I am up much earlier than usual, getting the teen ready for school – a job usually done by my wife. But as she’s away, it’s up to me. Bleary eyed, I remember there’s something I wanted to show him on the computer. “Hey – look at this story that broke last night.” I retrieve an article about the Melbourne woman who consented to having her photo taken by one of the victorious Richmond Tigers, his AFL Grand Final medallion hanging over her bare breasts. Though her face wasn’t in shot, she’d asked him to delete it. And he did. Or so she thought. Turns out he sent it to some of his team mates. In no time, it went viral. My son stares at the photo – which the Herald Sun posted but with a black box over her boobs. I make a point of telling him that this is being investigated and a number of Tigers will be in trouble, having broken the recent laws against ‘sexting’. I then casually look away from the screen and out the window. I see a figure framed in the kitchen window of the apartment opposite ours. My eyes are still bleary so I’m unsure of exactly what I’m seeing. I check with my son. “Um – is that a topless woman standing in that kitchen?” He turns from looking at a censored picture of a topless woman to the real thing. “Yep.” We stand there for a moment, stunned. The timing is what makes it especially bizarre. Becoming conscious that she could look up at any moment and see us staring, I grab my son and pull him into the lounge room. The windows are still shuttered, so we can no longer see her. I guess it’s kind of like putting a black box over the whole thing…
After having spent thousands of dollars over the past five years on Sydney Swans memberships, flights and tickets to three grand finals, various merchandise, heaps of overpriced crap food and way too many mid strength shit beers, I decided that the time had come to wind back my footy fanaticism. So this season, my son and I have surrendered our memberships. Turns out it’s pretty good timing as the Swans have dived towards the bottom of the ladder. As disappointing as this is, we have both declared how glad we are that we haven’t had to pay to watch these series of annihilations. But then… in the past few weeks they’ve started returning to some of their once glorious form. So I sound out my son out about the possibility of getting tickets to the Friday night game against our greatest rivals – fellow birds, the Hawthorn Hawks. Five years earlier we had the privilege of seeing the Swans beat them in a grand final. Two years later we sat horrified as our Swans got well and truly plucked by a team on a roll as the Hawks won their second of what turned out to be three consecutive GFs. As disappointing as it’s been to see our Swans do so poorly this season, it’s been offset somewhat by the schandenfreude of watching the Hawks also take a tumble to the bottom of the ladder. So part of the motivation for forking out over a hundred bucks to watch a live footy game was the likelihood of seeing the Swans pluck the Hawks for a change. The fact that it’s the Friday night game of the Indigenous Round and the chance to see indigenous superstar (and former Hawk) Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin shine only adds to the occasion. And shine he does, going on to kick five goals and astound with his dominance. The atmosphere is great and there is a real buzz in the air. But as the game unfolds, I can’t help but become increasingly annoyed by a couple of loud foul mouthed American female voices behind us. I do my best to exercise restraint. But finally I crack. I turn around towards the loudest offender and see a bespectacled woman with short cropped hair. I immediately make an assumption about her sexual orientation. “Excuse me…” She stares straight ahead. “Excuse me…” I try to get her attention by waving my hand in front of her face. She finally glares at me. “Would you mind winding the language back a bit?” She gives me a death stare. “It’s a fucking football game!” “Yes, but I’m here with my thirteen year old son.” I turn around. She is incensed and complains about me to her companion. “He thinks his fucking kid doesn’t swear…” I want to turn around and reply, “He does sometimes but gets in trouble for it – especially if he does it in public.” But I don’t. I exercise restraint. A little later Buddy scores a goal right in front of us and the crowd goes nuts. Behind me I hear “Everybody say Fuck Yeah!” I want to turn around and tell her that she is only re-enforcing the cliché of the loud and obnoxious American. But I don’t. Again, I exercise restraint. Surprisingly, a little later, so does she when she substitutes ‘frigging’ for ‘fucking’. In case I hadn’t noticed, she says, “You’re welcome for the ‘frigging’”. I’m tempted to say something. But I don’t. Restraint. In the last quarter of the game, I see her return to her row with a tray of beer. Although I just catch a glimpse, I’m confused as she now seems to have shoulder length hair. Perhaps it was tied back before and for whatever reason she’s untied it. I don’t give it anymore thought as the game is now well and truly neck and neck. Far from being the walk over we had hoped for, the Hawks have led for most of the game. But in the dying minutes the Swans surge and get ahead. The crowd goes wild – especially the drunken loudmouths. But soon it’s a tied game. The atmosphere is tense. And with less than a couple of minutes left, the Hawks’ captain, the unfortunately named Jarryd Roughhead, kicks a goal. That proves to be enough. The siren sounds. I want to scream “Fuck!” But I don’t. I exercise restraint. We quickly shuffle out of our row and away from the Americans before there can be any further unpleasant changes. Once we are safely outside the stadium, I mention how annoying the woman behind us was. My son replies, “I know. I almost turned around and told her that she looked like Skrillex’s lesbian sister!” I’m quite thrown by this. Although I know he’s referring to the dubstep artist/producer whose ‘music’ my son enjoys torturing me with, I’m unsure why this woman would look like his sister. “You know, ‘cause just like Skrillex she had one side shaved and the other really long.” Ah – that would explain my earlier confusion. I smile, thinking that my son has actually made quite a funny comparison. But I’m also relieved he didn’t actually say it to her. He exercised restraint. Thank fuck for that.
