Tuesday, April 1, 2014
'BENEATH THE BLUE AND WHITE WE STAND...'
WHAT attracts us to sport? That is, sporting matches, sporting players, sporting codes, sporting culture and sporting traditions. For some, the whole thing is absolutely abhorrent, and they associate it with ‘low brow’ or ‘bogan’ culture, a kind of antithesis of anything that is useful, or intellectual, or pragmatic or worthy. There are plenty of people I look up to and admire for their intellectual prowess who would not dare let an evening’s football or rugby match take them away from a game of chess or backgammon, or a night out at the cinema, or a walk in the park with the kids, or a chance to finish a bottle of red, as well as the latest novel they have just purchased. Think Phillip Adams for example.
Then, on the other side of the coin, there are others who are universally respected for their manners and good taste who absolutely love going to a sporting venue like the MCG or the tennis centre, and get anxious and highly involved both before and after the game.
So in a way I guess sport is a bit like religion, as the Australian poet Bruce Dawe once said. You are more likely to have a passion, or interest for it, if it is part of your DNA- if you grew up with it, if you were exposed to it, if influential people around you when you were young encouraged it.
My own interest in sport stems mostly from growing up with football and cricket. If Australia is involved in a test cricket series, particularly against England, I find myself getting emotionally involved, with a voracious appetite for keeping up with the score and watching or listening to the progress of the game when it is available.
More important to me, however, is football. I started going to see North Melbourne at their Arden Street headquarters when I was five, or even younger. I am the youngest born. I had no choice. The rest of the family were going, so I had to be bundled along. It wasn’t long before I was hooked. How could I not be? My brothers and sister all had their favourite players. I developed mine too. My earliest memory of a favourite player was when Wayne Schimmelbusch was at his peak. I even met him, and presented him with a Ballarat Sovereign Hill ‘Wanted’ poster.
I go past the ground sometimes. The club hasn’t played there for decades, though they still train there. The place is much altered. However, with a slice of nostalgia and imagination, I can picture all of us, my cousins included, standing in the outer nearer to the smaller, manual scoreboard end, barracking with our hearts and lungs for North Melbourne, and just as vociferously, against the opposition. I remember games from decades ago when we were the poorest team in the competition, perpetual winners of the shameful ‘wooden spoon.’ Collingwood, with its spearhead, Peter McKenna, would give us the biggest thrashing. And then, all of a sudden, we had a new coach in Ron Barassi, and we were flying. Malcolm Blight was the new hero, and he could kick goals equally well with either foot, and was a magnificent mark. We had a great team, mostly borrowed from other teams. The mid seventies were the halcyon days, as they were for Hawthorn as well, and the two clubs had a fierce rivalry, playing off in Grand Finals is ’75, ’76 and ’78. In between times, in ’77, North Melbourne beat Collingwood in the replay of the famous drawn grand final, and suddenly we disappeared again off the radar, fielding good teams and good players, but no match for the power of teams like the newly resurgent Essendon Football Club.
My family travelled to away games as well, even venturing down to Geelong when we had to, and for a number of years winning more often than not, with lethal attacks featuring players that are household names in the club’s history, like Doug Wade, the aforementioned Malcolm Blight, Arnold Briedis and Phil Baker. There was nothing like finals football, and I have lost count how many finals- including preliminary finals, and semi-finals and qualifying finals- we took part in during those wonderful years between 1974 and 1979.
As I said, things became quieter, especially in terms of grand finals, after this period. By 1993 we were near the top of the ladder again, and thankfully a new, and in some ways more devastating era of success began again. Amazingly it was still only two premierships (in the seventies we won in ’75 and ’77). In the nineties it was ’96 and ’99. However, we were able to reach the preliminary final of every year from ’94 until ’99 which was no small feat. During this era, I remember players such as Glen Archer, Wayne Schwass, Corey McKernan and John Longmire, Mark Roberts and Craig Sholl. There was one player who stood head and shoulders above the rest of the competition, however, and that was the captain, Wayne Carey. It might be reasonably said that without Carey during this era we may not have made any grand finals. He was the pinnacle, even, in my eyes, exceeding the skill of Malcolm Blight, and was the best footballer I have ever seen.
