Old Drunks in the Mumbil Tavern

Filed in Other by on December 10, 2010

Last Sunday, I played the role of the prophet. I converted a girl whose sensibilities are more food and fashion and taxidermied foxes to the world of football. Louise, a lady friend in the biblical sense, attended her first game of Australian Rules football, her first professional match of any sport as a matter of fact, spending a grand Sunday afternoon at the MCG watching the Richmond Football Club take on Essendon.

By the by, rugby league fans shouldn’t fear: AFL is merely the appetiser and it will be only a matter of time before Louise is given the hearty main of Rugby League la Canterbury.

The chances of converting a Vogue employee and a one-time devout anti-sports preacher seemed slim but a yellow and black scarf, the charm of the football crowd, a thrilling game and the singing of Tigerland proved all that was required. The Tigers had a new fan. Conversion is never easy but sometimes all falls into place and you can add one more to the list. Prior to the match I had pointed out all the charming aspects of an afternoon at the football before, when safely seated, laying out the trauma associated with calling Tigerland home.

After laying out the despair and hopelessness and desolation and gloom that goes with supporting Richmond, I was greeted with a perplexed stare and asked: “Why do you support them then?”

It was an interesting question and one that has hovered in my consciousness for some time now as each year crushes hope into granules of despondency. And one that was, in part, answered some three hours later when the Tigers held on for a thrilling five-point upset victory, a win that they appeared to have butchered in the dying minutes, just like many cruel Richmond moments of days gone by. We all cheered in delight and then gave it an almighty YELLOW AND BLACK and went to The London to celebrate with the faithful. Chopper Reid used to keep his guns in the outhouse there but even a bit of the old Chopper madness couldn’t have bought an end to the jubilation. As we crossed over Punt Road it became apparent that the Tigers had a fan for life. “When do we get to go again?” I was asked.

And that is why I continue to go for Richmond. It is those small moments of true joy when you defy the odds and The Fates and The Richmond Way to win a game. And for Louise, well, she has ended up a Tigers fan because she happens to date a Tigers man who took her to a game where they miraculously won. While she may be blinded to how things really are at Punt Road and there will be more bad times ahead than good, she will stick true because it is those first moments of interaction with a sport that determine your allegiance almost forever and a day.

For most, how we end up with our team or teams is more random chance than rational decision making. Most of us like to believe that we were naturally drawn to our team and that our club is a reflection of our personality where in actual fact our personality and sporting philosophies tend to be a reflection of the team chance allotted us.

It was nothing but dumb luck and an infantile attraction to the colour blue that led me to a lifetime of the Canterbury Bulldogs. One Saturday afternoon, sometime in the mid-eighties well away from The Smiths and The Age of Excess, I was asked by my father which team I was cheering on. The match was Canterbury against North Sydney. I opted for “the team in blue” and in that single moment changed the course of my entire life. There is every possibility that this column would never have been written had I gone “the men in the red”. September of 1995 certainly wouldn’t be as meaningful to me and it would seem doubtful that sitting next to Adam Perry’s mum at the 2004 Grand Final would have meant nearly as much. I may have ended up an astronaut or an accountant or an airplane steward. It was such a critical juncture at such a young age and yet even if I had been aware of how important that once decision was, it is doubtful I would have had the wherewithal to make my selection any differently. Had I have opted for red, I would have thrown myself into the misery of failure with the Bears. My club would have died after making the ludicrous decision to stay loyal to the ARL and my love of rugby league may have waned and possibly even died like so many Bears fans love for the game waned and died in the late nineties.

