 10 May 1980 – Lake Oval
South Melbourne 17.13.(115)