On Friday after work I raced home to see my little man Richard participate in his first Auskick session. He is considerably younger than I ever wanted him to be before being involved in any form of organised sport, but he is such a footy tragic and he nagged us so much that in the end I just had to cave.
He is not yet six, and while I am concerned enough about the concept of burnout to yank him from the program should I get any hint that he doesn’t want to be there, he was having so much fun that my concerns are, for now, abated. In fact, he was having so much fun that when it dawned on him that he was going to have to leave he cracked one of his bigger wobblies.
“I don’t wanna ever come here again!” he howled. “EVER!!!” A kid must really love a place if he declares he will never return should he have to leave. Of course, I know my son well enough to know that he will make a big goose of himself if he is really tired, or really thirsty. In this case it was both.
I was the Boring Blues, and he was still the Tigers, but somehow we were in Auskick. His imagination is always going 100 miles an hour, and the game is always going from awesome specky to huge goal. I remember being a kid doing Little League in 1992 and having a similarly ripping time. Of course, I was a lot older than him. We ended up playing on the MCG and I got to play as the Tigers, complete with the number 12 on my back. I’ll never forget looking up at that huge crowd right after I’d coat-hangered some poor kid, wondering if anyone had seen it. I joyfully played for another 20 years.
Kids are funny. If something doesn’t interest them, they won’t do it. If something doesn’t command their attention, they won’t watch it. They do say that everyone has an inner child, and I think that inner child can often be found in adults watching sport. I know that I and many others are simply not as excited about the footy this year. The crowd numbers certainly support this suspicion; they are way down.
Rohan Connolly in The Age over the weekend contended that this drop in crowds was to do with ticket pricing, and the disrespect that some aspects of pricing shows to the people who make the game rich in more ways than monetary wealth. Those people are the fans. I’m sure he is right, but I think this is more of a factor in the overall ill health of the game right now, rather than the root cause. Right now, the general vibe of footy is just way down.
“The general vibe of footy” sounds like a line uttered by Dennis Denuto in the classic film The Castle, but it is a real thing. I’ve never before entered the first week of the AFL season feeling so empty about it. I’ve never experienced such little excitement from my fellow Melbournians. This city should be aglow with a keen edged sense of anticipation for every round, yet there is nothing.
So I ask this, has the fun gone out of the game? And without giving you a chance to answer, I’ll also say that sadly I think it has. This is a much deeper issue than one or two things that can be quickly rectified to get us back on track, I believe this is about how the game has been changed from the thing we loved into something else, something alien. It has been twisted, turned, melded, bashed and beaten into a thing that we never wanted.
This is a huge business, worth millions and millions of dollars. This is an industry with coaches and administrators that refer to players and clubs as “brands”. This is a world where the things that we cherish, like the high mark, like full-forwards, like wingman, like positional play, like affordable pies, like Saturday afternoon games and the hilarious after game radio anger calls have all been stripped away in the name of progress.
This is a game where you can no longer sit at half time and discuss the game or whatever the hell you want with your mate because A) he can’t hear you over the noise of the music and B) he’s not even there because he can’t afford to attend. This is a game that has a whole channel dedicated to it. That employs analysts to pour over statistics and positional tactics with a fine toothed comb and educate its poor viewership who would just love to be able to watch a joyful game of footy where the ball moves and players play.
To put this into perspective, one of Fox Footy’s analysts is David King. I remember watching and admiring King’s play for North Melbourne through the ‘90s and early 2000s, and let me tell you King played a basic brand of footy. He got the ball, tucked it under his arm and booted it as close the Wayne Carey as he could. That was the extent of North’s whole game plan. It was beautiful.
Now King would have us believe that he was thinking about 4028 things per second when he was just trying to get the pill and get it somewhere near Duck. God, how I wish we could see a game plan once more that involved simply kicking it to Duck. How serious and overthought must everything be in footy these days?
I’m now told by Dermott Brereton, the other football scientist on Fox Footy, that there is no such thing as a full forward any more. This, he explains, is why Damien Hardwick will continue to play Jack Riewoldt, a natural high leaping, marking forward who is a good judge of the ball in flight and has an uncanny sense for goal but is severely lacking in pace, as a half forward nowhere near the goals. Instead, the Tigers will avoid Jack and send more of the ball through Tyrone Vickery.
This is like asking Shane Warne to bat at four and bowl part time off spin to allow Glenn McGrath to bowl Chinamen. It is frustrating to no end for this footy lover to see his game spoiled before his very eyes and be completely unable to stop its destruction. All “game plans” seem to be about not losing first, and winning second. Nothing seems to be about taking the game on, or backing in the players to follow their natural games or instincts.
This, of course, is what we want: players playing where they play best and doing it well is what has made the game appealing. It is a spectacle. At its zenith, Aussie Rules Footy is a game of moment after moment of breathtaking splendour. Contests for the ball amongst players have been replaced with rugby like scrimmages, and when a one on one contest accidentally ensues, the players have been coached to get the ball over the line as quickly as possible to ensure that no one can lose the contest and that another scrimmage can take place.
When a side gets control of the ball, they kick it this way and that trying to pluck a way through the opposition’s zone, which, inevitably, they can’t. It looks a great deal like soccer. The game has been coached this way. It has been coached to no longer resemble our game. It is still hard, but it is not exhilarating.
When Paul Roos was named the coach of Melbourne, the first thing I thought was that if he stopped Jeremy Howe from taking huge speckies then it was just another sad sign of the times. Two rounds in, zero speckies for the new Jezza. I hope this changes soon, because we need him doing his thing.
In fact, the state of the oldest footy club in the galaxy is another cause for concern, but at least the expansion clubs with no history or anything interesting about them other than the 18 trillion concessions they got are doing ok. Too bad for my mates Emu and Pongho who have pretty much given up on their club. Too bad for my mates Evo and Boy, who follow the Dogs and got to see four goals in a half of footy. Too bad for my old man whose club he saw die in 1996, and then has watched the game he played competitively over 400 times turn into an ugly amalgam of soccer and Rugby.
Not only kids will turn away when things aren’t interesting, so too will adults. I am still watching my club, because it is what I do. I am still passionate about my Tigers, but I can give or take other games when once I would have been hanging to watch as many as I could. Things have become so complicated and serious that footy is just plain exhausting. Throw in the horrible Essendon supplement scandal, and is it any wonder that “the general vibe of footy” is faltering?
Try to think of this article as the game of footy, as our game. Think about the tone of this piece, and what it was saying. Was it a serious piece? Was it analytical? Was it happy? Did it make you feel good? Now, please do me and yourself a favour and try to remember the little kid at the start of it all who loved footy.