This note is dedicated to my counsel, a true son of South.
It was soon after we moved to Rosedale Road, Glen Iris that I started following Melbourne. I can’t recall where we lived before that, so I think that we moved there in about 1950. (I can recall wanting to chisel a ‘D’ before the 24 etched into the concrete driveway: D 24 was the call sign for Police H Q, at least on radio programs.)
Neither Mac nor Norma then had any interest at all in football. As best as I can recall, I selected Melbourne for the sound patriotic reason that it was the capital city. My first Melbourne jumper had number 1 – Dennis Cordner, whose house in Ashburton a few of us walked around to one morning. (Cordner was Demons royalty – even Mac looked up to him.) Every other kid in the street, or in the school ground at Glen Iris State School, wore a Collingwood jumper or an Essendon jumper with number 10 on the back.
Some people spoke of Coleman with the same kind of soft awe as when they spoke of Bradman. I can recall Norma taking me to the MCG to see the Lightning Premiership just so that I could see Coleman play. (The alternative, I suppose, may have been the odd newsreel and Hopalong Cassidy at the flicks before the Saturday matinee.) I can also recall both Mac and Norma taking me to the Southern Stand to see Typhoon Tyson run through an Australian side that I think included Keith Miller. It was about then that I started to fret – was it worse for Australia to lose to England or for Melbourne to lose to Collingwood? This was an agonising moral question. It still troubles me occasionally.
My interest in Melbourne was for some time confined to listening to the games on the radio, or the wireless as we sometimes called it then. You could hear the footy or the races on the radio as you walked past people edging their nature strips besides burning autumn leaves, the harbinger of footy – just as the longer and warmer days told you that the season was ending. It was good to align rituals with seasons.
The footy was a lot more regular and homely then. We got to know and respond to every ground – and, later, what pubs best serviced them. And the games only ever started at one time. Night footy was decades away; Sundays would be reserved for the irreligious VFA, and cast-offs from barbecues who tuned in to the VFA of the day for the fights.
Each ground had its charm – or lack of it. The Lakeside oval at South Melbourne was a great venue – it was a place where people played footy, not a temple to Mammon and press barons. You could confidently expect to hear the umpire addressed as ‘You bludger!’ (My mate George spent a match hearing the umpire addressed as ‘You Hitler bludger!)
Lakeside has a lot of memories, but now I only get to it for the Grand Prix. During the height of our secular conflict in 1952, a Methodist preacher got heavy raspberries for addressing the crowd. Well, it was after all Saturday, not Sunday. He appealed to common decency. ‘After all, we are all Christians.’ ‘What about the bloody umpire?’
I have a clear recollection of listening to radio talk shows on Saturday evening – as I recall, the London Stores Show and the Pelaco Inquest – and on Sunday morning – I think H V Varley, who made trousers. Some of the commentators were, I think, Baron Ruthven, Skeeter Coghlan, Chicken Smallhorn, and Butch Gale. I would listen to their discussion spellbound by the radio beside my bed. Later I would acquire the habit of buying The Sporting Globe (‘the pink comic’) when the Demons won. I think that the name the Redlegs was used as much as the name the Demons back then. For forty or so years, the Sunday roast at East Brighton (and others would not let you drop the qualifier) would be dominated by World of Sport on Channel 7, a definitively Melbourne ritual. Even Liza, Norma’s mum, took some interest, although of course the roast was had in the laminated kitchen, in a house that we pretended had not started life in the Housing Commission.
I can recall paying a game of school footy at Gardiner’s Creek, Glen Iris when Jim Cardwell, the secretary or manager of the MFC, came waddling down the slope and handed out membership tickets to those in Demons jumpers – including me. I was then well and truly locked in. I think this was about 1953.
Norma’s sister lived in Elsternwick on Williams Road opposite Rippon Lea, the last house before the railway bridge, squeezed in like a triangulated sardine can. The whole place rattled whenever a train passed, and it always had a dank and off-putting odour for me.
My cousins John and Roger barracked for South Melbourne. That seemed to me to go with the depressed condition of the house. I can recall the respect that they held Smokey Clegg in, but the glory days of South were long behind them, while the Demons were about to come into their own time of glory when between 1955 and 1964 they won six premierships.
I felt very sorry for South and John and Roger – my instinct is still to refer to Sydney as ‘South’. I also felt somehow guilty. I can recall Melbourne beating them after they, the Demons, had been five goals behind at the start of time-on. I would think back on that when Leo Barry took that mark to secure a flag for the Swans about five decades later.
