Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Ghost of Optus Oval article


It starts Thursday night when the teams are released on the Carlton website. I study the team and begin to see possible match-ups and before long another potential victory flaps around in my brain like one of the Carlton flags at Optus. I angrily chase away any thought of a loss, like a lion chasing a vulture from the carcass. That night a simmering dream cradles me, a dream of footballs, goals, screaming voices, whistles and shared victories over hated enemies. I wake refreshed in the new dawn, vibrant, as if the energy of my youth had returned. I wish to run out again as I did all those years ago early of a Saturday morning to have a game, the day so cold exhaling drew personal frosts around everyone’s faces, the dew was frozen on the grass and the leather football threatened to break fingers and toes.

Then Friday morning’s paper - the second most important paper of any good week (the morning victory paper by far the best) – arrives on the doorstep and the butterflies begin to waken, fluttering their navy blue wings to send ripples of expectation through the bloodstream. Suddenly I feel like clicking my heels together and the journey to work is almost joyful. Friday morning in the car I mentally tick off who I shall pick in the football competition. Carlton is never considered. They are always chosen victors – I’m loyal to my CFC monogrammed bones.

By 12 noon the skin starts to tingle and my heart becomes an actor in a Shirley temple movie and dances little soft-shoe shuffles up and down the stairs in my chest. Memories slip past regularly: Memories of Wow Jones kicking a ball to the original ‘woof!’ on a Saturday arvo’: The arms of Kenny Hunter reaching up to pluck the ball before it reaches the pack: Johnno slamming another goal home and Mike Fitzpatrick’s finger directing another player to fill a gap. So many memories that I need to talk with other supporters even those who follow other teams, though not Collingwood, they never have anything constructive to add so much does 1970 still hurt, you can see it the grimaced faces, in their haunted look at the corner of their eyes. They thought 1990 would ease the pain bit it didn’t, nothing ever will. When lunchtime arrives at work we all sit and discuss our different teams’ chances, each of us pretending a fairness and open-mindedness that none of us posses come match days.

By 7.30 Friday evening my mind is full of the possibilities (who might star and who might struggle, who I would have chosen and who I might have dropped) that will be revealed the next day. By 11:30 that night I have a clear picture of my father’s smiling face and twinkling eyes when Carlton led by four goals at three-quarter time and the little jig he would do on the way to a pub after the game. I remember the walk my brother and I would take from Royal Park station around the zoo to the ground when we were older, me kicking a newspaper football while he extolled the virtues of this or that footballer. He loved talking about the players, players like Racehorse Hall in number 3 or gritty Barry Gill in 21 or Wes Lofts the number 20 fullback who was rumored to know my dad. I can even remember him explaining to me the virtues of Brian Kekovich in the bleak years before Barass arrived.

By Saturday I just have to go. Breakfast hurts and lunch cannot be faced. I can’t sit still and I am unable to concentrate; my mind swirls with famous marks of Jezza’s or Harry Madden’s giraffe-like run. My wife already knows this is not the time to try and encourage me to garden: I’d do more damage on a day Carlton’s playing than any help with plants and weeds and cuttings I might provide the rest of the year. My mind just keeps wandering off – David Mackay flies through the air taking another grab and Gag’s ducking head and poked out tongue bob out from another pack or Maclure’s long arms wrapped around the pill crashes into my concentration – so that I become a menace with secateurs.

In the background the radio is on and the footy experts are whispering to me ‘go, go you fool, you know you’ll regret it if you don’t,’ and then they pick against Carlton and my blood boils and I can no longer deny the urge, at this point my son (a mind reader like all children) tugs at my sleeve asking again, ‘so, we going dad?  Are we meeting up with my uncles? Will Sean be there?’

I go because the memory of my dad and pop beckons and my brothers have told me where we’ll meet.

I go because going to the football and seeing the Bluebaggers lose is infinitely better than not going to see them and they win. Besides if I see them lose then I can handle the pain of the loss but if they lose and I didn’t go a small nagging voice inside my mind berates me saying ‘if only you had gone, if only you had gone,’ it’s that thread that connects me with the Bluebaggers, a hangover from that marvelous day in 1970.

I go because football is this childhood pump that sits behind my heart thumping a bass beat. It’s a baby’s tantrum, all legs and arms pummeling as it demands it’s due. It holds me in thrall all season, forcing me to travel to the grounds and walk in with the swell of people and voices and the special cry of ‘footy re-cord!’ that is as Australian as the magpie chortle or a distant coo-ee!’ Is there a bigger thrill than walking in with the crowd, expectation rising up from the throng as supporters from both sides try to still their beating hearts? Woven throughout are the voices, the young, vibrant voices calling ‘footy re-cord! Get your footy re-cord!’

I go to the game because as the bounce of the ball draws near my heart is stretched between the goal posts like a crucified villain, strung up and stretched, ready for the drawing and quartering. Each goal they kick is a barb that digs in deep, each of our goals succours a moment of relief. Only a Carlton victory can bring me redemption.

I go because I’m in the grips of a thirst, and beer at the football shared between brothers and friends is the sweetest nectar ever poured into a cup (even a plastic one).

I go just to roll that record up like a sacred scroll and have my Carlton pen ready to hand to my son because he now demands to keep the goals and points score just like I did when I was 10 and my brother handed the record to me.

I go to see that jumper, that navy blue jumper with the shining white monogram, that jumper that is like family, so much does it reverberate within me. Whenever I see that jumper I feel like a prodigal son coming home again after a terrible absence. I remember the woolen jumper mum knitted for me when I was a kid, I remember my son’s jumper stolen last year with number 14 on the back claiming his allegiance to Fish. Past jumpers and present, even jumpers that I played in but have nothing to do with the Blues, mingle in a never-ending stream of hope, loss and past glories.

I go to see the Bluebaggers win and because sharing a loss is easier than bearing it alone.

I go because football is not a television sport – it’s a gladiatorial contest that needs us supporters baying from the stands for it to have any meaning. Imagine a Dominator bump without the crowd’s roar or a Jezza grab without the astonished faces. Imagine missing the next magic moment and not being able to say, ‘I was there the day Fev took ‘em apart.’ Football needs our voices, our eyes, our hearts, or it will become a gasping fish flapping on the concrete pier of television.

I go because I barrack for Carlton and there is no grander place to be than in the Heatley Stand as we kick home towards the social club and the goals start raining down like the breaking of a seven year drought and the stands are rocking louder than any concert at the MCG.

I go with my son so that he will grow up as glad and mad a Bluebagger as his dad – just as my dad did with me. I go to continue to dynasty, a line of Carlton supporters that spills out both behind and in front like a deep, deep, navy blue sea.

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