Footy Fever @ CCAS (2015)

Page 1







FOOTY FEVER Phwweeeeeeeeeeeiiiippp… with the shrill of a whistle, men, women, boys and girls race to be the first to gain possession of the ball, all across Australia. Within the overarching umbrella of football in this country, Footy Fever seeks to explore the many ways in which artists engage with the culture of Aussie Rules, Rugby League, Rugby Union, Soccer, and Wheelchair Rugby. By representing themes such as belief, belonging, history, nostalgia, religion, war, dedication and fandom, Footy Fever adds to an ever-growing visual investigation that embodies the spirit of the game. At a glance, the worlds of football and art appear to be in direct competition with one another, polar extremes vying for participants and audiences every weekend. The arts camp can be quick to declare anyone into football a moronic Bogan, a meathead; meanwhile the football camp might accuse anyone into art of being an elitist stuck-up wanker. While both these stereotypes are true, there is a significant amount of grey-area in the middle (from goal to goal if you will), enough for mutual admiration and robust competition between these supposedly opposing sides to co-exist. For those that complain they don’t know the rules of football, or what differentiates one code from the other, imagine how ridiculous it is for those looking in on the art world. The artists included in Footy Fever are just the tip of a contemporary iceberg, Art Historian Chris McAuliffe quick to remind us that Arthur Streeton, Margaret Preston, Russell Drysdale and Sidney Nolan were but a few of the prominent Australian artists to tackle the subject in the past. The resurgence of football in art has re-emerged from its uncouth fashion of the 1960s and 70s, bringing with it new waves of artists eager to investigate the colourful theatrics and rituals of weekend suburbia.

Meta Rothery was a celebrated character of the Cadia region (located between Cowra, Mandurama and Canowindra in Central NSW), and was a descendant of the first wave of European settlers who travelled over the Blue Mountains by horse and carriage in the 1830’s. She lived on the family property for almost nine decades and was one of seven girls and two boys, of whom one was ever to marry, the union producing one child. Rothery’s ancestors were given a King’s Grant on Limestone Creek, providing not only a lifeblood for the family and it’s cattle, but a wealth of material for her arts practice. A truly ramshackle assortment of buildings were located up a rise from the river, rooms added to the house as the population grew, but the memories and secrets of the past always lingered. The bushranger Ben Hall once famously raided the property, Rothery proudly showing me the rifle slot at the front door for unwanted guests, and the bullet holes pockmarking the barn when he and his gang had tried to shoot the overseer ringing the alarm bell as they advanced on horseback.

Occasionally people would come across her down the paddock on the four-wheeler, her purple hair and sundress setting off makeup that appeared to have been applied in a tumble dryer, the muddy gumboots in stark contrast to the handbag. If one were to enquire where she was off to, she’d give you a wry smile and open her handbag – pliers, screwdrivers, wire, a hammer, and undoubtedly a few choice rocks collected along the way. With no formal training, and no awareness of the art world, Rothery was a true outsider artist. This never hindered her practice as she passionately painted river rocks she would find along the Belubula with birds, animals, farm cattle, Royal and colonial history, and celebrities such as the Queen, Cathy Freeman, and ‘Plugger’ the football player. Legend has it she only spent a single night away from home in her entire life, when the family had travelled to see the Copacabana horse show in Sydney. Subsequently her connection with the outside world was lived vicariously through the media, and with it her admiration of famous personalities. Rothery was a true fan of Sydney Swans legend ‘Plugger’ (or Tony Lockett to the uninitiated), a big burly bloke who was not much for talking, but Rothery reckoned he would have made a gun shearer in another lifetime.

