Unless it involves horses, I’m totally not a sporty person. Even a team of mud streaked, rippling muscled men roughing each other up can’t keep my attention for an entire rugby match. So it’s no surprise that I’ve made it to 23 without ever having been to a sports match or developing any team affiliations. But, as of a few weeks ago, all that has changed: I’ve experience my first AFL match in the Melbourne Cricket Ground and proudly call myself a die hard Fremantle Dockers fan!
Meeting Harry and Ross at Flinders Street Station, I was more excited by the fact I’d been able to use ‘I’ll meet you beneath the clocks’ than I was for the upcoming game. Their levels of enthusiasm barely surpassed mine as we forced ourselves into the tram heading towards the MCG, seething with orange and black clad Richmond Tigers fans. I’d aligned myself with Freo purely for the fact that the first bottle of water I bought upon landing in Oz was branded with the Dockers logo, and somehow, 5 months later, I still have this rather dirty bottle in my bag. As good a reason as any, and I felt it was fairly fortuitous that they turned out to be playing the weekend I had decided to venture into the alien realm of the sports stadium. However, Black and Gold being York universities colours and tigers being my all time favourite animal (it’s my fate to be killed by one apparently) I had a crisis of confidence on the short journey and almost switched teams. I decided to stick to my guns however.
Our tickets were $25 (but would have been $17.50 with a student card) and we bought them on the day (Mike, my housemate, works in the MCG and says he’s never seen it sold out). The bag checks didn’t detect the bottle of goone wrapped in a jumper at the bottom of my backpack, an essential for what I thought was going to be a very long couple of hours with expensive drinks (neither of which turned out to be true). Just having been paid and a little cash giddy I bought my purple striped Dockers hat ($25) from a merch stall with two walls overflowing with Tigers gear and just a single purple hat and scarf tucked away to one side, an after thought.
I was totally ignorant of the fact that there are certain sides for each team within the stadium and settled myself down behind one of the goals. I was wondering why I couldn’t see any other purple clad Freo fans around me. The guys at work had jeered when I’d told them I was supporting Freo, ‘You’ve upped their fan club to four members,’ they said. So I assumed no fans had made the journey out East for the unimportant game.
The game commenced with cheers of ‘Go Tiges’. Now, many Aussie abbreviations are infuriating, ‘shardy’ (Chardonnay) is my least favourite. But seriously, you’re only removing the ‘r’ from tigers, at least go for Tigs if you’re going to bother shortening it! It doesn’t really even make it any shorter to pronounce! I guess Tigs would only work for a cute under 10’s team though.
When the first Richmond goal was scored I realised why the seating was void of purple; it was the Richmond goal and I was sitting next to the Richmond official cheer squad. A Tiger’s roar echoed through the stadium, rebounding from speaker to speaker, as a burly man dressed in leather beat a pulse on a giant drum. The cheer squad leapt to their feet, wildly swinging oversized flags proclaiming that they bled black and yellow and young and old lungs alike bellowed their support. Beasts in the sports jungle, they all looked pretty brutish, I wouldn’t have messed with them.
Giant yellow and black pom-poms were shoved over the barrier and whirled behind the goal every time the Freo team approached, trying to distract them, pushing the ball towards a behind (1 point) rather than a goal (6 points). It took me a long time to understand the score board: Rich 1.1.7 3.1.9 Frem for example means Richmond have 1 behind, 1 goal and 7 points overall whilst Freo have 3 behinds, 1 goal and 9 points over all. How confusing! As a beginner that’s pretty much all you need to know to enjoy the game. Aussies are very vocal (with colourful language) and the cheers and jeers of the fans around you will impart the gist of what’s happening on the pitch. The surges of excitement, ripples of movement through the crowd of people perched on their seat edge and the eruptions of sound around the stadium kept my adrenaline high despite never really knowing who was in possession of the ball, why a whistle had been blown or if someone was fowling.
By the end of the third quarter, a couple of $9 pints of Carlton Draught had given me Dutch courage enough to join the hysterics and scream my lungs out for my team amid the sea of Tigers. At this point in an English football match I imagine a few punches would have been thrown my way, but all the Aussies threw was some friendly banter. All despite their dire position at 30 points down and just a quarter to go; the Dockers were a sure bet and I was poking a wounded beast.
The players emerged from the bowels of the stands; we all expected the Dockers to put a swift end to the suffering animal that was Richmond, an unexciting last quarter. But the ball barely came within reach of the Dockers end. Goal after goal was scored by the Tigers until the last minute was approaching and they actually took the lead! Their come back had breathed life back into their lethargic fans who became a seething, leaping, screaming mass around me, heckling the referee with insults so bogan I couldn’t even begin to understand what they meant!
The buzzer sounded. Richmond were ahead by a whisker. But the ball was in the hands of the Dockers for a free kick (maybe). A behind or a miss and we would lose. The player lined up and kicked… Despite knowing next to nothing about the game, or my team, my heart was in my mouth. For just this moment, this was life or death! I was relying on the reaction of the Docker’s cheer squad on the opposite side of the stadium, not being able to see the ball clearly. An explosion of purple and white was detonated, pom-poms spasmed and flags billowed, in complete antithesis to the crowd about me, who had sunk back into their seats, gathering their belongings with faces haunted by the glory that had been snatched from them. ‘You should be proud to wear that hat,’ someone commented as they trudged past.
It’s just a game, but these weary people had taken it to heart, they visibly drooped as we packed the trams back into the city. I don’t think I’ll ever love a team enough to know that sense of disappointment. Ross, Harry and I headed to the Asian Beer Cafe to celebrate our victory with a $15 jug of beer. Whilst I was sipping a post footy pint, Mike was at home slaving over a jambalaya for our dinner, what a role reversal!