I thought I was being clever. In a rare Facebook foray, I posted a picture of my son after his first game as an Aussie Rules footy umpire with the caption: “Today Luke crossed over to the dark side…. in a flouro shirt… for twenty dollars….”. I believed this worked on a few levels – the Star Wars reference, umpiring as being the dark side of footy, the mercenary aspect etc. But now, after watching him umpire a further two games in a row, it is my perspective that has ‘crossed over’. Firstly, it’s simply amusing seeing him out there towering over the players – a flouro giant amongst pip squeaks. It also reminds me of how far he’s come, recalling the days when he was one of the pip squeaks chasing a ball inclined to bounce every which way. Now though, he’s the one keeping the game on track and I can see how empowering that is for him. Here he is, a thirteen-year old kid, getting to call the shots (literally). If there are adults around who don’t like his calls – tough titties. And of course, being the nature of umpiring, there will always be people, on and off the field, who won’t like his calls and will make their opinions known. Before he started, I explained to him the concept of ‘a thick skin’ – telling him that he would now need to develop one. What I hadn’t taken into account was that I too will need to thicken my own skin or risk a sideline showdown with some aggrieved parent. Should this ever happen – I have already devised my strategy. I will approach the peeved parent and ask which kid is theirs. I’ll then inform them that every time their kid makes a mistake, I will yell abuse at them – unless they stop yelling abuse at mine. Hopefully this scenario will never take place. But I’m prepared nonetheless. Future sideline confrontations aside, I am so proud of Luke. I can see that he’s growing in confidence and actually seems to have some talent for officiating. Not only will this provide a nice little income stream for him (for five months of the year, at least), he can now legitimately write a CV for any future employment he might seek. And I’m just guessing here but I imagine that, as unpopular as umpires and referees can be, employers would respect any teenager who can implement and oversee a set of rules. Future management material perhaps. So, even though I’ve calculated that all the traveling and other expenses I’m forking out for him to umpire are actually greater than the amount he’s being paid, I will continue to do so. Because the pay off is that I get to watch my son cross over from childhood to employeehood – and beyond…
The symmetrical regularity is remarkable. We are seated in a jam packed Melbourne Cricket Ground, two years since the last time and four since the first, supporting a footy team with an uncanny knack of qualifying for the AFL Grand Final every two years. My son and I experienced the dizzy euphoria of witnessing an upset victory when the Sydney Swans took down the favoured Hawthorn Hawks four years ago. But when we returned to the MCG for our second GF two years later, the Hawks ripped the Swans apart, making it the most expensive disappointment of my life. Fortunately, this time our opponents aren’t the hated Hawks, who are missing from the GF for the first time in five years. Instead, our Swans face the feel good story of the comp, the Western Bulldogs – a team that hasn’t been in a GF since before I was born and the only one they actually won was over sixty years ago. It seems as if the whole rest of the country is behind them, making the Swans the team destined to kill Bambi. Our seats are the best yet, just behind the goals and ten rows from the playing field. The excitement builds as I look around the huge stadium with its quilt-like patches of red and blue. The game begins and it’s brutal. Our section of red and white clad supporters, looking like we’re cheering for Santa, erupt with every Swans goal. But we are drowned out each time the Doggies score, their fans achieving jet engine like decibels. The game ebbs and flows but remains tight. For three and a half quarters – it’s up for grabs. But then, half way through the final quarter, it’s the Doggies who want it more. They pull away and win it by 22 points. The siren sounds and the Bulldog fans go nuts. I’ve never seen so many happy crying tattooed bogans. Although I feel disappointed, this is countered by the wave of sheer joy generated by tens of thousands of delirious fans. The fairy tale has won the day. I head to the toilet quickly before the presentations. On the way back to my seat, the aisle is blocked by a big bellied bogan. We look at each other. Then he extends his hand. I’m moved by the gesture. I shake it and yell above the noise, “Your boys deserve it.” When I return to my seat, my son isn’t interested in staying for the medal ceremony. But I insist, saying that we are witnessing history. And we do, especially when the Bulldog’s coach gives his own medal over to his non-playing injured captain, who then triumphantly lifts up the premiership cup with the acting captain. The crowd roars. Okay, we can leave now. We follow the dancing Doggy fans out of the stadium, find a bit of grass and kick our red and white Swans ball back and forth. I savour the moment, knowing that this is likely to be the last AFL grand final my son and I will ever attend. We have been lucky to experience three: the joyous one, the depressing one and one that has left us with that in-between feeling. That’ll do.
