Melbourne’s streets without the AFL grand final are a requiem for a team

·13-min read

Outside the Whitten Oval in Footscray, a queue is starting to form. It is not for grand final tickets. For the second year in a row, one of Melbourne’s most sought after commodities – a seat at the MCG for the decider – is utterly worthless. It is not to watch a Western Bulldogs grand final training session. The only player who shows up is full-forward Josh Bruce, on his busted left knee. The line is for click-and-collect pick-up, outside the club merchandise shop.

Related: Thanks to my dad I am a Demons die-hard; I’m also a footy feminist | Emily Weekes

Paul Wilkie is there first, waiting for the shop to open at 9am. His father lives in Shepparton, and wanted some new stubbie holders before the game. Wilkie thought it would be safer to collect them from the shop and post them himself, just to make sure they are there in time.

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“We’ve been members for 30 years,” he says. “When we were kids, dad paid for memberships for the whole family, good times and bad. We got them in ‘89, after the failed merger, and we’ve been members every year since.”

Behind Wilkie is Mel Ashford, who was a Carlton supporter before she moved around the corner in 2010. It did not take her long to switch teams. She lives so close to the ground that when the floodlights are on they illuminate her house.

At the club, there’s still a decent chunk of the rusted-on working class

Bulldogs fan Paul Wilkie

The pair agree the club is still more for those on the factory floor, rather than in the boardroom. But the inner west has changed. ​​The blue collar industries the club were formed around have been shunted further and further away from the city. Behind the ground, the Olympic Tyre Factory closed in 2001, and the site is now filled with townhouses. Even the Birmingham, one of the closest pubs to the ground – where the Bulldogs faithful used to gather before games and often never left if the weather was unfavourable – is now an apartment block.

Wilkie says it is fantastic that those who move to the inner-west – such as Ashford – have jumped on board the Bulldogs. But he reckons the majority of supporters are people with generational links to the club, people like those he works with in Laverton, one of the suburbs to the west that has absorbed the factories from Footscray.

“At the club, there’s still a decent chunk of the rusted-on working class,” he says.

Outside the ground, Barkly Street is still Footscray’s main artery, running from the city through its heart and on to the edge of Sunshine (although it changes name a few times along the way). Walk towards the city from the ground, and the shops become more tightly packed. Many are closed. Around Nicholson Street, the smell of barbecuing pork fills the air. Within a radius of a few hundred metres of this intersection, there’s Afghan, Uighur, Ethiopian, Bangladeshi, Somalian, Sudanese, Thai and, above all, Vietnamese restaurants – an open food hall mashed together over decades as migrants made Footscray home.

It is also about here that you can make out Franco Cozzo’s furniture store – Footscray’s most famous business – standing between you and the city. The site was sold for about $7m in 2018, and is expected to become apartments.

Facing the furniture store and the Centrelink, on the opposite side of Moore Street, are Western Bulldogs players Marcus Bontempelli and Bailey Smith. Both are looking a little off-colour; the artist painting them in a mural on the back of a chiropractor business has not quite finished off the detail in their faces.

The painter is a Tigers fan who has been frantic working on commissions for footy-themed pieces, including for a Melbourne supporter nearby.

Being in high demand in September runs in the family – the painter, Damian Cazaly, is the great nephew of famous high-flyer Roy Cazaly. The football anthem “Up there Cazaly” is almost as essential to every grand final as the umpires; the game cannot start without it.

There is almost as much red, white and blue dotted about the store as there is fish

Walk past the Bulldogs paraphernalia dotted amongst the dusty travertine inside Cozzo’s, cross the rail line, and head south down Whitehall Street, and you can’t miss Conway fish trading. It takes up an entire corner, the same size as the Catholic Church opposite.

It was all factories around here, owner Dimitrious Goulas says, when his father started the business in 1959. He called it Conway because his name was Con. “We’re not Irish, mate,” Goulas says. A decade after it opened, Goulas started working there as a teenager.

