A tradition so strong.

walsh and hinkley

In 2009 I had the opportunity to spend time in the Port Adelaide rooms just before the Showdown against Adelaide. It was a fantastic experience and one I’ll never forget. However this week’s Showdown will be something else altogether. Following the recent death of Crows’ coach and former Power assistant coach Phil Walsh it is likely to be an incredibly emotionally charged game as both clubs pay tribute to a man who was so loved by these two teams. Watching the Port and Adelaide players leave the field in tears last week was simply heartbreaking and no doubt this game will prove difficult to get through as well. I wrote the below after that Showdown in 2009 and it seems fitting to publish it here now. As Walshy would have said, I hope we “get it done.”

Someone dropped the ‘c’ word and the half a dozen or so women the room either went wide eyed and giggled behind their palms or pretended that nothing had happened. (And by ‘c’ word, I don’t mean ‘Crows’.) As someone who grew up around footy clubs and is used to what goes on behind closed doors, I fell into the latter category.

On the weekend I had the opportunity to visit the Port Adelaide rooms before their AFL showdown with hometown rivals the Adelaide Crows. It was a rare opportunity and one I was incredibly excited about – this was the chance to feel the buzz in the room as my team headed out for what is traditionally one of the biggest games of their season.

As I walked through the maze of corridors to a room that looks surprisingly exactly as it does on TV just smaller, the first thing that hit me was the sweet, overpowering scent of liniment. The second thing that hit me was the sight of bare backsides in a changing room with an open door as players from the warm up game finished showering off and got changed.

There was a distinct buzz in the air. I could hear the talk, the warm up, the sound of fit, hardened bodies battering against each other, testing out shoulders and torsos. The players ran through an obviously well known series of exercises whiles a trainer barked commands from the centre of the room.

And all the while the constant talk, talk, talk.

Spectators fixated on the players, as did the coach, pacing the room the whole while and chewing away methodically on gum. Spare players and club officials stood with arms folded on the sides of the room making sparse commentary and adding to the tension in the room. Footballs bounced everywhere.

It’s hard not to get excited when your heroes are so close you could reach out and touch them. Cornes. Ebert. Lade. Pettigrew. You see how big, how small, how different, how so very much the same they actually are after years of reputations and TV highlights warping the perception.

From the small group of onlookers a young boy cried out in support but former captain Warren Tredrea came over and put a finger on his lips. This was not a place for cheering or autographs or photos. This was a temple of football, a place to prepare and gain focus. A place to start to win.

As the players head into a small closed room for a final, private discussion with the coach and each other it is hard not to get excited. That hushed, tension riddled feeling descended upon the room.

This is Showdown!

Next minute the boys – and some of them are just that, mere boys – run past and out on to the ground. They urge each other on, demanding excellence and commitment. The pride of South Australia is on the line tonight.

I head back to my seat, nodding in solidarity to the two old timers guarding the door. People around me are buzzing and the cheering sounds throughout the stadium and people raise their voice to support their team.

And yet, while this is the big stage it is so very much the same in so very many ways as the hundreds of games being played at suburban football grounds each weekend. The sounds, the smells, the anticipation, the bloke who always yells out “he’s been doing it all day” the first time the umpire blows their whistle. The feeling in the rooms.

It’s the same as it has been for years. Sometimes it’s comforting to know that no matter how much some things change, the more others simply stay the same. The excitement of football will always be there.

Vale Phil Walsh.

phil walsh

“Because when some footy people hurt, we all hurt.”

I read that line on Friday morning, just hours after waking to the desperately tragic news that Adelaide Crows coach Phil Walsh had been murdered. Friends had already begun to send disbelieving text messages and it seemed almost inconceivable that this had occurred. I think shock was, and is, still the primary reaction of most people.

Walsh was much loved at my club Port Adelaide, where he spent 11 seasons as an assistant coach including the premiership winning 2004 season. His contribution to the short history of our AFL club was immense both as a person and an employee. When he left last year it was with the best wishes of everyone at the Power and the feeling he was ready to make his mark as an AFL coach. To read so many heart felt pieces from Port players past and present over the last couple of days highlights just how much we still felt like he was one of our own.

Was. The hardest word to say at a time like this.

Watching the Collingwood and Hawthorn players link arms in the centre of the MCG on Friday night was an incredibly powerful moment that lost none of its poignancy as it was repeated through the rest of the round’s games. It was led by Alastair Clarkson, a man who spent time coaching at Port Adelaide alongside Walsh. Then I saw Damien Hardwick following the Richmond game and was reminded he would have played under Walsh at the Power, as did his assistant coach Brendan Lade. Another assistant, Mark Williams was one of Walsh’s best mates and of course the Port coach in that premiership year. Their opponents, GWS, have two former Power players in Chad Cornes and Dean Brogan as assistant coaches. On and on it went; having played at three clubs and coached at four there is no doubt so many people felt like Walsh was in some way one of their own.

And clearly football fans have all felt the same way too. Tributes built up steadily through the day outside the Adelaide Football Club’s headquarters with the navy, yellow and red sitting alongside the teal, black and white in a unique mark of respect. People took to social media to post photographs of their club scarves tied outside homes and offices in a show of solidarity amongst the football community. #weflyasone has never seemed so apt.

