I’m one of those people for whom a love of sport and a love of the arts aren’t mutually exclusive. Loving one doesn’t mean that one necessarily hates – or is indifferent to –the other. I’m a writer who has published thirty-nine books, more than sixty short stories, some poetry, some plays sort of course I’m invested in the arts. I love cinema, going to the theatre, dance, visiting museums and galleries and I know that the arts are some of the finest expressions of the human spirit. At the same time, I love sport. I played sport for a long time, so many different types, and enjoyed the experience immensely. Being in the zone, experiencing true flow state, is breathtaking and to be treasured. I’ve been a spectator in multiple sports and risen to my feet in shared exhilaration at magical moments. The arts and sport are both wonderful manifestations of human endeavour and both can move us in ways that are profound.
I was reminded of this when the football club I have followed for fifty-seven years finally won a premiership – fifty-seven years after the last one. Yes, I jumped on board as a young lad when the Melbourne Football Club were premiers in 1964, thinking that they were obviously so much better than all the other teams and by becoming a supporter I was guaranteed many years of success and triumph.
Narrator: he was not guaranteed many years of success and triumph.
Fifty-seven years is a long time to wait for anything, and especially for something when you’re invested in it. I find there’s no point in declaring your allegiance for a sports team if you don’t ride the highs and lows with them, and I have, with far more lows than highs. I don’t shy away from the fact that for most of the last fifty-seven years the Melbourne Football Club has been a laughing stock. Oh, there have been a few moments of brilliance where I got my hopes up only to have them dashed, and there have been many wonderful individual players who warmed my heart – Robert Flower, what an extraordinary champion in a benighted era – but for most of that time the Demons have been the easy beats, the cellar dwellers, the team who could be counted on for valiant defeats, good efforts but falling short at the last, and more than a few shellackings.
Eventually, it becomes a test of strength for a supporter, point of honour to remain true to a team that was almost always utterly disappointing. The easy way out would have been to sidestep, abandon the Demons and choose another team who wouldn’t cause so much heartache, but I told myself that was never an option. After all, when success came it would be all the sweeter because of the trials I had endured.
As twenty years ticked over to thirty, then forty, that sort of mantra began to sound hollow. Instead of a promise of glory, it became an albatross too heavy to shuck. Giving up was a bad idea, sticking with them wasn’t much of a good idea. Ultimately, it becomes a point of pride, or stubbornness, or endurance or something.
Golf is a strange sport – stay with me, here, it’s not a complete non sequitur – because most of the time most of us hack and nurdle our ways around the course achieving some sense of satisfaction about getting the damn thing in the damn hole at all. But occasionally, once in a while, we manage to swing that club just right, make contact so exquisitely that it feels like a kiss and the ball soars into the heavens in an arc so perfect it would make a geometer weep. We watch, open-mouthed, as the ball rises and rises before it hesitates at the top of its ascent, trembles, then swoops back to the mundane earth again. That one glorious moment makes all of the hacking and nurdling worthwhile because we fool ourselves into thinking that if we can do it once we can do it all the time – while knowing full well that this is nonsense, otherwise we’d be on the professional tour and wearing plaid trousers.
Supporting a poor football team is something like this. The occasional win is uplifting and we cling to it through the dark times, week after week in the middle of winter sitting in those grandstands that actively leach the heat out of our bodies.
With the modern corporate approach to sport and the consolidation of so-called “power clubs” in the Australian Football League, I had almost resigned myself to accepting that I’d never see a premiership in my lifetime. After all, the established order was well-established and less successful clubs were condemned to always be less successful so that the larger clubs could enjoy continued rewards.
When you support a team for decades and decades and they have no ultimate success, an attitude comes upon you, a protective shell that you adopt that helps insulate you from despair. Somewhat. You don’t get your hopes up, because the past has been a sure indicator that this is a bad thing to do. If small successes come, you deprecate them knowing that disaster is just around the corner. It’s a survival mode, I guess, but it brings with it a certain distortion of perception. For instance, this year, 2021, was one where the Demons began the season with a handful of wins. While pleasant, the long-standing MFC supporters knew that each win only brought us closer to a loss and, most likely, a heartbreaking string of them. When this winning streak stretched to nine games end on end it was astonishing and bewildering. What was this? We weren’t simply beating lower ranked teams, either, we were taking on some of the teams favoured for the flag and we were defeating them comprehensively. It was like going on a holiday and coming back to find that every item of furniture in your house had been nailed to the ceiling. It was sort of familiar but completely confounding at the same time and I didn’t know how to behave. Supporters of traditionally successful teams are accustomed to win after win after win and they know how to conduct themselves – and it’s mostly to assume that this will continue. Supporters of the Demons? Unfamiliar territory.
With a few slight hiccups, this performance continued right through to a time when playing in the finals was guaranteed, again, not a situation that I was accustomed to being in. And then in the lead-up finals to dispatch the opposition so thoroughly? It was as if we were in an alternate universe, a mirror world where norms are reversed.
And so to the Grand Final. I may write something about the experience of that day at another time but for the moment I’ll simply say that we won and I was a supporter of the premiership team.
My overwhelming feeling was one of relief as the burden of fifty-seven years fell away. Oh, I may have been a little misty but the complete and entire sobbing collapse wasn’t mine, at least, not on the day when the Melbourne Football Club experienced ultimate success and won the Grand Final. Relief, joy, exuberant exhilaration, disorientation, disbelief and shock all bumbled around inside me, trying to establish dominance but failing because they were assailed by new feels – satisfaction, amazement, dizziness and, very strongly, vindication.
The arts and sport can both make you feel very strongly if you invest in them. It’s easy to remain detached and therefore unmoved by them, but by doing so you miss out, you deny yourself a human experience where you can be elevated and dragged low in utterly unequal ways.
But, I hear you say, isn’t sport trivial and unimportant? Isn’t it a meaningless pursuit channelling atavistic competitive urges? Yes. Maybe. Perhaps. But if you want to be like that, nothing’s important and everything is futile and isn’t that a really boring way to be? The arts are trivial and unimportant pursuits channelling atavistic urges to daub, grunt, squash and blunder around if you want to look at them like that which, again is a really boring way to consider something so sublime.
Some people can’t understand other’s passions. That’s human, too. I can’t understand someone’s passion for slugs, or offal, or collecting matchboxes. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to denigrate what is, after all, a harmless interest. Sports enthusiasts who disparage the arts, or arts aficionados who belittle sports are showing a certain paucity of spirit, I say. Sneer at someone’s innocent enjoyment? Haven’t you got anything better to do?
I’ve been a proud member of the Melbourne Football Club for decades and a supporter for longer than that. We – and I use that pronoun deliberately – won the premiership in 2021 and it was very enjoyable.