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I’ll never forget the first time the Bears caused me pain. It was a wet, Autumnal day in May 1994. I was eight, Norths were first. Newcastle, and Andrew Johns, then 19, beat us at home. I trudged in the rain with my Mum, Dad, and four uncles, back to the pub – Percy’s – across Miller Street. The loss was evidently too much for me, and I began to cry.
Norths were formidable in the 1990s, regularly bettering storied opponents like Canberra, Manly and Brisbane, upon whom the folklore of ‘90s rugby league has been built. But they never won that premiership, they strategically blundered with Super League, and they fizzled into insolvency, enduring the humiliation of what former president David Hill described as “the sacrilegious merger with Manly before the expulsion of the Bears by the Forces of Darkness”.
Rugby league historian Andrew Moore once suggested that the Northern Eagles joint venture may well have established a record for being the least loved football club in sporting history. He also pointed out, that only a few years earlier, outside the one-city teams – then only Newcastle and Brisbane – in 1991 and 1994 Norths were the competition’s largest-drawing team. Poker machine money enabled the first-grade roster some glitz, and though the “Curse of the Cammeraygal” continued to thwart their premiership hopes, the Bears were nevertheless one of the heavyweight teams of that decade. Their subsequent, rapid demise was not organic, and hundreds of thousands of Bears people are still out there, wandering.
Some fans will tell you the Bears are a relic of the past. But it looks like Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys disagrees. He recently told The Daily Telegraph: “Wherever I go every third person asks me ‘when are you bringing back the Bears?’.”
Speaking specifically about the proposed 18th team in the NRL, V’landys went on to say: “One thing I’ve learned in rugby league is that the Bears have an extremely popular brand. However, there’s already enough Sydney teams so doing it with an area like Perth makes sense. You’re getting the best of both. A great brand and a new supporter base.”
For those who wish to see the Bears return to the top grade, it is hard to conceive of a comment more inviting. For two wilderness-riven decades, Bears hopefuls have been scoffed at, cast as hopeless, foolish tragics, and blind to the realities of economic rationalism in the 21st century. At a private event some years ago, a former senior administrator in the NRL laughed in the face of a Bears official explicating the case for a return – on the Central Coast in a ground the club built, underwritten by John Singleton, coached by Wayne Bennett. It didn’t matter: the Bears were done, their cards were marked.
And yet the Bears don’t seem to go away.
This is the point where opponents will suggest that the partner should go it alone. Forge their own identity. However, no such sentiment appears to exist in Perth. Twice the Bears have adorned the back page of the West Australian, and ahead of Perth’s hosting of the State of Origin on Sunday, Bears chairman Daniel Dickson will be in the city to meet a West Australian government group to further explore the partnership.
Dickson will later be joined in a box by Australian comedian Jim Jeffries, an avid Bears man, who once said “my big dream in life is that I’ll make enough money that I’ll buy the Bears back into the NRL. I’ll do a Russell Crowe and bring them back…” Though daddy-money would be nice, Dickson says that should the Bears be green-lit for the 18th licence, the money is good. There are three individual investors lined up, he says, V’landys knows who they are, he’s met them, and they’re ready to step up to the block.
Commercial viability. NRL support. West Australian desire. Unprecedented goodwill. Is it time to dream? The only comments appearing to temper matters are those from Dickson himself. “The Bears are not in agreement with anyone,” Dickson told SENZ Breakfast Radio recently. “We just want to make sure that geographically we feel we are the team of the people, and we can take that to the people where the game needs to go.” Whether wise brinkmanship, 4D chess, or just playing “hard to get”, it is fair to say that Dickson thinks in the abstract about location, and is keeping his options open.
It’s never easy, is it? Victory may be close, but the Bears do know how to make it hard. It reminds me of my dad’s response to my tears after that loss to Newcastle in 1994.
“Don’t worry mate,” he consoled me, gently putting a fatherly arm around me as I tried to hide my flood of tears from my uncles. “We used to cry when the Bears won a game!” Guttural laughter from my uncles. A historic quote for the family. He was introducing me to the dry, gallows humour that accompanied any seasoned observer of the Bears. A coping mechanism, probably.
These are the ties that bind. There are hundreds of thousands of Bears people, just like me, who will invoke the same, mechanised caution at the prospect of a miracle: a return to first grade, footy at Bear Park, even just once a year, in the red and black. We’ve been burnt before, but we’re still here, and still hoping.