The Sporting Religion

“I could read the sports section if my hair was on fire” – Jerry Seinfeld

Reading Richard Ford & Watching Steve Smith

by williamschack

This summer I have been reading Richard Ford’s Canada and watching Steve Smith bat in The Ashes. Ford is one of the finest American fiction writers of his generation, and Smith is the finest Australian batsmen of his generation. Ford mixed with luminaries such as Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. Smith mixes with no one that is his peer, but he did play with Ricky Ponting – the leader of the previous golden generation that will never be repeated.

In the history of Australian batsmen, there is a clear top 3. Bradman sits at the top and will not be replaced. At number two sits Greg Chappell. Some say Ponting beats him, but Ponting had the luxury of batting in a dominant side to finish with a career average of 51.85. Chappell played in some great Australian teams, but played on worse pitches, often without protective equipment and facing bowlers such as Malcom Marshall. He ended his career on 53.86. As it stands right now, Smith’s average is 63.75, and he may surpass them both. He currently sits at 76.45 as Captain.

Ford is at the peak of his powers in Canada, and this summer Smith has furthered his quest to be the second best Australian batsmen ever. It has been a pleasure to enjoy them both over the last six weeks, as Australia has regained The Ashes, and the Australian summer has beaten down on the English team.


I first became interested in Ford in 2012 when I was visiting a friend (now the Roos Gal) in London. Her housemate had a large bookshelf, and two books stood out to me: W.G Grace – A life, by Simon Rae (1999); and The Sportswriter (1986), by Richard Ford.  I asked her housemate, who did not strike me as a cricket aficionado, why she had a book on W.G? I was suitably impressed when she informed me that she was a descendant of The Old Man, but slightly upset to find out she did not care for the game.  She also said that The Sportswriter was good and that I should read it. I did. And from almost the first page I knew I was a Richard Ford fan.

For the past 40 years, Ford has been writing stories about the ordinary lives of people from Middle and Lower America. He writes of family. Philandering. Murder. Mental illness. The poor choices that people make when they feel they have no other.

He is best known for his recurring character, Frank Bascombe, who appears in four of his novels. The Sportswriter (1986) was his first success; Independence Day (1995) his biggest success and for which he won the Pulitzer; The Lay of the Land (2006); and Let me be Frank with You (2015). It is Rock Springs (1987) and Canada (2012), however, that interest me most. It is in these stories that his characters are achingly alone and lost, trying to make sense of the times and country in which they live. Down and out, left behind in the pursuit of the American Dream in the Mid-West and West.

Ford does not like colourful language. His understated prose gives the events he is describing an unsettling gravity. He can write about the most traumatic event in a character’s life in plain language that makes it seem all the more shocking.
He also sees language differently to others. He is dyslexic and unable to read like most. He did not complete a book until he was 19 and this has informed his approach to writing. He writes in sentences that are not intended to show his skill as an author. More than most writers, he considers how many syllables are in a word and a sentence. He is direct and easy to read. Sometimes in the Bascombe books, this plainness becomes painful, but that is less a fault with his writing and more a testament to the character and the minutiae of his life which Ford intends for us to understand.

I bought Canada in a second-hand bookshop a few years ago. It has since sat on my poorly positioned bookshelf in my bedroom catching northern sunlight, its cover fading and gathering dust. Recently, while watching the first Test of this summer’s Ashes series, I picked it off the shelf and flicked through it. And from the first page, I knew I loved the book.


Smith seems the most unlikely Australian Captain. He first came to my knowledge when he was selected for the Perth Test in the abysmal 2010/11 Ashes series – the nadir of Australian cricket in my lifetime. It was then that my friends and I bowed our heads in shame as Smith said that his role was to make gags in the field. In hindsight, he was probably just inexperienced in the media and could not articulate what he meant by trying to be a positive influence on the team, but at the time his inarticulateness articulated perfectly that Ponting was out of luck and his team was about to be trounced like no Australian team since 1986. The series ended with Australia losing 3-1 with three innings losses. The English crowd took delight in our demise as a collective, and in particular singling out Mitchell Johnson. Never before had we been humiliated in such a way. It would take Johnson 3 years to recover.

But perhaps Smith is right where he thought he should always be. He grew up in Sutherland Shire, of short-lived The Shire fame. He is not from the school of hard knocks – cricketers rarely are – but he did not complete secondary school, choosing instead to head over to England and play County cricket. This strange colonial sport was his way out of whatever he was in, but he never saw himself as the leg-spinner he was brought into the side as. And he has turned out to be so much more than that.

Smith was dropped after the 2010/11 Ashes and not picked again until the disastrous Homework-Gate tour of 2013 called for someone – anyone – to be selected as four players were dropped for not doing their homework on the opposition.  Once again, I laughed at his selection. I thought there was no point in trying him when he had already failed. He scored 92 in Mowabli, and my opinion immediately changed.

Australia needs batsmen that can play in India. Any batsmen of worth can make runs in Australia and we rarely lose here. If we are to call ourselves the best in the world again – it has been a decade since we did with conviction – then we need batsmen who can bat in foreign conditions. At the moment we have 3 (Warner, Smith, Marsh). And that is the reason Smith’s 92 meant so much to me. In a series when we lost 4-0, this was the one bright spark.

Since then, Smith has progressed to be the number 1 ranked batsmen in the world. It happened slowly, and then suddenly. At Perth in the third Test of the 2013/14 Ashes series, England was pitching the ball short at Smith. He decided he needed to step back and across the stumps, from leg to off, and to face the ball front on. This gave him more time and strengthened his defence. It was strange to make a change in the middle of a Test, but it worked. Smith said that from that moment everything just sort of clicked. Since then, he has averaged above 75 runs per wicket.


Canada is set in the autumn of 1960. It is the story of the Parsons, a lower-middle-class family in Montana. And it is a story of loss and alienation.

Bev Parsons, the father, is an Alabaman native and Airforce veteran from WWII whose life never returned from the heights of dropping bombs in the Pacific. Neeva Parsons, the mother, never recovered from falling pregnant soon after the war, a time when other arrangements could not be made. Their story, Dell says, is not an unheard-of story in the world.

