A sporting obsession for generations

On Friday, the day before the AFL grand final, wee Dinny Stafford will have his initiation into a lifestyle that we, as Australian parents, have an obligation to provide for him.

Hawthorn players celebrate winning the 2008 grand final following victory over Geelong at the MCG.
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On Friday, the day before the AFL grand final, wee Dinny Stafford will have his initiation into a lifestyle that we, as Australian parents, have an obligation to provide for him. Two weeks short of his second birthday our little boy will be on his dad's shoulders, watching from a crowd of thousands as the grand final motorcade carrying the country's top two teams for the year rolls down the main street in Melbourne.

Too young to camp outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) overnight for tickets - another of the traditions surrounding the match - and probably far too young to enjoy the three hours of the event anyway, Dinny will have to make do with watching a raft of prime football talent being carted in open-top cars. Hopefully that will be enough to spark his little heart into following what is surely the most beautiful, skilful, athletic, emotional and, let's not be coy, occasionally brutal game in the world.

And hopefully he will know the joy that has so far eluded his father; that of seeing the boys in his colours line up on the MCG, nervous, while that unfashionable daughter of Australia, Julie Anthony, or whoever else they have roped in for the day, warbles their way through the national anthem before the game itself. Fitzroy, a struggling Melbourne inner-northern suburb club that knew the glory of the foundation years in the 1890s, and for which little Dinny's great-great-great uncle was captain-coach in the 1910s, never made a grand final in his dad's lifetime. And their last premiership was in 1944.

When the Fitzroy financial crisis of 1996 resulted in the Royboys' merger with Brisbane - eight players and the club's history were pilfered by a mob that was struggling for existence in one of the two heartlands of rugby league, Queensland and New South Wales - Dinny's dad eventually hooked up with the Western Bulldogs. At least the move to the Dogs brought grand final glory closer. The Bullies' last win was in 1954, 10 years later than the Lions, or the Gorillas as they were then, but still eight years before Dinny's dad drew his first breath.

But dad can grab some solace from the fact that on the day before the 2009 final, he has placed his son's tiny feet on the same path to pain and elation on which Neville, Dinny's paternal grandfather, guided his six sons. Dinny will not be alone on his special day, and Australia's too. Even if the world knew or cared about the eve of the biggest day for our precious national winter sport, its citizens would find that most of the hotel space in the city had been booked out for months.

Taxis have to be ordered a few hours earlier on the day and spots in the hotels to watch the live broadcast have to be staked out well before the pre-match entertainment. Entertainment has included the air-punching hard rocker Angry Anderson belting out a rendition of Bound for Glory while standing in a cheap imitation of the Batmobile. And if all else fails, send over the Royal Australian Air Force's Roulettes precision flying team.

It all just provides fodder for the proudly Aussie tradition of taking the mickey. Such is the pulling power of the grand final, especially in the town that gave our great game its birth in 1858. All over the state of Victoria (and probably a few of the other five states, but why on that wonderful day would you depart Melbourne to find out?) the barbecues are fired up, the beverages cooled and the televisions warmed.

Most of the citizens can begin the day bright-eyed now that the all-night grand final marathons on television have been cancelled and the kids, and much older fanatics, no longer camp out on the lounge room floor for the night. As far as grand final fanatics are concerned, the Melbourne journalist Terry Brown is one of the more peculiar cases. This man, a devout Collingwood supporter, has turned his garage into what he calls the "David Cloke Stand", in honour of the former Magpies champion.

Brown's garage includes a fridge for the obvious, a glass-sided pie-warming oven and a mini grandstand from which his visitors and children are forced to watch the game on TV. Collingwood are the most hated club in Victoria owing to the fact that its supporters are almost as ruthless and toothless as those of the former South Australian Magpies, Port Adelaide, who are now playing in the AFL as Port Power.

The Magpies last won the grand final in 1990, running over Essendon after the first quarter and putting an end to the notorious "Colliwobbles", a term coined with glee for the fact that, despite many finals appearances, they had not won a flag since 1958. One of those heroic failures in the 32 years of lean times was a thriller against North Melbourne in 1977. My then brother-in-law, Ross Henshaw, was playing in the back pocket for the Roos, in the famous Gumbleton-Dench-Henshaw last line of defence.

