By Natalie

Get lucky.

ryder

I am the only Port Adelaide supporter I know. I’ve met other fans over the years but I’ve never had a Port friend that I could go to games with or sit with for hours over a beer discussing the fortunes of our team. I’ve always been a bit of a novelty (in more ways than one, I’m sure). As the bio says, I’m a New South Wales girl who lives in Victoria and barracks for a South Australian team. The “makes sense” I write at the end is clearly sarcasm of the highest order.

Usually I’m happy to go to games alone and will just sit restlessly somewhere near my people. This time though I managed to rope in a couple of friends to come along and I was seriously looking forward to the night, even though a Port Adelaide v Essendon game held all the promise of being as interesting and skill laden as the Benalla v Violet Town reserves. Both mates were Bombers fans, country boys, decent people with a good sense of humour who like a beer. The only difference was one I’ve been friends with for nearly 15 years while the other has been a mate for only really about six weeks. This should be fun.

Of course because this was the only time I’ve managed to drag friends along to a game this lovely lady called me up and offered me corporate box tickets. Which I had to decline because, well, it just wouldn’t be the done thing to ditch your mates.

We started off the night at a pub across the road from Etihad Stadium, my old mate and I catching up and keeping one eye on the Richmond v Fremantle game as we sipped our beers. Despite being friends for so long it was the first time we’d actually ventured to the football together. He’s naturally a bit of an introvert but I was cautious that a few beers in he might unleash. I also warned him about my new mate and said I had no idea which way he was going to go so if it got embarrassing then we’d just go to the toilet at quarter of half time and never come back. New mate is a bit of a smart arse, possibly more so than me. When I’d asked him what sort of person he was at the footy he replied, “Mature, modest, witty etc. I’ll let you fill in the blanks”. I tell you what, I could fill in the blanks and I was worried they weren’t going to be complimentary.

Eventually the three of us united and after exchanging the appropriate introductions and pleasantries headed off to buy our tickets. Etihad confuses me, I always end up somewhere I think I’m not supposed to be and Saturday night was no different. We were in a carpeted bar, drinking more beers and talking shit. I reckon I spilt about a third of mine but not to worry. Before we knew it the siren had sounded and the quarter had started so we made our escape to find seats.

For a game between two teams languishing at the bottom of the ladder it did its best to stay entertaining. Wingard almost took mark of the year and the goals were flowing fairly freely in both directions. Even the three of us managed to behave ourselves. I’m a nervous football fan and my natural exuberance tends to go out the door a bit when I’m at the game. The pair of them were pretty quiet too, though later I found out it was more likely because they’d been bordering on hypothermia for most of the night. (On the other hand I am from Goulburn where it is, to use a particular turn of phrase, “fucking cold and windy” all through winter. Also I’m tough.) It was the four middle aged Port Adelaide supporting women in the row in front of us that provided the most entertainment and probably the least insight on the game.

I have a bit of a thing about mobile phones when I’m doing things with people. Real people = real conversations and I always put the phone away. After going to get beers, coffee and food at half time – and running my trusty “do I have anything on my face?” joke with a giant smear of mustard across my cheek – I checked my mobile mid-way through the third quarter. Three missed calls and two messages asking me to call dad urgently. A message from my brother in Canada asking me to call my parents urgently. Shit. This is not likely to be good. You don’t leave messages like that for anyone who’s part of a police family. I bolted down the stairs and started calling, my dad answering with the news my brother had been involved in a serious collision. He was riding his scooter and the car opposite was indicating a right turn before the driver changed their mind and went straight. My brother had begun the turn and was collected, left sprawled on the road with the bike in disrepair. Mum and dad were at the hospital with him now. He’d been wearing his full face helmet so a CT scan was only a precaution, but turns out he’d broken his foot and his upper arm. His back hurt and they were worried about the potential for him having cracked vertebrae, though it turned out to but three broken ribs instead.  He could still move everything, which was the best part.