I can’t begin to imagine what the Walsh family is going through now, compounded no doubt by the fact their family has been so shattered by the loss of not just a father and husband, but also a son and a brother. It’s just unthinkable and almost unbearably sad. I hope those who knew and loved Walsh best take some comfort from the fact that all footy people feel like they have lost someone special – because when some footy people hurt, we all hurt.

Rest easy, Phil Walsh. How precious and fragile this life is.

scarves out for walshy

Showdown XXXVIII

Port Adelaide Showdown 2015

Oh hey there, I know you. You’re Port Adelaide.

It’s a comforting feeling watching your football team and recognising them by the way they play. For the first few rounds of this season it feels like something has been slightly off kilter at the Power. Last year’s dominance and accuracy appeared to be MIA, even in the win over North in which the team struggled to hold the lead at the end. It wasn’t until that awe inspiring first quarter against the Hawks that I thought we might still have it in us, but the insipid final term left lingering doubt. Tonight though, I recognised us.

We are Port Adelaide. And we’re back.

Showdown is always an intensely competed game regardless of where each of the Adelaide based teams sit on the ladder at the time. There’s something about it that lifts each side to play at a level that’s almost out of place in the home and away season. It’s not just playing for four points, it’s playing for pride and local dominance. I’ve been to two Showdowns in Adelaide, both won by Port, and have fond memories of watching the great Chad Cornes absolutely give it to the Crows fans in a 2006 game at AAMI Park (which I was hung over as hell watching and seated right in the sun). Not being a native South Australian I can’t comment on what the week is like in workplaces and schools and households across the state, and I don’t have that born hatred of Adelaide that most Port fans cultivate. But I know I bloody well enjoy beating them.

Tonight’s 24-point win in the Crows’ home game at Adelaide Oval seemed to be something of a revival. Port lead at every break but it’s how we led that was impressive. This is the first time this season I’ve really seen us scrap for every contested ball – we worked our guts out tonight chasing anything and everything down. Travis Boak really played a captain’s game here and his second and third efforts seemed to lift the side and inspire them to do the same. I thought a lot of the time Port were very unlucky not to get frees for tackling the Crows players and causing a holding the ball offence, however the umpires seemed content to let it go. Our defence was strong as Adelaide repeatedly sent the ball into their 50 and to be fair, poor kicking by the Crows really let them down in the first half

One of my favourite things though was how incredible Lobbe and Ryder seem to be working in the ruck together. I reckon this is the first game where they’ve really found their groove and it was a pleasure to watch them get first hands on the ball and repeatedly tap to a hard running Port player. Schultz didn’t miss a kick and he’s such a valuable asset; when he has the ball we know we’re in safe hands. It was also good to see Gray back in the side because that man is just a Rolls Royce. Absolute class.

Tonight was nerve wracking but no damage to my hands to report this week. Instead it just kept me on the edge of my seat all night (and nervously stopped me from finishing all my chicken parma) as the Crows kept finding a way to bridge the gap to under 10 points. With the spectre of last week’s hideous fourth quarter still casting a shadow over Adelaide Oval I was slightly concerned, however the team did me proud this week and really ensured they dominated through to the end.

I don’t have Fox Footy at home so games like this that aren’t shown on free to air TV are always tricky for me. I could have stayed back an extra two hours at work and watched the game there but it probably would have been annoying for my colleagues to have on and I’m not sure my reputation can take the battering of having them all know what I’m like when I watch football. Plus I don’t really want to be hanging around at work in case it gets busy. I could have listened to it on the radio but it’s just not the same. In the end I went down to a local pub in Camberwell only to find the Essendon v St Kilda match was being played on the big screen and we’d been relegated to the back of the bar. Never mind, I ordered a pint of Carlton Draught and settled in next to the bar flies. Lucky they all seemed to be going for the Power. Later when the Victorian game had finished, I switched to watching it on the big screen and ordered some dinner, plus I ended up sitting next to another lone Power fan so it was nice to have a chat to one of my people. There was also two blokes nearby who were just keen to watch a good game of footy and commentated what was left of the game. I nearly lost my shit when Boaky grabbed the ball and ran around in the pocket, trying to bounce one though on a tight angle before ultimately missing. “Daicos!” one of them yelled and then when the kick went astray, the other said loudly, “I would have kicked that.” I couldn’t stop laughing and then they started laughing too.

Anyone who’s talked to me about footy would know that one of my favourite sayings is that the Crows kicked five goals in three minutes to make it into the 1997 grand final. Basically that means if you don’t have a 30 point buffer and there’s three or more minutes to go, then it ain’t in the bag. A couple of friends and my dad told me they thought we had it midway through the last but I can never relax – until that siren goes I stay on edge. Watching Kane, Robbie, Chad and Jay kicked those last ones was an exceptional relief. I’m feeling good about playing West Coast at home next week, who are sitting fifth on the ladder but are 3-2 the same as us, and I know it sounds cheeky but a percentage booster would be much appreciated.

Tonight Port gave a nod to it’s heritage by wearing the white back jumpers. I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed them. It was good to see that not only di we look like the Power of old, we got back to playing like them too.