He sponsored the club during the lean decades and the merger threats. He would finish filleting fish at 1pm, clean up with the rest of his staff, put on a suit and dash back up the way I have just come to the ground. The Dogs had little success, but Goulas liked sitting in a social box at the back of the stand with a full cooler next to him at the end of a hard week.

Between 1954 and 2016, the Bulldogs did not win a premiership. When they did, the inauspicious title of the club with the longest premiership drought was handed to Melbourne, who last won a flag in 1964.

At Conway, painted on the southern wall, there is a huge mural of a Bulldog with the 2016 premiership cup. There is almost as much red, white and blue dotted about the store as there is fish.

Goulas is running a promotion for anyone who shows up in Bulldogs colours, but has little planned for the game itself, other than opening up a particularly nice bottle of red wine. If they win, he will open another. He says it will probably be a Penfolds, but scoffs when asked if it is Grange. “No, not Grange. We’re just fishmongers here, what do you think we are?”

Down the hill from Conway is the Maribyrnong River, the boundary between Footscray and the city. Beyond that, kilometres of docks. The first bit of city you hit is also the most derided – the Docklands, including the recently decommissioned Melbourne Star. About halfway along that walk, just before Moonee Ponds Creek, warring graffitists use an off-ramp pylon to exchange ideas about lockdowns and premier Dan Andrews. “Sack Andrews” has been changed to “Back Andrews”. After “We say end lock down!” someone has scrawled “but then what?”

Before long, the Bulldogs’ actual home ground – that is, where they play their games – emerges from behind near-empty apartment buildings. There are other teams who play at Marvel Stadium too, but the main tenant is the owner – the AFL, which is based in the imaginatively named AFL House on the stadium’s western side. There is little in the way of Bulldogs or Melbourne colours in sight; you are more likely to see billboards of Hulk than a footballer.

It is usually impossible to avoid footy in Melbourne each spring. Like the pollen of a plane tree, it finds its way into your eyes and your nose and the back of your throat. The first organised game of what became Australian rules football was played in Melbourne only about two decades after the settlement was colonised. The city and footy have been together for more than 160 years since then. It is not surprising that it is hard to make sense of Melbourne without it. Everybody has lost something in the pandemic. For more than 800 Victorian families, it is a relative. Perhaps many more will die before the next grand final. We may feel bereft, but it is still only footy. For some, though, whose lives are more intertwined with the game, the loss feels greater.

It is usually impossible to avoid footy in Melbourne each spring

Rebecca Catterwell is packing orders at City Sports and F1, the accredited AFL merchandise store she owns in Elizabeth Street, just up from Flinders Station. Unsuccessful clubs making grand finals can be good for business; Catterwell said she ordered 250 Western Bulldogs scarves after they won through to the 2016 grand final, and sold them in a day. It is not quite the same if the game isn’t in town. There have been more online orders than ever, but she can’t help but wonder what business would have been like without the pandemic.

“Financially, it does suck,” she says. More, though, she feels for the success-starved Melbourne fans, or those Bulldogs fans who did not attend the 2016 grand final. “I feel for the fans that won’t get to experience the game, that would have been able to see it,” she says. “That sucks just for the fan, despite my own financial interest in a game being here too.”

Along Flinders Street – a slightly quicker yet less picturesque walk from the city to the G than along the Yarra – I catch a glimpse of a woman, a paint brush in one hand and a puddle of blue paint in the other, slapping up Demons colours in Hosier Lane. The woman, who only wants to go by the name Painter, says her grandfather used to be a panel beater for Ron Barassi. Barassi is one of Melbourne’s most famous figures, a player in their last premiership and former coach.

Painter says that although she has suffered periods of homelessness, she now has a home, but not a TV. She plans to listen to the game on her phone and check Instagram for updates. She never regretted her support, she says, even when the club was notoriously bad.

“I figured even when we were on the bottom we were still the strongest, because we had to hold the rest up.”

