Now as a Melbourne supporter I still remember those days since 2007 when if we were to finish 9th it would've felt like we had just won a Premiership. But that's not the reason at all that I'm actually pleased we finished 9th. To those unaware of the AFL [Australian Football League], 9th spot means that we were one spot out from making the finals.
"I really love this game. I always have."
Those are the words of Adelaide superstar and Melbourne's current Coach Simon Goodwin. I agree. Footy is a religion, especially in the circles that I roam in back home. Since 2011 I've travelled all over Australia going to every single game the Dees (Melbourne Demons) played. A Qantas Gold Frequent Flyer card was probably the benefit for most of those years because no doubt the success certainly wasn't there. In that time I made a lot of lifetime friends. Many who had been following the Dees around the country for nearly two decades. In 2018, Melbourne's most successful year since 2006 I only missed one game, but I was at the pub with a bunch of fellow bleeders of the 'Red and Blue' as we watched the Dees smash 2017's runner up. I am such a footy fan that at the start of 2019 when I opted to take a job in the USA it was heartbreaking to know that I would no longer be there with my friends and family each weekend, regardless of wherever the game was played. It was actually the only thing holding me back to stay in Australia. In fact, in 2019 I would "write" my roster as much as possible to ensure that I could fly back to Australia to see as many games as I could. Including a plan of action to get back to Australia at the drop of a hat if Melbourne made a Grand Final. Even 2020 was shaping up to be the same. I started in February with the first plan to ensure that in March and April I would be able to get to the 'G for the first two home games whilst utilising as little of my leave as possible. I had plans to be back in May for another two games straight, I had booked an airfare to fly into Melbourne on the morning of the Queen's Birthday clash and to fly out the next morning. Ok, Ash, we get it. You're a fanatic.
Season 2020 though threw up a lot of curveballs. Whilst I was back in Australia due to the COVID stand down. The AFL had announced plans for the season and it was about to kick off. I remember discussing it with my doctor who is also a fanatical Dees supporter and telling him that I didn't want a season to begin with and that I didn't want Melbourne to win a Grand Final this year if a season went ahead. I reasoned that it wasn't a "real season" and it would be a season where you would always have an asterisk on it. My doctor was very wise and did convert me on the topic. He agreed with my viewpoint but then likened it to Steven Bradbury's philosophy after he won an Olympic Gold Medal from last place after all the other skaters in front of him fell over. It resulted in him "waltzing" over the line for the Gold. Bradbury was very philosophical with his Gold Medal. He stated that it would be a recognition of all those years of hard work, suffering, training and injuries.
Melbourne supporters are some of the longest-suffering supporters in the league so I thought, that's a good way of looking at it if Melbourne does win the flag this season. At the time though, it did appear as if we would only be a couple of weeks away from returning to the stands to watch a game. Unfortunately, as the season progressed, those who supported Victorian sides were locked out from going to the games. When the season started, other states allowed a couple of thousand to go to the games. However, Victoria, despite having a 100,000 seat stadium wasn't even allowed to have 1,000 socially distanced people there. It was locked down tight. But we were able to get together in pubs in small groups and enjoy the game. So the atmosphere of being at the game with fellow diehards could still be experienced as best as it could. Aussie Rules though is definitely a live sport. Being fast-paced it's a lot better to watch at the ground because you can see the entire dynamic. So this is lost on Television. The amount of time's I've heard over the years from fans saying "what is he doing?" then eventually the camera zooms out and you go "ah right". At the end of June, all Victorian-based sides were evacuated interstate because COVID was now running rampant in the state. Footy wasn't played at all in Victoria from June. A state that is footy central had no footy being played each weekend and the fans couldn't get together to celebrate the highs and lows together with being under House Arrest. If you are unaware for the majority of July to now the state has been in lockdowns with people being locked in their houses for up to 23hrs a day, including a nightly curfew. So this also robbed fans of the ability to get together, even at a drive-in to watch the game as a group. The game for Victoria was left to be nothing more than watching the television by yourself effectively. Footy on television already isn't the same and now you couldn't even watch it with your fellow fans.