I only saw two of those Melbourne premiership wins – 1956 and 1964 – but on a good day I could still now reel off the names of a few of the main players. Of course that whole era was, at least for Melbourne supporters, dominated by Ron Barassi. He was a wonderful specimen of humanity, a wicked enthusiast and a magical figure who just attracted all eyes whenever he got near the ball. After he left Melbourne, I would have to wait for about 40 years till I saw someone playing for my team who had anything like the same magnetic power of attraction. That would be Billy Slater playing for the Melbourne Storm.
I certainly did not see the 1954 grand final in which Footscray, the Bulldogs, comfortably beat Melbourne. It was one of those games featuring Barassi and the great Ted Whitten. I can barely recall listening to the game, but I can clearly recall being accused of spending some part of the afternoon throwing bricks at the chooks of the family next door. (My bedroom window overlooked their outside dunny – from which young Betty, as I will call her, would look up and flash it.) I can’t remember much about the game, except that people were excited that the Bulldogs had at last won their first flag. And apparently, the chooks next door were not happy. (I have since seen a homemade film of the game with a phantom call by Ted Whitten.)
They were very different times then. Some years ago I heard a radio interview with the guy who played fullback for the Bulldogs that day. I think his name was Herb Henderson. He was an apprentice butcher and he duly put in his Saturday morning shift on Grand Final day. He then went home to Thornbury to get his gear – and probably put it in one of those little TAA plastic bags – before driving to the MCG for the game. When he got there, he found that he’d left his boots at home. So he asked the man in the blue coat in the car park – do you remember the men in the blue coats? – to look after his spot while he went back to Thornbury to get his boots. He said that he made it back just in time to hear the end of Charlie Sutton’s pre-match address. Charlie was a robust captain coach who, I think, would now be called an on-baller. One version of that address that I have heard has Charlie saying: ‘You fellas look after the ball; I’ll look after the other stuff.’ And Charlie bloody well did, with the consequences that I have referred to. Well, we won’t see much of that this Saturday. Some of us might regret that.
I can remember being at the 1956 Grand Final – at least I think it was 1956, the year that we had the Olympic Games. The crowd was huge – they were on the roof, and I think in part over the fence. The record shows the crowd was 115, 000, but there were ugly scenes as 20,000 got turned away. I’ve forgotten who I was with, but I was in front of the old scoreboard, on the terrace. I wanted to go to the dunny and I went down in front of that parapet – and I then got lifted up off my feet in the crush. It was terrifying. Mercifully, a bloke reached over the parapet and pulled me out of the crush and suggested that I go back to where I had come from and just sit on it – while standing up. Well we won, and it was against Collingwood.
The Melbourne v Collingwood rivalry was a kind of class war that got more and more stupid as the Smokers got more and more plebeian and the Pies got more and more drenched in white collars. But it took off one day when Bluey Adams came on as nineteenth man, spotted someone in black and white, made a bee-line for him, and cleaned him up. A mate of mine swears that he can still hear the sweet crunching sound of Noel McMahon running through Bobby Rose, and watching him leave the ground on a stretcher before a quieter Collingwood crowd. Their revenge came in 1958 when they denied the Demons their fourth consecutive flag. Mac, who never saw a game, said that Hooker Harrison had got Barassi in. That may not have been too hard, but what would Mac know?
I saw Melbourne beat Collingwood in 1964. We had thrashed them in the semi-final and I was extremely nervous about the rematch. I was to sit with my mother, but I went with my mate John Burns to see the two preliminary games. We knocked over some tall boys to soothe our nerves. (Do you remember those anodised aluminium drinking cups that came in pigskin pouches that were handed out at 21sts?) We were standing right behind the Punt Road goal, and the seats for Norma and me were right behind that goal about six rows back.
I therefore had a perfect view of the two extraordinary goals of Ray Gabelich. The first he just grabbed out of the air from, I think, a throw in and got his boot to it as he was being dragged to the ground; the second he ran for about 100 yards and kept fumbling the ball until he finally got to the goal square and put it through. There was mass hysteria of Nuremberg proportions. Then I think it was Hassa Mann who got the ball to Neil Crompton (the Frog), who had followed his rover down the field from the back pocket, and who lined up from about 45 yards and put it through. I had a perfect view of that one too. The crowd was even more insane, and Burns said that from where he was standing, he feared that I might levitate. The Frog was a very good footballer and cricketer (for Victoria), but people only ever wanted to talk about that goal.