There is no doubt that for six months of the year, I am obsessed with Aussie Rules footy. I watch the professional version at stadiums and the junior version at suburban ovals throughout Sydney. On TV, I watch games and shows about those games. I read about it all week on the net and even coach it at a fantasy level. I guess you could call it my thing. But there is another type of spectacle that, though observed far less frequently, could qualify as my other thing: modern dance. Sixteen simply clad bodies sweep across the stage. Their elegant movements mirror each other. Then half of them drop down to crouching positions, rising one arm and flicking their wrist with a spastic motion. The contrast with their elegant halves is stunning. Though in many ways worlds apart, footy and dance do share similarities. They both feature highly skilled bodies that can perform amazing physical feats. Each attempts to co-ordinate the motions of a group towards a common goal. The major difference, of course, is that footy players try to do so while others are doing their best to smash them; whilst dancers are choreographed free of interference. The music is moody, the light dim. Bodies swerve and whirl, narrowly missing each other. Suddenly the music switches to a chorus of banjos. The lights go bright. The dancers spin towards the audience with face stretching smiles and shake manically to the music, as if possessed. A switch is flicked and it’s back to moody dim whirling. For myself, both take me on a ride. Footy can be exhilarating and incredibly frustrating. Dance can be intense, increasing my heartbeat, literally bringing me to the edge of my seat. It also transports me in a way no other live performance can. There is no real plot to follow. No clever dialogue. Just music and movement. I love it. The two dancers split. The Belgian man heads to a podium at the edge of the stage. The Spanish woman wraps herself in a column of material hanging from the ceiling. Behind her, a dark screen suddenly comes to life and shapes form. There is a silhouetted tree. The wrapped woman rotates towards it. The tree then starts to interact with her. How is this possible? Another look at the man reveals that he is the master of the tree, using his hands to manipulate sand that sits on a glass panel with a video camera underneath. Pure genius.
