Retain Hope All Who Enter Here: My love letter to the Melbourne Demons

As I complete this, Australian Rules Football fans worldwide have just finished watching the Melbourne Demons defeat the Western Bulldogs in a match that saw them move back into top spot on the ladder. The game itself was surreal as no supporters were allowed into the stadium due to the COVID lockdown measures enforced in Melbourne. What is even more surreal is that a team that has been such a source of joy, but also frustration, for me is now playing the best football I have seen it play in 33 years. This peculiar state of affairs has inspired me to reminisce on my life as a Melbourne supporter.

A badge I managed to pick up in Collingwood in 2014 and which proudly adorns my backpack.

2021 has finally seen me return to watching the sport after a two year hiatus. I have outlined the reasons behind my apathy, disdain and hostility towards the AFL and footy ‘culture’ in my review of The Australian Dream/The Final Quarter, so should you want to know more then I recommend that you read that for the sake of brevity.

The parable of the Prodigal Son isn’t a good analogy to use when describing why I have started to yet again ‘ensconce myself in front of a screen for several hours a weekend and ferally scream’. I don’t regret the time I spent away as it allowed me to take on other pursuits that I never had the time to do previously. Unfortunately, the odor of racism, sexism, tribalism and the pungent ‘boys’ clubs’ aroma in particular that wafts off the AFL swamp still hasn’t been entirely purged from my nostrils. It’s lingering scent has been partially rejuvenated by revelations from both The Australian newspaper and Mick Warner’s book ‘The Boys’ Club’ of a toxic work environment at AFL House, inappropriate sexual relationships highlighted by power imbalances between those involved, payments of hush money to disgruntled former employees, and cronyism which saw the culpable parties who had been dismissed finding ready employment once the scandal died down.

My cynicism towards how the sport is governed and the negative culture that it’s media Greek Chorus normalize endures. However, two things have catalyzed my return to watching football games on a semi regular basis.

Firstly, two men who for mine were the repugnant talismans of the footballing zeitgeist that I just described have been somewhat defenestrated. In my youth, I found both Eddie McGuire and Sam Newman to be the height of cutting wit and refined comedy. In my present middle age, I find their antics to be synonymous with the ‘boys will be boys’, elitist, bigoted and philistine culture that saw both Heritier Lumumba and Adam Goodes driven from the game. Both were ubiquitous in the Melbourne media landscape. Both had media platforms that they used as cudgels to circle the wagons around their friends, and punish those who resisted their narratives and worked against their interests. In the former’s case, Eddie was the unquestioned figurehead of the most conspicuous and influential football club in Australia: Collingwood, giving him two megaphones with which to drive his agendas.

I was cautiously heartened when these two men who I identified with the old sectarian White Australia lost some, though not all, of their soapboxes. McGuire, after commissioning a report that dug into allegations of racism at Collingwood which inadvertently unearthed a rich vein of calcified bigotry, was forced to step down after displaying his fossilized tone deafness at a press club unveiling the findings. His roar is still audible, if somewhat diminished, through his role on the AFL chat show, Footy Classified.

His fellow dinosaur, Newman, left the primordial swamp of the Footy Show in 2018, but was hemmed off from the biosphere of mainstream reporting after making comments in the wake of the murder of George Floyd that could only best be described as being lizard brained. He now freely roams the untamed savannahs of the Twitter and podcast worlds with other prehistoric organisms.

However, begrudging and forced demotions from the football media world were not the sole trigger for me to start watching football again, and this brings me to the more hopeful part of the reasoning behind why I have started watching again.

As stated at the start of this blog post, the Melbourne Demons appear to have summoned up an incandescent and irrepressible spirit that has exuded from most of it’s senior players this year, and has reincarnated a club that was a by word for flakiness, softness and capitulation into one characterized by ferocity, constancy and discipline.