META ROTHERY Plugger, 1996, acrylic on riverstone, 15cm x 10cm x 8cm

As a musician, composer, sound artist and founder of hellosQuare records, Shoeb Ahmad’s creative world revolves entirely around audio. Ahmad’s other great passion in life is football, specifically the round ball variety. In Footy Fever, Ahmad premiers a soundtrack composed from field recordings he took at football matches in Spain, Belgium and Australia between December 2013 and February 2015, and is presented in the gallery in surround sound. Ahmad is inspired by the sense of timelessness that can occur when watching a game, and the ebb and flow of the ball with the corresponding soundtrack provided by a stadium of voices. He is fascinated by culture clashes that occur at international games and the punctuation of the atmosphere by the chant of the fanatic. However, by removing any visual cues with respect to the state of play, Ahmad allows the listener to construct a narrative entirely their own. Were it not for the visual clues throughout the rest of the gallery space, one may at first mistake it for a soundtrack to a political rally, or crowds waiting to enter a festival, even a raucous launch of a new art exhibition. The sound crashes above our heads in sets of waves. By reducing the game to pure sound, and playing it out in two 45-minute halves, Ahmad creates a hypnagogic loop that reflects the stillness and speed that comes and goes throughout a match, before that golden moment, when mere mortals become heroes. If one were to attempt to nominate the ultimate AFL fan, most people would find Collingwood’s ‘Joffa’ amongst their list, the donning of his golden jacket in the dying stages of the game regarded as the final tipping point to a guaranteed win for the Magpies. A great distance from the chaos of the MCG is a fan equally deserving of the title, Dinni Kunoth Kemarre is an Anmatyerre man who lives in Ankerrapwe (Utopia Homestead) Northern Territory, Dinni demonstrates his love of footy by connecting his favourite players back to country. As a young man he worked as a stockman mustering cattle on horseback at neighboring stations, only beginning to make carvings at the age of 50, his formal career has spanned 10 years and gathered enormous support. This is largely due to the blend of traditional techniques passed down through generations such as woodcarving and painting, and a re-imagining of the visual language of his ancestors by depicting Aboriginal AFL stars in the same manner traditionally reserved for a brolga or Mimih spirit. Dinni emblazons Buddy Franklin’s iconic number 23 on his guernsey (in his old Hawthorne colours), caught in the moment after he tucks his mouth guard into his shorts, and before the ball hurtles off his boot towards the goalposts. Meanwhile number 19 for the Swans holds a mark aloft, as if it is a timeless ancestral offering. This juxtaposition of ancient craft and contemporary cultures enables Dinni to re-imagine his heroes through the framework of his Aboriginal heritage. This visually striking aesthetic is loaded with the story of 60,000 years of Aboriginal history in Australia, whilst simultaneously addressing the need for racial equality and a positive future through the game of football.

DINNI KUNOTH KEMARRE Hawks - Buddy Franklin, 2008, acrylic on wood, 102cm x 18cm x 17cm

DINNI KUNOTH KEMARRE Swans - Michael O’Loughlan, 2008, acrylic on wood, 98cm x 20cm x 31cm

As a New Zealander living in Australia, Richard Lewer employs humour to address his nostalgia for his homeland, using it as a means to reinforce ties removed by distance from his family, friends and nation. A connecting theme that has strongly emerged since his arrival is a love of Rugby, and more than anything, to see his beloved All Blacks obliterate the Wallabies. While Lewer scatters hints about his football allegiances throughout his work, he cares little for stars or heroes, with faces acting as points of reference instead of descriptions of character. Removing individuality from his players enables him to focus entirely on the spirit of the game, stripping it down to the primitive, its grunts, thuds, the smell of grass and blood, the sound of the whistle and the surge of the crowd. Lewer’s works in Footy Fever are from a recent solo show at Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland entitled It’s more than a game. These physically demanding works are painted on a steel ground, allowing many layers of paint to chaotically develop into a cohesive formation – much like a rolling maul thundering down the field in apparent disarray, resulting in a spectacular try. This repeated process of application conveys the immediacy and action felt on the football field as bodies push and jostle, paint darts across the surface, all is movement, nothing is static. Lewer sees direct parallels between the lives of artists and sports people, both require dedication and sustained endurance to achieve their ultimate goals. While successful sports people might become rich and famous and retire young, successful artists work until the day they die, then someone else gets rich, an irony certainly not lost on Lewer.

