Returning to the Footy

by williamschack

On Tuesday last week my father headed back to our family home in South West Victoria after a month in Melbourne. He had been staying at the Austin hospital and then at nearby accommodation following liver transplant surgery. Last August he was diagnosed with liver cancer after doctors noticed that his blood readings were unusual. He received treatment in December, and was put on the waiting list for a donor only a couple of weeks before undergoing the transplant surgery.
When he initially received his diagnosis, Collingwood’s season had fallen apart and was about to end as 8 other lucky teams were set to play finals. We’d recently suffered a humiliating loss to Richmond which made me question every decision the club had made since 2011. The awareness of my father’s mortality, which strangely was something I had never really considered before, enabled me to have some perspective on the relative insignificance of another failed Collingwood season. But it also made me aware of how important Collingwood is to (most of) my family, as some Collingwood success would have been a welcome distraction. Thankfully, all has gone well thus far, and his return home last week marked somewhat of an end to a difficult period for my father and his extended family and friends. Just in time for football season.

Over summer to fill the football void in my life I spent a lot of time watching old matches on Fox Footy, whose summer viewing was much better than previous off-seasons in which the home and away season was just repeated and repeated and repeated. I also read a great book that I received as a Christmas present, Time and Space by James Coventry, which I have written about previously. That book’s discussion of the 1970 Grand Final then lead me to Martin Flanagan’s treatise on the match. I searched for it online but found it was out of print, and I tweeted that it was my life’s mission to obtain a copy. I was surprised the next day when Martin sent me a direct message letting me know had a copy lying around at his house. About a week later the book was in my hands.
It is a book that all football fans should read, for it is one of the most important games ever played. I find it strange that it is rarely mentioned when people talk of the greatest Grand Finals of all time. It is as though people are incapable of compiling a list that includes Grand Finals before 1989.
Both Time and Space and 1970 make it clear that the game was not the catalyst for a new era of football, but the culmination of years of innovations by different coaches, not just in the VFL, but across the land of Australia. Lesser football historians have suggested that Barassi had some sort of epiphany at half-time and advised his players to handball having never considered it before. Despite the fact that he had done it before and that Len Smith had suggested all coaches do so in his coaching manual years before. And despite the fact the SANFL had been in a battle of aggressive versus traditional down the line play for 2 decades. Regardless of this, the 1970 Grand Final is a clear demarcation of football moving into what was then known as the modern era. Football, of course, would continue to change, but this game was the affirmation in the general populous’ minds that aggressive and attacking football could succeed. Two years later Barassi was gone, but Carlton upset Richmond in the Grand Final with the highest ever Grand Final score in the highest scoring Grand Final.
Carlton’s poaching of Barassi, Melbourne’s favourite son, would mark the beginning of Carlton’s era of success and professionalism in which they would be rivalled only by Hawthorn by winning 8 Premierships in 27 years. This one, however, was the club’s and Barassi’s finest.
And it is the darkest day in Collingwood’s history. Flanagan interviewed almost everyone who played in the game and their pain is evident years later. Some players have bitterness toward the club, they felt that it was behind the times and reliant on methods no longer relevant to a game that was revolutionised by Hawthorn’s fitness and the professional focus of clubs like Carlton. Mostly though, there is sadness.

As I read the book whilst Dad was going through the process of being tested and analysed before being put onto the transplant waiting list, I thought of how intertwined Collingwood is with our relationship. He was outside the MCG in 1970 listening on the radio, and although I was born 17 years after the game was played, it has been something that I have always felt connected to and affected by. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Ted Hopkins was and how many goals he kicked in the second half, or what Barassi’s instruction was at half-time. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel a pain in my chest or a sadness wash over me whenever I see footage of the game, or hear it spoken about. It is in my DNA, and it was passed on to me from my father.

It is probably a disturbing reflection of my obsession with Collingwood that when I first heard of my father’s illness, one of the things that passed through my head was that at least he was able to see Collingwood win a Grand Final. It would be a cruel world if one had to live through 13 losses and 2 draws, rather than 11 losses, 2 draws and 2 wins. But it is also a reflection of how connected Collingwood is with our relationship. If he was to sadly pass away, and I realise now that this is something that is eventually going to happen, many of the memories I have of him would be Collingwood related.
There is my first memory of attending a football game, bawling my eyes out as he forced me to leave Waverley Park early. I was convinced we could come back and beat the Cats, but decades of disappointment had taught him we were going to lose. We lost by 8 points. There is the first time I saw Collingwood beat Carlton when Peter Daicos did a lap of honour after retiring the year before and Mick McGuane kicked his famous running goal. There is when we watched Collingwood beat the all-conquering Lions at the MCG in the 2003 Qualifying Final. There is when we watched the Lions dismantle us three weeks later in the Grand Final at the house of fellow Collingwood supporter, and dad’s late friend, Bernie Slattery. There is when we went to the 2010 Grand Final together, only to have the game be a draw and him miss out on the replay as he had a trip planned to America. There is when we watched the Collingwood lose yet another Grand Final the next year. And there is the week before when we beat the Hawks by 3 points in the preliminary and the first people I thought to contact were him and my sister. The list goes on.
Of course, there is more to our relationship that football – particularly music, another thing in which we have bonded over time – but football has been there since the start. And this Friday night I will head to the MCG with my sister and father to watch another Collingwood game. Last weekend’s performance indicates that this season may be another disappointing one, but almost every football season is and we all still come back. It feels good to have football in our lives again, and another opportunity to hope for success together.