Bev is jubilant at the prospect of a Kennedy presidency, and a Roosevelt picture hangs on his wall. The society is on the precipice of the 1960s, the decade of upheaval that delivered the Civil Rights Act.
The story is told from the voice of Dell Parsons, son of Bev and Neeva, some 50 years later as a 66-year-old. He is looking back at the events of his life with the full knowledge of American life since then. The great trick of the book is that although it is told from Dell in old-age, the story is presented as he saw it at the time through his naïve 14-year-old eyes. Things happen, but it is not immediately apparent to him what they mean. He also foretells the dark events that form the story, but rather than spoil the narrative, it propels it.

The book is split into three parts. The first follows a series of events that lead Bev Parsons to believe his only way out of a bind is to rob a bank. (There are no spoilers here, the first two sentences of the book read: First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later). Neeva helps too, but for different reasons. Part one ends with the parents in prison, awaiting a transfer to North Dakota where the robbery was committed. Their children, Dell and Berner, are alone in their house and uncertain of their future.

The second part follows Dell dealing with the ramifications of his parent’s actions. To avoid becoming a ward of the state, Dell is driven north to (fictional) Fort Royal, Saskatchewan, Canada, by his mother’s friend, Mildred Remlinger. She takes him to live with her brother, Arthur Remlinger, who grew up in the era of The New Deal and hates the government and unions. He went to Harvard, but retreated to Canada to escape his mysterious past after he became politically involved in some violent groups. He would have been more at home in Trump’s America.

Dell spends most of his time, however, with Arthur’s right-hand man, Charley Quarters. He teaches Dell how to hunt geese, and warns Dell of the dangers to be found in the town. He is a Metis who has pictures of Hitler and Mussolini in his trailer and believes they were misunderstood.
Despite his flaws, it is Dell’s period with Charley that is the most interesting in the book. Dell does not like him, and it appears Charley feels the same way about him, yet they both lean on each other and help one another in an unspoken way.
The reader is always on edge, however, and it feels as though something awful is about to happen at the hands of Charley, or perhaps someone else. We know Dell survives, as he is telling the story from the present, but the reader constantly fears for him in his vulnerable state.

The characters we meet in Canada are much like those in America. Running from their past, not looking back. Trying to make themselves a second life, but never really believing they can. We do not learn of Charley and Arthur’s fate. Charley’s, it would seem, was sealed from his beginning. Arthur goes to extreme lengths to escape his past, and might just succeed.

The third part ends in contemporary times. Fort Royal is largely gone. Only a few houses and an abattoir remain. Dell now lives in Windsor, Ontario, across the river and a now more heavily manned border from Detroit. The city that his dad used to tell him was the melting pot of the world, where you could get a good job with a good wage.

Dell flies from Detroit to the Twin Cities, Minneapolis to visit Berner. It is in the first year of the Obama Presidency, and in the trailer park where she lives, all the residents have American flags proudly waving above their places. Berner voted for Obama, but it would appear the others did not. They have signs underneath their flags stating that abortion is wrong, marriage is a sacrament, and there should be no taxes.
After their brief encounter, Dell flies back to Detroit, the city that would file for bankruptcy four years later.


Smith’s 5 Tests this summer have all been enthralling to watch. The first was my favourite of his in Australian conditions. He came to the crease in Brisbane on day 2 with England on top. It seems a long time ago now that the series ended 4-0, but at that stage, it looked as though England had planned everything just right. The wicket was difficult to make runs on and Australia was making them at a slow pace. England had a plan to bore Smith and ensure he could not score freely. Smith was not bothered by this. He could not make runs as he usually would, so he just waited it out. This was most un-Australian.

Since I have watched cricket, I have been bombarded with talk from commentators that players need to be aggressive and must play their natural game. I agree with this mainly because Shane Warne thinks this, but when the team is so inconsistent, there are times when a player should just match the conditions and acknowledge that perhaps they won’t be able to play like they want to. Smith recognised this on day 2. He also recognised it in India earlier this year when he made the greatest performance by an Australian captain in a series on the sub-continent. He is the kind of batsmen who can read the play and bat accordingly, which as an Australian is very refreshing to watch.

He blunted the attack and built a partnership with Shaun Marsh. On Day 3 it continued – slowly.  I was sitting by the pool listening on the radio. Then I was sitting on the couch watching. Waiting. And finally, he passed the hundred and almost 6 hours had passed. Had it been an Englishmen batting, or even another Australian, it would have been boring. As it was Smith, however, and we knew he could do so much more, each ball was fascinating. Each leave, each scream of “not now”, each scrambled single, was another thread in a rich tapestry that was this unlikely century. He celebrated with a fierce fist pump to his heart, atop which sat the Australian emblem.

He performed his worst in the second Test, but his time at the crease was very entertaining. In his first innings of 40, pantomime villain Stuart Broad took upon himself to get verbal with Smith and put him off his game. He was only too willing to engage. Jimmy Anderson then got involved.  In his Telegraph column before this Test, he said Australians were a bunch of bullies. In his subsequent column, he wrote that his clever comments got under Smith’s skin and was all part of the game.

Then there was Smith’s pièce de résistance of the series – 239 at the WACA. The second double century of his career and his most dominant performance of the series. Root had won his third toss for the summer, and England put 400 on the board. In any Test that is difficult to compete with, but Smith had has made imposing scores on the WACA (RIP) pitch over the last two years and said it was impossible to get out. He walked out with confidence and quickly arrived at 92 by stumps. The question was not whether he would make a hundred, but how far he would go.  He went on and on and on and on, despite taking the lesser role and allowing Mitch Marsh to make of the runs in their impressive partnership, ending up on 229* at stumps. He only added ten the following day, and it is a testament to his skill that this felt like a letdown. A triple century seemed an inevitability.

The first innings in Melbourne turned out to be a letdown. His wrist was struck in the nets in the lead up to the game, and he responded by saying he might have to change the way he bats. He came in on day one at 2/35. I had tickets to day two and three of the Test and hoped to see Smith bat all day and make another century. I arrived about 30 minutes late, and by the time I was in the standing room section of the MCC to watch the game, Smith was off the ground, and Mitch Marsh was running toward the centre.