They don’t call motorcyclists ‘temporary citizens’ for nothing. He’s so bloody lucky.

I walked back to my seat in shock and I’m not really sure I processed it very well. I started watching the game again. I stopped drinking. We were all fairly silent. To be honest it didn’t seem quite real.

Port got ahead in the final quarter and Bomber-turned-Power player Paddy Ryder kicked a couple of match winning goals for us while the crowd booed him like he was Adam Goodes at a Hawthorn match. I remember reading something years ago that Aaron Hamill said after he left St Kilda to play at Carlton. “Why wouldn’t you want to be booed?” he said. “Why would you want to leave a place with everyone’s best wishes?” I think in context that’s so right – you want people to be disappointed that you’re not part of their club any more. Travis Boak had the ultimate captain’s game, leading by example and finishing with a couple of his own. We weren’t pretty, not by any stretch of the imagination, but we got there by 13 points. Essendon coach James Hird later said that Ryder had had a “lucky night” and had really no impact on the game until the end. Maybe, but he had an impact when it counted. You’re officially one of us now, Paddy.

After the final siren sounded and me and the two (by now) very cold boys stood up, we listened to the Port Adelaide song boom around the ground. Both of them agreed it was a terrible song but I don’t care, I’ve never tired of hearing it. We left, slowly and quietly descending the stairs with the other fans and then getting lost in the spill of people across the bridge to Southern Cross Railway Station. “What are you guys doing now?” my new mate asked and I told him I just wanted to go home and call my parents. Understood. We said good bye and he left to catch a train back to his hipster suburb and probably a few extra pieces of warm clothing or a heater. My old mate tried to convince me to have one more beer while the human traffic wanting to ride the trams dispersed but I just wasn’t up for it.

I sat on the 109 tram home, my head propped against the glass as I watched the suburbs of my adopted city flash by. Football and family and friends and just… life. It never turns out quite how you think, never goes how you expect. I still end up being surprised after 36 years.

And a “lucky night” in more ways than one, for more than a few people.

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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.

Lanterns.

Adelaide Oval Walsh tribute

What a tough week it’s been in football.

At some point I had to make the decision to begin to disengage from all the Walsh tributes or else face the prospect of remaining in a downward spiral of sadness. Nothing I read or watched was going to change the situation and so many wonderful things had already been said about the man who was such a huge part of the Port Adelaide Football Club for so many years. It was time to take a step back. Otherwise I feel like it just becomes ‘tragedy porn’ and the meaningfulness starts to wane.

Of course, there’s been a separate sort of heartache when it comes to Port Adelaide this year and that’s been their repeated on field poor performance. Week after week after week I’ve gotten my hopes up only to have them dashed, usually in the worst possible way. A Thursday night game against Collingwood at home at Adelaide Oval – with the teams sitting 12th and 5th respectively – didn’t fill me with any great sense of anticipation. Even though this was going to be the club’s first match since Walsh’s death, I honestly just couldn’t bring myself to watch it. This game was going to mean a lot to us and it would just hurt too much to lose.

So I didn’t. I accepted an invitation from a friend to have dinner at one of our favourite places in the western suburbs and caught up on all the things happening in each other’s lives. Football barely rated a mention until around 8pm when I asked if she minded if I checked my phone to see what the score was. She said that was fine so I pulled it out and noted we were 26 points up in the first quarter. Not that that filled me with any great sense of hope or satisfaction, not this year. Though a small part of me wondered if the ‘good’ Port Adelaide had shown up to play.

We finished dinner, said our goodbyes and I got in the car to drive home along the Tullamarine Freeway. I listened to music the whole way, resisting the urge to turn the radio on and listen to the game. I stopped at the supermarket and checked my phone again; surprisingly we were still up. I put the phone away and did my shopping. Drove home and pulled into my drive way. Checked again. By that stage there were encouraging messages from my family and friends about how well Port were doing.

