The Sydney Swans: Ugly ducklings no more

There’s no denying the fact that the commercial side of football has now developed into a big business.

That was written in Football Life, the official publication of the Victorian Football League (VFL), which evolved into the AFL, in July 1971.

Forty-one years later on Grand Final weekend, not only can it not be denied, but it’s etched in stone at every stadium where the game is played, but particularly at the Melbourne Cricket Ground where the Sydney Swans had a magnificent and dramatic 10-point victory over the Hawthorn Hawks yesterday. More of that later. (The Age photo above is by Joe Armao.)

The AFL – not the Swans – is responsible for astronomical ticket prices:  Platinum seats went for $390, a third up on last year, and even standing room only tickets were nearly $180. Add air fares, accommodation, transport, food and a few beers, and it would be easy to spend $1000 in a weekend. Not all of us can afford such a sum, even when our favourite team is playing in the Grand Final.

Australian Rules, which used to be the game for the everyman, is now becoming one for the rich man (and woman).

It’s still the best game in Australia – one that I fell in love with back when I first arrived in 1971. It was not a difficult sport to understand: a Carlton supporter, Terry Maher, wearing his scarf, hat, buttons, etc, taught me and my mate, Jim McCausland, all that we needed to know in one afternoon in our rented home in Ashfield (now an apartment building, of course!). Keep the ball moving, don’t run more than 15 yards without bouncing the ball, punch the ball with one hand to pass to a teammate, and kick between the middle uprights for a six-point goal, or the outside uprights for a one-point behind.

Terry also told us about the 1970 Grand Final when coach Ron Barassi told his Carlton players, down by 44 points to Collingwood at halftime, to “handball, handball, handball” in the second half. They did and won by 10 points.

In 1972, Carlton won the premiership again and Labor’s Gough Whitlam was elected Prime Minister of Australia. It was the year of loving dangerously, and I loved the Blues and Gough Whitlam. I supported Carlton for many years, but became a Swans member to boost the AFL in Sydney, and eventually became a Swans supporter – to the dismay of Jim and Terry and my other Blues’ mates.

I have been to four Grand Finals, 1981 and 82, when Carlton won the flag; 1996, when the Swans lost to North Melbourne, and 2005, the first Swans premiership since 1923 when they were the South Melbourne Bloods – a heritage all Sydney members cherish. You can hear the cry, “Go the Bloods,” at the Sydney Cricket Ground to this day, and, of course, at the MCG yesterday.

Grand Final day at the MCG is one of the greatest sporting events in the world: you can feel the vibes and hear the buzz blocks away from the G. Close to a hundred thousand fans pack the stadium (attendance yesterday: 99,683), and the atmosphere is electric. It’s now broadcast on television around the world, and while it may not attract as many viewers as the US Super Bowl, it makes up for quantity with quality – with the exception of Meat Loaf, an American export past his use by date last year!

The lead-up during the week is also exciting. I went to the SCG last Tuesday to watch the Swans train, and they all looked good. In comparison to Hawthorn’s estimated 15,000 attending their last training session, the Swans’ 500 or so was a bit paltry, but again we made up for quantity with quality. (There were 5,000 Swans fans at the SCG today to welcome them home and celebrate their victory.) Swans’ fans are now just as knowledgeable as their Victorian counterparts and just as vocal. In fact, my mate, Nick Hilyard, and I were once told by a Collingwood supporter – the son of a former Magpies’ captain – to talk more quietly at ANZ stadium in Homebush a few years ago! I broke all decibel records for a while before we shook hands and became mates by the end of the match.

Now to the game of the century: the Swans versus the Hawks yesterday. It may well be the game of the last century as well — a see-saw affair which saw the Swans behind, ahead, behind, and then triumphant on goals by an injured Adam Goodes and Nick Malceski. The coach of the year, as voted by the AFL Coaches Association, is John Longmire, and he leads a group of men who play as a team, not as individuals. The Swans have a special bond – yes, mateship – that they demonstrate every game, even in the ones they lose. They remind me of the great sporting teams of the last 60 years – the 1970 champions, New York Knicks, the 1969 Super Bowl champs, the New York Jets, led by Joe Namath,  the 1960s Green Bay Packers of Vince Lombardi, the 1950s and 60s Boston Celtics, coached by Red Auerbach, the 1960 Philadelphia Eagles,  the New York Yankees of the early 1950s, and the 1970 VFL Premiers, Ron Barassi’s Carlton Blues (mentioned above).

