Now that I’m Australian, I have to do Australian things. And that means going to the footy.
AFL is as much a part of life in Melbourne as trams and hipster baristas. If you meet someone new, you can be pretty sure they will ask you who you barrack for (note: never support, always barrack for) early in the conversation. If you don’t have a team you’re considered a bit odd.
So I got myself a team pretty sharpish: Hawthorn FC. Contrary to popular belief, this wasn’t because they win a lot. Nor was it because I find their brown and gold strip particularly attractive (I much prefer Port Adelaide’s black and teal ensemble). No, it was a practical decision. The Silver Fox had sworn allegiance to Hawthorn more than 20 years ago when he saw them play on his first visit to Oz. While he would argue that I am not inclined to follow his advice on much else, he knows his football, so I decided it would be simplest to tell people that I, too, barrack for the Hawks.
I didn’t expect to ever actually have to do anything for ‘my team’. Sport and I have never been close friends. At school the closest I got to playing for the netball team was cutting up the oranges at half time, and I somehow managed to avoid all the sectarian nonsense that goes with supporting football in the west of Scotland by basically pretending the game didn’t exist.
As a journalist there was a tense moment when one of the newspapers I worked for instigated a performance management system whereby all the reporters had to show that they could work for any section of the paper. Having proven my capabilities in news and feature writing my news editor turned to sport. “I don’t really do sport,” I said. Thankfully the news editor was a man who, appreciative of my ability to spell and punctuate properly under pressure, was prepared to overlook my weaknesses in other areas. “But you could report on a swimming race or something like that if you had to?” he asked. Mindful of the pay rise that was dependent on my response, I answered with a cheery “Of course!” I got my pay rise, and my talents in covering swimming galas remain undiscovered to this day. No, sport and I have never been close friends.
But as I said, sport is part of life in Melbourne. So fast forward to Saturday, and I’m sitting in the members’ area of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, watching the AFL match between Hawthorn and Collingwood. The tickets were a gift from my dental surgery for referring the Silver Fox to them. I have a feeling those who refer Australians with their perfect teeth get a ‘thank you’; the dentist’s goldmine that is the Scottish mouth born in the 70s and raised on Irn-Bru deserves top-notch seats at the footy.
Despite the fact that fans of both sides sit together in the stadium – something which along with the presence of many women and children, and the low-alcohol beers sold at the bar, probably contributes to the friendly atmosphere at matches – we found ourselves surrounded by Collingwood supporters. I’m not sure they realised I barracked for the other side: I had so many clothes on (two fleeces, two scarves, a heavy wool coat and a double-layer fleece hat) to combat the freezing Melbourne weather that I could barely move my arms to clap when we scored. And even if I could have, it would have meant removing them from underneath the blanket on my knees. Anyway, I enjoyed listening to the Collingwood fans’ complex commentary (“Kick it! You bloody idiot!”) while trying to work out what was going on.
I had to be reminded about the scoring system, which demands a level of arithmetic skill not required for soccer. Six points are awarded for a goal (when the ball goes through the two big centre poles) and one for a ‘behind’ (when it passes between a big pole and one of the little ones to the side).
And I asked question after question. “Why have they stopped playing?” “Are we playing that way now?” “Why are the runners not thinner?”
To his credit, the Silver Fox answered all my questions patiently, even the ridiculous ones. (“Do the players ever go in for a tackle then start tickling the guy with the ball to get him to drop it?” “So if they are allowed to use their body to bump each other but not their arms it’s a bit like Riverdance?”)
Even with only my rudimentary knowledge of the game, it wasn’t long before I realised the Hawks were going to smash it. Before the siren sounded on the final score of 115-86, some of the Collingwood fans had already given up and left. I like to think it was because they were disgusted at how well the Hawks were playing and couldn’t face any more humiliation; in reality they probably just wanted a quick getaway from the MCG car park.
I’m not totally converted to the church of AFL yet. I won’t be reading match reports and I doubt I’ll ever sit and watch a game on TV. But I could be persuaded to watch another live match, if it’s not too cold. Maybe I just need another scarf…a brown and gold one.
(Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Media)