Grand Final Day, 2014

I’m not writing this for you, dear reader. I’m writing this for me. I’m writing this because I want to remember. Even though I’m unlikely to forget.

Saturday, 27 September 2014. At home.

The day started at 6am. The 2.5-year-old was far too excited to sleep with the Grand Final due. Books were read, laughter exchanged, and the local shops were visited for a swing, a slide, a croissant, the Saturday Age and the Grand Final Footy Record.

Once home and through breakfast, we played kick-to-kick out back as his mother arose for the day. The sun was out, the birds were enjoying life, and never before had I approached a Hawks Grand Final with such a relative lack of concern. For a majority of the season, when people asked me how worried I was about the chances of the oft-injured Hawks, I replied, “What’s there to be worried about?” We were the reigning premiers and had won two in six years – about right, I thought, for this era of greatness. Anything else was a bonus, and besides, Saints, Demons and Bulldogs supporters have every right to swear at a Hawk worried about his squad’s injury worries while still safely ensconced in the top four.

Such a beautiful, carefree morning was punctuated by a discovery that lit up the kid’s eyes like no other. While grabbing my Hawks scarf from the cupboard, I found a small bear wearing a Richmond jersey – a gift from the little fella’s maternal grandfather in the days before the kid had actually chosen his team. It lay beside similar toys wearing Geelong and Essendon gear provided by other wannabe-influencers of the kid’s footy allegiance. His mother agreed that a Grand Final present might make the kid’s day. “Richmond Teddy” was crowned, and found a permanent place at the boy’s side.

During lunch, Mrs EPO – a Swans supporter – took off. Despite our mixed family usually sharing an amicable respect, we were always going to be better off watching the game separately. It was bad enough sitting with her while she hoped for a Port win during the Preliminary Final as she thought the Swans would have an easier time against them in the GF. So off she went to enjoy the game with her father – a Tiger – and mother – a Bomber.

Meanwhile, the kid and I were due to watch our first Grand Final together. Last year, his mother didn’t bring him to the Grand Final barbeque I was attending so that I could worry about the Hawks without needing to worry about an 18 month-old who wouldn’t have understood why I was ignoring any approach throughout the game. And in 2012, his mother and I were at the MCG while he was being babysat on an afternoon his Mum will cherish forever.

Distractions were at the ready, and he was worded up that his Dad had to watch all of this important game.

Unexpectedly, he dutifully, beautifully, brilliantly napped through the first half. I thought I was bound to have woken him at one stage, loudly swearing at the umpires and Adam Goodes at the same time, but the exhaustion from his early morning and energetic anticipation of the afternoon had hit hard.

And what a first half it was. The midfield was all Hawthorn – my three favourite Hawks this side of Dunstall in Mitchell, Lewis and Hodge were everywhere and hitting targets at will, while Parker and Hannebery were uncharacteristically m.i.a.. (Actually, Hannebery was seen once – being pummelled by Roughead in an insta-iconic tackle.) Malceski aside, no Swan defender was seeing much of it, while almost every touch of the Hawks was clean, considered and effective. At half time, the 42 point lead was only 2 points in arrears of the largest comeback ever in a Grand Final – all of the commentators regarded the Hawks as being practically home.

During the third, the two of us sat together on the couch, grazing on our platter of toddler-favourite snacks: chips, strawberries and mushrooms. His hunger, commentary, enjoyment of the game and laughter as he copied some of Dad’s exhortations towards the TV made it the fastest, funniest, most beautiful quarter of footy I had ever seen. We were home indeed.

Having finished grazing, the kid was ready to run during the fourth quarter – “Would you like to play with me, Dad?” “Mate,” I replied, lifting him temporarily onto the lap, “the Hawks are going to win today, so after the game, all the players are going to get medals and then Hodgey’s going to get the Cup.” “And they’ll have a big hug!” “That’s right, mate! So, when the game’s finished, I’ll call you so that you can come and watch them all get their medals and once they have the Cup, then I’ll come and play.” “OK, once they have the Cup…” And off he went, occasionally returning to watch a bit more, to read a magazine, to comment on the constant beeping of the mobile, or to ask whether Goodsey or Cyril would get the Cup too. For whatever reason, he was perfectly happy to be the most patient toddler in the world for a quarter of football.

And so, the final term was blissfully enjoyed with occasional added sound effects – as many texts as I’ve ever received in half-an-hour, and occasional shouts from the hallway: “I’m enjoying my game, Dad!” as the soccer ball thumped into the wall with a pair of toddler’s feet storming behind it.

In the incomparable Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby comments on the strange relationship between sports fans and entertaining play by describing the crowd’s reaction to a spectacular goal by Tottenham’s Paul Gascoigne:

“Neutrals loved the glorious theatre of that Gascoigne moment, of course, but there were very few neutrals in the stadium. There were Arsenal fans, who were as horrified as I was, and Tottenham fans, who were just as thrilled with the second goal, a two-yard Gary Lineker tap-in after a scramble – in fact, they went even more beserk then, because at 2-0 after ten minutes Arsenal were dead and buried. So where is the relationship between the fan and entertainment, when the fan has such a problematic relationship with some of the game’s greatest moments?”

The Hawks were so far ahead during the fourth quarter that I experienced something I’d never experienced before: genuine joy at excellent Hawthorn play during a Grand Final. I was watching a game while simultaneously understanding the nostalgia the moment was creating.