The first time I saw him in public was a classic double-take moment. I was walking up Curlewis street in Bondi when a group of about four people were leaving the Brown Sugar café and started walking in front of me. One of them was unusually tall. Wow. He’s big enough to be a footy player. Then I noticed his curly hair. Hang on. He is a footy player! It was Shane Mumford – aka Mummy – the Sydney Swan’s enormous ruckman. I was a newly born again Swans fanatic at the time and was even wearing my prized black hooded Swans jacket. I reached for my phone and the nerve to approach him for a selfie. But I stopped myself. Here was a guy just hanging with his mates on the weekend. He didn’t want to be hassled by an annoying footy fan. So I resisted. The next time I saw him, he was no longer with the Swans. The shock signing of superstar forward Buddy Franklin had created the salary cap pressure to force Mummy out of the Swans and into the still fledgling Great Western Sydney Giants. And once again, I didn’t recognise him straight away. I was in the Bondi Vet waiting room with Nitro the two-toned cavoodle, who was worse for wear thanks to an encounter with a tick. A couple with a cute cavoodle pup entered, so naturally we started chatting about the virtues of cavoodles. After a little while, the penny dropped. “Uh – is your name Shane?” He nodded. “Right. I’m a huge fan. I saw you in the 2012 Grand Final in Melbourne with my son. You were great.” He politely thanked me but as I could sense a bit of embarrassment, I went back to talking about cavoodles. Once again, I didn’t want to be seen as an annoying footy fan. The third encounter, over a year later, also involved our cavoodles. I was taking Nitro for an afternoon stroll near the beach when I noticed another cavoodle he plays with sometimes. So I let Nitro loose for a bit of cavoodling. I then see another dog owner playing fetch his cavoodle. It’s Mummy and the now fully-grown Bella. I watch them for a while, wanting to say something but resisting. When Nitro decides to steal Bella’s ball, which I rescue, I can no longer help myself. “You guys were in a tight one the other day”, referring to the Giant’s last second one point loss to the West Coast Eagles. Mummy groans. But he then starts chatting about the frustration of losing such a close game. We continue talking footy – the form of other teams, the excitement of the Giants about to take part in their first finals campaign and the possibility of a Swans v Giants final. I am really enjoying the chance to be a footy bore with one of the AFL’s best players. And despite my dog repeatedly thieving his dog’s ball, Mummy also seems happy to chat. Finally it’s time to head off and we say good-bye. I’m buzzing and later tell my wife and son all about me and my mate Mummy. It’s maybe a couple of weeks later when I next spot Mummy and Bella. Nitro and I are on our way back from the north end of the beach walkway. Mummy is about twenty metres ahead, putting a lead on Bella. He sees Nitro and, without making it too obvious, sees me. He then turns sharply and starts walking in the other direction. His long legs get into gear and in no time at all he is speeding away, the curly haired Bella forced into a trot beside him. Ok – no worries. He obviously isn’t up for a chat today. Then it hits me – I am an annoying footy fan. Even worse – I am an annoying footy fan with an annoying cavoodle. A combination best avoided whenever possible.
It has been two years since our last pilgrimage to Melbourne. On that day, the faith my son and I had placed in our marvellous men to triumph against the odds was rewarded in glorious fashion. That faith is now even stronger. Those whom we worship seem more dominant than ever. Even though they meet the same mighty foe as before, this time it is our men who are expected to be victorious. We are upbeat as we once again enter the monumental temple, pleased that our view has improved considerably. We are seated amongst a large group of our own flock but only a set of steps away from our foe’s followers. Our voices contribute to a thunderous roar as the contest begins. My son and I are filled with enthusiasm – like a couple of tightly packed sand bags. And then it starts. A quick stab. Then another. And another. Soon, in very little time at all, our sand bags are riddled with holes. Our enthusiasm seeps out and gathers in little piles by our feet. What the hell is happening? What’s going on with our marvellous men? They look more like beatable boys. As the tsunami of pain continues, the mockery of our foe’s followers becomes unbearable. I can’t take it anymore. I want to leave. But in a role reversal from two years ago, it is my son who is adamant that we should see this out to the end. And even though I feel like shit, I’m proud of him. So I suck it up, endure the taunts and see the massacre out to its grim conclusion. By the end, my faith in those once marvellous men has evaporated. I feel stupid for caring so much.
I have seen the light and have been born again. Though it’s not some judgemental deity that I worship but a group of young men. Not mere mortals, these are extraordinary specimens – capable of the most mind-boggling feats. My son and I have gathered together a number of times with the rest of our flock to cheer and praise our marvellous men. But this time is special. We have headed south to Melbourne – like a pilgrimage to Mecca – praying that our marvellous men can overcome a tremendous challenge. The logic of our minds reasons that their success is unlikely. But the faith in our hearts holds out for a miracle. You never know. As we enter the monumental temple, the adrenaline starts pumping. We are only two amongst tens of thousands. The opening hymn is sung. Then – the challenge begins. Our marvellous men battle bravely but look like they will fall short. Then, they surge. My son and I begin to entertain the possibility of triumph. But the task is great. Tension builds. It is excruciating. My son can’t take it. He starts to cry. He wants to leave. It’s too much. No. We can’t go now. Here – have some chocolate. This seems to help. Then, at last, the final siren sounds. They did it! We jump up and down. We scream like idiots. We hug. And we sing the final hymn – our hymn: “…while our loyal sons go marching onwards to victory.” Our faith has been rewarded. Our men truly are marvellous. And so are we.