I learned after undertaking a quick survey of managers in my fantasy football league that team selection was nearly always a matter of chance. Despite being bought up in an old school league household where the teams of note were South Sydney and St. George, The Bossman opted first for the Gold Coast Giants and then Cronulla because “as a five year old I much preferred the Sharks mascot”. A life of rugby league misery (and from my end, decades of amusement) based on an affinity for a mascot when you had barely reached 1,500 days on earth. Flasher McGash ended up with South Sydney after a barfly at the Mumbil Tavern plonked the young ‘ranga on the main bar and decided he was a Rabbitoh. While I wouldn’t dare criticise The Colonel, the sire of Flash but a man who we can pleasingly say is without red hair, for having an infant Flash in the main bar of the Mumbil Tavern while the regulars drank heavily, allowing Flash to attach himself to South Sydney must at least be considered flirting with child abuse. Two finals series in over twenty years is a fairly miserable existence. Dougie was an old Bears fan but ended up disillusioned with the game after their exit and has only made it back to the greatest game of all in recent years though his selection of South Sydney seems somewhat sado-masochistic and must bring into question his abilities to handle everyday existence. The Bomm was born into Collingwood, ancestry dictating his fate, yet he has managed to defy type and is actually an intelligent, pleasant, well-spoken and interesting human being. The Judge was born in North Queensland and as a matter of geography first adopted the Broncos and then Cowboys though he was no doubt a committed Queensland Cup fan prior to 1988. Srem ended up with Parramatta as a matter of rebellion, an outlaw in a sea of Bulldog tragics. Vickers has ended up a Panther for life after attending the Panthers v Easts match at Penrith Park, days before Ben Alexander died. He still has his flag from the match. Jambo was originally a Raiders fan but changed to the Dragons at a tender age because his sister had also jumped on the Raiders and in those heady days of our youth, it is not altogether “cool” to be associated with your sister in any way, shape or form.

Even though most of us have little reason for supporting the team we do, we are committed fully and completely and are as devoted to the cause of The Team as any other life pursuit. Geography, ancestry, colours, mascots, attendance, social rebellion, family feuding, the affiliation of your date, an old drunk in a country bar: we all have our reasons though none of them particularly rational relative to the attachment we feel for our club.

In reality, most sporting fans are more prepared to change their life because of their team than to change their team, even though most connections came about from nothing more than chance or luck or the completely random nature of existence. “History is nothing more than one fucking thing after another” said Rudge in the most wonderful of plays, The History Boys. And that is how it is in the world of sports and the teams we end up with yet we feel an undying loyalty to a certain club, a loyalty that we don’t have for nearly any other worldly institution. For most, religion is more about Sunday afternoon outside than Sunday morning in church and gods are based on their ability to win matches and inspire the faithful than some long lost tale of salvation for mankind and eternal sacrifice.

I often get asked if I support the Tigers because I live in Richmond. Not quite. I started supporting Richmond sometime after moving to college in Canberra and taking a liking to Matthew Richardson and “Spud” Frawley and the song and the fact nobody else seemed to support them. Nearly a decade on I moved to Melbourne and ended up in Richmond. It would strike me that, even if it was on some subconscious level, I made a major life decision on what suburb to live in based on what football team I support. I doubt I would have made the major decision to support Carlton if I lived off Lygon Street or the Bulldogs if I lived in Footscray (not that I ever would have lived in Footscray or anywhere outside of what could be colloquially called The Inner City) though.

The only person surveyed who changed their team after the acceptable age of ten was, in fact, The Wildman. A typically loyal chap, Wildy abandoned Parramatta sometime in the middle of this decade for the Canberra Raiders. Many of us have chopped and changed our fringe teams- I abandoned Rangers for Hibernian in the SPL when I found out the Rangers were a team of protestant freemasons driven by sectarian hatred and heathen philosophy, The Bossman threw away the Buffalo Bills for the Jacksonville Jaguars because “even I couldn’t handle the Bills”- but few of us have engaged in such a gross act of disloyalty. That is how it is at Parramatta though, I guess. He was lumped with the Eels on 1986 Grand Final day and needless to say the club has never reached those heights again since. It was a steep and constant downhill slide and that leaves you feeling sick in the stomach somewhere around the twenty year mark. The Wildman, admittedly, has spent much of his life getting wild in Canberra but I would like to think a combination of Paul Cariage, five preliminary final losses and a grand final defeat in the space of nine years and a decade of severe taunting that finally broke his spirit. To The Wildman’s credit, however, he has never been swayed from Carlton and his adoration of Stephen Silvagni borders on love and his most abiding affection is probably for the navy blues at any rate.

I guess at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how we end up with the team we do. The real beauty is that we can attach ourselves to one and show a loyalty, a devotion, an unflinching fidelity to this institution that we just came upon by pure dumb luck. We share the joy of victory and the pain of defeat, the camaraderie of inclusion and the solitude of the middle distance runner. Identity. Sporting teams shape personal identity as much as family and friendship, religion and career, heroes and half-drunk drinking buddies. For some, a team can define you and for most it is a very real part of you. The outrage at a wrong decision is authentic and the tears of grand final victory are genuine.

It may be pure dumb luck that leads us to our club of choice but it doesn’t matter. The fact we have a team to cheer on is the important thing. It must be a terribly lonely experience for those who claim to not like sport. At least Louise is no longer part of that fraternity now.

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