We were there for the game, in which North went through the second and third quarters without kicking a goal, but kicked five goals and seven behinds to Collingwood's one goal and four behinds in the last term. The result was a draw, and the players from both sides were gutted. All 36 men on the field, absolutely spent by the battle, lay on the ground with eyes closed in disbelief. And after 100 minutes of sitting on the edge of our seats only to end up with no result, the crowd could have done with a little lie down, too.

An empty, empty feeling to wind up a great day. The two teams returned to the MCG the next week and the Roos ran out the game to win by 27 points, reinforcing the "Colliwobbles" legend. The result led to a scrapping of the replay rule, and the introduction of extra time to find a winner and end the extreme exhaustion of the players. When the Magpies finally beat the hoodoo in 1990, by eight goals against their arch-rival Bombers, the celebrations included a full burial ceremony for the wobbles in a coffin in the middle of the oval of the Maggies' heartland and former playing ground, Victoria Park.

When speaking of funerals, one would be remiss not to mention the grand final that remains most firmly fixed in the psyche of supporters of the Victorian Football League, known only as "The Bloodbath". At the 1945 grand final, the world had forgotten to tell Carlton and South Melbourne that Second World War had just ended. A few players were flattened behind play in a tit-for-tat first-half, until the Blues' forward Ken Hand was knocked out and the isolated incidents merged into an all-in brawl until half-time.

The spot fires continued in a muddy second half until early in the last quarter when everybody, on-field and off-field staff, jumped in for a bit of the action. When that was finished, more started. Oh yes, Carlton won by 28 points. South Melbourne, as an entire unit, were sent up to Sydney in 1982 as the first move towards a national competition. The Swans, who had not won a premiership since 1933, broke the league's longest drought by four points in a defensive encounter with the West Coast Eagles in 2005.

The Melbourne crowd was fully behind the Swans, particularly as the old South Melbourne brand was added to the back of their jerseys and, after all, the Eagles were the first team to carry the premiership cup beyond the Victorian borders, in 1992. Such insults are not forgotten when choosing sides for the big one. You would have to have been made of stone not to be touched by the victory speech of the Swans coach Paul Roos, a crowd favourite as a defender for Sydney and Fitzroy, in accepting the Premiership cup.

Voice hoarse with emotion, Roos yelled above the cheers: "For the people who waited 72 years for the South Melbourne/Sydney Swans to win the premiership: here it is!" Fans, from the glamorous young things in the stands to the old blokes still wearing their aged, hand-knitted South Melbourne beanies and scarves watching the live coverage from hotels, roared and cried, completely caught up in the feeling.

And those of us with any skerrick of romance yelled and howled right along with them. Because the grand final is all-inclusive. It wouldn't be the same without the little kids wearing the team jumpers with the number of their (or more likely their dad's) favourite player on the back. It wouldn't be the same without the young Turks who have come to scream themselves voiceless and wave like geese whenever the TV cameras turn their way.

But it especially would not be the same without the old supporters, people who have done the hard yards through more testing times than these and who relied on footy to remove themselves from the grind. The Aussie old fellas, at least one of whom in every group would look like my uncle Frank or the actor Alwyn Kurtz, could fly with Roy Cazaly and run with Ron Barassi on that beautiful day of the year.

And the old women, with their scarves, gloves, badges, Thermos and car blankets, completely devoted to their side and wearing their maternal instincts on their sleeves, giving full voice to whoever had the gall to compete physically against one of their boys. They have had to endure the loss of their suburban football grounds, homes to the VFL clubs, and the corporatisation of the sport. It's hard to tell whether either of these factors affected the drop in numbers of these people at the games, or whether it is the particularly sad passing of a special generation.

This, along with the ache in his 47-year-old shoulders, will give Dinny's dad pause to think on Friday before this year's big one. How will the game, after all of its rule changes and evolution into the demanding, athletic spectacle it is now, be changed by the time that beautiful little boy is standing there with a lad of his own on his shoulders? Doesn't matter. As long as it brings him the joy it brought his dad, and can reinforce their special link, it will have served its purpose.