Our parents pass down a lot; Sage advice, jokes for you to annoy your own children, the baldness gene… the most powerful generational non-negotiable is the allegiance to a sports team.
Like a royal baby, one could be born into riches. New York, LA, Madrid, Edinburgh. You’ll see success in at least one of your city’s sporting powerhouse representatives. Giants lose, the Yankees dominate. Dodgers drop a season, Lakers sweep it. Celtic lose… actually, Celtic don’t lose.
I would sit with my Dad having very little clue what was happening, just cheering when others around me did
A city will, for the most part, have a maximum of two teams per code vying for their share of wallet and irrational support of those inhabitants. There are, of course, exceptions to that rule, like the swathe of soccer teams littered around London, yet for the populous of that city they would be sitting in the camp of Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham or West Ham and it really comes down which tube line you live on.
Toward the global antipode of Old Blighty, you will find Melbourne. The self-proclaimed ‘Sports Capital Of The World’. Here you’ll encounter an anomaly of sporting culture for a city with a relatively small population. When Melbourne was a tick over 20 years old and a community of little more than half a million, a small sporting group called the Victorian Football Association was born. A handful of teams playing this indigenous game signed up and after a few decades of clubs in and out and an eventual evolution in the Victorian Football League, the teams of this code were settled. There would be 12. Sounds a lot, but this was early 18th century and teams reflected and represented the tiny suburbs in which they played. It was fervent support almost to an address level. Allegiance meant something. In these days, you lived in, worked in and rarely moved out of your suburb. When you supported your team, you were stoutly defending your few city blocks.
All except Melbourne Football Club. This is where the pain starts.
Laying claim to the Oldest sporting club in the world, Melbourne Football Club was born from a letter in a board room surrounded by oak and leather. It grew in the trappings of wealth in a world no bigger than a sports oval. Supporter’s blood was not mixed with sweat on a factory floor, but as blue as the ink on their stock purchases.
To be Melbourne was to be rich, upper-class, elite. They watched football from their ivory towers. It was incredibly easy to hate them. However, for a long time it went incredibly well for the suits and Premierships flowed like whisky from the old country, but that bottle of success emptied and without the wins, there wasn’t a base of vehement irrational support from any corner of the city.
My father was a peripheral teen supporter of the sport in the 1960s and decided he needed to land on a team. Looking at a decade of recent history, Melbourne had saluted 6 times in 10 years and he made his fateful decision in 1965. It seemed like the train of glory was unstoppable, but little did he know it had actually just careened off Clayton’s Ravine into a fireball. Never again have the Demons, as they came to be known (very apt, considering pain and torment they inflict on their fans), looked like winning it again.
I understand that sport isn’t always about winning, it has that community binding factor and win or lose you do it together, but Melbourne is a supporter wasteland. As a child, when I was forced to coat up and hope a red and blue wool hat would save me from hypothermia, the stands were quite desolate compared to the masses that swarmed for the other teams. I would sit with my Dad having very little clue what was happening, just cheering when other red and blue peoples scattered around us would erupt.
At school, bands of kids would get together at lunch on a Monday and regale each other with the majesty of the feats shown by their team’s heroes. More kids would hear and join in. Friendship groups were born.
As a Demon, I was a floater and usually only included when my team lost to theirs. Even on the school days when we got to dress in our team colours, I remember seeing another kid across the yard kitted out the same as me and when we locked eyes and shrugged “I know, but we didn’t a choice, did we? “
I ended up leaning into it in my 20s and it became a private pilgrimage for my father and I. It was time spent with my Dad. Meeting in the pub before the game, discussing all the ways we could win and the red-hot form of Player X, disintegrating into insane, screaming mad-men during the game and the beers afterwards drowning our sorrows as we lamented ever drafting Player X.
It’s a religion we demand of our children. They will wear the colours you so proudly display. Yet, do we start to consider the wider ranging impacts of forcing a potentially rubbish, isolating, painful team to support without other options?
Of course we don’t. Next year is our year and all will be right with the world. Now here’s my credit card number. Sign me up.