ROSS FITZGERALD and KEN SPILLMAN (eds) Australia’s Game: Stories, Essays, Verse & Drama Inspired by the Australian Game of Football. Reviewed by Nicole Hayes
As a lifelong footy fan, I hunted through this collection for the things that interest me most: stories written by or about women who love footy, and those that mention Hawthorn. Having admitted this, I will now explain that, of course, I went back through the entire collection without my Hawthorn-obsessed-chick-who-writes-about-footy hat on, and found much to love therein. And much to frustrate, too.
Let me start with the things that worked. In Kate Eltham’s ‘Nothing Like a Convert’, her earnest determination to understand our great game is both funny and poignant. When the young Kate is determinedly learning the Brisbane players’ names and nicknames from the crowd’s cries during her first match, marking them all down in her Record, she notes that ‘Referees get nicknames too’ but, wisely, doesn’t list them. She notes a central theme of the book: footy, whether from the spectator’s perspective or the participant’s, has the capacity to embrace and connect in a way that few other activities do:
I can’t remember this before, this feeling of connection to my father about something we’re both excited over. I used to tell him about writing and music and doing well at school, and he was always encouraging, always proud. But this isn’t those things. This is something shared.
Just as footy has the power to connect, it also has the power to crush. As one of Eltham’s work colleagues tells her, ‘You don’t know what it means to love footy until it has broken your heart.’ As a Hawthorn fan through the good years and the bad, I can still nominate the 1984 Grand Final as one of the most painful experiences of my life. Losing shapes us, perhaps more than winning does – a theme John Harms explores in ‘Epiphany at the MCG’ in which he recounts what it’s like to spend decades watching other teams dominate, often at his beloved Cats’ expense. When the opportunity comes to watch the Cats in the Grand Final, for a time he can’t enjoy it:
Why do I feel I don’t deserve this? Why have the gods chosen the people of Carlton and Hawthorn and Essendon? Why does the world belong to them?
But later, as the Cats begin to dominate:
The crowd is alive: Gee-Long CLAP CLAP CLAP, Gee-Long CLAP CLAP CLAP. I am nine again. I sigh. The tears come.
He decides it is about being a part of something, convinced that ‘profound relationships are born of shared suffering’.
From the spectator to the participant, we move to ‘Draft Destinies’, Emma Quayle’s take on what it feels like to be a young player waiting for his chance to play AFL. Through the experiences of Trent Cotchin and Cyril Rioli, we share the waiting and the sweating, the family expectation, and the fear. The relief of not being overlooked is palpable, reminding us of just how much is at stake for these young men.
After an hour, Junior saw his name on the screen which was finally fixed, and believed it for the first time. Pick 12. Hawthorn. Cyril Rioli.
While, in ‘Inside the Bubble’, former Hawthorn player and coach Peter Schwab explains:
I understand perspective. I try to live it every day, but in a world called AFL football, it is sometimes hard.
In this piece Schwab recounts his last days as Hawthorn coach before the club he had loved and supported his whole life sacked him mid-season:
When I awoke on that last Saturday morning as Hawthorn coach, I felt how someone feels when the person they love tells them the love will no longer be reciprocated.
The extremes of the game have the power to intoxicate and devastate, and often connect. But just as surely, footy can exclude. Ramona Koval’s ‘Thighs and Whispers’ eloquently describes the challenges of the offspring of ‘New Australians’ and their desire to fit in, in a footy-obsessed, bland and blokey post-war Melbourne, while Andrea Stretton’s memories of her first footy match detail the sexism, racism, and sexual intimidation that was standard operating procedure in 1982. During a Sydney versus Tigers match, after one thug (Mick) calls players who underperform ‘women’, Stretton objects loudly, whereupon Mick calls her a dyke. With a nod and wink, later, when he has reason to complain, he laments the overall team performance with cries of ‘What do ya think this is? Bloody Abo Week?’ When Stretton objects again – ‘”You making up for being impotent Australian male beer guts, or something?”‘ – she is roundly rebuked. ‘”You can say whatever you like here. But you never, but never, get bloody personal,” said Mick.’
Frankly, this blokey, dated attitude, albeit a more benign version, pervades the collection, inevitably perhaps given how old many of the pieces are. This is intended as an updated version of The Greatest Game (1988), and yet the period covered is heavily weighted in the distant past. Footy is, after all, a game of numbers, and when you consider that, of the 52 contributions overall, only 14 were written this century, and only seven by women, Stretton’s interrogation of the pervasive white-skinned blokiness is distinctly undermined. Apart from an extracted article on Polly Farmer and Quayle’s contribution on Cyril Rioli, there is almost nothing written about Indigenous football. When you think about the number of contemporary Indigenous players and stories to choose from, as well as the rising tide of women in football and sport filling our newspapers and airwaves, it’s disappointing that the numbers are so one-sided. Adding to this, there seems to be much lamenting of ‘the end of football as we know it’, pre-1989, and little or no reflection on what has happened since the shift from the VFL and ‘Australian Rules’ to Australian football and the AFL. As a consequence, even the language feels dated. A better option would have been to include some of the more iconic pieces, but adding retrospective or updated reflections rather than simply reproducing so many contributions from the book’s earlier incarnation (or publications from that same era). It would have been great to hear if the writers’ views (those still living) had changed, or if, as they warned, they have disengaged completely from our great game.
This is not to say that the historical contributions aren’t engaging or valuable. Most were thoroughly enjoyable and rich with nostalgia and history. However, many laboured under the ‘the good old days’ laments, glorifying even the inglorious, effectively dismissing even the superior qualities of today’s game without any chance for reflection. Where is the consideration of girls and women in footy today – as players and decision makers? The spread of AFL to traditional rugby states? And what of the rising tide of Indigenous players, no longer the novelty but, in some clubs – my beloved Hawks included – forming the backbone of some of the more successful teams? Perhaps this will be the focus of upcoming titles and, if so, I look forward to the next edition. But as it is, Australia’s Game feels like a missed opportunity.
Ross Fitzgerald & Ken Spillman (eds) Australia’s Game: Stories, Essays, Verse & Drama Inspired by the Australian Game of Football Slattery Media Group 2013 PB 327pp $34.95
Nicole Hayes is the author of The Whole of My World, a novel set in 1980s Melbourne about a teenage girl obsessed with footy. She teaches Creative Writing at University of Melbourne and Phoenix Park Neighbourhood House, and tweets at @nichmelbourne. To find out more, visit her website: www.nicolehayesauthor.com
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