LEAPS AND BOUNDS
by Irwin Hirsh
(First published in Attitude 9, November 1996, edited by Michael Abbott, John Dallman and Pam Wells)
It's February, 1986. Nominations for the 1987 GUFF race have closed, my name is on the ballot, and Wendy and I have decided that should I win we'll make it a 3-4 month grand tour.
We pulled out a calendar, slotted in the Conspiracy '87 weekend and set in mind the period we'd like to be away. As I looked at the calendar, I noticed that we won't be in Melbourne for The Last Saturday in September.
"I'm going to miss the Grand Final."
I was talking about the Victorian Football League Grand Final. Australian Rules Football. In 1969 I was 9 years old and attended my first Grand Final. Since then I'd missed only five of the things, most recently in 1980. It's the match of the season, with a fantastic atmosphere. The live tv broadcast is the rating winner of the year, but there is nothing like being there.
"I bet you Carlton will win. I'm going to miss it."
Carlton is the team I support. When Carlton wins a Grand Final it is the best. And they were going to win in 1987. I knew it. I could feel it. But I wouldn't be there. And the 1986 season hadn't even begun.
I told people of my prediction. Carlton were going to win. My team. They were going to do it to spite me. It stood to reason.
After a while I looked at my prediction and realised that there is actually some substance to it. After the great years of 1979-82, when we won three of the four premierships going, 1983-5 had been a period of transition, when a lot of young players came into the team. Over the summer of 1985-6 some high rated recruits from interstate had joined the club. '86 would be a year when the guys from interstate would find their feet, the younger players would gain further experience, and it would be the following year when it would come together.
The '87 season started horribly, getting thrashed in the first round by Hawthorn, the previous years premiers. But things quickly fell into place and mid-August when Wendy and I were waiting to board a British Airways flight to London, I gave my father the ultimate instruction. "You better tape The Match, or else!" The Grand Final was still six weeks away but Carlton were going to be there.
Two matches stood out as the sign that we'd make it. The return match with Hawthorn was in round 14. With perhaps two minutes still to play Carlton were 19 points down. There wasn't enough time to bridge that gap and it would've have been easy just to travel it out to the siren. Instead the team kicked three sparkling goals. We lost buy one point but I came away impressed with the way we finished out the match. Five weeks later I saw them play Sydney, a team which had kicked a massive 30 goals (or more) in each of the previous three rounds. The momentum was with Sydney, but Carlton totally shut them out.
We arrived in London on a Saturday, and discovered that Channel Four had decided to make the GUFF winner feel at home by choosing that very day in which to begin their six week season of weekly broadcasts of Aussie Rules football. The first two weeks would be an hour's highlights of two matches from the regular season, then three weeks of edited highlights of the initial finals on a delay of about a day, rounded out by a live broadcast of the Grand Final over Friday night/Saturday morning. I didn't take much notice of those first two weeks, as the matches chosen had been played weeks before and I knew the results. However I must note the neat trick of timing which saw the second of the matches involve the West Coast Eagles, the Perth-based club. This was shown on Conspiracy Saturday, just when the Perth in 94 Worldcon bidding committee were hosting a party. Better viewing than a documentary provided by Perth's tourist bureau.
The Saturday after Conspiracy Eve and John Harvey held a party, and at the appropriate time Perry Middlemiss and I turned on the tv, and used the Qualifying Final between Hawthorn and Sydney to explain Australian Rules to Greg Pickersgill. We mustn't have done too well. "Australian No-Rules," Greg would say when he wasn't chuckling with glee every time a player would throw his opponent to the ground. What we watched wasn't much of a contest. Sydney were insipid, even in edited highlight form, and Hawthorn won by 99 points, a Qualifying Final record winning margin. Before the hour was up I was in the next room watching John Jarrold display his air-guitar skills.