Alistair Cook stole the show with a legacy leaving double century. It was not the prettiest of innings but was a determined effort by someone whose career was on the line, and I am glad I was there to see it. England had a chance of winning their first Test since 2011 in Australia, but in the end, the weather and pitch won out and the game ended in a draw. Smith batted time until the end and in the process made his 23rd century. Plenty has been written about the pitch so there is not much more that I can add other than that the Boxing Day Test was the most boring Ashes Test I can remember.

When his wicket fell on 83 on the morning of day three at the SCG, a hush went around the ground, and the nation was shocked. So expectant have we become, that we are bemused when he goes out.

And that was Smith’s golden summer. It ended with an average of 137.4. Almost more than Bradman in 1930, who averaged 139.14. Granted, Bradman never played on pitches as flat as Smith did this summer, nor did he wear a helmet. Nevertheless, this summer Smith has taken a strong step towards being the best Australian batsmen since.
So dominant was Bradman in 1930, that England took extreme measures to ensure he would not do it to them next time. It will be interesting to see what England come up with next series. They will probably bowl the same, but ensure he plays on the most un-Australian pitches ever, and hope for the best. For that is all they did this series, hope that they could get him out.


The most intriguing about Smith is that he is not the archetypal aggressive Australian batsmen looking to impose himself on the game at all times. He is so confident in his defence and not losing his wicket that he knows the runs eventually will come. Sometimes they flow easily; sometimes they don’t. He doesn’t seem to mind and has no ego about it. As long as they come.

This is much the same as Ford, who eschews flashy language. He has no ego about his sentences. He just wants to have readers and wants them to enjoy his books. He does not have the dazzle of Fitzgerald or the spare surfaces of Hemingway. He only has his characters, and he does his best to tell his readers everything about them in as few words as possible. And from this comes his brilliance in explaining the everyday.

They both make the mundane seem entertaining. A leave from Smith can be enthralling. For almost 200 pages in Canada, Ford describes a few weeks in Saskatchewan, Canada, in which Dell Parsons cleans a hotel, hunts geese and plays chess by himself. The plot subtly runs through this period and the promise in the second sentence of the book of ominous times ahead keeps the pages turning, and makes his day-to-day life all-the-more intriguing.

And I guess that is why each and every ball that Smith faces is enthralling. The plot of his career, from plucky up-start Leggie who can bat a bit, to the very best Test batsmen in the world, weaves through every innings in which plays.  And the allure of seeing just how far his greatness can reach is why we are all captivated and blessed to watch him as his career develops.



The Day of The Ashes

by williamschack

It has been a strange build-up to this summer’s Ashes series. There has been excitement, but it has not been palpable like in the past. There are so many new faces involved and the personal rivalry between players is not prevalent in the same way it has been in the past. There is no Anderson v Johnson comparison in this series. Of the 22 players in the squads from the last Australian Ashes, only 7 remain. The country will be abuzz once the game begins on Thursday morning, but the build-up has not been quite the same as I remember it before other series. The Ben Stokes incident has been an unfortunate distraction and the series will be poorer for his absence. From an Australian perspective, all the media discussion has been about who would fill the spots of the opening partner of Warner, number 6, and the wicket-keeper.

Until about 1 month ago I did not realise there was an issue with Matt Renshaw, but now he is out of the team – who knows when he will return – and Cameron Bancroft hit form at the perfect time. It is the other two selections, however, that are the most controversial.
Shaun Marsh – 34-year-old boy wonder with loads of potential and a huge future – has been selected at number 6. It should no longer be controversial when Marsh is selected ahead of a worthier player because it has happened for his entire career. Despite Glenn Maxwell being hard-done-by, I don’t mind the selection as much as I usually would and his recent injury set-back may mean that Maxwell gets to play anyway. . He did play well in India earlier this year, and the number 6 position may take a bit of pressure off and allow him to play with more freedom. Although given Australia’s torrid 4-mid-order collapses in recent times he may be coming in at 4-50, or worse.
But it is the Tim Paine selection that is the strangest. All the weird stats have been thrown around about his record – the coach scoring a more recent First-Class century being the most amusing – but he has been selected solely for his keeping. Not since the days of the insufferable Ian Healy has a keeper been selected only for his glove-work. It was a selection that I am sure England would have welcomed. Their memories of the last Australian summer here must be littered the annoying smile of Brad Haddin – the most important player after Johnson in that series – digging in and grinding the English momentum to a halt before adding valuable runs every time England had the edge.

This current crop of Australian players lacks someone with that hard-nosed edge like Haddin. Beyond Smith and Warner, none will especially concern the English bowlers. And despite having a bowling attack that would strike fear into almost any batting line-up in history, they are unproven as a unit and don’t have the same uber-confidence that people like me grew up thinking was normal. Perhaps that will come with time and – hopefully – sustained success, but right now this line-up does not have a clear identity under Smith.
This is by far Smith’s biggest Australian summer. The Indian series earlier this year was one of the most entertaining series in my memory; Smith and his team took it right up to India and almost climbed the most difficult summit in Australian cricket. Due to it being on Foxtel only a quarter of the country had the chance to watch it. So, Smith’s achievement in rallying his team in that series is perhaps lost on most of the general public and his identity as captain – beyond just making heaps and heaps of runs – is yet to be determined.
Smith is less combative and aggressive than almost all his predecessors in the last 50 years. His immediate predecessor has questioned this in the media recently. Every time Clarke or his buddy Shane Warne comment on Smith and his captaincy, it is hard to not read the sub-text. Warne is one of the most aggressive cricketers in history, and while it worked incredibly well for him, he finds it difficult to accept that others don’t play with some style. It is clear that Steve Smith is not the kind guy who Graeme Smith would say calls you a cunt all day, but Warne and Clarke would prefer it if he was. They may not always mean it, but it seems like they are trying to undermine almost everything he does – particularly when it comes to David Warner.
There has been a clear difference in the way Warner has spoken since Smith became captain. Warner once spoke of England’s scared eyes when facing Johnson, but so reserved has he become that his teammates now call him “The Reverend”. When he did speak up in the lead up to this series of the need to ensure there is a hatred of the opposition, he just as soon came out and apologised for taking it too far.
Despite Warner’s conciliatory tone, Nathan Lyon – the most conciliatory of all Australian players – spoke this week of wanting to end the careers of Englishmen this summer. It was as though you could see the new keeping coach behind him pulling the strings. Or perhaps this is what Lyon is really like, and he has just never felt confident enough to say things like that in public. Maybe Smith has given him a license to do what comes naturally to him. Regardless, mixed messages are coming out of the Australian camp – but this series is the series in which Smith can cement his position in Australian cricket and truly deliver a team in his image. And that may be that players are free to act as they like, and not pretend that they have the confidence of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath.
Despite the lacklustre build up – the day is upon us, and hopefully, a classic series awaits. On day two of the Brisbane Test in the last Ashes series, a series of Mitchell Johnson bouncers whipped up the winds of change that soon swept around the Australian continent. England, who had beaten Australia comprehensively only months earlier, stood no chance in those conditions. This contest looks to be much more even – or perhaps that is just because there are so many newcomers and it is unclear how they will match up. Let’s hope this new team can show the world their identity and usher in a new era of Australian Test cricket.

