Liz Stringer

It’s Not Just Football – A Love Letter To My City

 

My big brother Tom in his Hawks guernsey, circa 1981

 

All my life, and long before it, the Australian Rules football season has formed the spine of my city’s year. The opening rounds are heralded by the first leaves starting to turn and the afternoon light softening to its gentle Autumnal wash as the mornings become clearer and crisper. And as the season’s climax approaches, a stir in the city’s belly begins, an awakening to the new spring, bringing with it rising temperatures and the dense perfume of daffodils, lengthening days and fresh, bursting pollen carried on erratic winds. But the meat of the football calendar hunkers deep in the cold Victorian winter, as the trees stand stark and stripped and long tracts of puddles lie over bluestone lanes while heavy drifts of chimney smoke hang in the cold, still air. Every Melbournian’s experience of their city, regardless of their relationship to the game, is threaded together by strands of the ever-present AFL season that weave through every fibre. And then there are those who live for the game, from every background and corner of humanity, who are fed like blood through the city’s arterials, streaming off trains and trams in tracts of intense colour to pour into bursting stadiums of rich green turf and overpriced light beer. For six months of their year, the dull grind of work and everyday problems becomes punctuated by each gloriously fizzing round of football, every game an epic, dense saga to be dissected and analysed and lost in for the rest of week, an evolving drama that’s teased out over twenty-two rounds and a month of finals.

 

I was besotted with football since before I can remember. It is an extraordinary game, requiring an elite level of skill, dexterity, courage and fitness and when it’s played well it can be, to the trained eye, beautiful. I have a very clear memory of walking through Carlton laneways when I was maybe five or six years old, my little hand in my dad’s as we made our way to Princes Park on a rainy Saturday in July. We were there to see the Hawks, dad’s team since he and his older brother were small boys being raised by their mother in Hawthorn in the 40s and 50s. Dad and his brother Bill would watch the then Mayblooms get thrashed every week at Glenferrie until the team’s luck, and their mascot, had changed by 1953. And it was the team that was bequeathed to my older brother Tom and me at birth, in 1977 and 1980 respectively. We inherited the Hawks just as we inherited our tempers or the colour of our eyes. The Hawks belonged to us and we belonged to the Hawks. That’s how it felt when were small kids and that’s how it still feels to me now, decades later.

 

Being at a football match was a raw and powerful place for me as a child and still forms some of my most visceral memories. Fully-grown men with beer and tomato sauce on their breath bellowing what, to my six-year-old ears, were exotic and bewildering insults from the stands at the opposing team’s players and the umpires, the biting winds, the sweet, back-of-the-throat smell of freshly cut turf mingling with cigarette smoke, the jarring thud of boot on ball and the smack of body on body that you could feel deep in your stomach. The roar of tens of thousands of barrackers would fill up my little body until I thought I would burst and it remains, to this day, both my most coveted and most despised sound, depending on which way the game’s going.

 

The Hawks were a powerhouse in the 80s and often played games out at Waverley Park in Mulgrave, the heartland of their supporter base, until it became their official home ground in 91. Waverley or ‘VFL Park’ was about a half-hour drive south-east from the club’s original home ground and headquarters, Glenferrie Oval in Hawthorn, but only twenty minutes drive from the house in Surrey Hills that I grew up in. Surrey Hills is now one of Melbourne’s most expensive suburbs but, in 1980, when my parents moved my two older siblings (and me on the way) out there from Carlton, it was filling with young couples like my mum and dad who took advantage of the cheap blocks and the space for their growing families. My brother and I spent most of our young childhood outside together and, as the winters would settle in, we’d play endless games of kick-to-kick with our yellow Sherrin in the muddy backyard until we were forced inside due to poor light and be thrust, with stinging, freezing legs and faces, into steaming baths. I was always Dipper, Tom was Dunstall.

 

Hawthorn mostly played on Saturday afternoons out at Waverley – Friday night football wasn’t yet a thing – and dad took my brother and me countless times, both of us shivering with excitement and clutching our hand painted signs made of old sheets that mum would let us have, stuck to bits of dowel. Our older sister Catherine was never bitten by the football bug and no doubt relished the quiet Saturday afternoons at home with mum, revelling in her younger siblings’ glorious absence.

 

Waverley was a big, exposed ground with a massive surface so noticeably convex that any action on the far wing would all but disappear beneath its curve if you sat anywhere near the boundary. The only way to get to the ground was, essentially, to drive or to take a bus, an inaccessibility which would eventually lead to the stadium’s demise. Its rim, nowadays lined with housing estates, was flanked by endless stretches of car parks mapped out with string and posts in the sodden paddocks. We’d enter through the turnstiles on the south-east wing, trudge longingly past the hot jam donut caravan and settle down in the north-eastern pocket, opposite the members stand, on one of the flaking wooden benches to watch the end of the reserves match and wait for our ‘brave boys’ to take to the field.

 

We were allowed to eat corn chips brought from home, an infrequent and greatly cherished treat, and dad always had a thermos of tea or cuppa-soup for himself and blankets for my brother and me to spread over our little legs just before the damp cold of Waverley would sink into our bones, usually at a moment deep into the third quarter. An earphone from dad’s small transistor radio, which was perpetually tucked into his overalls so he could listen to the footy while he chopped wood or chainsawed stuff or mowed the lawn at home, would be in one of his ears for the whole game, and he’d pass on insights to us about free kicks and injuries from the Grandstand commentary team as we’d nod earnestly while marking off Hawthorn’s goals and behinds in our $1 Footy Record. It was an extraordinary era for the Hawks and we got to regularly watch our heroes, legends like Brereton, DiPierdomenico, Platten and Tuck play at times flawless, jaw-breakingly courageous football.

