On Easter Saturday this year, Richmond hosted Sydney at the MCG. Victoria had just recorded its 36th consecutive day with no new Covid-19 cases. It was 32 degrees – the city’s last sip of summer. It was cricketing weather. The young Swans took on the Kings, and ran them ragged.
It was natural, sitting there in your shorts and thongs, to assume the worst was behind us. It felt like the beginning of the end for Richmond, and the return to normal life. There had not been football at the MCG for more than 500 days. In that time, we had suffered through one of the worst Australian summers ever. A billion animals had died. A “pneumonia of unknown etiology” had upended our lives. We had then been penned in our homes for months. We’d endured a long, silent winter – hanging on, hanging on, hanging on. We had done our bit, sat it out, and seen it off.
In the previous few months, the sporting focus had been on international tennis players holed up in quarantine, volleying against the fridge, penning open letters, trapping rodents and struggling for sympathy. The news cycle then shifted to Christian Porter, to Brittany Higgins, to the growing tensions with China.
A year earlier, we had cleaned out our desks, cancelled all plans, and withdrawn from the world. Now the footy was back. The sun was shining. The city had a pulse. We no longer sweated over daily Covid numbers. Within a few weeks – 12 months since The Last Post had been bugled to seagulls and empty stands – the world’s biggest sporting crowd since the beginning of the pandemic descended on the MCG.
But winter set in, and the people stayed away. Organising a ticket was particularly fraught. People were reluctant to use public transport. We’d become more accustomed to watching football on television. Given the state of the coverage, you’d think there would have been a 2km line at every turnstile. But it was usually easier to stay home, turn up the heater and mute the commentary.
For a few days, Victoria was a national footy hub. But then some furniture removalists lugged their sofas and spread the bastard south
Richmond fans in particular were loath to head to the Docklands. When they were scuttled by the Gold Cold Suns the crowd was less than 10,000. Many stayed home and wrote around the end of an era like they would the death of a pet. Those who did turn up were drowned out by what seemed to be a bunch of kids on the grog for the first time.
You never had this virus licked of course. A footy team on the tarmac was often a portent of bad news. They were invariably buckling up an hour or two before the leaks started, and the lockdown was confirmed. For a few days, Victoria was a national footy hub. But then some furniture removalists lugged their sofas and spread the bastard south. It took hold at a Carlton-Geelong game, a ghastly affair played in thick fog. I left at half time, and arrived home to find Dwayne Russell calling it like the final furlong of a Melbourne Cup. A Covid-positive supporter retreated to an MCC bar - a reasonable option given the quality of entertainment - and we were up and away again. We were conditioned to it by now.
This time, Sydney copped it too. “A code red for humanity” was declared, which helped no end. The pandemic sapped our energy and wit, pitting old against young, vaccinated against unvaccinated, home office worker against business owner, ‘lock ‘em up’ against ‘let it rip’, Melbourne against Sydney, left against right, even Astra Zeneca against Pfizer.
Friends and colleagues who had always seemed to be travelling okay were shattered. Social media turned our brains to mush by mid-morning. We were squabbling with strangers. Everyone – from influencers in the leggings space, to anonymous apparatchiks and armchair assholes – were droning on, chiming in, and freaking out. We couldn’t agree on how to adjudicate head-high tackles, let alone how to vaccinate our population. We were snitching on and shouting over one another, drawing the same battlelines as we do on every other issue.
Through all this, the football season somehow wound to a conclusion. The ability of league administrators to still produce a product was quite something. At one point, with the ladder leaders 35,000 feet in the air and barred from entering Queensland, the AFL’s head of procurement telephoned the cockpit and nutted out a plan. Like last year, the footy helped. At a time when duelling political press conferences were apparently essential viewing, when the delivery of socks and second-hand books provided a dopamine hit, footy injected a bit of drama, and gave us something to lose ourselves in.
It was never more evident than the Saturday evening of the final round, when the entire season flipped in about half an hour. Half the men in my suburb, and at least 95% of the baristas, are dead ringers for Max Gawn. As he slotted the winner after the siren, they all revealed themselves as Melbourne supporters, bellowing like loons into the curfewed night.
For anyone who has spent nine months in lockdown, it has been a strange time to be a rusted-on fan. It’s like being an Australian based supporter of an English Premier League club. You try and convince yourself that you’re part of it. But you’re a two-dimensional supporter. You’re connected to your team, as one sportswriter wrote last year, “like a patient on an intravenous drip”.
For Melbourne supporters ... the next 72 hours are going to be a special kind of torture
In Melbourne, last year’s grand final day couldn’t have been flatter. It was a putrid day. There was the odd couple in Richmond jumpers carting booze. There were a few blundering around the MCG’s outskirts – almost like homing pigeons, one commentator noted. The Cox Plate was on, but that too was depressing. More so than any other race day, it feeds off the crowd. Online, people were carping about the long wait, demanding to know what the hell they should do with their afternoon.
As a fan, if you were ever going to lose one, this was the time to do it. It was all so far removed. You could let it go quickly. It wasn’t as invasive. You could avoid it, rationalise it, assign an asterisk to it. Richmond and Geelong supporters had that luxury. To a lesser extent, Bulldogs fans will as well. But Melbourne supporters won’t. In their only two grand final appearances in half a century, they were lambs to the slaughter. This time they are favourites. This time, they’re the feel-good story.
If you are a Demons fan of a certain age, you have watched some of the most wretched teams and endured some of the biggest thumpings in the history of the game. You’ve mourned club legends, former coaches and listed players. Your club has been tainted by tanking allegations, and come close to merging. You’ve been labelled a silvertail, a snow tripper, a tweed wearing twit. You’re hardwired for disappointment. One of your brethren chronicled the club’s woes for a decade and a half, cobbled his columns together and titled it ‘The Great Depression.’
Now you finally have a team you can trust. You have a group of young men completely untrammelled by past failures. They’re on the other side of the country, having a ball, pummelling all in their path. You are distanced from the world, disconnected from your team and slowly losing your mind. You’ve had two weeks to stew over this Grand Final. On the second last Saturday in September, instead of watching your team at the MCG, you watched protesters being capsicum sprayed. Your city is seething, fractured, and utterly exhausted.
In life, the stereotype has it, Melbourne supporters have been hit on the arse by a rainbow. In footballing terms, to run with their most prominent blogger, they have been fisted forever. On Saturday, they are chasing what Collingwood, Sydney, Geelong, Western Bulldogs, and Richmond supporters waited so many decades for. In normal times, this “longing on a large scale” would play out at the MCG, at pubs, at BBQS. In lockdown, everything shrinks. The communal is virtual. You don your scarf, you paint your fence, and you make do. It’s been an excruciating 18 months for all of us. For Melbourne supporters, already at the mercy of lockdown laws, earthquakes, conspiracy theorists, Norm Smith’s curse and Luke Beveridge’s magnets, the next 72 hours are going to be a special kind of torture.