For those who have read any of my posts, it would seem counter-intuitive for me to support a club like Melbourne. Founded in 1858 as a means to keep cricketers fit during the Australian winter, the Melbourne Football Club was a key acolyte in the coven of privilege, access and elitism that made up both the Melbourne Cricket Club and the Melbourne Club, selective entry organizations who had exclusion and class discrimination baked into their DNA. Thankfully, the former now admits female members. As a result, the Demons have been viewed by many as almost an aristocratic, Victorian era parody masquerading as a football team. Identifying the effete aura that his team emanated, it’s coach during the 1930’s and a man from the rough and ready working class team of Richmond, Frank ‘Checker’ Hughes, was the one responsible for coming up with the Demons nickname. It’s predecessor was the Fuschias; not exactly the type of epithet to engender fear in those opposite.

However, the upper class, born to rule image of the club was never why I started supporting them. I was never part of that social strata. I was born in Melton South (thank you very much random posters of and Reddit), and the born to rule arrogance of that demographic is a contradiction to what I hope to stand for as a human being. The reason I barracked for the club was because of players like the selfless, determined, empathetic and trailblazing Irish recruit, Jimmy Stynes, the dazzling, mercurial and engrossing Indigenous player, Jeff Farmer, the swaggering, lackadaisical yet ephemerally brilliant Allen Jakovich, the bohemian, yet determined and unwavering consistent Max Gawn, and the roguishly daring yet personally tragic and subsequently redeemed David Schwarz. These were the type of men that enticed me into being a Demon.

While those are some of the factors as to why I barrack for Melbourne, another factor were the whims of an 8 year old child back in 1988.

When I was a kid, my family were Collingwood supporters. Typically, football team allegiance in Australia is determined by filial bonds. However, I bucked against that predestined alignment as I was initially a Geelong supporter. My rationale for doing so was because of the antics of former Demons player Mark ‘Jacko’ Jackson, who was playing for the Cats at the time. To a six year old kid, his Energizer battery commercials and ‘pop music career’ (if you wish to be generous in your nomenclature regarding what he put out) were all pretty cool. I knew as much about football as I did about cold fusion physics, but I didn’t care. His post career ‘highlights’ and boofheadedness that stood out like a skunk in a flock of flamingos were then irrelevant to me. I was a Cats fan because of Jacko.

‘Some say I’m a genius. To others, I’m a loon.

‘I’m an Individual’ by Mark ‘Jacko’ Jackson

Serendipity saw the family move to the Geelong region in 1988, and I was quietly excited. I could actually live in the area the Cats played in! Never mind that I knew nothing about the sport. We were moving to Geelong! It was at this time that my Dad managed to wear down my defenses, and persuaded me to change my colors from blue and white hoops to the black and white stripes of Collingwood. For a fleeting few months, I became engrossed by Collingwood. I spent most of my time kicking a plastic football in the front yard of our quarter acre hobby farm home in Fyansford pretending I was kicking the winning goal for the ‘Pies.

Alas, Dad at this time made a strategic error. He decided to take me to see a Round 16 match at the MCG which saw Melbourne play host to Collingwood. In his mind surely this was the day when team loyalty to the Maggies would forever be embedded deep in my synapses, and I would become a supporter for life! Unfortunately for Dad, Melbourne proceeded to take Collingwood to the wood shed (pardon the pun) and ran out 46 point winners. They repeated the dose later in the season by eliminating Collingwood from the finals race in the 2nd Semi Final at the MCG by 13 points.

This was a day of destiny. Collingwood 12.10.82 def. by Melbourne 13.17.95

Never mind that the worst head to head record against any establishment VFL/AFL club that Melbourne has is against Collingwood (Melbourne 84 wins, Collingwood 150 wins and 5 draws). Never mind that Collingwood would win the premiership in 1990, subsequently won another premiership in 2010 and played in three other grand finals while Melbourne would go onto be one of the worst performed teams of the last 30 years. Never mind that at one stage Melbourne was looking to merge with Hawthorn, and would often play in front of crowds that could fit into a phone box. Meanwhile, Collingwood boasted close to 100,000 members, averaged crowds of 70,000 per match and were a regular subject of water cooler talk around Melbourne.

I was SICK of losing to Melbourne! And my eight year old brain adhered to the classical philosophical tenet, ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’. I became a Demon from that point on.

