AFL

As a girl, the author grew up knowing three things were certain – death, taxes and Carlton FC success. So when, suddenly and shockingly, the Blues became a team that let her down, she had to find new ways to keep the love alive. By Dani Valent.

Life as a diehard Carlton fan

Carlton’s Alex Jesaulenko has eyes only for the ball in the 1979 VFL grand final between the Blues and Collingwood.
Credit: Getty Images

I entered this world a Carlton supporter, an identity bestowed upon me by my father with the certainty and optimism of a name and the title of daughter. It was just how it was. But it was also a good thing. At least for the first 30 years.

My first premiership came only a month after I was born, in September 1970, with the Blues’ famous comeback win against Collingwood, Ron Barassi inventing a handball game at three-quarter-time and Alex Jesaulenko sealing victory with an undefended, wonkily bouncing left-footer from the boundary. I wasn’t there, of course, and I don’t pretend to remember it but I do truly believe that a winning feeling seeped in that day, perhaps when my father dandled me on his lap in the late afternoon singing “ba-ba-ba-ba” as the horns of the Carlton theme song rang tinnily from our transistor radio. Victory was my birthright.

And so it went on. A premiership in 1972, September action through most of the decade, and the first grand final I really remember, in 1979, when Wayne Harmes found extra centimetres on the boundary line and Collingwood was once again vanquished when the final siren blared. I listened to the game on the radio, sprawled on the floor surrounded by my footy cards, and pored over the match report the next day. “Wayne Johnston put his face in an opponent’s boot to smother the ball,” is a line that has stayed with me since then, something I still think about when grit and commitment are called for. Victory was epic, sweet and mine.

I started going to games with my dad when I was four. We stood in the outer and I looked at the backs of people’s legs until he realised I couldn’t see. I then was allowed to thread my way to the fence, and the thrill wasn’t just about the game, it was also about the way unfamiliar scents and sounds – cigarette smoke, spilled beer, florid swearing, swelling roars – became intrinsic to a great day at the footy. Underpinning the good feeling was the victory. You couldn’t quite depend on it but losing always seemed like an aberration, something you could account for and shake off so that you could once again be subsumed by the golden glow of success.

My dad learnt to barrack for Carlton before he learnt English. Arriving in Melbourne from Czechoslovakia as an 11-year-old in 1949, his family stayed in a Carlton boarding house and he was sent to Princes Hill Primary School in socks held up by suspenders. After day one, Dad went home with two things: an announcement that he was no longer wearing quaint European leg strapping, and a team, the Navy Blues.

Dad stuck with the Blues, and I stuck with him. The 1980s proceeded as they should, with frequent victories and premierships dotted sensibly through the decade: 1981, 1982 and 1987. I was a teenager through those years and less inclined to outings with my father. But even as I shrugged off shared pleasures – hurtfully and horribly, no doubt – I still took it as my due that the Blues buoyed me with outstanding form. I kept an eye on them and they kept showering me with that winning feeling in an almost practical sense. When they won a premiership a month before I sat my VCE exams, I felt like it was a vote of confidence in my studies and I duly racked up a bunch of A’s.

I went travelling and took a bit of a break from footy while the Blues took a bit of a break from premierships. But I still followed their fortunes. In a youth hostel somewhere in Germany I sat glued to a VHS tape of a grand final, and when my bus broke down in the Himalayas, I had to walk down the mountain track in step with my boyfriend because we were tethered by our headphones as we listened to Radio Australia broadcasting from VFL Park. You can have your Vegemite and Tim Tams – footy on the radio will always be my sweetest taste of home.

When I came back, I was grown up enough to hang out with my dad and we started going to games again. Also, Carlton was winning. We had a good year in 1993 and romped into a grand final versus Essendon. Dad and I didn’t luck onto tickets so we turned up at the Melbourne Cricket Ground with a roll of $50 notes and a nod and a wink. Scalpers prowled, we got scammed and slunk home broke to watch our team get thrashed on television. It was inglorious but the ultimate victory still seemed in sniffing distance.

And it was: 1995 was golden. On the Monday night before grand final tickets went on sale, I slept in the car park behind the Toorak Village newsagency. Tickets would go on sale there at 9am on Tuesday. My fellow sleeper-outers and I watched the Brownlow on a tiny television propped on a milk crate, an electricity cable snaking inside the sympathetic newsagency. I shivered in my sleeping bag with anticipation more than cold, and then when I snared my pair of tickets next morning – top deck of the Ponsford Stand – I looked at them and looked at them and checked I hadn’t lost them a hundred times a day. They weren’t just tickets to the G but to a rightful destiny and an abandoned roar of happiness come the final siren. It was one of the purest moments of my life.

And then it stopped. Apart from the famous preliminary final one-pointer against Essendon in 1999 – as good as a grannie without the silverware – footy went all strange. The ladder turned upside down. Strange phenomena I’d never had to deal with (wooden spoons, ridicule) clung to my team. It was all very un-Carlton-like. I found myself doing odd things: appreciating good play from other teams, admitting that the Richmond theme song is quite catchy, showing up to games hoping not to get thrashed. There was even a grim season or two when Dad and I reframed as a victory any game in which Carlton’s score wasn’t doubled by our opponent. Again and again, there were new draft picks and hope – and again and again, sinking disappointment. Maybe this year will be different. Then again, wasn’t last year supposed to be a turnaround, too?

I imagine losing feels bad whichever team you support but I suspect that losing as a Carlton supporter hurts more. There is an added element of bafflement – this is simply not what happens – plus there’s the bite of everyone else’s schadenfreude. No one but a Carlton supporter hates to see Carlton lose.

Other things changed along the way. I had children and now they’re teenagers and they have never known a strong Carlton and that makes me sad. Worse, my daughters listen to my victory tales with a kind of patient pity. Also, I passed that funny tipping point where the players became younger than me and started looking less like heroes and more like very strong boys trying very hard. And, more recently, women’s football surged and one of my girls joined a team. I’d always played kick-to-kick with the boys at school and I can still sink the boot. Circa 2006, I reckon my drop punt could even have had me sniffing around the Carlton seniors. But back then there was no AFLW and I never had the opportunity to get semi-serious about footy. I am delighted that my girls have a chance to be on the other side of the white line. A couple of weeks ago, I watched the Carlton women play Collingwood. Pony-tailed and focused, hard at the ball and long at the song, they won at Princes Park over the old foe. I will take those wins and relish them and hold them up as portent and lantern: may the men become as Carlton-like, too.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 16, 2019 as "Singing the Blues". Subscribe here.

Dani Valent
is a Melbourne-based writer and foodie.