AFL

For footy fans struggling under lockdown in Melbourne, the 2020 AFL season has been both a welcome distraction and a reminder of what has been lost. Now it’s set to culminate with the previously unthinkable – a grand final under lights at the Gabba. By Joe Gorman.

An AFL grand final far from the heartland

Ground staff at the Melbourne Cricket Ground last week removed a section of turf from the goal square, which was then transported to Brisbane and laid at the Gabba ahead of today’s AFL grand final.
Credit: MCG

These past three months have been football nirvana for Dylan Leach. In July, after a period of uncertainty over whether the AFL season would continue under coronavirus restrictions, all 10 Victorian clubs were relocated to Queensland. Leach, the president of the Queensland branch of the Richmond Tigers supporters group, has been gorging on live footy ever since.

“I reckon I’ve gone to about 30 matches. I was like, right, the footy is moving up here and I’m going to go because I can,” says Leach, 31, who left his native Melbourne for Brisbane three years ago.

Leach is still a loyal Melburnian, though, and he is aware that his good fortune is predicated on the misery of his home town. Saturday’s grand final at the Gabba in Brisbane – the first to be held away from the Melbourne Cricket Ground – is just one of many blows sustained by Victorians during the pandemic. Trivial though it may seem amid the daily count of deaths and new infections, the fact that this grand final will be contested by two Victorian clubs – Geelong and Richmond – only heightens the sense of loss.

For more than 150 years, Victoria has been the game’s power base and its cultural centre. Ten of the AFL’s 18 clubs are from Victoria, while the Sydney Swans and Brisbane Lions owe their existence, at least in part, to relocated clubs from South Melbourne and Fitzroy. Victorian players, coaches and officials – and expatriate fans such as Leach – are dotted around the clubs in other states.

The AFL, even after decades of expansion, is still a resolutely Victorian competition – and a distinctly Melbourne one at that. Following a team provides structure and narrative to the lives of so many of the city’s residents and is often a social lubricant for new arrivals. Fans have an almost proprietorial interest in their clubs.

“We’ve got a saying at Richmond: our club doesn’t just exist for our members, it exists because of our members,” says Brendon Gale, the chief executive of the Richmond Tigers. “We’ve maintained 100,000 members for the third year in a row, and the members knew full well that it was highly unlikely they would be attending any games. Around 95 per cent of our membership elected for their money to stay with us. These aren’t Collins Street types; these are working-class people who don’t have a lot of discretionary income and are facing their own financial challenges. But their investment in the footy club is really important.”

Even in its absence, football has remained part of the ebb and flow of life in Melbourne, serving as both a companion and a mirror to the frustrated hopes and constant anxieties of a city that has endured more than 100 days of lockdown. In March, when round one was played behind closed doors, Mike Casabene, a 32-year-old Richmond fan, thought it would only be a temporary setback. “You think, okay, that’s going to be weird, but at least we get to watch the footy on telly – we’ll get on top of this and things will go back to normal,” he says.

Normal, for Casabene, is a winter consumed by football: attendance at every Tigers game in Victoria, at least one interstate match, plus two nights a week coaching an under-16 side in Oakleigh. He named his dog Dusty, after Richmond’s two-time premiership player Dustin Martin. “If you were to have a scale of one to 10 of football fandom,” says Casabene, “I’m probably closer to the 10 than the one.”

When the AFL resumed play in June after almost 12 weeks of inaction, “there was relief”, he says. “There were murmurs about getting on top of the virus in Victoria and talk that crowds might come back to games. But then we went through the second wave and that was a real whack to the stomach. For me, footy is not just about watching the game, it’s about spending time with family and friends. Being Richmond supporters is central to that, so we’ve all struggled. The finals especially have hit home – not being able to go to Brisbane or Adelaide to support the team. Now we’ve been told in no uncertain terms by [Victorian premier] Dan Andrews that grand final weekend is off the table. There is no way they want us seeing family or friends outside of those in our household.”

Today, instead of enjoying the usual grand final festivities, Victorians will be glued to their living room television sets. For some, there has been a certain catharsis in watching live televised sport, which has an immediacy and a spontaneity that binge-watching Netflix doesn’t. As Sally Warhaft, host of The Wheeler Centre’s podcast The Leap Year, recently observed, watching football on television during lockdown provided Victorians a degree of normalcy during these extraordinary times.

Yet for Robert Pascoe, a historian at Victoria University and author of The Winter Game, nothing can replace the sensory pleasure of attending the footy. “This is the first year in probably 20 years that I haven’t been to a live game,” he says. “I live next to the MCG – I bought a house which is a drop punt from the ground – so I can hear the siren at my house and the roar of the crowd. I meet the same people every week, we sit in the same seats and yell the same stupid things. There’s a sense that a piece of your life goes missing. There’s an absence there which is quite striking.”

More than any other sport in any other Australian city, footy in Melbourne is a physical ritual, a visceral experience that has nuances television cannot properly capture. Troy Rice, a 47-year-old chef and Hawthorn fan, likens it to live music – both of which he says are “very important to the soul of this city”. “You can sit there and listen to music on a CD or on your phone and you get something out of it, but if you go to a live gig, there’s energy. You feed off it and the band feeds off it,” says Rice. “And it’s the same with football: the teams feed off the energy of the crowd.”

Brendon Gale says there is “no doubt” Richmond players have missed the atmosphere of the MCG, where home games regularly draw crowds in excess of 70,000 people. Yet there has still been a communion of sorts between players and fans. All have lived through the groundhog day of quarantine or lockdown. All are concerned about the fate of Victoria.

“When you look at the rate of change and uncertainty,” says Gale, “this has been like crisis management since March. It’s not just one day or one week. The season started, then it stopped, then it resumed. Then we were going to hubs, then it was 30 days, then it was six weeks. Now it’s over 100 days. And every day the discussion around the breakfast room is, ‘What’s the infection count? What’s the death count?’ Every day. It’s at the forefront of players’ minds and that, in itself, creates stress. So I think we’re very mindful of our responsibility and the dreams and aspirations of our community.”

While it is hard to predict exactly what kind of reception Richmond and Geelong will receive from a Queensland crowd capped at 30,000 people, perhaps it is fitting that two Victorian teams will bring to a close the most unusual season in living memory. “Any player or club or official that has gone through this experience will remember it for a long time,” says Dylan Leach. “As a fan in the grandstand, I just can’t believe my luck.”

Yet even he admits that he has missed the colour and movement of Melbourne in grand final week. “That whole week is usually better than Christmas: there’s the Brownlow Medal on Monday night, the grand final parade, all the restaurants and pubs are packed, and the day itself is really special – it’s the city’s best time,” he says. “Nothing will compare to when they eventually open the MCG up again and Melbourne people can go back to the football.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 24, 2020 as "Season in the sun".

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Joe Gorman is an independent journalist and author. His most recent book, Heartland: How Rugby League Explains Queensland, won the 2020 Queensland Premier’s Award for a Work of State Significance.