It was therefore appropriate that John Longmire mentioned the Barassi Blues in his post-match comments yesterday in praising his team’s “never-say-die” attitude: ‘‘It’s a great attitude to have boys, and you did it today. Well done. In an historic context, perhaps this clash deserves a place beside the 1970 grand final — a classic also decided by 10 points.’’( )

Longmire is one of the nicest blokes in the game (as well as the best coach), and as you’d expect, he did not forget his mother, who died of cancer midway through the season. He said: “Mum, I hope you enjoyed the game.” And his mate and rival coach, Alastair Clarkson, summed up the thinking person’s approach to sport, after his players collapsed with emotion on the MCG turf: ‘‘At the end of the day it still is the theatre of sport and you have to deal with those emotions. It is not anywhere near the loss of something like what happened to Jill Meagher last week or a brother-in-law that I lost this year through cancer … or what happened to Jarrad McVeigh’s daughter last year. You have to keep these things in perspective.’’

The perspective, of course, is that it is only a game, as my daughter once said to me when I was coaching her basketball team, and got a bit excited and yelled at some players during a match. It is only a game, but when it’s played as well as it was yesterday, by both sides, it is a divine diversion. As one of my favourite authors, James Michener, said in his book, On Sport (1976), it is the “enlarging of the human adventure that sports are all about.” I dips me lid to the 2012 Sydney Swans, one of the best and brightest and bravest teams of all time, who have enlarged the human adventure.


Finally, a postscript on my favourite American code, professional football, where it’s been a good week for the unions.

The National Football League has been suffering through one of the most difficult openings to the NFL season. Members of the NFL Referees Association were locked out by the super-rich owners of the 32 teams over their demands to keep the pension and get more money.

The league brought in replacement officials, from the lower tier of referees in high schools and junior colleges, whose day jobs included banking and real estate. They were hopeless and in three rounds managed to make more mistakes than the regular officials had in at least a season. The worst came during a Green Bay-Seattle game last Monday when two officials disagreed over a Hail Mary pass (one thrown in the last seconds of a match), that was really an interception as well as a pass interference call, and awarded a touchdown to Seattle. So their incompetence led to a Packer loss, and a quick resolution to the conflict.

Within three days, the regular referees were back at work, much to the delight of the players and the fans. At the Baltimore Ravens-Cleveland Browns match on Thursday night, the referees received a standing ovation from the fans, and one Ravens supporter displayed a sign over the railing in front of his seat:


We get to yell

at real refs!

Welcome Back! 

NFL TV showed the sign and ovations to millions of viewers in the US and around the world (broadcast in Australia on One HD).

The NFL has been a big business longer than the AFL, and I think a lesson can be learned from the way the league handled the referees’ lockout, and a long players’ lockout last year. The deals to end the lockouts were finally brokered by the embattled NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, who managed to keep the season intact, despite pressure from owners used to getting what they want. In his brilliant novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, about a US army squad being feted in Texas Stadium during a Dallas Cowboys’ football game, and how America reacted to these Iraq war heroes, Ben Fountain paints a searing portrait of the fictional Cowboys’ owner, Norm Oglesby: “Texas Stadium is his turf, his castle; no, his actual kingdom. A real king is rare these days but here Norm reigns supreme, and Billy sees how little it takes to make the peons happy, just a glimpse, a wave, a few seconds in his presence and they’re stoked on that good strong celebrity dope.”

The refs fiasco forced the owners to act quickly to get a deal done. Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, sounded as if he really cared about the fans: “Let’s be clear, when our NFL fans talk, we listen. If you’re unhappy, we’re unhappy … we’re here to serve you. Everything we do is to please you!”

Let’s hope all owners feel the same way. Just because a big business is concerned about the bottom line doesn’t mean it has to forget about the little guy.

3 thoughts on “The Sydney Swans: Ugly ducklings no more

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