RICHARD LEWER 24, 68, 17 Matamata, 2014, oil on epoxy coated steel, 100cm x 100cm

RICHARD LEWER I support two teams... 2014, oil on epoxy coated steel, 100cm x 100cm

RICHARD LEWER Mooloo all day, 2014, oil on epoxy coated steel, 100cm x 100cm

David Spooner is a Brisbane-based artist who addresses the themes of masculinity and sexuality though the lens of his own imaginary code of football. Beginning first in 2011, Spooner began creating a fictional football team comprised of 16 soft sculpture players, constructed using hand drawn calico, quilting, knitting, stitching, and stuffing. In his personal mythology, Spooner imagined the footballers as robots, infected with a techno-organic virus known as ‘Tiger Slime’, and named their code the Electronic Football League. Spooner explains further: “12 players wear a number on their chest, corresponding to an hour of the day. The four captains wear a letter for each quarter season. I think this strange story that I have created has something to do moving to Canberra from Brisbane when I was 9, the same year of the 1989 NRL grand final between the Canberra Raiders and the Balmain Tigers.” Within every code of men’s football there are a set of clearly defined rules, however it’s the unspoken and silently implied guidelines that interest Spooner the most. Within this restricted zone a cursory glance will reveal that masculinity and what it means to be a ‘real man’ are paramount. Behaviour, or actions to the contrary, are regarded as a flaw. Some might argue that only real men play football; others suggest that men create elaborate games in order to touch each other, the irony of which is rarely lost on the gay community. Six years after the famous clash of 1989, Ian Roberts was playing for Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, and became the first Australian sports person, and the first Rugby League player in the world, to openly declare himself homosexual. We now live in an age where gay marriage is imminent, and there are openly homosexual players in every code of men’s and women’s football. But straight players such as David Pocock still call out other player’s homophobic slurs mid-match, and refuse to marry until there are equal rights for all sexualities. Besides going to the pub, doing up a ute, or shooting pigs, football is regarded as about as blokey as it gets. When it comes down to it, Spooner is subtly throwing out a challenge: Lift your game, Straighties.

DAVID SPOONER Electronic Football League (installation photograph), 2007 - ongoing, soft scuplture, dimensions variable

At a glance one may be surprised to see an artist like Jon Cattapan produce a series of footy-themed paintings. It seems so at odds with the rest of his oeuvre; the curve of the oval and the jostle of the players appear to come out of left field. As an artist who has primarily concerned himself with the urban environment and the figure within it, one begins to realise that the tribal behaviour displayed within the stadium is ever present in the cities he paints, only the rituals differ. In Home Game 1 (the Peanut Farm) Cattapan depicts what appears to be a suburban football ground, players running through drills as a car pulls up to the edge of the field to wait. Maybe bricklayers or posties during the day, this suburban allegiance sits in stark contrast to the suits that manage the corporate portfolios of their favourite teams, the local versus the global. Within this saturated haze of colour and movement, Cattapan develops a social narrative around the bonding of a team and a sense of belonging – his investigation of space appears to have no borders, each dot leading the next across the canvas in a unified whole. Principally concerned with the way people react to their surroundings, Cattapan uses these visual motifs to allow stories to unfold before our eyes, snippets of conversations are heard over the shout of the players, the buzzing metropolis of his practice just out of frame.

JON CATTAPAN Home Game 1 (The Peanut Farm), 2008, oil on canvas, 183cm x 183cm

In much the same way as Spooner is fascinated by the bond of a team, and what it means to be a team player, Daniel Savage approaches the code he plays with a true insider’s perspective. During his time at the Canberra School of Art, Savage’s life changed dramatically, finding himself challenged with the reality that he would be reliant upon a wheelchair for life. Savage sees the wheelchair as the primary symbol of disability, its supposed hindrance an object to be overcome. Instead of letting this experience confine him, it has come to liberate his practice, inspiring him to make photographs, videos and performances that critique society’s attitudes towards physical ability, race, sexuality and the need for human understanding and respect. Savage plays representative Wheelchair Rugby for NSW, and has made a work entitled The Rugby Creed, an investigation into the relationship between man and machine through the eyes of the code. In the work, life-size players are projected onto the walls of the space, each ‘coming to life’ as if choosing a player in a computer game, or the cliché of commercial football telecasts as players are presented (one step towards the camera, cross your arms, if you still have teeth, give us a smile). Savage subverts the mock-theatrics of primetime football by channelling The Rifleman’s Creed from Stanley Kubrick classic Full Metal Jacket. “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I master my life. My rifle, without me, is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless…” Savage derides the supposed inseparability of soldier and rifle by comparing the wheelchair and its true extension of the individual. Presented in the middle of the space is Savage’s own specialised rugby chair, its savage armoured frame covered in scars, dents and scratches like a modern-day chariot.

