When I was 14, I went with my boyfriend and his parents to Footy Park on a Saturday afternoon. We had never been to the football together. He was a Crows fan. It was the 1997 semi-final, and we had seats in the members’ stand.
It was a nail-biter. As the minutes ticked down, I realised I was scraping my fingernails along the back of the metal bench in front. My half-cold pie sat thick in my stomach. Nine points the difference. Eight points. John Barnes with a kick to the forward 50 with no seconds to spare.
We lost. We were out.
Afterwards, the boy I liked tried to hold my hand.
“Piss off,” I said, and refused to speak to him in the back seat of his parents’ car. We drove to a petrol station and waited there for my dad — a lifelong Cats supporter who knew my pain. He took me home in silence, and my fingertips were raw with scratching.
Adelaide went on to win the premiership that year, but I didn’t see my boyfriend again.
I was only little when Dad told me I went for Geelong. He explained that in this family, we played for and supported the South Adelaide Panthers, who were also navy and white, and by extension we also liked the Cats. He told me how he remembered the last time they had won something called ‘the flag’, in 1963. He told me his heroes were Polly Farmer and Doug Wade. He told me about the place they were from, an oil town that craved football like oxygen.
He didn’t explain, at the time, what this would mean. He didn’t say I would be twelve years old and be awe-struck by John Barnes in an airport newsagent. He didn’t tell me I would stitch a number 30 to my guernsey and believe in something. He failed to mention that The Toreador Song would make history stir in my bones.
He didn’t tell me the game would break my heart, or that I wouldn’t know how to explain why.
I married into a family with questionable loyalties. My husband was an Essendon supporter, but the rest of his family were all kinds. Some of them had even switched teams, an idea that shocked and appalled me. And while I knew the name of every player and the year they debuted, his interest waxed and waned, like a choice.
When I was pregnant with our first child we made an agreement: if a boy, he would be Essendon; a girl would be Geelong. So sure was I that she would carry on the tradition that I bought onesies and dummies and tiny socks in team colours before we even knew we would have a daughter.
I imagined sitting her down to explain her heritage: we are Geelong, the greatest team of all. Our heroes are Polly Farmer, Doug Wade, Ben Graham and Matthew Scarlett.
The second time around, we switched the agreement: a boy would be Geelong; a girl, Essendon.
When our second daughter was born, an imagined, sacred rivalry came with her.
Back in the 90s Adelaide only had one team. The big games hardly ever came to town, so we went to local matches. The men in my family had played for South Adelaide for generations; in the 1910s and 20s, my great-grandfather and four of his brothers all donned the navy and white hoops. One of those brothers won the club’s best and fairest twice. There was no question we would barrack for the Panthers.
Norwood Oval was our closest ground. For a few dollars you got entry, a Vili’s pie and a ticket for the half-time raffle. We would go to whichever game happened to be on. Sometimes my grandfather, a Norwood man, would come with us, and hoot and holler for all four quarters. If they won, I would sing along with him — keep your eye on the red and the blue! — but I knew while I did it that it wasn’t really allowed.
The oval had a football smell — it was cut grass and beer and limp chips. If you went to the toilet block at half-time you would stand in someone’s piss. Afterwards the pie cart pulled up in the street and you could line up for a pie floater and feel deeply, profoundly Football, as though the game itself lived inside you.
I taught my daughters their respective theme songs when they were in kindergarten. They had football days, when every kid embodied the team they loved. If they didn’t love a team, they wore the colours anyway. There were no other sports. No soccer, no netball, no basketball, and definitely no NRL.
“Remember,” I said, to daughter #1, “our heroes are Polly Farmer, Doug Wade, Ben Graham and Matthew Scarlett.”
I painted her face in blue and white stripes. I bought her cat ears on a headband and ribbons to braid through her hair. I did not, for one minute, wonder if she liked it.
