And so this is Grand Final Day. It is not the last Saturday of September, but the first Wednesday of September. The day begins at 7:30 at Vic Park and the bus departs and heads to the Holden Centre of the other Collingwood Football Club. Nathan comes in and gives some words. He is all smiles. He checks on the well-being of players. He jokes. Sincerity can’t be faked – not with this crowd. He talks tactics. And then, he’s out and ‘off to a meeting’ as that’s what coaches do. We eat our breakfast of bacon rolls and coffee and then we’re back on the bus and heading south down Punt Road, across the river. Some are silent in their expectation; others talking with nervous energy. Today’s game is full of promise: a moment to feel rewarded for one’s training and form, or a moment to be left wondering about what could have been. We get to the ground so-called the Peanut Farm behind Luna Park and are greeted by large plastic bags of donated footy goods under the Reclink tent. Players pick up a few jerseys and balls and put some coins into the tins. Bargains the lot of them. The first day of the Grand Finals are being played at the so-called Peanut Farm in St.Kilda, just behind the Luna Park entertainment complex; the beach is about 500meters away.
In the second game, the Collingwood Knights are playing the Geelong Cats. The teams are evenly matched. A few minutes into the game, Mike lays a heavy tackle on a Cats player. Mike is of medium height and weight but he has got the build of a proper footballer. Broad shoulders and a thick torso; strong thighs and gnarled calves. He has a bald head and a goatee: proper tough. Wide eyes.
It took me a number of weeks before I spoke to him. He was intimidating – I have to admit. He looked through me; my presence not registering; him not caring for my being there. In one training session, as the rest of the team were working on their clearance skills and kicking the ball deep into the forward line, Mike had given himself a break and was lying on the green grass in the centre of Vic Park – just a couple of metres from where his teammates were working on their skills. Mike appeared both laconic as he lay sprawled out; but his eyes betrayed some fierce thoughts; some intense thinking. I asked someone, ‘what’s this guy’s name?’ He was a good player and I thought I might need to write about him. Simon yelled out, ‘Mike !’ He came over and we shook hands; all politeness, firm grasp and finally a straight gaze into my eyes. A moment before he hadn’t cared if I existed, and now, after this introduction, I already felt we were mates.
And so back to the tackle. Mike’s tackle is fierce and the Cat’s player is stopped in his tracks. He fends off Mike though with a first or an elbow – or both – square on his mouth and blood is coming out immediately. Mike ain’t wearing a mouth guard; that’s a luxury for other players in other teams. Mike responds; it don’t matter whether or not it was an accident or deliberate. The ball becomes free, but the action remains. Mike is agro; he’s up and willing for the fight. He lifts up the Cats player and throws him downwards landing on the lower part of his neck and upper reaches of his back. This is intense and nasty. There is shouting. Someone says, futilely, “he didn’t mean it.” “Look what he done to my face”, Mike responds as his coach, a policeman, pulls him out of the brawl. Knights players have already come onto the field to remonstrate, but the moment disperses as soon as Mike has been extricated.The Coach spends a long time talking him through it. The moment has passed but Mike is still fuming; he sits out the rest of the first and second quarters. His lip is swollen by the time he gets back on finally in the third quarter. No doubt he is ready to go off if a chance erupts. I tell him, “it was a great tackle. You were there. You played hard and fair. It was a nasty hit. But you were there doing the right thing.” I’ve got no business or interest in admonishing him for what happened afterwards; that’s for the coach who knows Mike ‘s story. Moreover, it is the coach whom Mike trusts.
The game is in the balance at 3/4 time. The Knights are behind, but they’ll have the wind with them in the last. Both teams have a number of quality players, bellying their ‘community cup’, ‘weekday football’ status. The ground is hard and the sun is warm. This feels like September; it feels like spring. Proper finals conditions. It is thirsty work and the waterboys are shouted at for bringing the water out too slowly. The bottles get drained quickly. Tempers are short. Niggles develop between teams and within teams. Ah footy; ah camaraderie. All will be forgotten in the moments of a win.
The Coach: “Look at the Cats. They’re up for it. Their confidence is sky high. They’re feeling it. They’re playing with confidence, they know what to do. They’re in front and they know it. You know what they’re thinking? ‘We can hold on. We can do this.’ They saw you guys dragging your feet and not picking up your men. They can sense their victory. So, if you’re not feeling it, then we don’t need you out here. There is plenty of room on the pine for you, over there on the side of the field. This is your last quarter of footy for the season. This could be your last quarter of footy ever. Maybe you’re not going to be at the Knights next year. There are a lot of people who have put a lot of time and effort into the Knights. A lot of people work for you guys behind the scenes.They’ve put in a lot of hours. So, are you going to just not turn up in this last quarter? Or, are you going to play some footy and leave nothing on the field? You’ve got to show your respects to those guys who’ve worked for you all. This is the moment. Once it is done it is done. You can leave the game asking questions: ‘what if we had…?’ Or, you can leave the field feeling proud – whatever the score is. So are you ready? Are you feeling it? Jack and Cuz won a grand final on the weekend and I can tell you what, they’re feeling pretty bloody good. Who else wants to share in that feeling? You can have it too. But, you’ve got to work with each other. You’ve got to work for each other. Yes, we’ve got the wind in the last quarter. But what has the wind got to do with it? Nothing. The wind is going to do nothing for you. You’ve all got to get the ball; you’ve got to kick it to your players; you’ve got to be in front. Ain’t nothing going to happen automatically for you.”
And the game ends. The Knights win: easily in the end. The joy is theirs. There is a presentation and shouting and backslapping. I’m still at the boundary line enjoying the sun and conversation with Peter who is also a part of the Knights’ support crew. He’s a copper and a musician. After the game he is going home to spend time with his young teenage son and shoot some hoops. The good life. While waiting for our bus to get back to the northern side of the Yarra, we talk. One story leads to another, but this is the one that stands out.
Peter: “I started to get really emotional once while I was doing the Welcome to Country. I was getting sick and tired of ‘just doing it’. One day, I realised that I wanted to do it in a convincing manner. I thought about all the Indigenous people who had made an impact on my life. I thought about their journeys. Growing up in Brisbane, one of my best childhood friends was Aboriginal. I know this is different from the experience of a lot of people down south, here in Melbourne for example. I often hear stories of how non-Indigenous people don’t meet anyone who is Indigenous until their 20s. I work as a policeman, and I meet and work with a fair amount of Aboriginal men and women. These people, but also public figures who are Aboriginal also have meant a lot to me throughout my life. Welcome to Country has got to be more than just about reciting a standard formula, the person who does it has got speak from their own experience. This is a simple moment, but it is something that I feel now is a privilege to give.”
Side by side by side
*Names have been changed.