As the city moves east it becomes greener, brighter. It opens to parkland, and then into East Melbourne and Jolimont. You cannot live any closer to the MCG – and therefore to the place the Melbourne football club was established – than in these suburbs. And in these suburbs, as close as you can get to the ground, you can hardly get closer than the corner of Jolimont Terrace and Jolimont Street.

One house up from the corner, a Demons scarf hangs in the window of a two-storey house called Coningsby, which was built in 1882. Rob, who does not wish to give his surname, answers the door. He is a lifelong Demons fan, but not a member. Not this year. If he wanted to watch a game, he walked about 100m over the road and bought a ticket. Before long, there were no tickets to buy.

Rob cannot remember why his family started following the Demons, but thinks it was because they used to live in an area where Melbourne recruited players from, back when the league assigned regions to each club.

The success of the Demons this year, he thinks, is about the foundation they have now. For too long, the club accepted mediocre performance from its leaders off the field, and that gave the players a pass. You cannot rely on freak players, of which there are not many in the league, to win you games, he says. It is about giving the group you have the strongest chance by getting everything else right.

The MCG is quiet, brooding. The closest thing to sport anywhere near it is two people hitting tennis balls against an outer wall

But he admits Max Gawn, Melbourne’s ruck, was one such freak against Geelong, in the thumping preliminary final win that secured their spot this Saturday. Gawn looks like a character from Space Jam, and plays like one too. Rob is confident: “It’s Melbourne’s to lose. They demolished Geelong last week. That was like Hawthorn or Richmond at their peak.”

Rob lives on Yarra Park, which surrounds the MCG. It is in this park that Melbourne played its first game on 25 September, 1858 – exactly 163 years before the date of the 2021 grand final. The MCG is quiet, brooding. The closest thing to sport happening anywhere near it is two people hitting tennis balls against an outer wall.

To walk from Rob’s house to the other side of the Yarra Park you must pass by two statues of Melbourne legends Jim Stynes and Norm Smith. Both have had Demons scarves hung around their necks. Smith was the last Melbourne premiership coach. The next season he was sacked despite the club winning eight of its first nine games, then reinstated again amid tension with the club’s committee. At the time, Melbourne had been on a run of six premierships in 10 years – the most successful stretch any club has completed in league history. Smith never regained his stride, and was sacked permanently within a couple more seasons. Melbourne, having treated a coach who should have been venerated exceedingly poorly, was said to have been put under a curse.

Mary-Jane Joscelyne lives on the opposite side of the park to Rob. She started supporting Melbourne around the time the Norm Smith era started. She was not motivated by the success the club was having, but coaxed into it by her husband, who she met in 1956. “I’d met a gentleman from Adelaide who barracked for Norwood. They were the Redlegs so he picked up Melbourne. He picked me up too.” By the end of 1964, the year of the last premiership in that golden run, Joscelyn and her husband had four children.

Melbourne were not only previously known as the Redlegs, but the Fuchsias. In honour of their first name, Joscelyne had the tiny flowers that adorn the top of her 1880 double-fronted terrace painted red and blue. It is far from the only decoration; most of the second-storey balcony railing is covered in almost 30 scarves, there’s a Melbourne gnome in the garden, and posters and flags on the doors and windows.

Despite it being a street steeped in football history – Joscelyn says Melbourne legend Robbie Flower used to live up the road, Brownlow medallist James Hird did too, and she bought her own place from the sports broadcaster Drew Morphett – there are few other houses with any decorations.

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Joscelyn has been deeply troubled by the impacts of the pandemic on the city, and the mixing of sport and politics that has come with it. When she could, she went and watched Melbourne play and train. She was struck by how much fun they seemed to be having. She knows she must watch the game on television, but has at least upgraded her set for this season.

“I used to have one that was only this big,” says Joscelyn, who makes a small box with her arms, “and was almost as old as me.”

Towards the end of our conversation – the last I have on the final leg of the walk – I ask Joscelyn if Melbourne is destined to fail because of the ghost of Norm Smith. Does she believe in the curse? She is firm. “No, no. They did awful things to him, but no. If I believed in those sorts of things, my life would be hell.”

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