This could be their year.
The purple-clad mob shuffle in to the stadium. These days it’s adorned with a corporate logo, but it’s the same long queues, lukewarm food, shitty seats. They are drawn by the purple-clad team warming up in front of the sticks. Drawn and courted, there’s a heightened twitch, a newfound lilt. The players adjust kicks, hang them wide, watch them drift back; the fans don ponchos, dispense advice, wield footy records as hat brims. Maybe this year. There’s a steel, now; this is not like before. No more perennial underdogs, no more beating winners only to lose to losers. This is real expectation. This could be their year.
They’ve waited long enough. Two decades full of disappointment and dreaming. Preseason summers of heat and sweat with the mirage of one Saturday at the end of it all. Years of twenty-two games, or once or twice, one or two more. Games full of whimsy for strategy, a string of novel fiascos. Incompetence and inexplicable pride; underachievement and undeniable character. They’ve waited long enough. They’ve suffered and hoped like saints awaiting the rapture.
Take this kid in the aisle in block 129. It’s his first year coming to the footy since he got his part-time job stacking shelves. He cradles a bucket of not-so-hot chips to his chest and watches the players take pot shots on goal. He bends to the left following one ball’s curve round the post, then takes the last few careful steps down until he finds his row. It’s already mostly full with early birds so he waits with an apologetic smile as the knitting lady shifts her knees to the side and sheathes her needles. She has sat here for fifteen years, never missed a game except that weekend she had her lump removed, she learnt this defensive posture over umpteen inadvertent bumps and pokes from the thoroughfare. But she can hardly get mad at her tribe, half of them have got scarves and beanies she knitted through with laughs and tears at weekend after weekend of footy. She hates the away games when she has to watch on the tellie and can’t hear the pounding of boots on the turf, the smack of tackling bodies, can’t yell with the crowd, can’t capture spirit to weave into her craft.
She should sell them at the markets as genuine charms.
The kid manages to not step on her toes as he brushes past her and the vacant seat two, which has sat empty all season since her husband had a heart attack while gardening. He’d been going from the start, she’d thought it would pass but after four years had to join him. He was there for their first game on April Fool’s Day—get it?—there for their first breathless win at the cricket ground, there for that pocket soccer goal, there for that after the siren jubilation, there for every derby, the losses and that win and then those wild demolishing swings, there for all their trading and drafting, the coups and debacles, there to heckle the sermon on the mount, there through all six coaches, there for the hope, there for the heartbreak, so much of that but it builds character he said. So forget his ashes, his will, it’s this she holds on to, this membership she keeps, forget the cost. She couldn’t bear to renounce his obsession.
The man in seat three eyes the empty seat too as he stands up to let the kid through. The old bloke deserved to see this, he was OGFFC, wasn’t too bad a fella even if he frowned on drinking a beer a quarter, even if he was a Souths supporter. It meant straining against generations of rivalry trained into him by his old man on weekend after weekend of little league with Old Easts, as this old man Bulldog shouted inane demands all afternoon, for free kicks, for the umpires to recognise that indeed a second team is out there, that indeed its players possess arms and backs that the rules prohibit chopping and pushing, and for the players to just kick it, but not there, not backwards, not to him, not that way, not with their left, not on their right. But then again his own old school old man couldn’t even bring himself to support this new national team, too much compromise, not enough local blood, he’d say while scratching his grassroots. While this old man had sat through it all and deserved to see them now, so determined, so disciplined.
The boy manages to knock his elbow, but he protects his half-strength, twice-price beer in a self-hug shimmy and flips his seat back down with his bum.
The old boy’s not the only departed, either. In his bag he has that book on the way they’ve gone, he’s been reading it all week and on the train in, dog-eared and underlined, with a few early pages ripped out in rage—this is his Bible, this club biography, this player hagiography, this story of black humour and loyalty, quirks and foibles and perversely stubborn toil. But today’s boys warming up here, this is the way they’ll go now, the sequel that the author will never get to write will be scripted on this oval come bounce down when these uniformed men crack in just metres away.
He feels that too, he played at a level, he feels the crunch of each tackle, the cramp of each muscle, the demand of each moment.
