I’m a Carlton supporter. Don’t hold it against me – I have other things happening in my life. I read novels, I have friends – many of whom aren’t into footy. My experience of being a suffering football fan has been short-lived. We, the Navy Blues, only accept success in our narratives. Yet, something strange began to brew in the first decade of the 2000s: we started finishing in the bottom reaches of the ladder. Heck, we won three wooden spoons between 2002-07. But doesn’t a true fan need to have endured hard times to enjoy the good times and be recognised as a rusted-on supporter? Sitting through the losing years was good for my sports-loving soul. Watching The Baggers during the 2000s was when I finally became a proper Carlton supporter.
But, compared to other the experiences of other teams the 2000s were nothing in terms of suffering. Consider Saints and Doggies fans: two shabby flags between them. Following them must be hard work. Over recent years they’ve managed to turn their long histories around and become regular finals participants, yet flags still elude them. Perhaps they’re not brutal enough, or lack some kind of killer instinct. Then there are the Tigers: 15 years without winning a final, 30 without a flag. Their fans have become so used to their team under-performing, just making the finals seems like the equivalent of a Premiership for them. Long-suffering and perpetually hopeful, indeed.
Growing up Blue
As a child in the 1970s and 80s, one had to have a team. You had to be aligned. Footy was more local back then; more parochially Victorian. When it came for me and my brother to pick teams, this is how I remember it: ‘I’ll go with Mum, and you go with Dad. Girls together, and boys together.’ Mum’s team was Carlton, and dad’s, Melbourne. The Blues: great rivals of Collingwood, Essendon and Richmond. The Melbourne Demons: the oldest club in the competition, yet with a dwindling supporter base and a bunch of fair-weather fans. Even at that age I realised I was onto a bit of a winner. Carlton was the powerhouse club.
(a photo of my brother, wearing my Blues jumper)
When we started watching footy, Melbourne’s players wore red and royal blue, a reaction to the recent introduction of colour TV into Australian households, embracing the new technology. It wasn’t until years later that we learnt this, after the Dees had gone back to traditional red and navy. The 1980s was the era of Gerard Healy, Laurie Fowler, Brent Crosswell (post-Carlton), Greg Wells (pre-Carlton), Steven Smith and Robbie Flower. The poetic and lithe and graceful Robbie Flower. Rest in peace, Robbie. Barassi was the coach: football royalty. Even as a fan, on the safe side of the TV set or boundary line, he was a terrifying man. Always angry. Understandable too given how poorly Melbourne fared under his watch. But no-one blamed him. This is why we now have equalizers such as The Draft and the Salary Cap. Back then, crap clubs stayed crap.
And success bred success. At Carlton, there were three premierships in four years: 1979, 1981, 1982. Glory days. The teams were made up by a veritable mosquito fleet. Tough and skilful players such as ‘Dominator’ Johnston, Rod Ashman, Wayne Harmes, Trevor Keogh, Alex Marcou, Ken Sheldon, Peter McConville, Rod Austin, Barry Armstrong, Des English, David Glascott. Who else? Phil Maylin, Robbert Klomp, Vin Catoggio, cult hero and handball wiz. Jimmy Buckley (father of current player Dylan). Greg Wells (post-Melbourne). And these were just the little guys.
David Parkin coached the club to a lazy three premierships: the back-to-back flags of 1981-82 and in his second stint in 1995, after having coached the Hawks to a flag in 1978. Club legend Jezza coached for the ’79 flag, and Robert Walls was coach in 1987, but it is Parko who is held in such high esteem by Blues fans and who is synonymous with that era’s success. He is the Club’s coach of the century, no less.
The Flags Weigh Heavy
But then something happened. All of this success got boring. I became a teenager and footy was not that important anymore. It was a strange time to drop off the perch when the club was soaring and when the bandwagon was full. Having known little but the Club’s good times, I lacked the perspective that they could quickly disappear and only very slowly return – if at all. There were the usual teenage distractions and footy seemed a little remote, a little passive: watching men run around on a field chasing a ball, out in the cold, wind and rain.