I walked upstairs and my phone pinged with a message from my brother that there was just two minutes to go. Port were four points up. I paced the room and made the executive decision that no matter how much this might end up hurting me, I was going to watch until the end. Collingwood scored a point to bring it back to within three. Kicks went repeatedly into their 50 and Broadbent stood up with some calming marks. The clock continued to count down and time never felt so slow… Three points.

I stood there, just a metre in front of the television, willing the unthinkable to happen. Bracing myself for the worst.

Then the final siren went, the rain came down again and I burst into tears.

That one’s for you Walshy.

Watching Ollie Wines sob on the field only to be comforted by captain Travis Boak nearly broke my heart. You forget he’s just a kid. Even Kenny struggled through his post match interview and I could hear the emotion in his voice. Life just doesn’t seem fair at times; it isn’t fair. Not by a long shot.

As good as that win was, we saved the best until last. The lights of Adelaide Oval went down and the most beautiful tribute went up. And as it played on the screen people shone their own lights in a mark of respect and remembrance for someone who still had so much to offer our game.

We never carried days on our own…” Last night we all carried our grief together. And at that moment I knew that it wasn’t alright, but we were going to be OK.

wines and boak

Of my people.

sydney v port

I’ve realised over the years that people arrive at their football team one of two ways – they are either born to them or they choose them. The born to people are the ones who grow up in a family who support the one club or live in the club’s homeland. The choose to people are those who give consideration to who they are going to support, weigh up all the options and then make a decision based on gut instinct or some other intangible. Both paths are equally powerful and can deliver a lifetime of impact.

My family are all born to people. I am a choose to person. And doesn’t that cause friction.

Let me explain. All five of us are NSW born and bred, people who grew up watching and playing rugby league on cold weekends. Later it was also rugby union that fought for our attention and similarly divided us into NSW Waratahs v ACT Brumbies supporters. We all arrived late at the game we often referred to as “aerial ping pong” and it wasn’t until the Sydney Swans made the 1996 grand final that we took any interest in AFL at all.

So being good NSW people, dad and mum and both my brothers went with the Swans and have stayed true to them since. They’ve seen them play in five grand finals and win two of them. One of my all time favourite memories is racing into the city after the 2012 grand final win to meet up with my brother Paul who had come down to watch the game. As I walked into his hotel lobby he stepped out of the lift and we ran excitedly towards each other, hugging and jumping up at down in excitement at Sydney’s win. I have long adored the team of my people and for many years I also had a Swans membership. I love seeing them play well and I will cheer cheer the red and the white so hard against almost any other team in the competition – except one.

Port Adelaide. My team, the team I chose. Picked in the summer the year before they started in the AFL in 1997, they were the new team, I was the new supporter and they were going to be mine. The specifics of my reasoning have faded over time but my support has not, even when they break my heart like they have done this year. I’ve watched them play in two grand finals, winning one. I was at the MCG on the day of the losing grand final, one of the worst scorelines in history, and stayed right until the bitter end. Then I got hideously drunk at a pub in the city with my Geelong supporting best friend, vomited under a table and lost my 2004 premiership scarf.

I dread the couple of times a year Port Adelaide plays Sydney and I pre-emptively cringe when I look at those rounds when the new draw comes out. I know they are going to be tough because my family makes it tough. Port has the worst record against Sydney so I invariably end up bruised and battered after facing the brunt of their piss taking. My brothers can be particularly brutal so as much as I love Sydney, there is absolutely no team I’d rather beat.

Of course, my nightmare is a Port Adelaide v Sydney grand final.

It certainly won’t be happening this year, though not though any fault of the Swans who look red hot. Even missing key position players Lance Franklin and Kurt Tippett through suspension they still managed to get over the line last Thursday night by 10 points. What a heartbreaker. Port looked valiant at times but never really good enough to win, though they kept me guessing right until the bitter end (thanks for nothing).

