This weekend marks the resumption of the Australian Football League’s 2020 Premiership season.
The AFL Club I support is the Footscray Football Club, which has, for the past 23 years, played as the Western Bulldogs. This is not exactly surprising, given I am one of those people who, born and raised in Footscray, see themselves as being from Footscray, rather than being from Melbourne.
I do not think Australian rules football is a big part of my life, and I do not really consider myself a footy tragic. I usually go to a match once or twice a year, but that will not be the case this year. But I do usually find it too stressful to watch my team play on TV – I even switched off the AFLW grand final a few years ago as our girls were losing (thankfully they turned it around).
I saw a mad keen Bulldogs supporter I vaguely know at Highpoint this evening, someone who goes to every local game and watches the rest on TV. He said that he asked for and got a refund on his membership ticket this year.
I will not be doing that. The club can keep my money. Supporting my club is about more than winning or watching a game. Being a Footscray supporter means that this is engrained in me.
I am a reasonably fluent Italian speaker. But I did not learn the word tiffoso (plural tiffosi) until 2006, when Italy won the Soccer World Cup. This is a word for a sports fan, probably to be more precise, a soccer fan. My father never used that word, probably because he held soccer in disdain.
My father liked three sports: Boxing, Cycling, and Australian rules football. My brother loves boxing, I loathe cycling, but we both love Australian rules. (FYI, our home town in Italy, Treviso, is a Rugby Union powerhouse, but not so good at soccer.)
My father migrated to Australia in 1959, at the age of 28, after spending 11 years working in such places as Turin, Belgium and Switzerland. After living for a short while in Sunshine North with his sister’s family, he rented a shack in the backyard of someone’s home in Empire Street Footscray. In 1964, around the time he met my mother, he bought a house just around the corner from there, in Gordon Street Footscray, less than 10 minutes’ walk from the Footscray home ground, then called the Western Oval.
The origin story (as he told me once) for his support of the Footscray Football Club was that whilst he went to a few games with his workmates, he only got really interested in it when they came last in 1967 and won only 3 games, one of which being against Richmond, who were premiers that year. He decided that it was an exciting and unpredictable sport which deserved his attention.
After that, until we moved a kilometre north in 1976 to what was then called Maidstone North, he went to every game he could, or caught the last quarter on his way home from overtime (they used to open the gates at three quarter time and anyone could catch the last quarter – which was perfect for workers who had just gotten off the train at West Footscray), or listened to it on the radio. On days we won, he would grab the Saturday evening edition of the Sporting Globe, so that he could read about the thrilling victory.
My mother, who has no interest in sport, was very bemused when the radio commentators were calling the games when my father was listening in at home. It took her a while and the acquisition of a bit more fluency in English to realise that “And Footscray yet to score” meant that perhaps her husband should have chosen a team with greater prospects of winning….
But I do not see Football as about winning. Being from Footscray is an inherent and integral part of who and what I am. It is my home town and supporting the home town team is important to me.
As it turned out, the origin story that my father told me was not entirely true. He did not start supporting the Bulldogs in 1967. He was mad about them in 1964 when he first met my mother. I only found that out in Grand Final Week 2016 when she paid for our Grand Final tickets, saying that if my father was alive, he would have wanted nothing more than to go with his boys to see our team play in the Grand Final at long bloody last.
I am not a tragic for this game, but it seems that I have been to a lot of memorable games (for both good and bad reasons). When they stopped playing games at the Western / Whitten Oval at the end of 1997, there was an article about great games which had been played there – mostly in the previous decade. I had been to most of them.
The last AFL game at the Whitten Oval was a great one. We beat West Coast. “We are the true west!” someone shouted as we kicked another goal.
The Semi Final in 2016 was quite an event. After losing the preliminary final in 1997 by two points (Libba kicked that goal dammit! – I was sitting behind the goals and saw it), I had vowed not to go to a final again until we went one better. But a colleague had a spare ticket, and I went at the last minute. If I had known, I would have brought a scarf, and marched en masse with the other supporters from Federation Square to the game. But at the eleven minute mark of the final quarter, when we had goaled again and the Hawthorn supporters started walking out and we all started singing ‘Good Night Hawthorn, Good Night!’ it occurred to me that this was a historic moment. In my lifetime, we had never won two finals in a row, or two finals in the one year, or a final against Hawthorn. To smash three diamond hard barriers in the one game was cause for optimism.
Grand Final Week 2016 was an extremely memorable time. Two days before the Grand Final, I walked through Footscray for the first time since I had returned from my trip to Italy. I walked down Leeds Street, then Barkly Street til the Whitten Oval, and then up Gordon Street til my mother’s home. Parking poles were wrapped in red, white and blue, and shops were decorated in streamers, balloons, and ‘WOOF WOOF’ signs. The home town was coming alive, showing that under the usual studied indifference to the footy results, there was a beating heart that loved its own football club dearly. There had occasionally been hints of this, when we made finals before, but this was the first time we had made the big one in 55 years.
I wore my member’s scarf all that week. Everyone gave me thumbs up or other encouraging signs. After all, due to its underdog status and its general good sportsmanship, the Bulldogs are everyone’s second favourite team, especially if representing Victoria against an interstate club.
At our work grand final afternoon tea, myself and the other Bulldogs stood together proudly wearing our scarves. Someone who was originally from Sydney and who did not know me (or my team) well asked if I was a bandwagon supporter. Bandwagon? Bulldogs are for life, it is where we are from and what we are (not like those a-holes in school who were Hawthorn supporters – from Footscray WTF???).
The Grand Final itself was hard to watch. It is very stressful to watch your team play at the best of times, let alone when so much is at stake. Even before the siren went, when the outcome was beyond doubt, my phone started to be flooded with congratulatory texts from friends and colleagues.
After the game, my brother and I went back to Footscray and celebrated at Hart’s Hotel, one of the pubs closest to the Whitten Oval. When we entered, there were two Sudanese blokes wearing Bulldogs jumpers standing on a table singing ‘Who Let The Dogs Out’ over and over again. A hipster dude kept standing on his chair and singing ‘Sons of the West’.
And the pub almost ran out of beer. (Along the way, my brother and I got on Channel 7 news – a screen shot of that is at the front of this post.)
As I was walking to the tram stop much later on, four young blokes in Bulldogs fan gear stopped me and asked me directions to pubs. They were not from the home town per se, but they knew they needed to come to the home town on this one night in history to celebrate with their fellow supporters.
I could go on and on. About the disappointments during the premiership hangover, and the sudden surge of optimism as we stormed into the finals last year with the press saying that we were back and no-one knew quite how far we could go, given what had happened in 2016.
I am not a tragic for Australian rules football, or for my particular team. But it is still more than a game to me, much more than a game. It is an important part of my identity, that has been there since my earliest memories, and whilst I do not go to as many games as I might, or enjoy watching my team on the TV, I care what happens.
So I will not be asking for a refund for my 2020 membership. My home town team is welcome to the money I have paid them, and I will be willing to pay much more to ensure that radio commentators might say, for many more years to come ‘yet to score’ when we have a bad start to a game.