Tigers of Old

by williamschack

My ex-girlfriend showed me this photo in 2010. The subject is Robert McGhie and the photo was taken by Rennie Ellis. For a person who loves sport and struggles – despite good intentions – to appreciate art, my acknowledgement of the quality of this photo was a good chance to make myself look sophisticated in her eyes. That was back when Collingwood looked like it was on the verge of a new era of dominance. During our time together, I exaggerated my interest in cultural things to try and impress her. She broke up with me over the phone so I am quite sure it did not work. Our relationship, much Collingwood’s era of success, was short lived.
My love of Ellis’ photography, however, was not feigned. You could argue it was his subjects that drew me in rather than his skill behind the lens – perhaps it is both – but his photos draw in the viewer in a way that other pieces of art don’t. There is no exclusion here. The photos are of everyone, for everyone.
Ellis’ work has recently been housed in the State Library of Victoria. There was an article in The Age recently which prompted me to revisit his work. Of all the photos, it is the two of McGhie that I find the most captivating. Football back then seemed much simpler and looking at photos like this make me long for that time. A time when all 6 games were played at the same time on a Saturday afternoon so to see your team play you had to attend. When Grand Final tickets could easily be purchased no matter the capacity. They would just sell-and-sell them and cram people in accordingly.

Elliot Cartledge’s Footy’s Glory Days depicts this era perfectly. It is a brilliant book that everyone should read – but I am sure its moments are viewed through rose-tinted glasses. Tim Lane says we could not understand what the atmosphere was like. For the most part, he is probably correct as most games are these days played in half-filled stadiums. But I am confident that a full MCG in which the people feel comfortable and tickets are allocated according to the team affiliations provides a better atmosphere. If it does not, I’ll take the comfort of a seat and knowing I won’t be crushed in a crowd over a slightly better atmosphere.

I was at the MCG last Saturday and the crowd noise was something to behold. The hairs on my arms and neck stood up as the crowd cheered after the national anthem. It’s not the same when it is not your team playing, but it was still a privilege to be there. Although, a large portion of the 1600 Giants fans who were in attendance were in our section and the section next to us.
It is somewhat refreshing that both teams in the game this week will have no one with Grand Final experience. In an era of supposed equalisation, the competition has been dominated by 3 teams since the end of the Brisbane era. With the Bulldogs winning last year and neither Geelong, Sydney or Hawthorn in the Grand Final this year, perhaps we are moving into a new era.

It is also somewhat upsetting that the opposition to Richmond this week has a romantic bent to it too. Last year, despite most people’s like for Sydney, it was easy to dismiss them given their recent success, and unashamedly cheer for the Dogs. This year, however, an Adelaide victory would also be a feel-good story.
I never thought I would say that. Adelaide is the club that was thrown together in a rush and a court action to stop Port Adelaide joining the league. There was no romance about them. They were the club who beat the Dogs’ in the 97 Preliminary Final and prevented the opportunity for at least one of the Saints and Dogs to win their second premiership. The next week the 1-premiership-in-124-years Saints were forced to watch the 7-year-old Crows celebrate their first of 2 premierships.

But this Adelaide team has some very likeable players. Eddie Betts is my second favourite non-Pies player, and who could not love Tex Walker and Rory Sloane.
Then there is the still shocking fact that their coach was killed during the 2015 season. I was in America on holiday with my father at the time and I will always remember when he said, “Phil Walsh is dead”. It was so sad to learn that it was due to a domestic fight with his troubled son. For the club to hold itself together as well as it did and to be playing in a Grand Final less than 2 years later is remarkable and no non-Tigers fan could begrudge them if they win.

But it would be such an enjoyable afternoon and evening to watch the Tiger army celebrate a premiership. For Richmond fans, the photo above probably represents the time when it was the league’s superpower. When it would play finals every year and a non-premiership season was viewed as a dismal failure. When I first saw this photo in 2010, it felt as though Collingwood was perhaps at the beginning of a new era of dominance. It did not turn out that way – and it might not for Richmond – but as the Tigers currently rampage through September, and the streets of Melbourne tremble at the thought of a yellow and black premiership, the Tigers are playing like the Tigers of Old. Whatever happens beyond this season does not matter right now. Its membership and crowd attendance figures are already astonishingly high given their lack of success. They are the most rabid and loyal fans in Victoria. Their cheer spurs on the players and drowns out their opposition. If they hold the premiership cup this Saturday, they will leave the rest of the nation in their wake.

The Tide of History – Part II

by williamschack

It was one of the most emotional days in football history. Not since the late, great, Teddy Whitten did his final lap of honour in 1995 has there been such a communal outpouring of emotion and goodwill. Back then, it was for one Bulldogs’ individual. This time, it was for the entire Bulldogs’ community. We have not seen a day like it. There are so many elements which make this premiership one of the greatest football stories ever – perhaps the greatest. Below are four moments of that premiership story.