There’s really not much to say about Port Adelaide this year that I haven’t said already and I can’t see much point re-capping another ordinary outing in detail. We’ve been wildly disappointing in a season where I think I could realistically say many of us dared to dream we’d be premiers. Week after week they’ve let me down and it’s getting harder and harder to watch the games. The one small point that has consoled me recently is a piece I read by Malcolm Blight who said most teams that experience a significant increase in form – like Port did over the 2013-14 seasons – generally hit a plateau before rising again. In 2006 Geelong finished 10th and in 2007 they were premiers. So it can be done. All I’ve got to do now is keep the faith.

Thursday was one of the most topsy turvy days I’ve had in a long, long time. It started with some poorly delivered news I didn’t get a job I’d applied for, then a couple of hours later I got a medal for some work I did a few years ago in the job I already have and love. My current colleagues said some gorgeous things that made me feel valued and the colleagues I nearly had expressed the right amount of outrage I wasn’t going to be theirs. I bantered with new friends then had drinks with some old. People told me my hair looked good (always a win). My parents told me they were proud. Despite some wildly fluctuating circumstances I realised that I really am surrounded by good people and that there are great things to come this year. Everything will be OK.

And of course, the team I chose got beaten by the team of my people. Of all days it had to happen on that one. But you know, I still wouldn’t change my choice for anything.

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

What we’re talking about this week – Round 13.

cats

1. Redemption – Much was made of the fact it was Geelong veteran Corey Enright’s 300th game but the Demons spoiled the party. After their heartbreaker against the Saints the week before it was good to see Melbourne back on the winner’s list, led by an outstanding performance from Bernie Vince. Channel 9 might have jumped the gun a bit though…

2. Hird’s holiday – So Big Jim headed to Europe for a week during the bye to finish a business course and all hell broke loose. Is this even an issue? Really? I reckon clubs can decide what best when it comes to running their own teams. Storm in a tea cup.

3. Taking a gamble – Brent Guerra starred on the back page when he recounted the gambling addiction that took hundreds of thousands of dollars from him. It’s definitely not a new issue when it comes to AFL players but thepart that raised everyone’s eyebrows was when he spoke of Hawthorn’s “gambling culture.” Needless to say the club weren’t happy and fired back pretty quickly. I’ll always have a soft spot for Guerra after a shoddy kick from him in the 2004 prelim against the Saints effectively got Port into the grand final and the rest was history.

4. We’re the Eagles, we’re flying high – Daniel Kerr’s interview on The Footy Show received mixed reactions (I haven’t seen it personally). There apparently appeared to be a lot of avoiding the question when it came to his drinking at drug taking while playing with the Eagles and overall it left a lot of people unsatisfied.

5. Power’s off – Not the season we wanted at Port Adelaide and it hurts. Losing to Carlton is just salt in the wound.

What we’re talking about this week – Round 12.

hawks power ranger

1. Bye, bye, bye – Why is the bye spread over three rounds this year? Why are they playing a Thursday night game this week? So many unanswered questions.

2. Power Rangers are go – Yep, we’ve all seen the comparison shot with Hawthorn’s shiny shiny away jumper displayed next to the white and gold Power Ranger. Even Titus has had a crack at it. I cannot believe that was the end result and everyone in charge went, “Yep, we’re happy with that one.”

3. 41 seconds – The poor Dees can’t take a trick at the moment, going down to the Saints right at the very end. Alan Richardson’s reaction in the coaches’ box was a ripper though – skip to the last 30 seconds of this video to see what I mean.

4. President’s Round Table – I finally got around to watching the President’s Round table on Fox Footy with David Koch, Eddie McGuire, Andrew Pridham and Peter Gordon and it was one of the most interesting football segments I’ve seen in a long time. Honestly, I was riveted. Nice to hear from these guys for a change and I thought the questions were really well moderated. I can’t find a link online but the synopsis is here.

5. Origin record – 91,513 at the MCG to watch NSW beat Queensland in game two of the rugby league State of Origin. Cracking night and pretty happy to have seen the mighty Blues get up. The yelling out during the one minute’s silence for Ron Clarke probably wasn’t the highlight (or necessary) though.