A sample of my measured and objective comments about GWS includes these descriptions:
- a vacuous orange-clad franchise and artificial excuse for a footy club
- a construct unconnected to a community, with no tradition or genuine base
- pieces on a chessboard in an AFL strategy game.
They've got stakeholders; we've got fans.
They're bullet points on a strategic plan; we have history, heart, soul.
The occasion should have been an emotional one: the final game of one of our much-loved players, Daniel Giansiracusa. We promptly lost in a disturbingly listless performance. In retrospect the apathetic display was probably the outward sign of whatever malignant atmosphere was swirling around the club at the time.
Within weeks we were rocked by the news that our captain - and the man who was our best player that day - had most likely been in negotiations to join GWS for some time before this.
In the days and weeks that followed it almost felt like our club had been reduced to a scorched earth rubble, as Griffen's departure was quickly followed by that of coach McCartney and an exodus of several senior players.
Our transformation since then has caught us all by surprise. But in the lead-up to our match against GWS (aka The Acronyms), I still found myself uneasy and apprehensive.
There was no way I wanted to be part of an angry baying mob, hurling vicious insults at our former captain and revealing the sort of ugliness that as Martin Flanagan once said after standing near an embittered and vitriolic Collingwood supporter: "I knew he was actually telling the story of his own life."
I couldn't decide what I was most nervous about, though: that this match would be an ill-tempered, spiteful stoush, punctuated with abusive jeers of Griffen (and given our lacklustre display against Melbourne, a 10 goal humiliation). Or that the players would show indifference to the emotion of the occasion, as they did with the Giansiracusa farewell. (And we would endure a 10-goal humiliation).
Towards Griffen himself my feelings were complex. I could not help but feel sadness that something had gone so awry for him, that he'd by all accounts lost his love of the game that he played so brilliantly, yet there was also profound disappointment and disillusionment at the whiff of deceit and double-dealing that hung over his departure.
But I have to admit my feelings were far from noble whenever I recalled a photo that The Acronyms had posted just after the Griffen trade was delivered, featuring him with our other former players Leon Cameron and Callan Ward.
But it particularly stung that our three former players could ever have consented to being part of it.
Each joined our club as a teenager; between them, they played more than 400 games in our colours.
Griffen and Cameron both have the honour and privilege of being life members of our club, one that has been around for more than 130 years.
I found it hard to believe that they felt no sense of honour or respect for our club or regard for the hurt it was feeling. Whatever the circumstances of their departures, did they not feel gratitude, loyalty or nostalgia for the place they had called 'home'; no affection or sense of decency towards their team-mates, the kids who'd hero worshipped them, the fans who'd been with them for the ups and downs?
Does the fact that I even ask these questions stamp me as hopelessly old-fashioned, naively romantic and out-of-touch with the new realities of football?
I wondered, too, how our players would feel about confronting Griffen in his new colours. Was it just business as usual for them, no different from a work colleague moving on to seek new opportunities? With their insiders' perspectives, maybe they felt more calmly resigned and philosophical about Griffen's defection than the fans, for whom this came as a devastating bombshell.
It was possible, of course, that it could work the opposite way. Our players could feel even more intensely aggrieved, because for them this was the betrayal of a friend. After all, these guys quite literally bleed alongside each other. This isn't the departure of Bill from accounts who's taken up a new role with a Sydney-based branch of the company, but the guy who had led them out each week, with whom they'd shared the euphoria of victory and the misery of loss. A fellow sufferer in icy recovery sessions at Williamstown beach or slogging training camps in 40-degree heat. A comrade alongside them at awful moments on field when bones break or ligaments tear.
Revealingly Mitch Wallis gave an interview where he said that he had 'pencilled in' this game at the start of the season, that Griffen's departure had 'hurt' and that he expected the encounter to have more spice than usual. Just as revealingly a sanitised version of these comments soon appeared on the Dogs' website, saying only that Wally was 'looking forward' to the game as a test of how the two young lists stacked up. The more experienced media performer Matthew Boyd was then hastily rolled out to 'blandify' the rhetoric.
Within moments of the first bounce, my questions about how our players would approach this match and whether it was just another four points were answered. They were switched on, playing a high intensity, physical, courageous style of football, harrying The Acronyms, forcing them into error and playing the game completely on our terms.
And all the more amazingly, this was despite the presence of Umpiring Non-Dream Duo 'Razor Ray' and Shane 'The Perm' McInerney; and the absence of two forward line members, Jake Stringer with an illness, and Stewart Crameri. (In an extraordinary example of the depths to which the AFL will stoop to advance the success of The Acronyms, I read with shock that Crameri was not in the team because he had actually been abducted!!). **
The passion of our players gladdened me. It felt right that the players' intention was to make a statement about our club and ensure that the football world knew that we stood for something.
It was, I felt sure, no coincidence that an enormous, bone-jarring tackle just when we needed it most - when The Acronyms crept back into the game in the third quarter - was delivered by the captain who had handed over the baton to Griffen, Matthew Boyd.
Or that Bob Murphy celebrated his last quarter goal with extra zest and emotion, and then followed up with an uncharacteristic physical jostle with Griffen.
Or that senior players like Jordan Roughead and Liam Picken committed selfless act after selfless act to push the ball forward or thwart an opposition attack.
Best on ground with an inspirational game was one Mitchell Wallis, who showed us that yes: this son of a life member and former captain is one who cherishes our club's history and honours its meaning.
And as for the booing of Griffen, it didn't really become the issue that I'd dreaded, simply because he had a wretched afternoon and rarely touched the ball.
It was as stirring a win as you could have when your opponents are a three-year old franchise. (However, I have to congratulate the AFL on the CGI special effects display designed to made it look like the Acronyms had a cheer squad behind the goals. And their pre-recorded cheers from the GWS Fan Engagement App seemed to work smoothly too).
When the siren went, our players, and fans, wore their hearts on their sleeves. It was one of those memorable moments when the crowd (sadly, far too small) and players came together in a feeling of oneness and belonging. I watched the joyous exchanges between our guys, the fist-pumps from Will 'Umpies Pet' Minson, the fierce, grim pleasure of Bob Murphy and Matthew Boyd, the look on the players' faces that said this was a mission achieved and accomplished, and not for the first time, my club moved me to tears.
Around the boundary line, the players jogged to touch hands with the fans. Celebrating his very first win was awestruck, shiny-eyed third-gamer Dale Bailey (or is it Bailey Dale? I never can remember); he was behind the athletic frame of grizzled second year veteran Marcus Bontempelli. Bailey Dale looks so heartbreakingly young that I'm convinced that he calls his captain and coach Mr Murphy and Mr Beveridge.
Bailey Dale's mentor is Mitch Wallis.
'He said to me: "Just put your head down and earn the respect of the boys" ', our new number 31 said in his first radio interview.
I think about his future and the journey he's about to embark upon, and wish that football would always be so simple for him. I hope he will never know moments like those of the blank-faced figure of Ryan Griffen, leaving the arena to boos and jeers, an exile from our club and his former brothers-in-arms.