DANIEL SAVAGE The Rugby Creed, 2015, HD digital video, 5’14”, stereo, dimensions variable

Louise Paramor is a Melbourne-based artist whose practice varies greatly in size, traversing between sculpture, installation, painting, collage and public art. By working primarily with found and assembled objects, Paramor’s affinity with materials allows her to seamlessly blur the boundaries between these superficially discrete disciplines. Paramor constructs forms that reference fashion, architecture and nostalgia, however her primary concerns of mass consumption and society’s ephemeral approach to the manufactured object are never far from hand. Paramor’s work Punters Club as seen in Footy Fever takes cues from her recent Supermodel series, where plastic constructions take on quasi-anthropomorphic qualities, are given prosaic names, and strut their stuff down a ‘catwalk’. By reducing bodies to representations of colour and form, she addresses the gloss and glamour of the fashion world, or in this circumstance, commercial football. The found objects that Paramor has assembled to create her player are visually surprising, yet formal in composition (a child’s slide, a plastic stool, a length of garden hose, a giant gridiron ball and so on). At face value they appear to hold the same concern with surface and superficial glamour as the idolised sports star, where packaging is paramount and image is everything. By employing symbolic metaphors in both title and work, Paramor draws on the artificial trappings and visual language of capitalism while ridiculing its end game. By re-imagining brightly coloured objects that would otherwise have gone to landfill, Paramor strips away their banality to allow new poetic connections to occur between components; arising from this assemblage are hints of the visual clatter and the movement on the field, and the rhythm of the game.

LOUISE PARAMOR Punters Club, 2015, found plastic objects, rubber ball, garden hose, 126cm x 110cm x 110cm approx

In the late 1960s the Dutch soccer club Ajax pioneered an influential tactical theory in the way the game could be played, changing the player’s formation into fluid movement and giving the game it’s beautiful principles. This was the first time an aesthetic value had been attributed to the tactics of soccer, and Totaalvoetal (or Total Football) was born. James Lieutenant has often returned to his love of football throughout his career, the challenge of instilling its imagery with artistic value even inspiring him to title his 2010 solo exhibition Totaalvoetal. In Footy Fever, Canberra-born and Sydney-based artist Lieutenant presents a pair of video works, Football Clock (Red), and Football Clock (White). As the names suggest, Lieutenant has sequentially collaged the numbers of Soccer player’s jerseys to produce fully functional digital clocks. Much as athletes are obsessed with fitness and physical regime, Lieutenant uses the regime of time and repetition to investigate his practice. Lieutenant’s video works speak wittily of the tensions placed upon a game by the constraint of time, whilst referencing the feeling of elasticity as other moments hang in the air as if frozen. The regime of time is also evident in his prints and paintings, where repetitious screen prints are employed to create stuttering echoes and a cumulative whole, a match condensed into a moment. Lieutenant uses the motif of football to address the ever-present passing of time in our lives, while potentially suggesting, football never stops.

JAMES LIEUTENANT Football Clock (Red) 2014, digital video, 1’00”, silent, dimensions variable

James Lieutenant Football Clock (White) 2015, digital video, 4’59�, silent, dimensions variable

JULIAN LAFFAN Castello (detail) 2015, Rugby ball, photocopy and gouache on wood, dimensions variable

Working primarily within the realms of printmaking, Julian Laffan has always been interested in the history of his medium. However what truly sets Laffan apart from his contemporaries is the use of the found and modified object as a canvas for woodblock etchings and drawings, at odds with the tradition of paper based prints. Often cutting outlines around forms to remove them from the confines of four-cornered woodblocks, the works become low-relief sculptures from which prints are rarely ever taken; the process is the final result. Earlier this year, Laffan spent three months in Paris where he began to make small-scale works on flattened antique footballs, found in boutiques around his temporary home. Laffan uses the codes played mutually in France and Australia (rugby league, rugby union and soccer) as a way to investigate the tyranny of distance, and the parallel lives that exist every Saturday morning in suburbia. By carving and painting the flattened leather of the footballs, Laffan imbues his own interpretation of the history of these codes into their skins. By utilising this historical foundation, Laffan is able to investigate the identities of individual players as they are thrust from the stadium into the media, he states: “Heroes fall and are seen as villains whilst others rise up from the ashes. Egos are made and deflated all in the name of a game�. This work carves out selected identities and seeks to address current issues regarding the nature of the politicised sporting hero and their presentation through the media. In the process Laffan creates a social history of seasons past, as seen through an Australian (and by proxy French) psyche.