I enjoyed this period of success just as much as the one two decades before, and again you don’t ever really believe it is going to end. During both dominant periods, the successful times just seem to go on forever and you become sort of blasé about it. It is finals appearance after finals appearance, and as well as the great joy of winning, in ’96 and ’99, there is the heartache of losses late during finals campaigns in ’94, ’95, ’97 and ’98. This last one, 1998, still sends a shiver down my spine. We were the best team that year, and we allowed ourselves to be beaten by Adelaide. We kicked ourselves out of the match, holding only a precarious three goal lead at half time despite having all the play. I remember there were a horrendous amount of points in that half, all gettable goals. The lead should have been unreachable. The players were even clapped off the ground by the trainers at half time!
Since that period of the late ‘90’s… well, let’s just say we haven’t achieved any further ultimate glory, but for most of that period the supporters have had something to cheer about. The finals appearances have well and truly dried up, though. I miss those times. The tickets themselves had colourful little stubs you tore off to give to the man at the gate. You could keep the rest- which I did. We no longer play there, as I said earlier, but it is the memory of the days at Arden Street that are the fondest. I was too blind to see the main scoreboard, so I used to gaze at the man on the roof of the secondary scoreboard, manually altering the figures after each score. There was a short walk to the food area to buy a pie or a hot dog. The little building across the other side of the ground was white with the words ‘Stoke Motors’ emblazoned on it. I’m pretty sure it’s still there. The huge gasometre is gone, though. We rarely sat in the stand- we could only afford general admission tickets, Sometimes we went into the rooms after the game. There was a male-only ‘family day’ one year in between seasons whose details I better not go into here. This was a period of drifting for the club before Denis Pagan came along with his hard-line but effective approach to football coaching.
So here’s to the memory of seeing the players relax and have a drink and a cigarette after the game like you could back then. Here’s to the days of going onto the ground at the end of the match and marvelling at the boot stud holes in the ground, and standing where Malcolm Blight took another fantastic grab. And here’s to the days when every game was played at the same time on the Saturday afternoon, and each team had a letter of the alphabet, and Carlton might be ‘C’, and Fitzroy ‘D’, and you could look at the scoreboard and see that it was late in the last quarter and ‘C’ was on 96 points and ‘D’ was on 63. And here’s to the long days when, as a family, you would travel to Geelong or Waverley Park, that huge, vacuous ground, and you could talk about the game afterwards, or even better listen to a summary of the North game on a station like 3KZ. And here’s to seeing North Melbourne at Arden Street, parking the car a few blocks away, walking through the autumn leaves, wearing a football jumper and feeling either hopeful or despairing, or cocky and confident, depending on the decade it was and the fortunes of the club. And afterwards we would all go back to Nana’s house on Glenlyon Road, Brunswick, and she would be excited to see us as she was undoubtedly a bit lonely, and the TV show ‘The Winners’ was on in the lounge, and the dog, Jessie, was going crazy outside, and Mark and I would be tearing around and jumping off the balcony out the front onto the grass, and Carol would probably be playing with Wayne, and Gordon with Craig, and sometimes if I recall correctly we would ride on the old, dilapidated wooden scooter up and down the drive, and eventually dinner would be ready. If it wasn’t fish’n’chips it would be a roast, not as good as mother’s, but still tasty after a day of eating junk and yelling ‘come on North!’ until you were beginning to go hoarse. And then evening would come on, and father would insist on placing bets at the TAB on the way home (trots they were, at night back then), and we would patiently wait in the car, sometimes going mad. At the end of the night my head would hit the pillow and I would reflect on the magical day’s events, thinking about every player in order from jumper number 1 until jumper number forty something. At school that week there would be something to talk about, and it felt good to me somehow to be different because no one else ever barracked for North.
Arden Street, North Melbourne, 2014. A shadow of its former self, but still a place of fascination and joy, as you drive past sometimes, no longer a kid, but with kids of your own, and you try to snatch some of the magic, with the window down, and with your hands clenched, pulling, pulling snatches of the magic into the car, but the snatches missing the mark, and the kids with total disinterest, creating their own unique memories of other things in the back seat of your car.