All day both teams had been wrestling the lead away from each other, trying to make the most of the momentum when they had it. In hindsight, the Dogs had control most of the day, except for about 10 minutes in the 2nd quarter when the Swans kicked four unanswered goals and Josh Kennedy looked unstoppable. A closer marking of him in the 2nd half by Tom Liberatore would prove to be crucial in the Dogs’ eventual victory.
Despite the Dogs’ control, the margin was never more than a few kicks, and with 8 minutes remaining in the game the margin was 1 point.
Tom Papley marked the ball on the back flank and looked up forward for his options. He hesitated for a bit before electing to kick it down the line. It was smothered by Shane Biggs who gathered the ball, tried to move it forward, but was tackled and the ball fell free to Jake Lloyd. He looked to handpass to a free Swans player but the ball was smothered again by Biggs, who was thrown over the boundary line only seconds earlier. A series of handballs, from the most handball happy team since Geelong, moved the ball deeper inside 50 for the Dogs.
The Swans resisted gallantly. First Cordy shot for goal, but he was bumped off the ball as he kicked it. The ball tumbled towards Boyd who kicked for goal, but the ball ricocheted off the back of Jake Stringer to the pocket. Biggs collected the ball again but was immediately tackled. The ball spilled free to Mills who handpassed errantly to Dunkley, who immediately passed it to Macrae.
It was as intense as football gets. No player had more than split second to gather the ball and decide what to do. The Dogs were surging forward in waves, but the Swans were holding on.
Macrae kicked the ball to McLean so quickly it seemed like he did not hold the ball. McLean tried to mark but it was spoiled. It fell over the top. Liam Picken – player of the series, whose father lost 4 Grand Finals – gathered the ball. For once a player had some space. Picken steadied himself and shot for goal. As it went up in the air the Bulldogs fans behind the goals rose. They watched it go through the middle and they felt as though the game might be turning. They felt that Sydney’s resistance might be about to crack.


The football world was robbed of a great moment when Norm Smith winner, Jason Johannisen’s, goal was overturned. There was once a time when such a moment would turn the game against the Bulldogs. In 1997 a potential goal was called a point, and the Dogs had no opportunity for it to be reviewed. But the Bulldogs in 2016 were different to all those that had gone before them.
Between the flank and wing Josh Kennedy passed the ball to Lance Franklin, who was quiet for most of the day but played a brilliant last quarter. Franklin looked forward and threatened to run through the middle of the MCG like he has done so many times before. But coming behind him was Dale Morris – a Bulldogs veteran who had played with two broken vertebrae since round 23 – and he tackled Franklin, brought him to the ground, and dispossessed him of the ball. It fell free to a lonesome Tom Boyd, who was born on the same day as Ted Whitten’s state funeral and joined the club at the nadir of Peter Gordon’s second presidential stint. He gathered the ball, turned towards goal and kicked from inside the centre square. It bounced in the forward square and went up in the air. There were fans of another 1 premiership team watching who knew how important such a bounce could be. The ball went up and then it went forward and over the line. It was a goal. To quote Dennis Cometti, the western suburbs erupted.


And anything from there was gravy. There would be dogs fans who would never dare celebrate until the siren, such is their tortured history, but the game was won. I’ve always been a fan of Grand Finals where one team kicks away in the last 10 minutes or so. It gives the fans and players the chance to really enjoy the moment. With only two and a half minutes to go Jake Stringer, had the chance to give the Dogs one last goal before the siren. He ran forward along the boundary line, diagonally across the field from where he ran in the last minute the week before. Similarly to the preliminary final, you could not begrudge Stringer if he had the shot, so enticing would the glory have been had it gone through. But just like the week before, Stringer centred the ball, this time to Picken. Picken’s mark was spoiled but he stood firm. The ball fell down in front of him. He ran into an open goal and booted the longest premiership drought in football into oblivion.


Earlier in the year I wrote a post titled ‘Footy Is Not Fair’. In that article I expressed my sadness that if a player was holding a cup on the premiership dais in the tri-colours in 2016 it would not be Bob Murphy. But I had underestimated the selflessness of Luke Beveridge. After he had delivered a somewhat restrained and understated speech he asked for the injured captain to come up onto the dais to accept his Jock McHale medal, because ‘no one deserved it more’. Craig Willis then called on John Schulz to present the premiership cup to Luke Beveridge, Easton Wood, and Bob Murphy. Beveridge let Murphy and Wood hold the cup in the air and every Bulldogs fan in the world roared with joy. 62 years of pain and misery was washed away. And Luke Beveridge stood in the background with a smile on his face, gently clapping. The tide of history had finally turned in the Bulldogs’ favour.


The Tide of History

by williamschack

**Editor’s Note: This post was originally to be called ‘Beat Hawthorn’, but university and work got in the way of me finishing it in time. Apologies for the focus on Collingwood at the start. The focus was originally to be on Hawthorn not winning the premiership but has changed to hoping more than anything else that the Dogs win. It’s been the best non-Collingwood finals series of my life and an emotional 5 weeks starting from round 23. One more game to go. Also, if you haven’t yet read Martin Flanagan’s article from last weekend then make sure it is the next thing you do.**

I watched a lot of football on the final round of the AFL season. On Saturday afternoon I watched Footscray v. Collingwood at Whitten Oval in a VFL game. That game was over by about 14:30 and Collingwood lost. Dad was driving to my sisters’ apartment across the road from Victoria Park so I got a lift with him and watched a few games of pub footy with some friends. Then I met up with the Roos Gal and went to Etihad to watch what was possibly – at that time – the final game in Melbourne for Brent Harvey, Drew Petrie, Michael Firrito and Nick Dal Santo playing for North Melbourne, and this turned out to be true. Then, on Sunday, I went to the MCG to watch Collingwood play Hawthorn in an attempt to prevent them from making the top four.

The last time Collingwood attempted to stop a team from winning four Grand Finals in a row was in 1958. It is undoubtedly Collingwood’s finest hour. Yes, The Machine of 1929 is unsurpassed in its unbeaten home and away season. But they lost in the finals and Essendon won more games in 2000 before losing to the Dogs in round 21. 1990 is so important for 32 different reasons. But the 4 premierships in a row is the one thing my club can point to that no other club in the VFL/AFL has achieved. And on a wet September day in 1958 the Collingwood spirit prevailed against the tide of history on the wide bounds of the MCG.
Melbourne was playing in its fifth successive Grand Final and attempting to equal Collingwood’s record of 4 premierships in a row. Collingwood was still looking glowingly on its golden era of the 20s and 30s and although they had only won 1 premiership in the last 20 years, it saw no reason why it could not maintain its position at the top of the premiership table. Melbourne was smack bang in the middle of its golden era, and the folk on the board saw no reason why it would ever end – no matter who was coach.
The 50s and 60s was the time when the torch was passed from Collingwood to Hawthorn and Melbourne to Carlton as the dominant duopoly of the competition. Hawthorn made their first final in 1957 and beat Collingwood at Victoria Park for the first time in that year too. Hawthorn would win 9 premierships in 31 years from 61-91. Collingwood would lose 8 before winning another.
Carlton began its renaissance when it wooed favoured Melbourne son Ron Barassi to the club as Captain-Coach in 1965. It was one of the reasons the faceless men of Melbourne used as an excuse to sack the greatest coach of all time via telegram. Thus began The Curse of the Red Fox, and Melbourne has never recovered. Carlton would win 8 premierships in 28 years from 68-95.  Melbourne would never win again.