JULIAN LAFFAN White Noise (detail), 2015, AFL ball, woodcut, ink and gouache, dimensions variable

Warrnambool based artist Glenn Morgan could loosely be described as a bloke who makes idiosyncratic dioramas that record the social history of suburban life, but that really wouldn’t do him justice. For over thirty years he has created work that has spanned drawing, painting, kinetic assemblage and animation, all seen through a finely crafted but deceptively effortless visual aesthetic. Morgan’s knack for humor allows him to fluently traverse issues such as the Prime Minister’s apology, the Black Saturday fires, the death of Banjo Clarke and his passion for Footy, all within the same sentence. His humorous work is bright and full of action and movement, particularly when focusing on his passion for AFL. As an avid supporter of the Geelong Cats, Morgan creates work that celebrates their goals and achievements, crafting scenes in metal, wood, wire and paint; works that in turn, offer a commentary on the rest of the AFL world. A key example of his devotion to the Cats can be seen in The Geelong team on the Geelong Highway after the grand final (2010). It depicts a triumphant return to the Cats homeland, the interior of the bus filled with pulsating energy punctuated with comical speech bubbles. In Footy Fever Morgan presents Yablerrt! (1996), a blonde-mulleted player storming out of a wireless radio, propelled by the bellowing howl of a commentator’s voice - an ode to the Cats great Gary Ablett, Sr. This moment of sheer electricity and hope is contrasted with the final victorious release of Sydney Swans Premiers (2005), captain Barry Hall and coach Paul Roos atop the dais, the winners cup aloft, as West Coast lies deflated around the ground. Morgan uses these narratives to investigate personal experiences of the domestic, but also the wider themes of global politics, what it means to be human, and the inevitability of death.

GLENN MORGAN Sydney Swans Premiers, 2006, enamel on tin, wood and wire, 70cm x 150cm x 30cm GLENN MORGAN Yablerrt, 1996, enamel on tin, wood and wire, 30cm x 40cm x 20cm

As a teenager Ecuadorian born artist Mariana del Castillo immigrated to Australia, carrying the weight of a heavily religious upbringing, and was cast into the neon glare and the harsh realities of 1980s Sydney. Subsequently, del Castillo’s approach to cultural identity, religion and, in this case football, all inform her found and constructed sculptures and installations thereby creating a global narrative. In Footy Fever del Castillo presents Confessions of a Footy Head, her wry take on the absurdity of Australian slang, and the religious devotion that supporters have for players and their teams. For del Castillo, a great deal of the parallels between religion and football are to be found in faith and belief. By removing the bladders from found footballs and clustering them atop the shoulders of an unidentified player, their fleshy colours raw and exposed, she not only alludes to the domestic and familial, but also the diversity of the worlds that exist beneath our protective exteriors. The implied weightlessness of the balls suggests an emancipation of player and soul, perhaps indicating a moment where football and spirituality meet.

MARIANA DEL CASTILLO Footy Head, 2015, wood, rubber, football, 73cm x 43cm MARIANA DEL CASTILLO Confessions of a Footy Head, 2015, football bladders, manequin, felt, steel, 200cm x 50cm x 50cm

