When a child is born, its parents agonise over the important decisions. Will the name sound good when he/she's older? Is it tease-able? Does it rhyme in a limerick? Is it spelt properly? And then there’s the other calls. Do we immunise? The Bugaboo Pram or the City Select?
Huge decisions weigh on the new parents of the fledgling newborn yet probably the most important call of all remains criminally under researched. Which football team will be thrust upon them?
Generally, it gets passed down from the father’s side and ironically it’s usually the grandfather in-law who supports the enemy which fits in perfectly with the age-old in-law friction paradigm.
The little one has no choice, but just like your chosen name, the repercussions of a poor choice here echo for a lifetime. Just think before you put little Timmy into that tiny Collingwood jumper, do you really want to be going to the police station bleary eyed at 3am when your boy has stolen a car? Do you have an active dental plan?
In this town of Melbourne more than anywhere else, your football club defines you. You can choose to be a hipster, an emo or whatever you want to be, but once you have a football club, that’s it. Like your blood type, you just can't change.
There are many people I work with who I don’t actually know by name, but I know them by their football club. The Collingwood guy chats to me in the break room every Monday morning, but I don’t really trust him. There’s something about him. I always run into the Bulldogs guy at lunch. He’s harmless, always good for a chat. That guy in the Carlton hat, just a bit thick. I know it’s wrong, but i judge them by their colours, and I know secretly we all do.
My parents gave me the best possible start to life. A rock-solid foundation - a tiny little Essendon jumper which in the early '80s was akin to buying blue chip stocks, a nest egg for future success.
I grew up in Avondale Heights, an Essendon zone, as a naive little boy whose biggest decisions were which park to ride his BMX to each day, or which tree to climb. Then on weekends, it was who the Bombers were going to beat. Success was a given – I had not an inkling that it could be any other way. Sure I knew that St Kilda was bad, or that Richmond chewed through coaches, but I never really made the correlation that they could have fans and that they could be sad about football. For me, football was the best thing in the world, and I just thought it was normal to win all the time.
By 1985 we had played off in our third Grand Final in a row. I famously ran through the remote control cord of our new front-load VCR while Dad was editing the ads out of the Grand Final on the fly, and we forever missed one of the onslaught of goals in the final quarter on our treasured video tape. But it didn’t matter. I watched that thing daily, until I knew exactly which numbers on the counter corresponded to which part of the game.
My first live game was a night match against Fitzroy on a Friday night. I wish I could recall the score or the year, but I mainly remember the first time I saw the bright green grass under lights as I walked up the stairs. It mesmerised me, and I kept looking up at the lights and turning away blinking, just so I could get the imprint of the iconic triangle MCG lights in my eye lids as I blinked. I was hooked.
Soon enough, 1993 came along. I got my first membership, the old plastic ones that the gate worker clicked a notch out of each game. It ended up like a serrated knife blade if you went every week. What a year to really get immersed in the game. I came of age with the young players.
I went every week with the same crew. There were so many highlights - the Kernahan out-on-the-full draw, the Ablett-Salmon show, the jacket wave, Hird coming of age against Hawthorn. I was revelling in it, and Mum had lost her son. He was now in with the footy crowd. I'd get out of bed, say hi and goodbye to Mum, go to the footy, walk back in that night, say hi and goodbye to Mum again, and go back to bed.
The famous prelim against Adelaide is etched in my memory. Sitting in the sunshine under the Ponsford Stand at half-time, everyone was glum. There was a weird feeling, but that third quarter - one of those 30-minute spells that makes all the stuff we'd dealt with worthwhile - was awesome. The crowd was rocking, the loudest I can ever recall when Mark Mercuri kicked that goal. The following week was just icing on the cake.
We were a rock-solid club. It was easy to be arrogant - we never changed coaches, we never hit the papers for anything other than winning, we played finals most years and won a flag every era. My parents were right - those blue chip shares were paying yearly dividends.
Little could fledgling me know what was to happen 30 years later.
As I slouched there at Marvel Stadium watching St Kilda mercilessly dismantle us by 110 points, I had never been more disengaged from the club I loved. I sat there staring at the ceiling, at the 16 premiership flags dangling from the roof. Relics of a bygone era, an era that had never felt so far away, like the still-standing stone columns of ancient Rome showing how times used to be when things were at their peak.
I made the analogy to a mate when we lost to Hawthorn by 160 points in 1992 before winning the flag a year later, that sometimes you need the kick in the pants a thumping gives you to realise where you really stand. But this was different. We suffered three of these thumpings in quick succession. This wasn’t a kick in the pants, but rather a stealing of our pants that left us exposed to the football world.
We were in the midst of football's most salacious saga. If a partner did this to you, you'd kick them to the curb. If a job did this to you, you'd have quit ages ago. But supporting a football club, a bunch of blokes wearing the same jumper throughout time has somehow imprinted this loyalty into your DNA, making you resilient to the downs, no matter what.
Obviously the memories of times past are a factor. They're like marker points we leave behind, cookie crumbs like Hansel and Gretel that trigger memories from your childhood and youth.
Were you ever by chance in the city on a train when another game was on? The train full of Carlton or Collingwood or Richmond people? It doesn't feel right, doesn't it? You feel like an interloper, an intruder on the carriage. They are not your people.
As Nick Riewoldt kicked another goal I thought about my newborn daughter at home. Did I really want to put her through all this? After all, her granddad had already marked his territory with a sneaky Collingwood toy in the early present mix. I could just give her an easy ride I suppose.
But then I thought about it. This club has given me four flags and much joy. Sure, at the point we were down but that only serves to make the next one mean so much more. That's the cycle of it all, there is no up without down.
With that, I said 'Stuff it, I'm buying her those junior start-up shares'. Highly volatile, but maybe, just maybe, she hits the jackpot like I did.
It's 2020 and we are both members and we go to every game we can. She knows every player just like I did and can't get enough. Was the choice ever in doubt?
My two kids' first flag will mean so much more than mine ever did, because they have earned it, and finally now, so have I.
In Red & Black Reflections, we'll select a fan-written piece to feature on the website each week.
Got a favourite memory? A fascinating story about how you fell in love with the Bombers? Thoughts on the 2020 season? Whatever it is you feel passionate about, we're leaving it up to you.
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