By the mid-eighties, footy was being transformed under the weight of dollars being poured into it. John Elliott – canned food supremo and good ol’ boy – began his long reign as Carlton President and brought (bought) star players from the SANFL (Kernahan, Bradley) to guarantee more success. I found this professional evolution unappealing. Of course, it wasn’t only Carlton that was doing it; it was just the manner in which the Blues were doing it, and the figurehead of Elliott grated with many fans. The good old days of the semi-professional VFL were slowly shifting towards the schmicker, fancier, professional world of the nascent AFL. I looked elsewhere for my kicks: the arts, music, boys.
Play on …
In the 2000s, I returned from the footy wilderness. I was invited to a game. It was like getting on a bike after a twenty-year hiatus: how do I do this again? Can I do this again? It seemed like there was a skill needed to watching footy. I must have shared my apprehension openly. My brother, who’d never fallen off the footy bandwagon, said I’d enjoy it more – the game was faster, more skillful. So I went, and then I started going frequently. Oh dear. It turned out to be the last days of a successful era. Wayne Britten, Parkin’s successor, now led these champions of yester-century, but his days were numbered. As the losses mounted, several called time on their careers, until just the skeleton of poor drafting was left. Big John – who still presided – acted swiftly.
Dennis Pagan, proven premiership coach and a Carlton supporter in his youth, was called in to arrest the damage. But there was a smelly rat and Elliott’s dealings were about to catch up with the Club. The Blues had breached The Salary Cap, and those choice picks in The Draft vanished before the expectant eyes of Carlton fans. By necessity Pagan recruited what I refer to as the Band-aid brigade, a bunch of largely second-rate footballers brought in to sustain the Club whilst we bided our time for the next Draft. Or several drafts, really. We were going to need a few of them. So, it was into the wilderness that the Club went. Just as I had come in from my own.
And on board I was. Week after week, I turned up to watch the Blues get pummelled. Smashed. Embarrassed. Humiliated. When people asked ‘why now?’, I said that I was earning my stripes as a fan. I had assumed a great team to follow as a kid by virtue of my mum, I was now learning the art of supporting through the best and the worst (and this was the worst period in the Club’s history). No fair-weather following. My father noticed. A few years into my resurgence I went to a game with him and my brother at Princes Park (now Ikon Park). He introduced me to some fellow ‘Redlegs’ supporters as a Carlton regular ‘for the last three or four years’ or words to that effect. The point was that I was going when we weren’t winning.
The first year I took it a game at a time, buying general entry at the gate. I wasn’t sure I’d last it out. Seats were plentiful. Ended up going to most games, so the following year I bought a membership and became part of the vote that forced Elliott’s demise. God we were shit. But gradually we assembled a core of first-round picks, and more importantly, nuggets of gold – those players who go later in the draft but prove their worth through smarts and grind, such as Andy Carrazzo and Kade Simpson.
Pagan battled hard but he was old school, a disciplinarian, and lost the players. Then came ‘Ratts’ -Brett Rattan, a club champion (now at Hawthorn). Eventually we began to climb. But the Board wanted instant gratification like in the old VFL days. The ghost of Elliott was strong. So they ditched the champ and brought in another proven coach (Mick Malthouse of arch-enemy heritage), and the cycle started up again.
When I first fixed on the Blues, Melbourne Football Club would have been in their slump just over ten years. It felt like forever back then – to a kid, any time before one is born is forever ago. But it’s almost on par with Carlton’s down time now, though the Blues at least have seen some finals action. Dad would have grown up like me, barracking for a successful team, he too following his mother’s lead. He would have to wait another decade to see them in the finals again. Long suffering. And he never did see another premiership. In this short year, the Blues have already displayed both their best and their worst. But the cycle is now broken, and there’s a feeling that this time things might just be turning for real. Ah, the new coach: Brendan Bolton. Short, plucky and cheerful. A polar opposite of grumpy, short-tempered, feisty Mick of the previous few years. I’ve done my hard yards and I’ve realised, in moments of suffering, a fan must always, always:
(photo from Blueseum.org)