Growing up between Australia and the United States, Alex Asch had an extremely nomadic youth spread across vastly different cultures; therefore it’s not surprising that his football allegiances are disorderly to say the least. In many ways the code is arbitrary for Asch, who sees the umbrella of football as a representation of humanity and a means to address his socio-political concerns. The works presented in Footy Fever, all produced in 2015, however address issues spanning from the early 20th century through to the Adam Goodes ‘Booing’ disgrace of recent weeks (FUCK THE HATERS). Asch’s fleshy portraits of unnamed Gridiron players from yesteryear sit in stark contrast to that of Goodes; where they bleed from their faces, he stands proud and triumphant, although wrapped in the same blood red colour. What Asch presents here is a thinly veiled critique in one’s choice of hero, the nostalgia of the meat-headed martyr in contrast to the Australian of the Year. Asch blurs the archetypal relationship between the military and sport, where athletic ‘battles’ are frequently equated to a form of surrogate war. However this mindset is far from confined to the pitch, Black Hawk helicopters deliver premiership trophies to grand finals, and barrages of military recruitment bookend sporting broadcasts. Primarily working with found materials, Asch has produced a series of small-scale sculptures in recent years utilising discarded sporting trophies; the plastic figures clustered into athletic riots loaded with social commentary. In the diorama-like piece The ghosts of the true believers (2015), magnifying portholes allow us to peer inside a black box, instantly immersing us into a mosh pit of bodies in combat. As one shifts to gain different perspectives on this scene of carnage, players slide across the field of vision as if being tracked by a gun scope, or an aircraft on a radar screen.

ALEX ASCH True Believers (detail), 2015, mixed media, dimensions variable ALEX ASCH FUCK THE HATERS, 2015, mixed media, 100cm x 100cm

Long before Tom Hanks befriended a volleyball called Wilson in Castaway, Theo Tremblay was having conversations with sports equipment. Over the last few decades Theo Tremblay has established himself as one of Australia’s leading Master Printers, working extensively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists at his workshop in Cairns. When Canberra Contemporary Art Space expanded from its modest beginnings as a timber hut in the corner of a suburban car park in the early 1980’s, Theo Tremblay was one of the first artists to exhibit at our present-day gallery at Gorman Arts Centre. The exhibition, entitled Almost Ethnic, showcased what appeared to be ethnographic findings from a dystopian future, and were inspired by artefacts from ‘first contact’ Indigenous peoples. Tremblay turned footballs pierced with pencils into masks, soccer balls adorned with shuttlecocks into warriors helmets. In doing so, he presented us with artefacts from a parallel human world; what appeared to be the armour of warriors from iconic Ozploitation movies such as Mad Max or The Cars that Ate Paris. In Footy Fever, an original piece from the first exhibition sits alongside a series of new works entitled My Tribe – a celebration of modern ritual associated with footy culture. Tremblay was recently inspired by the continued racial abuse suffered by Adam Goodes, and the war dance he performed before the nation in an effort to overcome the persecution of his foes. At the time many parallels were drawn between the way the New Zealand All Blacks traditionally perform a Hakka before a game, but most importantly, the importance of respect for traditional culture in contemporary sport. In My Tribe Tremblay has re-imagined a shared dystopian future for this country, through the lens of football as a form of surrogate war, whilst also reminding us that they’re just costumes, and it’s just a game. As the rich tapestry of football and art is woven together in Footy Fever, what becomes apparent is that these worlds are far from polar extremes, and co-exist very comfortably. The diversity of artworks in response to this relationship is testament to the fact that art and football are essential to the cultural identity of Australia, and their abilities to touch the lives of everyone in the country.

Alex Asch is represented by Beaver Galleries, Canberra Jon Cattapan is represented by Dominik Mersch Gallery, Sydney, Milani Gallery, Brisbane, and STATION, Melbourne Dinni Kunoth Kemarre is represented by Mossenson Galleries, Perth Richard Lewer is represented by Hugo Mitchel Gallery, Adelaide, Sullivan + Strumpf, Sydney, and Gow Langsford, Auckland Glenn Morgan is represented by Australian Galleries, Melbourne and Sydney

THEO TREMBLAY Almost Ethnic 4, 1989, acrylic, pencils, leather, 35cm x 20cm x 20cm

