It hits you in the gut. A visceral force like a punch. Then it radiates throughout your body until you come out in goosebumps and clichés. You become momentarily disorientated as the roar of more than 100,000 people overwhelms you. There are few more exhilarating places to be than in the middle of the MCG on Grand Final day just before the bounce of the ball.
I can picture you now, checking the byline and hunting around for an old Footy Record, rifling through team lists and memories, wondering if I was named on the bench, perhaps a last minute replacement for an injured warrior or just one of the lesser lights. But you won’t find my name listed in Footy Records, honour boards or lists of goal kickers. I wasn’t a ruckman or rover, or even a roving reporter. You won’t have heard of me or even taken much notice of me had you seen me on the day.
I was just one of twenty kids dressed in brown and gold out on the ground to hold up the banner for Hawthorn to run through. When supporters of the rival teams started chanting in turn, it set up a call and response motif that swirled around the ground until the massed voices met in the middle and surged towards me like a gale. I certainly felt like I was taking part.
Nineteen eighty three was my 13th consecutive Grand Final. My first was in 1971 when I was seven. I sat in the second tier of the Ponsford Stand and I wept at three quarter time, begging my uncle to take me home. The Hawks were four goals behind the Saints, having kicked only five for the match. I couldn’t bear to watch any more. Happily, my uncle, having no allegiance to either side, ignored my whining and I witnessed one of the great final quarter comebacks when Bob Keddie moved to Full Forward and kicked four goals.
I’ve been to every Grand Final since, except two. In 1996 I was overseas and in 1999 I had a new baby at home. In both those years North Melbourne won the premiership. I suspect it was no coincidence I missed those years. I have never forgiven North for defeating Hawthorn on a grey day in 1975 to win their first premiership. Perhaps subconsciously I didn’t want to witness any further North successes. I was in tears that night too, a forlorn figure as I went home on the tram in my gold Hawthorn cape.
Hawthorn reversed this result on a sunny day the following year, kicking three final quarter goals to the Jolimont end, where a mass of Hawthorn fans behind the goals rose like a golden wave to cheer each goal.
Now Hawthorn is back in the Grand Final for the first time in 17 years. It is at once nostalgic and new. From the moment we qualified, my sense of anticipation was familiar, but the game and venue have changed, new rituals have replaced old and we are given little chance of winning.
Hawthorn is playing Geelong, who has lost only one match for the season and seems unbeatable. This adds an unusual pall to the thoughts of Hawk fans. We have to believe, but dare not.
Melbourne’s sporting calendar contains a number of periodic showpiece events that excite attendance envy among those who, through lack of connections, cunning or cash, can’t attend. I’ve never had a pit lane pass dangling around my neck at the Grand Prix, preened myself in the birdcage at Flemington on Cup Day, swilled Crown Lager from a corporate suite at the Boxing Day Test or sat courtside at the Australian Open final. I’ve made it my business, however, to be at the Grand Final at the MCG, even the solitary one played at Waverley. Somehow I’ve always found a way to be there.
I’ve watched Grand Finals from every pocket and perspective: from the member’s pavilion to the Ponsford, from the Long Room to standing room, from the Northern to the Southern stands, and from the fence to the far reaches.
Over 38 years the MCG has been completely transformed. The old grandstands are gone, replaced by grander ones, some retaining the same name, but not necessarily the same character.
The main change over these years, however, is not the look or facilities, but the noise level. I don’t mean the public address system, which no longer allows a single second unfilled by din, but the crowd noise that used to swirl around the stadium, rising and ebbing in gusts and swells. What used to be called atmosphere when it was a naturally occurring phenomenon rather than an artificially amplified construct.
I stood in the middle of the MCG that day in 1983 and was physically affected by the noise coming at me. I was out there again in 1984, and every year until 1989 as Hawthorn made it to seven consecutive Grand Finals. The most notable change over that time was the diminishing atmosphere around the stadium.
Perhaps I was more accustomed to the experience. It might be, however, that in the same period the Grand Final became more of a corporate and coterie event, with people getting in, not through allegiance to one of the participating clubs, but because they could get tickets. There is the MCC members, the AFL members, the club and competition sponsors, the corporate packages, and by the time all of these people take their premium seats, few are left for supporters. And they are so remotely situated that, like light from a distant star, any noise emanating from them takes considerable time to reach the arena.
The emergence of teams from outside Victoria in the mid 90s, whose passionate supporters could not necessarily trek across the country for the game, limitations to ground capacity and a series of unevenly matched games combined to drain the atmosphere from the big game. In 1983 the people at the ground cared about the outcome. By 2007, it seemed that almost no one did.
Now, nearly twenty years since our last MCG Grand Final, Hawthorn is back again. The phone is ringing as old Hawthorn friends reconnect. I find myself re-enacting old habits, decorating home and office, meeting old friends, making arrangements to catch up with newer football friends, going to the parade of players through the city streets the day before, except this time with my children.
I’m at the ground early and get a good seat in the members’ pocket. It’s turning into a beautiful day; golden sunshine, blue skies. A Hawthorn day we used to call it. A good sign. I haven’t contemplated that we might lose and realise that I haven’t spoken to my children about this possibility, to ward off the potential for sulking. I convince myself this is also a good sign. As the game draws near I’m in the bar settling my nerves, catching up with the various people I see on Grand Final day. People wish me luck. I thank them and head to my seat. It is strangely foreign yet also completely familiar. The Hawthorn banner is clearly superior to Geelong’s. A good sign. I’m tense. The sun picks out the gold in the outfits worn by Hawks fans and there is a large gathering of them behind the goals at the Jolimont end. They seem to glow. Another good sign.
The first half is tight and although Geelong seems to be on top in general play, the Hawks are kicking straight and are marginally in front at the break. Then in the third quarter, with the Hawks kicking to the Joilimont end where the sun is shining, the goals start coming freely. First Franklin kicks a long one. For those of us in the shade at the other end of the ground, it is the wave of gold and the rising roar that tells us it’s a goal. Then Cyril and Hodge kick goals. Dew and Williams snare one each, then Dew again and with each goal the roar is getting louder and the bright gold outfits and flags swarm behind the goals like a pollen storm, growing luminous. So bright it might be visible from space. The noise is swelling around the new stadium, a tumescent din that builds and builds into a crescendo with each goal. My voice is in there contributing a sustained bass note among many. It is the sound of the unthinkable becoming possible, of belief turning to faith. The new stadium has found its wavelength. The noise of the crowd buffets and rouses us as Hawthorn adds three more goals in the last quarter to seal the match.
As the game winds down and the noise continues to grow, I realise that what’s been missing all these years is not something structural caused by the reconfiguration of grandstands, nor something borne of general indifference or the presence of interstate teams. What’s been missing is my involvement and vested passion, my own voice.