Picking Sides

One of the most important things in my life is my ingrained love of Liverpool Football Club. My Dad was a staunch Liverpool fan and therefore so was I. There was never any question of it. There was no choice involved. I was never sat down with a list of potential options and walked through the pros and cons of each. At birth I signed on the dotted line and was strapped in to ride the lifelong roller-coaster with Liverpool. I remember at an early age my Granddad tried to entice me with the royal blue majesty of an Everton kit. But I knew it was wrong, even then. In the naivety of youth, you just know. There’s no way to turn it off. Even if I became disillusioned with the club I love, I wouldn’t ever consider following someone else, because you can’t feel the same way about something so fiercely deep rooted within your being.

Yet this year, after moving to Australia, I realised that I was going to have to pick a team.  I found myself with a clean slate of AFL teams to choose from and was utterly bewildered. There are some things in life that are supposed to be picked. Your friends, your car, even your seat on an aeroplane. But picking a team was alien to me. I appreciated at last the ease and comfort that being born in to an allegiance gives you. Even if your team is eternally terrible, its not like you would have a choice in it, so you just ride it out. I’m a pretty cautious and indecisive person to begin with, so when faced with a decision of this lifelong magnitude, in which I had complete control and responsibility, I wasn’t going to be picking recklessly.

My journey into AFL began with the 2015 Grand Final which I watched at a mates house. I had literally no idea what was going on and the madness of the game only strengthened my resolve that it was a terrible sport, not a patch on real football (known here as soccer). But I was being narrow minded and I quickly became aware that if I was going to have sporting conversations over a beer, then I’d need to get clued up on Aussie Rules. My first problem was that I didn’t understand the game. Ironically, despite it’s name, it didn’t actually seem to have many rules, at least none that I could fathom. I was staunch in my belief in the superiority of the round balled game that I was blinkered to most other alternative sports. I was coming from a stand point of not really being able to identify what was good about the game and what factors made each team great, or not.

It took an entire season of watching as much footy as I could to truly understand it. But there was a profound moment in the first live game I attended in which it all started to click. My debut at the MCG was a classic – a struggling Richmond versus a high flying Sydney Swans. For the first half we sat in the lower lever of the MCG where we found ourselves close to the pitch and close to the action. It was the first time I’d appreciated the stature of the players. However, despite being close to the action, it was hard for a ignorant novice to really make much sense of what was going on. The game covers such great distances that it all seemed like pot luck, kicking into the air and hoping someone, preferably from the same team, caught it further up the field.

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At half time we ventured upstairs to the lover level of the upper stand. From here I had a much more comprehensive view of the whole pitch and as the players started to move the ball around it was as if the fog had lifted. I could finally appreciate what they were doing. I could see the patterns of play, the skill and accuracy of the kicks and the athleticism of those catching it. From up there the game had a shape and the teams had a purpose.

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The game ended with a winning goal kicked literally on the siren. With the underdogs, Richmond, clinching a dramatic and unexpected win. I realised then that the excitement of the game comes from the fact that it is rarely over until that final siren. With such high scoring games it is possible to mount an unbelievable fightback in very little time. Momentum swings like a pendulum and often the team that capitalises on the pendulum swinging their way will come out the winner.

From there I was hooked! I spent the season watching as much as I could, often just rooting for the underdog in any given game. Coincidentally the season was one big underdog story. From finishing in 7th position on the ladder the Western Bulldogs went in to the post season playoffs merely to take part. But in the following weeks they battled their way to a Grand Final showdown at the MCG against Sydney. The entire footballing family, except for those in Sydney, got behind them and I was taken for a ride upon the Bulldog’s wave of success. The fairy tale ended in victory for the Bulldogs and my passion for them was pretty strong. Who doesn’t love a tale of triumph against adversity. So I ended the season a Bulldogs fan. I kept the papers from the morning after the Grand Final as a momentum of the moment my journey with the Bulldogs began. But in the close season while everyone was discussing their teams prospects, I found myself once again in a minefield of indecision.

I felt that I couldn’t jump on the bandwagon. After Roman Abramovich’s billions bought Chelsea’s Premier League success in the early 2000’s, it was often thrown at them how many fans had jumped on board the train of victory. But in allegiances like this, it’s just as easy to jump off on the way down as it is to jump on in the first place. I could never really argue with someone who suggested I’d jumped on the Bulldog bandwagon and for that reason they were out.

By the same token I couldn’t really pick one of the consistently successful sides like Sydney or Hawthorn. I at least needed a challenge, something that like Liverpool, would at least provide my journey in to Aussie rules with an uneven path. Picking a top side would be like deciding to do a run for charity and picking a 10k rather then a marathon. Admirable, but the easier option.

Half way through the season I was presented with another option – St. Kilda Saints. I saw them gain an unexpected victory after a hard fought game at the Etihad Stadium and on the final whistle Anthony surprised me with passes into the rooms for the post game celebrations. Watching the Saints passionately sing their victory song was an incredible experience and being up close with the team also builds a bit of a connection. It was a young team with the potential to ascend into the top 8, something I could get on board with.  That seed had been planted. Unfortunately, St. Kilda’s season ended prematurely as they narrowly missed out on a spot in the finals. So as they went away to rethink their plan, so did I.

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I watched the teams through preseason, counted out those not from Melbourne and focused on the sides I thought might be up and coming. The ever present underdog with some kind of valiant tale behind them, Essendon, was one of the teams at the forefront of my mind. A top team blighted by a drugs scandal who had slipped to the foot of the ladder but had a comeback ahead of them. The Bulldogs who had defied the odds in the previous season yet had a young squad with much more to offer. But my final resting place lay with the Saints. St Kilda had gone though years of ‘nearly theres’ – a Grand Final appearance which had ended in a draw, a replay and finally a defeat. There was heartache there, frustration, desperation and yet above all else, hope. Hope is a thing I can get behind. A young ambitious team capable of beating anyone on their day. But also prone to a devastating collapse without warning. They would do for me. They resonate with my passion for Liverpool. If I can handle them I can handle these. It won’t be easy, but if it was, what would be the point? The thrill is in the chase, the ‘nearly made its’ and the strive for success. After 27 years, Liverpool still have me waiting. It wouldn’t surprise me if the saints did the same. Years of agonising pain, living every kick with them, relishing in every victory and despairing in very loss. But that’s why we do it. That’s what we’re in it for. The ride. And for me this ride is a new one. I’m learning what it is to be a football fan and what it means to be a saints fan. I’ve no idea how this is going to go, or if I’ll get out with my marbles intact. But I’m going to enjoy every minute of it for no other reason than, unlike my love for Liverpool, I’ve brought this one upon myself.

CARN THE SAINTS!

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