HAUNTED BY DEMONS Tom Griffiths Professor of History and Director, Centre for Environmental History, ANU Melbourne Demons AFL Supporter I’m a long-suffering Melbourne supporter. That’s the AFL team that got thrashed again last weekend. I can’t help my affiliation, of course – or should I say affliction? Barracking is hard-wired; it is like a totem assigned by some mystery of culture; it is imbibed with milk and language. It is a fate to which one is condemned. Choice never had anything to do with it. Next year it will be fifty years since my team won a premiership. That’s unusual but not unique. But that half-century is a whole lifetime of conscious barracking, and such sustained lack of success, decade after decade, begins to bruise your sensibility. Low expectations, irony, a feigned lack of interest, wry bitterness – these attitudes begin to shape your winter weekend. There are many compensatory benefits in being an underdog, a good loser, a sad clown, a hilarious cynic, a brave martyr, a loyal fan, a resilient supporter, a denizen of that great temple, the MCG, and – more desperately – a devotee of the oldest club in the league. But Melbourne has always been a little embarrassing to follow, for it was also the club of the well-heeled, those silvertails in jackets who lounge in the Members’ Stand and refuse to join in the Mexican wave at the Boxing Day cricket. At least Melbourne Football Club’s appalling record is proof that money – or establishment money, anyway – can’t buy success in the AFL, whatever the recent Australian Crime Commission report might suggest. What would success taste like – and could I cope with it now? I don’t think I’ll be tested soon. The last few years have seen a new nadir in the team’s fortunes and I’ve noticed a distinct change in Melbourne’s place in football culture. It is normal and healthy for a losing team (and especially one that loses a lot) to become the butt of jokes. Disdain and contempt are rightly poured from a very great height. I can cope with that. I’m used to it. I have honed my survival strategies over decades. But now there is something new I cannot cope with. It is pity. It began in Round 19 in 2011 when Melbourne was defeated by Geelong by 186 points in what was described as “the meekest surrender in the game’s history.” People feel sorry for me now, for being a Melbourne supporter. Their concern is genuine and it is combined with a kind of incredulous disbelief. Really? You barrack for Melbourne? You still barrack for Melbourne? Get a life, man!

Surely they understand that one is condemned, that there is no choice? I crave the disdain and contempt. I yearn for the disrespectful badinage served up to an almost-equal. Pity is unbearable. After last weekend’s debacle, when my team was again booed off the field by its own supporters, the relatively new coach, Mark Neeld, fronted up for yet another depressed and depressing press conference in which he looked and confessed to being “shell-shocked.” “It’s a damn long road and it’s a hard one,” he explained. If that’s how he feels after just one year with the club, what does he think fifty such seasons feel like? All last year, “Neeldy” regretted that his players hadn’t yet got the hang of the “game plan.” Getting goals seemed too complex an idea for them. But now he tells us with a sense of achievement that their theory is exemplary: “if it was an exam, it was 100 per cent correct,” he declared to the press. They now play perfectly correctly at training, he assured us. He was genuinely puzzled that it just doesn’t seem to work on the day of the game – on any day, in fact, when another team is on the field. But at least my team is now stunning at training. Mark says he is trying “to keep an elite mindset going” at the club. He announces that “we believe we train like an AFL team.” Melbourne trains (even if it doesn’t play) like an AFL team. One could almost think it were one! This is where pity takes you – to a mentality where even the coach cannot help betraying the conviction that he is working in the second division. There was one bright spot in my barracking career. It was 1987. The 1964 premiership was already far back in the mists of time, and Melbourne had laboured through many long, dark years. In the 1980s, the team was graced with the balletic skills of an extraordinary player, Robert Flower. Even his name seemed to capture his delicacy, and it is a wonder that a light, fine-boned man could distinguish himself on such a gladiatorial turf. Robbie Flower swept along the wing of the MCG with a speed and sureness of touch that defied opponents and gravity, but he was a shining star in a losing team. He seemed destined never to play in a final. Then something utterly surprising happened. In the middle of 1987, Melbourne started winning. Not just squeaking home, but running wild and free to victory for the sheer fun of it. They were “the Cinderella side,” a young team with a new Irish recruit, Jim Stynes. I watched, disbelieving and hardly daring to breathe, as a fairy tale unfolded. Robbie Flower was captain; it was his last season; they were doing it for him. It was one of those moments when joy and chemistry took over and corporatism and “game plans” seemed irrelevant. Melbourne had come second last the year before and was improving in 1987, but they hardly looked like making the Final Five. The surge began in late July. They won six in a row and just snuck into the finals, achieving an unlikely fulfilment of Flower’s dream. But now it seemed they couldn’t stop. They had a runaway win by 118 points over North Melbourne in the qualifying final. Then they blitzed Sydney by seventy-six points in the semi-final. The preliminary final was against Hawthorn