Collingwood’s tactics in the game are famous in Collingwood lore. Acting Captain Murray Weideman understood Collingwood was the inferior team. In the words of Craig Willis, the narrator of the excellent documentary 100 Years of Football, “Collingwood baited Melbourne to play the man and not the ball”. In Weideman’s words he told his players to not worry what he and Hooker Harrison did and for the others to keep their minds on the job. “So, we went around and hit a few blokes”. Collingwood only beat Melbourne once on the MCG when Norm Smith was coach. And it was on the day of the 1958 Grand Final.

As I made my way to the MCG on that sunny August Sunday a few weeks ago, I thought of 1958 and what a momentous occasion it was. What must it have felt like to walk to the MCG with Collingwood’s legacy on the line and feeling like we had no chance? And then what must it have felt like in the final quarter when it dawned on the fans that the impossible had been achieved?
We had a chance in round 23 to not wholly protect the legacy of 4 premierships in a row, but we did have a chance to make it as hard as possible for them. If we won, Hawthorn would have slipped to 6th and had to play the doggies in an elimination final. But it wasn’t to be.

It was one of the games of the season. One which I regrettably feel proud of. When Hawthorn kicked away about half way through the last quarter, I felt like we had done our best. When Shaun Burgoyne evaded about 5 people and kicked  a goal in the last quarter I felt so angry at Port Adelaide for letting him go at the end of 2009. Imagine if they had him in the 2014 preliminary final instead of Hawthorn. But I also felt like the game was over and I am proud of the way we fought back. When Adam Treloar kicked his brilliant goal to put us back in front late in the last quarter I thought there was only 20 seconds to go and I thought we had won it. It turns out there was 2 minutes left and even if there was only 20 seconds we would not have won because the Hawks kicked the equalising goal within about 10 seconds. Jack Fitzpatrick – a man who I had no idea played for Hawthorn and who when I last saw him play he picked the ball up and threw it between his legs like a Center in American football – ran out of the centre with ball and booted a goal from outside 50. When it went through looked around like he had no idea what was going on. It was a typically Hawthorn thing to do in 2016. A team who at that point looked like it was impossible for them to lose a close game. And so they made the top four and gave themselves the best chance of equalling Collingwood’s record.  It was another painful dagger into my black and white heart.


From then on I shifted into ‘Operation: Beat Hawthorn’ mode. Geelong are my second most hated team – they enjoyed a brief stint as number 1 circa 2011 – and have caused me more pain than any other club. But when they matched up against the Hawks in the qualifying final I was cheering for them like never before. I was yelling ‘Go Selwood’. My friend who has heard me say unspeakable things about Selwood in the past could not believe what he was hearing. It was without doubt one of the best games I have ever attended. There was so much venom in the game and it reignited the Geelong v Hawthorn rivalry which had reduced in hostility over the last couple of years as Geelong had not been as competitive.
After the Collingwood loss I texted a friend and said ‘what the hell do you have to do to beat this club in a close game?’. We found out in the Qualifying Final that you have to rely on them to miss the game winning shot. It was so frustrating watching them move the ball with complete ease from the last line of defence to the forward line in the last play of the game. Even when Luke Breust made a mistake and kicked it into the man on the mark it still worked out for them and the ball ended in the hands of Isaac Smith with a shot for goal after the siren. After he missed I found myself running into a crowd of strangers in blue and white and hugging them. Little did they know how much I disliked their club.


Then it was time to jump on the Bulldogs bandwagon. The dogs are a team that barring a few omissions in my life I have had great affection for. They are almost everyone’s second team and in the semi-final there was only one non-Hawthorn person (whose name shall remain undisclosed for his own credibility) who was not cheering for the Dogs. Once again I went to the game with some friends and as our standing room spot from the week before was full, we moved around towards the flank. As the first bounce drew closer we noticed an inordinate amount of Hawthorn supporters around us. I was chatting to one beside me and he eventually asked me if I knew that I was standing in the unofficial cheer squad of Hawthorn. Once the first siren sounded there was about 100 loud Hawks supporters chanting around us 6 temporary Dogs fans. As the Hawks began to establish a lead in the 2nd quarter, I made the decision to move.
“They are going to lose if we stay here”, I said, so I walked over to near where we were the week before and straight away the momentum of the game changed. I’m not saying I am solely responsible for their comeback, but I am saying I played a pretty large role.
And in the 3rd quarter the Dogs took over and you could feel change in the winds that were sweeping over the MCG. The Dogs were changing the course of history.
Stringers’ goal made the crowd realise victory was possible. Bontempelli’s proved that the players knew this thing could be done. And Picken’s goal in the fourth made everyone realise that the thing was done. The Dogs were into their 8th preliminary final since 1961.


The preliminary final was one of the best games in memory. Exactly the type of football I love to watch. A few Bulldogs friends of mine made the journey north and they were not disappointed. I’ve watched the final quarter 3 times now and it is still hard to believe that the Dogs came back.
Johannnisen’s run off the half back line was a sight to behold. Every other player on the field looked completely exhausted and he looked like the sub-rule had been brought back and he had just entered the field of play. Bontempelli streamed forward in expectation. Johannnisen kicked it perfectly in front of him to run on to. Bontempelli tapped it to himself, collected the ball, straightened up, and put the Dogs in front. It was football at its best.

The Bulldogs streamed forward in the final minute. The ball ended in the hands of the unfairly criticised Jake Stringer. He ran inside 50. He was within range and could have had a shot. If he kicked it he would have been the hero. Instead he passed to Tory Dickson who was free about 30 metres out. He marked. And with 30 seconds left on the clock the Dogs were into their first Grand Final since 1961.


