Belonging

27 09 2014

Grand final morning. Over the past few days I’ve been asked how I became an AFL fan, and reflected on what it means.

I’ve talked about getting a ticket to a game in 2005 & fell in love with structures & hard slog. It fits the narrative that I needed to be ‘converted’ from old ways, wrong paths. The truth is it took years & involved little change.

I was never good at sport. More accurately, in a family of reasonably handy, athletic types, my only contribution to the trophies displayed on top of the piano was a little medallion, ‘dux of Redhead Public School 1983’.

I was aware of the differences between my siblings & myself. My selected sport was tennis. I went off to lessons at 7am every Saturday for years. Tennis wasn’t a bad fit for a broad-shouldered kid who towered over boys my age, but I knew I would never be as good as my Dad. He was the yardstick. A local champion in everything he tried, but I tried to make my brain fit the programme. I tried to be effortless, like him. I wasn’t. Years of Saturday mornings spent in my own head. I wouldn’t surrender. I couldn’t just go with it. There was no joy, so I quit.

While my brother & sisters were inculcated with the real family ‘sport’ of surf lifesaving, I wasn’t selected. I didn’t press my body into action after lying prone on the sand, sprinting for a flag. I didn’t row boats that were throwbacks to the 1930s. My family would go to surf carnivals around Australia & I stayed home. My Dad’s name was on all of the honour boards, swimming, sprinting, rowing & I was deeply connected to the achievement but not the culture. I understood it. I just didn’t belong.

Strange girl. I’d happily spend Saturday nights watching ‘Match of the Day’ on the little TV in my parents’ bedroom just for a glimpse of my heroes. Devils in red. Robson, Irwin, Hughes. I remember Gary Pallister’s transfer fee and the signing of the archest enemy, the Leeds United captain who became Le Roi Cantona, and a mop haired boy whose feet fairly skipped down the left wing. I loved them, but I wasn’t at the Stretford End. I was in a real life Summer Bay in which I didn’t belong.

I moved to Europe in my mid-20s & how my South London local heaved the night at the Nou Camp. The night Scholes & Keane spent on the sidelines & the sublime substitutes, Sheringham & Solskjær. A fearsome Dane cartwheeling in front of a goal he’d deserted & been ordered back to defend. I knew that this was how it felt to belong to something & it was glorious.

I came back from Europe & found a new team, a new game. Defending governments came naturally. I’d always loved defenders or any kind, the ones prepared to break a leg, their own or an opponent’s, to save a goal. For five years I believed in something & I defended it to journalists and turned defence into offense with words delivered across a brass barrier. I watched & smiled as another team was skewered by mine. I belonged. I was part of something, a team with one purpose.

And then I wasn’t. Even when I came out of ‘retirement’, it was over. I defended ideas & people I had no faith in. I was there, but I didn’t belong. Then things went very wrong for me & there was no belonging to anything or anyone. I needed a purpose to stop the aloneness, not to break, not to stay in my head. I found it in a sea of red & white.

As a way of forcing myself to open the door to my flat, I became a member of a club within a club. I paid so much for my membership that I dare not miss a game, a function, no matter how badly the metallic taste of panic surged.

Of course I’m a fan; I would die in a ditch rather than hear them denigrated for daring to be more than blokes chasing a ball. I’ll ask for a photo & secretly smile when I see a ‘like’ on my Twitter feed or Instagram, but I hate watching the same people year after year chasing them across rooms to sign things I know they have a dozen of & are probably flogging for a premium. I have superstitions which probably qualify as OCD, I wear the colours & I will travel across the country to finals knowing that my little rituals are meaningless & that they can’t hear me shout, cheer or clap, but I like to be there if even for a moment they sense that someone else is on their side.

I belong to something which has given me more than I can ever repay. May the best team win (but let it be my bloodstained angels).

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