While I may facetiously speak like that the decision I had made caused me as much disappointment, emotional pain and humiliation as trading the family farm for a handful of magic beans (and in reality, following a frustrating football team isn’t a drop in the ocean compared to what others world wide have to confront on a daily basis), I don’t regret making that decision for a moment. The French existential author Albert Camus once said “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe to football”. While he was referring to what we the insular and parochial Antipodeans refer to as ‘soccer’ and I don’t believe that I have absorbed all of my principles from watching football, following the fortunes of the Demons has ingrained in me both a resilience and humility that I try to apply in my life.

A day to forget, but one I don’t think many can!

Sure, there have been times like the one where I have thrown my scarf in the bin like I did after we lost to a Gold Coast Suns team full of teenagers by 10 goals, and got told at the after match press conference that we had been ‘outmuscled’ by their midfielders. Or when we lost to Hawthorn by a then record margin in a grand final in 1988, the year I became a supporter. Or when we lost to Geelong by a margin of 186 points, a margin so unbelievable I had to whip out a calculator to confirm the losing margin (I have never watched the full game and never intend to). Or when we used to have a bloke in a velvet smoking jacket play our club song on a trumpet before matches. Or when our players wore club issued schoolboy style blazers to wear on match days (apparently someone forgot to order the accompanying straw hats and knee high socks) . Or more tragically, when Jimmy Stynes, Troy Broadbridge, Dean Bailey, Sean Wight, and Colin Sylvia all died before their time.

Up until this point, I’m not sure my wife thought Melbourne actually winning was feasible!

While there have been a number of well documented calamities that have befallen us since I have been a supporter (refer to this list here if you want a non-exhaustive teaser as to what we have gone through or even better, buy ‘The Great Deepression’ by the very talented Adam Woolcock), there have also been plenty of unforgettable and treasured moments as well. Like Shane Woewodin’s unexpected Brownlow Medal win in 2000. Like when we came back from 31 points down in the third quarter to roll Carlton in the Qualifying Final of the same year. Like when I took my then girlfriend (and now wife) and two other Japanese friends, who were all mostly texting their friends on their phones, to see us play Essendon in 2014, and we came back from 30 odd points down which saw us all high fiving and hugging in jubilation by the end. Like when we rolled the aforementioned Carlton earlier in 2014, thus breaking a 12 game losing streak. This was a win which saw all Melbourne supporters who passed each other on the way out of the ground exchange fist bumps, high fives and subdued utterances of ‘You Beauty!’. Like when I blew my voice box out from my impassioned exhortations of excitement and enthusiasm when we drew with Collingwood in 2010. Like the time Jack Watts stuck it up all the haters with his match winning goal on Queens Birthday in 2017. Like the continued fight shown by our former coach, Neale Daniher, in bravely fighting Motor Neurone Disease as well as the fundraising and awareness campaigns he has devoted his remaining days to.

And that really is what sums up the morality football teaches us. While I don’t fully subscribe to the legendary Liverpool manager, and committed socialist, Bill Shankly’s tongue in cheek maxim that “Somebody said that football’s a matter of life and death… I said ‘listen, it’s more important than that’.”, I do believe parts of it are a microcosm of life. Supporting a team demonstrates the value of community in a world that is becoming increasingly atomized. It demands fidelity in a society in which personal ambition supersedes group loyalty. It requires patience in an epoch that demands instant and easy gratification. It shows that life is a pile of good things and bad things, but just because the bad things exist doesn’t mean that the good things never happened.

And it highlights that things can and do often change for the better. While I was fairly acerbic about the historical roots of the Melbourne Football Club and aspects of it’s reputation at the start of this post, it too seems to have also become a more inclusive and socially conscious place as well. It was a key player in establishing the AFLW and recently appointed it’s first female president, something that once was unimaginable considering the club’s origins. It has attempted outreach into the Asian migrant community. It has divulged itself of all of it’s gaming assets, an industry that is a blight on the City of Melbourne in my opinion.

My fandom of the Demons has been a constant thread in the tapestry of my life. Despite the valleys and crevices I have been through, I am immensely grateful for the enrichment it has added and look forward to the many more years of joy it will add.

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