And so now the question is whether this is a team of destiny? In a year when the Cleveland Cavailiers won their first ever NBA Championship and won the city its first title since 1964. In a year where Leicester won the Premier League title against odds of 5000-1 and the might of behemoths whose wage bill was six times as large. Is this the year when the longest premiership drought in the league is finally broken?
I might remind you that 16 is the opposite of 61, but standing in their way is the Sydney Swans. They lost to the Dogs at the SCG earlier this year, but their form over the past 2 weeks has them as hot favourites. The Swans have been a high scoring team all year, but the Dogs do not let teams score and they do not let teams blow them out. It will be a fantastic game to watch and one that will be more keenly anticipated than any other in my lifetime.
Sydney is also team who not too long ago they were the darlings (and also ‘Ugly Ducklings’ at the same time) of the AFL who most fans loved. But their sustained success and their high-profile signings now means they are now considered a glamour club who no longer deserves our sympathy. Which is something the Dogs have been wishing for years. They don’t want to be everyone’s second club as all that means is that they have not caused anyone any pain.
But just like the Swans had every non-Eagles fan cheering for them in 2005, an entire nation of non-Swans fans will be cheering for the Dogs this Saturday. The city of Melbourne has been swept up in the emotion of this momentous occasion. Every person you talk to is on the Dogs bandwagon and is craving some more social media footage from Franco Cozzo. There are so many Dogs supporters who have been through so much pain who deserve victory this week. For so long the tide of history has gone against them, but that can all change this Saturday.

Shit People Around Me at the Footy Said in 2016

by williamschack

2016 has been a bad year for Collingwood. Outside of the Tigers last gasp win, the Cats boil over, the very strange Giants upset, and the West Cast victory, it is has largely been a year of great disappointment. In May, under the influence of alcohol and brooding from a Carlton loss, five years of frustration burst out of me and I called for Buckley’s head. Two weeks later I was calling for his extension after we beat Geelong. (I was only joking, I still want him gone). It has been one of those years. It has also been a busy year for me as second year law and semi-regular employment has begun to take its toll on my free time. As such, I haven’t written much on this blog. But I have still been going to games of football and people around me have still been saying shit.

“We’ve got 1 dickhead! I fucken dickhead saying if you don’t pay me $900,000 I am going. Well, fuck off!!”
– Collingwood fan in the toilets after the loss to St Kilda. Cloke has been somewhat of whipping boy for Collingwood fans and he is a premiership player who has been treated like dirt by Nathan Buckley. I don’t blame him for wanting to leave and I hope he helps bring the Bulldogs their second premiership.

**During the round 3 match and St Kilda sliced apart the Collingwood defence, the Richmond scores came up on big screen to reveal that Adelaide was thrashing Richmond**
Collingwood fan to Joffa: “Trout won’t be happy” (Trout from Woodend)
Joffa: “Fuck Trout! He thinks he is a radio superstar!”
– Controversy amongst celebrity cheer squad members.

“He’s taken us from fucken champions to a fucken laughing stock!”
– Every Collingwood fan this season when discussing Buckley’s term as coach.

“We must all be concentrating”
– Guy at the urinal during the North v Dogs game. No one laughed except for himself and he laughed very loud.

“Trip over and break your back”
– Collingwood fan to a Cats player as he ran in for his shot at goal after a 50 metre penalty. Perhaps an unfair reaction to a decision which the player had no choice in.

“Chewy on your boot. I hope you break your back”
– Same fan to Dangerfield as he walked into goal. Once again, probably an unfair reaction to the situation.

“If we win I will scream the hardest I have ever screamed in my life. Even harder than I did at One Direction”
– Cats fan during the Cats’ comeback. It feels good being able to make fun of a Geelong fan.

“Ok (insert pause for effect) I will have one of everything”
– Pies fan as she approached the bar in The Outer Bar (unofficial Collingwood social club bar). She laughed a lot at her statement.

“Gee I reckon I am about to unload 3 litres into here”
-Collingwood fan in the bathrooms at the newly renovated Westpac Centre. There is no urinal and many fans expressed their discontent with this throughout the night. He was referring to the sink and I assume he was boasting about the amount of urine his bladder could hold.

“That sink is looking alright, isn’t it?”
– I overheard another Collingwood fan saying this later in the night as I was in the cubicle.

“The little SOS is playing! The Frankfurt! We hate you Frankfurt! …Let’s snap the little Coxtail Frankfurt [sic] in half!!”
– Collingwood fan in front of me in the first quarter against Carlton in round 15. It was Jack Silvagni’s first game and this fan made it his mission to make Jack feel uncomfortable. In what was one of the least satisfying Carlton victories in living memory this guy brought me much enjoyment. He was sweating within 10 seconds of the first bounce and I think there may have been some external factors that contributed to this. He is a Legends member, but usually sits many rows back from us. He bumped into the guy in front of us one too many times and the guy’s mother eventually called security to have him removed from the seats.

“Stick your hand up your arse!”
– Collingwood fan behind me unhappy with an umpiring decision. Quite an extreme request to make of an umpire at any time let alone during a game.

Guy behind me: “Chicken with crumbling! You can’t stuff that up!”
Me: **I have no idea what that means**
Guy in front of me turns around: “I can’t even cook soup mate!”
– Strange exchange during that same Carlton game.

“Cooooooxxxxxxxxyyyyyyyyyyy Ssssnnnnnnoooooottttttt”
– Same guy in front of me during Carlton game. Not sure what he meant here.

“You’re the ugliest player in the league Sicily!”
– My friend to James Sicily during the Hawks game. The amount of hatred that I feel for James Sicily is disturbing given that I had not seen him play against Collingwood until last week.

“You are a wanker!”
– About 200 Collingwood fans chanted this to a Hawthorn fan in the final round before he was eventually kicked out. He came down to the second row and starting chanting Four-Thorn and holding up four fingers. The cheer squad and those around them didn’t react kindly to this.

And that was the season that was.