The next year the most insanely stupid administration in the history of sport sacked the most successful coach in the history of VFL football, Norm Smith, and the Demons came under a curse like that of the Boston Red Sox when they let Babe Ruth go. Our first game after the sacking was at Coburg for some reason. Phil Gibbs interviewed me for TV. I said, sagely – ‘there is more to this than meets the eye.’ In truth, it was probably just the arrogance and inanity of Australian sports administrators. Then Barassi went to Carlton, and we were left, like Cleopatra, with mere boys. Then Melbourne spent a generation waiting for the return of the Man, and then we found that he was out of miracles for us.
I can recall the day that South (the Swans) made it to the finals for the first time in the living memory of my cousins. I had to attend two weddings that afternoon, but out of deference to my cousins, I was determined to listen to the game via an earpiece from my little plastic transistor. I just had to pray that the cord would not come out and impugn a sacred moment.
The first wedding was an Italian one in some indiscriminate suburb that I have forgotten. A bearded priest in a suspicious looking white gown kept waving us forward. We kept resisting. But he kept waving us. So we moved down near the front. Then he said – and I can recall this precisely – ‘I will give some of the service in English for the benefit of the white people present.’ The word was ‘white’. Well, Sport, you magical herald of multiculturalism, one of those bloody white people just wants to listen to the bloody footy. White people are like that.
We scampered away to the second wedding. It was a Greek wedding in, I think, East Melbourne, somewhere. The game was still going, and I still had to fight to listen to it. As I recall it, this service was rather more mobile, and I can’t recall what language it was given – my interest was elsewhere.
And now looking back, I can’t even recall who bloody well won, or whether Bobby Skilton was playing or not.
In the late 60’s, I went to the outer on a regular basis to watch the Demons take their medicine. I went with John Wardle. He was doing medicine. When it came time for him to study at St V’s, we used to look carefully at the three quarter time scores of other games. If the Pies were getting done, it might get ugly at St V’s casualty that night. (More than four decades later, I was instructed by Slaters in a big case. The solicitor had been brought up in Port Adelaide. He told me that if Port got done, the blinds at home would be pulled down, and the children sent to bed without dinner.) A lot of that raw tribalism has been dulled by television and money, although you can still find pockets of it west of Broken Hill.
Early in the ‘70s I went with an Irish Mick Carlton mate to watch Carlton in a Grand Final. (I see that it was 1972.) We decided to do it in style and go to Vlado’s steakhouse for lunch, and not just some pub. There were no prices on show. Big Jack comfortably devoured his mountainous steak. I got through about half of mine. Then came the bill. Disaster! No credit cards. We would be short of big cans to stand on at the game! We stood right up at the back (so I would have a sporting chance of reaching the loo). There were 112,000 there, and Carlton reversed an earlier result and won. Big Jack came back to our place very tired and emotional. It had after all been a big day. Our hall moved when he did, and he burst into tears when I put on Verdi. The crowd, he said, sang the Slaves’ Chorus at Verdi’s funeral.
Jack was wont to devour large slices of life, but I have seen other mates reduced to tears by Jussi Bjorling while we communed after yet another Demons’ disaster. I would say that I have seen three losses for every Melbourne win – I hardly got to go in the glory days. I can recall John Wardle asking me to put on music of great things beaten, and I can remember a former Olympic rower getting very teary over the great male duet Au fond du temple saint (especially as sung by Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill).
After Barassi left Melbourne as its coach, the Demons made the Grand Final on two occasions. As was utterly predictable, they were ritually slaughtered in each. I had made a very smart tactical move before each of those games – for the first, I was at Iguazzu Falls; for the second, I was at Gallipoli. In each case, the distance was both safe and mollifying. (My middle name is McPherson, the maiden name of Mac’s mother. The McPhersons too once made a very smart tactical move. They were a day late for the battle of Culloden. They may have forgotten that steam trains had not yet been invented.)
During the ‘80s I tried to ease the pain of Grand Final Day by going to the Old Boys’ breakfast, and then entertaining a select bunch of coudabeens and wannabes for lunch before watching the game live at home. (Wedge got to the first, but he was immediately put under a life ban when he got home. Just how he got home is the big question.) Then we would go the Malvern Hotel. Before the first of these challenges to decency and medical science, I had spent hours and days compiling a tape of great things beaten. I still have it – a cassette. It is a relic of schmalz and kitsch – but it was a good release for us withdrawn Anglo-Saxons. As well as music, they got Richard Burton and John Gielgud. The killer was the Maori farewell. It slays drunks.