And then, it was over. Hodge rose his fists into the air, Langford pushed himself back up off the ground, the club song played, and the modern-day Hawks – who were such underdogs but hours earlier that one betting agency advertised them at $4 odds for the win – were suddenly a team for the ages.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always found the coolest moment of the Grand Final to be the presentation of the premiership medals. All players are equal, all have their moment, and all dreamt of it as kids let alone the previous night. This year, the kid stood fascinated between my knees, while I cheered outwardly for all of the guys as they headed up to the dais.

There was Shiels and the streaky Smith, Stratton and three-timer Burgoyne, Gibson and Norm Smith-Lake, Hill and the ever-dogged Puopolo, McEvoy and the ever-trusty Hale, Durea and Will “I’m not just Chris’ boy” Langford, Spangher and best-kick-in-the-comp Suckling, and the two who never miss in Gunston and Breuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuust.

And there were the magical six – the men who have been part of the ’08, ’13 and ’14 Premiership teams and who always make we Hawk fans feel so safe and secure when the ball is in their hands. Down back, there’s the quiet achiever in Birchall with his rangy gallop and pinpoint left boot. There’s Hodge, the man’s man, all courage and inspiration. In the middle, there’s Lewis going in headfirst when he’s not the third man up, as smart and tough a head as any going round. There’s Mitchell, for whom time seems to slow down when he has the ball, and whose left is as good as his potent right. Up front, there’s Roughead, the country boy who leads like he was taught by the great full-forwards of the ‘80s. And there’s Cyril, worth the price of admission, the kid from up north who changed the way the game is played with his unsurpassed defensive pressure in the forward line.

“They’ve got the Cup, Dad!”

So they did. After a few seconds of the Hawks crowding around Hodge and Clarkson hoisting it aloft, we were off. He rode his bike ever-so-briefly, but really he wanted to play kick-to-kick with Dad while the evening’s sausages cooked on the barbie.

There we were, practically unable to look any more Australian. Dad wearing his Hawks scarf, kicking his son’s Tigers footy. Kid loving a day spent immersed in footy and outdoor play, now enveloped by the undivided attention of his Dad who was happier than ever. The smell of sausages slowly wafting over the suburban backyard. How many times have I kicked that ball during these past months? How many hours did my Dad and older brother spend with me in our old family backyard?

By the time Mrs EPO returned home briefly to offer her begrudging congratulations before heading out for dinner, a sausage had been scoffed and an ice cream was in the hand. All being eaten in a venue referred to as a “special treat” by the 2.5yr-old: in front of the television as various Hawks were being interviewed.

After his shower, the kid beamed: “And tomorrow, after I wake up, we can watch the footy again!” His mother and I had been preparing him for this moment for the previous couple of weeks. “No, mate. Remember, this was the Grand Final, the last game of the season.” “Yeah, it’s the last game for a really long time. But maybe…maybe we can walk to the oval and watch the kids play footy?” “No, mate. Their season is over too.” “Yeah. They won’t play again for a really long time!” And off he went, smiling, towards his bedtime stories.

The Hawks re-entered the MCG soon after, their footy jumpers over white dress shirts, Clarkson in his suit. Fans many years younger than I cheered from the hallowed turf and joined their heroes in the club song. I smiled not only at the unbridled joy that comes with victory, but also at the sheer ludicrousness of it. The silly childishness of revering men younger than yourself because they can play a sport so well, the sheer pointlessness of the game itself, and the beautiful innocence of childhood that memories of one’s love for one’s team can conjure.

Of course, in 2014 I am old enough to truly understand the gravity of this moment in my fanhood. I know that this is as good as it gets.

Hawthorn haven’t been this good since I was at primary school, and prior to last weekend, I’d always believed that those teams and heroes of my youth – Dunstall, Brereton, Dipper, Platten, Ayres, Langford and co – would remain unparalleled in my esteem. Such awesome admiration of a team was, therefore, something that in my mind has always been reserved for the 12-and-under set.

And yet, here it was: the moment when I realised that these men I have enjoyed watching so much as an adult are as good as those I loved and idolised as a kid. While my reverence may not be as wide-eyed and star-struck now as it was then, an innocent adoration for these random men wearing my team’s colours returned in a way that I hadn’t truly felt – or allowed myself to feel – for over 20 years.

Of course, innocent happiness was all around me during the day.

They say that becoming a parent brings a new perspective on life, and I’ve always seen such comments as referring to a new level of maturity that comes with the responsibility of having a child and “settling down”. But often, the new perspective thrust upon me is an admiration for and appreciation of childish innocence. For being a toddler entails having a life that so many adults attempt to re-experience through sport and other forms of entertainment. Watching, debating and reading about sport isn’t just a fascination with feats of physical excellence, but it’s also a socially accepted escape from the worries of the world. Grand Final day isn’t about work, money or health troubles, nor is it about politicians or terrorists. It’s about nothing more than a game and sharing your love of it with others. Just like toddlerhood.

Funny, how I’d never watched a Grand Final with fewer people, and yet I’d never felt such company.

When Mrs EPO arrived home from dinner late on Grand Final night, she found her husband lying on the couch with the Footy Record behind him next to an empty wine glass. He was absent-mindedly staring at the tv that was streaming Ben Howard’s gig from the iTunes Festival, the cat lying on his chest with a Hawks scarf spreading out from underneath various paws.

He was thinking of football and sport, of losses and premierships, of fathers and sons and families. Thinking how some of us are ridiculously lucky to have such memorable days of incredibly simple, innocent, beautiful joy.

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