 

After the game we’d collect large plastic sacks full of empty beer cans – Cash-a-Can was quite a boon to the disenfranchised under-10 – accompanied by a soundtrack of hundreds of leather footballs being kick-to-kicked out on the hallowed surface by fans of both teams – a giant saucepan of low-mid frequency popcorn.

 

As we’d leave Waverley Park, a process that was notorious for taking an unreasonably long time, we’d sit in the mostly stationary car on our way to Jackson’s Road with the heater on listening to the ABC post-match interviews from the rooms. It was always a much more fun listen if the Hawks had won, but as Dad taught us by forcing us (very much against our young wills) to stay until the very end of every match that we went to, win or lose, including the brutal 82 point annihilation by arch rival West Coast in round 7 of the 91 season, sometimes you have to just suck it up. It’s not lost on me, though, that I’ve had minimal ‘sucking up’ to do as a Hawthorn fan. We went on, for example, to beat West Coast in the grand final that same year, taking the sting somewhat out of that particular drubbing.

 

We’d return home in the dark to a lit pot-belly stove and if we were lucky, a full quarter of the game that we’d just been to being shown on Footy Replay while we ate our Saturday night fish’n’chips.

 

There is so much I could recount when writing about footy. I haven’t begun to cover the trips to watch the seniors train, the era of the tabled merger with Melbourne, the horror of learning that Jeff Kennett would become the next Hawks president (Kennett was an ex Liberal state premier, despised in my house, who ripped the heart out of Victorian state education – both my parents were high school teachers – and obliterated the public sector during his first term beginning in 1992), the great solace that the game brought to me and my grieving family during my teenage years or the two grand finals that my brother and I were able to attend as adults, one that we won, one that we lost. I am an unashamed football tragic, a penchant for which I cop at times uncharitable abuse from friends and music fans. But, for anyone who will listen (and sometimes for those unfortunates who have zero interest in listening) I am always up for a philosophical chat about Football and Culture. You see, I consider live music and football to be two different kinds of dancers moving skilfully to the same tune. They are both profound connectors and levellers, they both incite passion and provide a greatly needed outlet for unprocessed emotion, and both (but particularly football) bring people from all geographical areas and all walks of life into the same space to share a common experience, something that is becoming rarer and rarer in our (pre and post-pandemic) world.

 

There has been much said about the toxic culture of the AFL and indeed something that’s often mentioned by some of the people who rib me for being a football fan – and, while I absolutely accept and agree that there is deep racism, sexism and homophobia that exists in and around the AFL, I would argue that football represents a stark microcosm of the greater Australian society, in which these endemic issues are rampant. These problems are not unique to sport, nor is every football fan an idiot, and there is something powerful in the mechanism of a mainstream juggernaut like the AFL dragging, voluntarily or not, this squirming bigotry and deep-seated xenophobia out of the shadows of day-to-day Australian society, where it’s able to thrive and propagate in isolation, into the bright light, however uncomfortable it is for us all to see. The Adam Goodes documentary The Final Quarter was extraordinary and incredibly important, not just because of Goodes’ breathtaking grace and humility in despicable and shameful circumstances, but also because it ripped migrant Australia’s thumping, racist heart from its colonial chest and held it up for everyone to see just how far we still have left to go as a society. And if we want to talk about racism, sexism or homophobia, look no further than the history of the Australian music industry. Or Australian politics. Or in fact any current industry or social institution in this country in which indefensible inequity continues to exist unchallenged. Perhaps all of these arenas have more in common than is obvious at first glance. And perhaps every industry would benefit from the responsibility and accountability that comes with being as visible and as people-driven as the AFL. And despite all of the issues, the game of football remains a powerful and vital community connector and a place for inordinate learning and healing, something that we need now more than ever.

The emergence and development of the AFLW is a massive step forward and I would love my five-year-old nephew to tell me in twenty years time how ludicrous he finds the idea that women had no national league until 2017  (we’re still waiting for a Hawthorn AFLW team, too, by the way). In the same way that I want him to see his auntie and all of the strong female and GNC people in his life being ubiquitously represented and lauded in all sectors of the arts. And I have often wondered, since the AFLW started, whether that little six year old in ‘86 would have gone on to aspire to play professional football if that path had been available to her in the 1980s. I was an athletic kid and a good kick. And my little heart beat so very strong for the game.

I digress. This piece of writing was prompted due to a deep sadness that befell me last week, approaching the Easter round, because the footy is not on and I don’t get to watch my beloved Hawks weekly, win or lose, riding the bumps with a grin. I miss it deep in my bones because footy represents my city so profoundly – a city that none of us are free to move around or conduct our normal lives in at the moment. I don’t know that I ever took the hum of the football season for granted but I’m missing its comforting and deeply familiar regularity profoundly. Its absence leaves an inexorable hole in my life and it joins a list of things that I have realized, due to Covid-19, form the canvas of my existence, experience and identity as a person, an awareness that was almost unnecessary until everything profoundly changed from one day to the next a few short weeks ago.

I’m deeply grateful to the sport of Marngrook for being a connector for my family and for so many of my dear friends and for providing me with some of the most exhilarating emotional experiences of my life, as well as some of my most gutting. Mostly, I’m grateful to footy for providing me with the most effective and all-consuming escape from my ‘real life’, kicking anything on Netflix’s arse by cosmic proportions.

 

Finally, while there is some joy in knowing that my Hawks remain undefeated in 2020, I cannot fucking wait for next year.

 

 

 

 

April 13, 2020

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