I can’t remember the first time I saw Geelong play but I remember the slow crawl of the car park afterwards. People parked in the mud. They had portable barbecues in their station wagons. As the burnt smell of snags went up, we conceded defeat and stopped the car. There was so much laughter. Who remembered who had won? Pass the dead horse.
On the lawn a kid had a Sherrin. As soon as one came out, someone would shout “MARKS UP!” and other kids would run from everywhere. It was the golden age of speckies. Every kick was to the pack, a chance to be Gary Ablett or Alex Jesaulenko on someone’s shoulders. You’d shriek “MODRAAAAAAA!!!!!” and put your knee in some kid’s back.
A few years later I saw Tony Modra in a cafe in North Adelaide. He was wearing an orange shirt made of silk and I could read his mind and it said: Shout MODRAAAAAA, I dare you. I did, under my breath. I felt the soaring reach to snatch a ball from thin air.
The year I moved to Melbourne I went to nineteen games. I became intimately familiar with the breathless walk to Level 4 of the MCG, the back-and-forth ramps that took you into the sky. From up there the players were so small they might as well have been on the TV at home, but there was no crisp cool air there, and no one hollering about pies, and no bright-eyed fans watching the way Ben Graham could kick a bomb from 80 metres, just send it sailing through the tall posts like it was an extension of his own body.
I quickly realised this was how to understand people in this town. The fact that I ‘had a team’ at all already put me in good stead. It was the second question people asked, after which school do you go to? I would tell them proudly, Geelong, like my dad.
My new boyfriend was a St Kilda supporter. To begin with, we bonded over it. On our first date I watched Geelong win at the new Docklands stadium, and then watched the back of his head while he ignored me for the rest of the night. Every week I waited to find for the result, to find out if he would be mean. Eventually I realised he was mean either way.
In my 20s I found a ticket stub in an old box: GEELONG V ST KILDA, COLONIAL STADIUM and I put it in the bin and took it out again.
The last time my kids went to the football, Geelong played Essendon under an open roof at what was, by then, Etihad Stadium. They caught the train home in the dark.
They did not ask to go again.
When I met my current boyfriend he had never been to the football. His was a baptism of fire: I took him to Geelong v Collingwood in the breathtaking preliminary final of 2007. The official crowd was more than 98,000 people. I showed him how to read a footy Record. I taught him when to shout “BALL” and “HOLDING” and “TOUCHED”. I pointed out the players of our most glorious team, people whose names he would never remember: Johnson, Kelly, Mooney, Bartel.
We won by five points. It was the best game of the decade.
The next week we took a tram to Port Melbourne. I let him borrow my spare scarf, an old beanie. I watched in awe as Geelong ran rings around the new Adelaide team, the Power. I remembered another time, when I had watched the same-but-different team beat Norwood at Footy Park, and the way the ground had pulsed and throbbed. I drank vodka shots straight from the bar. I hooted and hollered. I felt all of time behind me, my dad listening to the last siren when we had won 44 years earlier.
The final margin was 119 points — the greatest in AFL history. We were invincible.
It was the only year my boyfriend ever watched.
My daughters still dress up and paint their faces. They apply drips of fake skin and spatter it with blood from a tube. They go into the city and find other people in the same outfits.
Their heroes are Todoroki and Deku and Alphonse.
These teenagers I bore from my own body laugh when I show them the old photos. “I hate sports!” they say. “I don’t get it!”
I tell them about the Saturday night waiting for my dad at a suburban BP, and John Barnes’ enormous hands around an airport Mars Bar, and watching Billy Brownless kick a goal from 70 out after the siren.
I try to tell them it’s not about sport, but their fandoms are different.
Last weekend Geelong played Richmond in the 2019 semi-final. It was Friday night, and I’ve already forgotten if it was warm or cool. I watched the game alone; not a single person in my house could muster the pretence.
At half-time, it looked almost a sure thing.
It wasn’t. I went to bed and sobbed into my pillow, on my own, listening to the blare of a video game from the next room.
My heroes are Polly Farmer, Doug Wade, Ben Graham and Matthew Scarlett. But the tradition ends with me.