Footy Is Not Fair

by williamschack

Football isn’t fair. Last weekend I watched St Kilda slice apart Collingwood’s defence – if you could call it that – and felt the mood of the Ponsford Stand change from optimistic to depressed as the shadows lengthened on the MCG. We played well for the first ten minutes. Jeremy Howe’s first act in Collingwood jumper was a tackle inside 50 which resulted in a Tom Langdon goal. After a while, however, St Kilda began to control the game and they eventually dominated. Collingwood supposedly recruited well in the off-season and some people even tipped we would make the top four. The first three weeks have indicated that we will be lucky to make the top eight and if we do then we won’t advance. As I sat in the Imperial with my sister after the game drowning my sorrows, nothing that had happened seemed fair.

But I know it felt fair to the St Kilda faithful who turned up to cheer on their young team and commemorate the 50th anniversary of their 1966 premiership. Before the game, the surviving premierships players entered the field before the current day players. I clapped them quietly. I could see only one other Collingwood fan in my vicinity doing the same. During the week before the game there was talk in the media about St Kilda’s lack of success and that fabled last Saturday in the September of 1966. One of the discussions I enjoyed was surrounding the commentary from the game. I’ve always been angry at how biased the commentary was in that game, but as I have entered quarter-middle age (I bought a pair of Crocs the other week) I have mellowed out in regard to the grudges I hold. Firstly, football coverage was in its infancy and objectivity, or at least the façade of objectivity, was clearly not yet established. Secondly, when one club playing is as hated as Collingwood who already had thirteen premierships and the other is St Kilda who were flagless, I can understand why Ted Whitten yelled, “hit the boundary line!”.
The St Kilda Football Club was established in 1873. They have been in existence for 143 years and have won 27 Wooden Spoons, more than double the team who has won the second most. They have played in 7 Grand Finals, 8 if you include the 2010 Grand Final replay. And they have won one premiership by one point. Now, that is unfair.
Why should one club have to endure so much heartbreak and disappointment, whilst others can enjoy so much success? Why should a person who chooses St Kilda as their team as a child, either through parental coercion or no wrongdoing of their own, have to suffer through such adversity?
Of all the Collingwood Grand Final losses during the 32 year premiership drought, it is the St Kilda loss than I can accept the most. If they were still in existence now without a single premiership, and if they had to go through their subsequent 4 losses without the knowledge that they had won at least one, the weight of the St Kilda cross surely would be too much to bear.
The heartbreak they have endured in the past 20 years must be particularly painful. I have asked a few St Kilda friends if they would like to write about it, but so far all of them have politely refused. Perhaps the pain is still too raw. They have been in 3 preliminary finals and 3 Grand Finals and lost them all. Each Grand Final has a particular story with varying degrees of pain.
At risk of offending St Kilda fans with an opinion on their pain, the 2010 Grand Final would be the easiest of the three to take – and by easiest I mean the most bearable of one of the most difficult pains imaginable. The 2009 Grand Final they should have won. They were the best team all year and were easily the best team on that day. It was one of the best Grand Finals of all time but their poor kicking let them down. But, in my non-partisan opinion, the 1997 Grand Final must have hurt the most. They were easily the best team that year, but they lost to a team that won only 13 games in the home-and-away season, lost their first final, and also were down by five goals in the preliminary final. And it is the fact that Adelaide was even playing that makes the 1997 Grand Final so tragic, for had they not been, it would have been the dream match-up of St Kilda v Footscray. The two tragic teams of the VFL/AFL who only had one flag – at least one of them would have come away with two. But as fate would have it, a kick that looked like it was a goal was called a point. And Darren Jarman was playing for Adelaide. And the Crows won their first Grand Final in only their sixth year in the competition. And they won their second the the following year while St Kilda is still waiting for their second in their 143rd year. Football isn’t fair.

And that brings us to the Bulldogs, who last week played the triple-reigning premiers, Hawthorn, in a classic contender versus champion match-up. The Hawks and Bulldogs both entered the VFL in the 1925 and both struggled early. The Bulldogs managed to win their first flag in 1954. The Hawks didn’t even make the finals until 1957. In 1961 both teams faced off in the Grand Final and the Hawks won their first premiership. Nobody could begrudge Hawthorn at the time given their lack of success. In the 54 years since, the Hawks have progressed their premiership tally to 13, and Footscray hasn’t made another Grand Final. They’ve played in 7 preliminary finals and lost them all. Now, that is unfair.
The Bulldogs most recent successful period was from 2008-2010 where they made the preliminary final three years in a row, losing to St Kilda twice. Since then they have been largely uncompetitive until Luke Beveridge was named coach and they made the finals in his first year. This year, they have been the talk of the competition as they play an exciting type of football and have a team filled with idiosyncratic and lovable players. None more loved than Bob Murphy.
He started playing for the Dogs as a scrawny kid in 2000 and has since become the embodiment of the modern Bulldogs in much the same way as Hawkins did before him, and Whitten and Sutton before him. He has lived through some successful periods, but as the Dogs slipped down the ladder following their three consecutive preliminary final appearances, it seemed like his career would end without success. Then all of sudden the Dogs rose and the spirit of the Western suburbs was carried not just by Bob, but also by Luke and everyone else determined to Be More Bulldog.
The game against Hawthorn was one of the highest quality. The Bulldogs proved that they are a genuine contender as they took it up to the champions and were able to obtain a 20 point lead by three-quarter time. The Hawks came back, as we all knew they would, but the Dogs were still in front with 90 seconds in the game to go. The Hawks pushed the ball into their forward line and Bob was running back with the flight to prevent a Hawthorn player marking the ball. His knee buckled as he turned and he fell to the ground. James Sicily marked the ball, kicked the goal, and Hawthorn won by 3 points. The Dogs lost by much more, however, as the next day it was confirmed what Bob’s face had told us as he sat on the ground holding his knee: his ACL was torn and he would require a knee reconstruction.
In a season where the Bulldogs might finally win their second premiership, Bob won’t be playing. If a premiership cup is held on the dais by a person wearing the tri-colours at the end of 2016, sadly it won’t be Bob Murphy. He has given so much to his club, and I can’t think of any current captains who deserve a premiership more than him. His Indian Summer has ended cruelly, and now he will spend the Melbourne winter trying to get his body right for 2017. I hope he can make it back and enjoy success. It shouldn’t end like this. Life is unfair.