But then there was that magical day at the Western Oval in 1987. If we won and Hawthorn beat Geelong, we would be in our first finals since 1964. (That does seem a very short drought now.) The Doggies broke free, and we prayed that they would put us to sleep mercifully. Then Our Son – the most graceful footballer I’ve seen – rose again. He did so twice! We got ahead, Dunstall put Hawthorn in front, and grown men cried – all the way to Young & Jackson’s. I took my girls to watch the boys in training, and they asked me why I was crying. ‘Bloody long time between drinks, Girls.’
Then came the apocalypse at the misbegotten and frozen Waverley when an anal Baptist with whistle addiction called out Jimmy Stynes after the bell and then sweetly gave the ball to the only bastard on the ground that could make the distance, and I turned round and saw the faces of the GIs who had entered Belsen. My mate, now a criminal silk, said he was prepared to do time. I reflected on the education of my daughters on the subject of the blood feud and the vendetta. Then I – or Freud, or God – threw a lever in my soul or psyche that ensured that no mere game would ever get so dangerously close to me again. I think that day comes within the phrase ‘soul-destroying.’ Shit, it was a hard road back home from the end of the bloody earth. (Imagine going to New Zealand to watch the Wallabies get yet another lacing!)
The Demons got so bad that when the Melbourne Storm was created, I was very glad to attend the first game. I soon became attracted to the game for a number of reasons – when you followed the Demons, you did not go to see the football, but to enjoy a lunch beforehand, and the AFL, as it had then become, was not minded to give us too many bloody games at home on a Saturday afternoon. Another reason for the attraction was the ferocious snobbery about League – even in Sydney.
So, I followed the Storm, and I patronised the Greeks in Swan Street before or after the game for that purpose. My patronage of Salonas became an indispensable part of a civilised existence. Most of the time I went to the Greeks and the footy on my own. I took the late Jim Kennon one night. He left at half time after perceptively noting that they were passing the ball backwards. I took my mate George, a hopeless Pies addict from the Malvern Hotel. We had a very good lunch. The game was awful. So we went back to the Greeks and had an even better dinner. The ambulance, in the form of George’s wife, arrived to a scene of mild carnage.
Then there was the sheer bliss of our first flag. I think this was 1999. We were down and out at half time, but we came back and won with a penalty try. And Little Johnnie Howard was there to share the pain, going through one of his preposterous little sportsman phases in a St George jumper. You can have even money that that is still the only NRL game that Little Johnnie has ever been to.
I have been fortunate to watch players like Billy Slater and Cameron Smith. Men have taken their sons to the Storm just so that they could say that they had seen Billy Slater. In his own way, Smith impresses me now as much as Barassi did when I was a boy – he quite possibly has far more impact on the games he plays because of the nature of the role of captain in NRL footy, and because Smith in number 9 is pivotal in either attack or defence. He is certainly the coolest player in any sport that I have seen since Steve Waugh. (I would pair the two as captains.)
We have won four flags – you can put to one side that fascist nonsense from those bastards in Sydney who did not appreciate our version of double entry accounting – and the club has persistently rewarded its members and supporters as well as any of them could decently ask for. My sense is that the only football club in Australia that could match it for coaching and leadership at the moment is Hawthorn. (As it happens both clubs will lose their current leaders at about the same time.)
So, I will have a split of allegiance between the Bulldogs and South (the Swans) on Saturday. I will just have to resolve that as best I can, but rather than put the kiss of death on my boys, I will stay silent about what might happen in the game at Sydney on the following day. The Sharks will be as popular with the crowd as the Doggies will be, but we are used to that up there. We do after all give Sydney so many reasons to be jealous. Among other things, we invented the best code of footy on earth.
I will however say this. The Storm boys are resolved. The big question is whether I can steel myself to watch the game live, or if I should put on Verdi’s Rigoletto or La Traviata – or perhaps La Forza del Destino! – and sneak a peek at the scoreboard between scenes. At my age, a man has to look after his heart – even with the benefit of the 1987 by-pass.
And yes, it is 52 years this Saturday since the Frog slotted the sealer; and yes, the Red Sox finally broke free of their curse for selling Babe Ruth; but I have it in my water that it took them a lot longer than 52 bloody years, at least to win a World Series; and yes, even the great Barassi might have to give right of way to the Babe.
Good luck to all who take part in either game. These games are proper and decent national rites. Am I still allowed to say that they are tests of manhood?