"I love the smell of the game. Three stand out. The smell of sweat and hard work that ferments together in the locker room. The smell of deep heat in the medical room and my favourite smell of all, the smell of the Sherrin. If Sherrin was an aftershave, I'd be wearing it now."
That's Simon Goodwin's explanation of the game from a player and coach's perspective. That is as true for the fans as it is for the players and staff. For fans, the love of the game is simply the joys of getting in your colours, hopping on the train, having a drink with friends then yelling your lungs out. The smell of the freshly cut grass. The sound of the players on the field and to be in the stands as you rise as one. As a player kicks a goal running up to a fan and giving a high 5. If your team wins it's about being there to see the players come up to say thank you and hand out footys to the kiddies. This is all lost when the game is not just played on TV but as a constellation, you can't even enjoy the "makeshift" experience with friends.
As Simon Goodwin also stated:
"I love the long life friendships the game develops."
Even though those relationships will always be, to not see those friends throughout the year and to be there hugging and cheering with them, even in a pub or at their place just isn't footy.
When it comes to the Finals though, this experience goes to a completely different level. Crowd attendances are 60,000-90,000+ per game, there's a Spring literally in the air. After being in the stands all rugged up during the winter you can now show some skin in the warmer climate, or it could just be the adrenalin of finals that keeps you warm. The mood however is filled with optimism and people dare to dream. If you're also a team that rarely makes the finals then these feelings are exacerbated by at least a further 1000%.
So as I looked from afar at this season and seeing all my friends and family locked in their houses with absolutely no chance of getting to a game in Season 2020 then to make the finals and not be there to witness history in the making, well, it's just not footy.
St Kilda is a team, that like Melbourne, has a long-suffering supporter base. Like Melbourne, they haven't won a Premiership since the 1960s. St Kilda has made the finals this year for the first time in nine seasons. As for their fans in Victoria, they won't be there to see their first finals campaign in nearly a decade. Hypothetically if they were to win, only their second premiership in the Club's history and first since 1965 how would you feel to not be there as your club completes what is a once in a generation event?
Melbourne is similar. If they made finals this year it would've been only their second appearance in 14 years. If they were to win it, then like St Kilda it would be their first Premiership since the '60s. Yet the long-suffering fans wouldn't be there. Everyone, even if their team has won many premierships can always tell you where there were seated that day. How they felt as they kissed and hugged strangers as they cried in unison as their team got the ultimate prize. As the AFL says "witness heroes become immortals". Well in season 2020 this has been robbed of fans.
Granted you would take a Premiership regardless, but if you are robbed of the chance to be there or with your friends and fellow diehards then is it a proper footy season? Would you be able to tell your kids or even grandchildren how amazing it was to be in the stadium when your team lifted the ultimate prize of the game? You couldn't even say "yeah I missed out on a ticket but I watched it at the team's heartland with thousands of other diehards".
So this is why I'm glad Melbourne finished 9th. We are spared the threat of missing our team become immortal. The threat of missing being there to see the breaking of a generational premiership drought. Yet 9th spot is enough to keep the critics away, well as best as they can, for the "sack Goodwin" brigade anyway. I was very glad to see many of Melbourne's "seconds" play games this year. Even when the team had a long break between games. It leads me to believe that Melbourne, didn't put the cue in the rack but opted to get as many of their players on the park for game time in the seniors. Almost like a team would do towards the end of the year when they won't make finals. To me, it leads me to believe that Melbourne is planning for the years ahead. Get as many players through the season to build on them and see if they have potential. A longer-term investment. We weren't playing our best 22 each week and yet we nearly made finals. Therefore bring on season 2021 and onwards and I hope we can be there to witness history as early as next year.