The kid with the chips knows only the spectacle of TV and stadium, yet that’s something too. He’s one of this mob as they impose their will on the players through voice and sheer demand. He’s built up some pace and rhythm in his shuffle now, he’s getting past them with barely a bump, the scary bus driver lady who’s just now decided she’s going to wear a purple scarf to work like back in the day when she would flaunt their infamy like a badge of honour, and the boss can fire her if he wants to but screw the silver-spooned half of the city, she’s in the union—and her husband who when recovering from cancer had a bunch of diehards sneak up to his top floor ward to spy on a closed training session with binoculars and accomplice nurses—and his brother settling his earbuds in to transmit the latest information and opinion and partisan prediction—and the guy in the cap whose memory is an index card catalogue of personally witnessed history, who sees these young athletes in old numbers inhabited by spirits of past characters—and the visitor from Japan that he’s brought with him having spent the morning teaching him the rules while knowing nothing could prepare him for the outrageous clash of bodies to come—and the cute girl who’s always so tempted to tax one of the kid’s chips but he just rushes past so quick shyly smiling—and the guy who drives down from the country every fortnight, a twelve-hour road trip that consumes his entire weekend, and sure, it’s an excuse to visit his uni-aged kids, but if they’re not around he still makes it down for the fixture, hardly ever vice versa—but its okay, his son taking the thermos from him knows this but hardly minds, he too is obsessed, spending hours each day on his devices chatting on a forum about the team, and he doesn’t even know that one of the avatars he’s been bickering with this week (because of course they should play the midfielder in the forwardline but not the forward in the midfield) is actually a persona of his Dad.
The boy gets to his seat, chips in hand, and the codger on his left grunts begrudgingly. He doesn’t mind this kid, sure he hasn’t been around that long, but he’s quite cluey about the game and at least he’s been following them his whole life, as strange and comforting as that is to think about. It’s the rest of them he can’t stand, of course not everyone has actually worked on the docks, fine, he won’t hold that against them, but these bandwagoners jumping on with their haircuts and lingo and newfangled guernseys, have they been through what he has? Do they know the unique dimensions of the oval, its warps and woofs of weather, are they patterned in their flesh just as strongly as the players, or are they guessing at the breeze like the visiting team? Can they see past such idiosyncracies to the eternal logic of the game, the marked lines, the eight posts, the free rule of contest that sets this sport apart? Win the ball. How much do they want it? He’d almost prefer authentic failure to sellout success, to lose with flamboyance than win like robots, his jury’s still out. Have they rolled with the punches, soaked up the pain, taken hits and insults, have they watched every belting, every collapse, every magnificent win like a martyr, never once turning away, never once giving it up, have they paid the price, has it marked their soul?
Behind him a group of drunk tweeners—exhibit A—is taking photos with their phones and yelling kick it to me as one player comes over to collect an errant ball. With a bemused assistant coach looking over his shoulder he drop punts it right into their bay, it spirals up and back down before landing right in the kid’s lap, knocking the chips onto the floor but nestling somehow in his grip, and others scramble ready to wrestle for it but seeing his accidental mark a cheer goes up around the bay. The boy passes through shock and anger to amazement, he’s bright red before he comes to and throws the ball awkwardly back onto the field and takes his seat, chip-less but cheerful.
But what sort of omen is that, thinks the old lady next to him, that can’t be a good sign, chips dashed all over the floor ready for seagulls, none of the signs have been good, really, ever since they started out, with their colour of envy and frustration, with their symbol with worse feng shui than a rock, dragging them down to the bottom, and then there was that time the shirt she’d worn to every game had to be resewn, and plus she saw that rain had washed purple paint from the South Terrace streets, but then—she abruptly remembers this now, sharp as a pinch—she had a dream last night in which a procession of wharfies dragged an enormous anchor into the middle of the oval. Not one soul of these forty thousand noisy fans was there. The silent lumpers took hold of the stock and planted the anchor in the field. They disappeared and the object sat alone in the freshly mowed oval like some ancient monolith around which peasants danced. The crown was buried in the centre square; the flukes emerged from the dirt like muscled arms. The eye twinkled and from it sprang an spectral line, projecting out of the shank into the churning sky—an umbilical cord, fed by the gods, nourishing this huge steel anchor rooted in the grass.
Now that’s a goddamn omen, she thinks, and something jumps inside of her as the first siren goes, and she nudges the kid who’s hungry but too embarrassed to shuffle past again, hands him a pre-packed salad sandwich from her lunchbox, and without knowing where it came from lets out a giggling whoop that he matches with a yell and then the whole row, the whole bay, the whole corps united by a colour and its team and its place and its story are yelling for them to carn and go and their eyes all focus on the rovers as theirs focus on the ruckman’s hands and their muscles twitch ready as the umpire readies to bounce the oval ball.