My dear old grandfather might have called me a turncoat in 1986 when I returned to Australia and started following the Sydney Swans. He had raised me in a small house in Maldon which had a nameplate “Hawthorn” and I never did find out which came first, his support of the Hawthorn football team or the naming of the house, but support Hawthorn we did. And I still do, it is just part of my history. But when I finally arrived back in Australia after 22 years in NZ and PNG I returned to a job in Sydney and joined my first AFL club as a member, the Sydney Swans.
Why the Swans? I had strong memories of growing up in Victoria during the 1950’s where there was a common sense of bewilderment that the northern states of New South Wales and Queensland didn’t really play Australian Rules football. They played either some weird form of football called rugby or the whinging European game of soccer where they rarely scored any points. So it was a bold move when the old VFL foundation club, South Melbourne, relocated to Sydney in 1982 and became the Sydney Swans. The Melbourne urban sprawl over the years had meant that the South Melbourne club’s recruiting base had shrunk, their on-field performance deteriorated, the supporter base diminished and their debts climbed. The Melbourne-based competition, the Victorian Football League (VFL), had ideas even then to expand into a truly national competition and offered the club an ultimatum which they saw as mutually beneficial, relocate to Sydney or fold and disappear into the annals of history. It was followed a few years later when the struggling Fitzroy club merged with another expansion club, the Brisbane Bears, to become the current Brisbane Lions. So I had landed in a Sydney which was abuzz with the novelty of major VFL games being played locally for the first time. What else was a Victorian country boy to do who had never had the opportunity to attend a live VFL game before and who had been deprived of any Australian Rules involvement for 22 years, what else could I do but jump on the Swans bandwagon and help with the fulfilment of that 1950’s dream to see Australian Rules football become our truly national game. And that really did become the point.
Of course, the majority of Aussie Rules fans in Sydney were like myself, transplanted Victorians, West Australians, South Australians, Territorians or Tasmanians, each one of them bringing with them in their hearts a VFL team they followed and not many of these were going to be following the old South Melbourne, now Sydney, team. My situation was in no way unique. But since then most of us transplants have come to adopt the Swans because it is “our local” and a team we can identify with in one way or another.
The transition was completed in 1990 when the VFL competition became the AFL, the Australian Football League, now a truly national competition with teams in the traditionally Aussie Rules states, Victoria, West Australia and South Australia, joined by teams in New South Wales and Queensland. To this day however the other states with strong Aussie Rules influence, Tasmania and Northern Territory, are still without representation in the AFL.
My membership of the Swans didn’t mean that I could turn off my affection for Hawthorn and it was really only a problem when the two teams played each other. I tried to blindly support the Swans but was just as pleased with whoever won when they did meet. Interestingly my youngest son, Joshua, had adopted my loyalty to Hawthorn as he grew up and this blossomed when he first arrived in Australia. However this adoption was without the experience I had of the 1950’s, the dream of a national game, and he was not at first swayed to get on the Swans bandwagon. Gradually though as his interest in rugby was supplanted with Aussie Rules he came to support the Swans as well. This was cemented on the last Saturday in September 2005 at Josh’s home as we watched on TV the South Melbourne (now the Sydney Swans) team win their first Grand Final in 30 plus years in what was arguably the most exciting game of Aussie Rules football I had ever witnessed.
Following this grand final win where the Swans had finally come of age as it were, the AFL started serious consideration of sponsoring the formation of a second team in Sydney to be based in the predominately working class western suburbs. This came to fruition in 2008 with the agreement of the other AFL clubs to expand the competition to include a second team in Sydney which came to be known as the Greater Western Sydney Giants. Their initial offices and training base were set up at Blacktown, just ten minutes from my home. So what else can an AFL tragic with a long-held desire for the expansion of AFL do but join up as a member of the Giants in their first season playing in the AFL competition, 2012. I still retain my Swans membership and my support for the team, this is just a personal expansion of my AFL involvement. Just as I have continued to enjoy seeing Hawthorn win despite being a Swans member.
What the introduction of the Giants does mean for us Sydney Aussie Rules fans is twice the exposure of AFL in the community, twice the opportunities to see AFL played locally and twice the television coverage at least with both teams games being televised live on free-to-air each weekend. And now finally we get to see the big Friday night game live on TV!
Two years on and now it is the start of the 2014 season and Joshua has invited me to join him in introducing his two boys to live AFL, the occasion being the Battle of the Bridge game between the GWS Giants and the Sydney Swans in the first round, an invitation to good to miss. So off I go to the match armed with my membership of both clubs and as a friend said recently, I can’t lose and I can’t win, but enjoy the football itself, yes indeed! It was a memorable game, including a stoppage for some minutes while a heavy storm raged over the ground complete with lightning hitting the grandstands. The Swans club song includes the line “shake down the thunder from the skies” and this they certainly did during this game. The lowly ranked Giants cause a massive upset by prevailing over the Swans in the last quarter and I am both wildly excited for the young Giants club and saddened that the Swans might be looking at a long season of disappointments ahead on the form displayed.
After the game I gleefully posted the results to Facebook and received a single word message back from an old friend who is a very keen Swans supporter, “Turncoat!”. Well yes, in her eyes, I may be just that, but I am a passionate fan of Australian Rules football in and of itself and that enjoyment is not diminished by the outcome of any single game. But her one word admonition did give me cause to pause and reflect on my personal association with this beautiful game. Clubs rely on my friend’s single-minded passion for her team, and there is serious competition amongst clubs to attract large memberships because they form the backbone of the clubs and that is a good thing for the game. My passion though is more for the game itself, for the skills displayed by the players, for the health and fitness they promote through their example, for the character shown on and off the field, for the excitement of seeing a game played to the very limits of skill and endurance with the outcome in the balance right up to the final siren, this is what I am really passionate about. And that is not limited by whether my team wins or loses alone. If that makes me a turncoat, then so be it, I will don or shed that coat with pride. And I am sure my old grandfather would agree.