There was a unique smell of wet duffel coats, donut vans, and something indefinably Western Oval. (It may have been the plumbing). The players were remote and tiny specks far off in the distance. They wore dressing gowns and ate oranges while they listened to Ted rev them up in the breaks. We walked up to our seats in the John Gent stand - it was rickety even then. The Hyde Street band marched around the oval, coins whizzing dangerously past their heads.
I was entranced. So began my journey as a fan.
Every home game, we would park near Olympic Tyres in Cross Street. My grandfather was the gateman and would wave at us from his little booth, wearing a long grey dustcoat. He wasn’t allowed to go to games himself, as he had a heart condition which it was feared would not stand the suspense of Footscray's performances.
There were mysterious events on alternate Saturdays called ‘away’ matches. I wasn’t old enough to go to these as they would involve standing all day and, most likely, uncouth language. The adults in the family – my mother, uncles and aunts - headed off to destinations that sounded picturesque – Lakeside Oval or Victoria Park. The sorts of places, I thought, that the Famous Five might have shared a simply ripping picnic, with ginger ale.
We children stayed home with my grandmother. She was Irish and would listen to the game on the radio, cooking up a storm for when the adults returned home. We’d run inside at what we thought must be half time. ‘How are we going Nanna?’ Her face would darken. ‘ Five goals down.’ Knowing this was insufficient, she would attempt some spite in her lilting brogue. ’The bloomin’ umpires are killing us!’ My grandmother never saw a game in her lifetime.
Though cold hard facts tell me that, this being the 1960s, we didn’t win many games at the Western Oval, surprisingly enough, that’s not my recollection. It was our fortress, and we went there expecting to win. I don't remember all the dis-spiriting losses that must have happened; instead I recall Georgie Bissett charging into goals as we made stirring last quarter rallies, pinching games from more favoured teams, who hated coming to our ground with its narrow flanks, howling wind and parochial fans. But my memories are probably faulty as I also recall my mother and I returning home from the last game of the season and my father, in an ill-judged attempt at humour, coming out onto the front porch waving a wooden spoon.
This week our ‘home’ game was in Darwin. All hail the Truly National Competition, where football executives now refer to the fans as stakeholders. The unoccupied John Gent Stand is undoubtedly still rickety, but underneath it, a groovy café sells lattes. (As Marj Simpson would probably say: Do you kids still say ‘groovy’ these days?).
I tuned into the match on Foxtel. Diabolical camerawork, aimless direction, and annoying, droning commentators stood between me and the smells, sights and atmosphere of the game. Even so, I could sense the humidity of the airless night. It seemed like a foreign country, not just another state. Instead of braving the biting wind coming off Mount Mistake, the players retreated to refrigerated cool rooms for carefully managed rehydration. No dressing gowns or oranges were in sight.
Though Port Adelaide have been in the competition for 16 years I can barely recall any of our matches against them. It’s like that with many of the interstate clubs – an absence of that intense rivalry, that tribal loyalty that builds layers of memories, disappointment, joy or resentment into matches. Playing them every year in Darwin of late has still further eroded any investment in the matches - they feel about as interesting as an early pre season trial match. They’re always sloppy, error-riddled games because of the humidity and, perhaps, the lack of occasion. Games you just want to be over without an injury and with a routine four points banked.
This year any complacency about four points is a luxury. Despite myself, I desperately want the Dogs to win what would be just their third victory of the year. The signs aren’t good — they look fatigued from the opening bounce and then Tom Williams, unluckiest of the unlucky, pops his shoulder. I don’t think it’s going to be our night. I try to be philosophical. Again.
The Dogs don’t yield, though. There’s a veritable avalanche of goals in the third quarter, at least by recent Bulldog standards. We hold them off in an agonisingly tense last quarter that seems to go forever. Ted Whitten would have said: Oh what a bloody relief!
When the boys are singing the song my mind drifts to a wonderful article in The Age that morning. One of our supporters, a man called Gary Hincks, was travelling to Darwin to watch his 888th consecutive game. I’m not much of a mathematician, but he must have started this amazing run some 40 years ago. I’m imagining him celebrating among the sparse Darwin crowd, the most dedicated stakeholder of them all.