and again the underdogs ran hard and fast and led all day with sheer momentum and exuberance. In the final quarter Hawthorn pegged them back, but still it seemed that Melbourne was home and into their first grand final since 1964. The final minutes and seconds ticked away and the lead was intact. The gifted Hawthorn forward, Gary Buckenara, was awarded a free kick just beyond the fiftymetre line. Then the siren sounded. The game was over and Melbourne had won. Supporters started celebrating. But the umpire did not hear the siren over the joyous, relieved roar of the Melbourne crowd. The siren blared without stopping but went unheeded by many on the ground. The game continued. Buckenara went back for his kick. Jim Stynes, who had not heard the siren, cut across the ground to pick up a loose man and ran across Buckenara’s mark. The umpire, who still awaited the siren, awarded a fifteen-metre penalty, bringing Buckenara within range. He kicked truly. Hawthorn supporters ran onto the ground. Everyone woke up. The fairy tale was over. Something inside me died that day. The cruelty was exquisite. I was cradling my daughter, three months old, as the siren sounded and Melbourne’s win turned to ash. I was struck dumb. I handed our precious baby carefully to my wife and went for a long, lonely, bitter walk. Football was never the same again. Jim Stynes died prematurely of cancer at the beginning of 2012. He always said that it was the last seconds of the 1987 preliminary final that gave him the flinty determination to become great, to win the Brownlow Medal, to play a record 244 consecutive games. When he announced his illness to the media he showed them his number 37 jumper, the one he had worn that fateful day on the MCG; it had become a symbol of challenge. As club president, he had rescued Melbourne from debt, and his battle with cancer lifted hearts. But his death depressed the players rather than inspiring them. The 2012 season was, for Melbourne, the most miserable I had experienced. No one could ever quite remember the game plan. The sole highlight had been Melbourne’s failure to lose to an Essendon team disabled by the mid-season regime of their club pharmacist. By the start of 2013, my customary enthusiasm for the game had withered further. My team had just been found guilty of behaviour “prejudicial to the interests of the AFL” after charges of tanking in 2009, other teams were suspected of injecting their players with illegal drugs in 2012, bookie Tom Waterhouse dominated sports coverage and, in the first game of the season, Essendon’s coach continued to rule the turf on national television as if unaffected by the scandal engulfing his club. As the opening round continued to sprawl over two weeks, I wisely chose not to watch Melbourne get humiliated by Port Adelaide. Instead, I walked to Etihad Stadium with my twenty-five-year-old daughter (who had survived the end of the 1987 preliminary final and does not barrack for Melbourne) and we watched North Melbourne play Collingwood. It was overcast and raining lightly. The game had begun by the time we arrived and the stadium was

booming. The roof at Etihad was closed and the interior glowed and beckoned like a theatre set. As I stepped inside, I felt a familiar awe at the sheer scale and grandeur of this performance, at the bravery of the young men on the sacrificial field and at the passionate decency of their supporters. I joined a mixed group of Magpies and Kangaroos, strangers to one another who were drinking beer as they watched the game. They could not see my demonic heart, so they did not pity me. They honoured me with their churlish respect. Since I was at Etihad, they assumed I barracked for a first-division team. They were unbridled in their support of their own teams but had the capacity to grudgingly admire the other. The game was fast, clean, skilled and close. It was a relief to watch a game between two equally matched teams. The coarse wit of my companions and their robust and friendly rivalry cheered me. I remembered why I like football. I also knew what was wrong with Melbourne: the players were thinking too much and they didn’t have time for that. They were too worried about getting the coach’s exam 100 per cent right. I wished that exuberance and joy might be allowed to run away with them. And I hoped that, one day, my team would enable me to wear my heart on my sleeve again and join the grown-ups’ conversation once more. Tom Griffiths First published: Tom Griffiths, “Haunted by Demons” Inside Story (3 April 2013)