Seven days later Wendy and I were in Bristol, and it was Christina Lake and Peter-Fred Thompson's turn to be privileged to receive my explanation of Aussie Rules. We watched Hawthorn and Carlton in the Second Semi Final. The opening two quarters were frustrating to watch. Carlton's mid-field were playing well but the forwards were wasting the opportunities provided them. By contrast Hawthorn's forwards were making most of what came their way. At half-time, despite five less scoring shots, Hawthorn were 15 points in front. I had a feeling Hawthorn's experience (reigning champs, played in the previous four Grand Finals) was going to see them win this one. During the third quarter they stretched their lead out to 33 points and I was looking at the continuation of their recent dominance over Carlton (they'd beaten us ten out of the previous eleven meetings). But Carlton's captain Stephen Kernahan had other ideas, kicking two strong, motivating goals. Together they formed the turning point of the match and in the fourth quarter Hawthorn lost the lead and wasn't able to get it back. Carlton were in the Grand Final. I was happy.
The fannish highlight of the match was Carlton player Bernie Evans. Every time his name was mentioned in the commentary Christina and Peter-Fred would laugh. One time I asked what was so funny. "There's a Bernie Evans in British fandom." I hadn't met this Bernie Evans on my GUFF travels, so my hosts told me about her. I in turn told them about the footballer. "Every club has a player whom their supporters can't stand - they have to, it's in the rules - and Bernie Evans is Carlton's hated player." One reason he got mentioned in the commentary was because he was reported by the umpire for striking an opponent and would have to face the tribunal. Normally I wouldn't have been happy at the prospect that a Carlton player would miss a Grand Final through suspension, but with Evans I make an exception.
The following week was the Preliminary Final. Melbourne and Hawthorn playing for the other spot in the Grand Final. It had been 23 years since Melbourne had played in a finals series and here they were, one win from playing in the Grand Final. This was the fairy story of the season. Wendy was surprised to see Melbourne there but I wasn't. When we left Australia Melbourne had not yet qualified for the finals. "If Melbourne make the finals they'll be in the Preliminary Final" I was telling people.
Justin Ackroyd was one of those people and he said I was crazy.
"Justin, if they make the finals it's because they were playing well. The teams they'll meet in the first two weeks are North Melbourne and Sydney, neither of whom are playing well enough to beat an in-form team."
Sure enough, Melbourne beat North by 118 points in the Elimination Final and beat Sydney by 76 points in the First Semi Final. Two massive wins.
Melbourne's fairy story continued in the Preliminary Final. They played better than Hawthorn, and by three-quarter time had built up a lead of 22 points. Then Channel Four's compere told us that the final quarter turned out to be one of the most exciting in VFL finals history, and that we'd be shown the whole thing rather than edited highlights.
"Hawthorn's going to come back. It may even be a draw." I said.
"How do you know that?" Wendy asked.
I pointed to the tv screen. "That introduction told me."
Hawthorn did as announced. It was a quarter in which their experience showed. They were too tired for an overwhelming scoring blitz, so they came back in a slow grind. Melbourne did their best to help Hawthorn, twice missing easy goals. Late in the quarter Melbourne were less than a goal ahead, when Hawthorn's Gary Buckenara was awarded a free kick 55 metres from his goal. As he lined up to take the kick a Melbourne player ran in front of him, an infringement for which Buckenara was moved 15 metres closer to goal. Then the final siren went. This would be the final kick of the match. A goal and Hawthorn was in the Grand Final. It is probably the most famous 15 metre penalty in VFL history.
Watching us watching the match were Simons Ounsley and Polley and Debbi Kerr. For them the fannish highlight was Hawthorn player Chris Langford. In a replication of the previous weeks events with Bernie Evans everytime Langford was mentioned in the commentary there'd be a chuckle around the room.
The next Friday we arrived in Harlech, to spend the weekend with Dave and Hazel Langford. I told Dave about watching the Aussie Rules with British fans and their reaction to some of the players. "But imagine if it was someone else's name," he said, "'And Pickersgill has got the ball, and he's been thrown to the ground. He can't get up!' The chuckle would become a roar."
After three weeks of catching the football my luck had run out and I wasn't near a tv when the Grand Final was broadcast. Hazel said that the next day we'd be visiting the town of Porthmadog and that there's a pub there which may help me find out which team won.
At the Awstralia Hotel I asked a bartender if he knew who won the match.
"What?" he asked.
"The Grand Final, in Australia. Last night"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Dave came into the conversation. "These people have come all the way from Australia to Wales, just to ask you this question."
"What is it? A horse race?"
"No, a football match. Australian Rules football."
Another bartender came over. "What you have to realise is that Captain Cook passed by this pub and named the country after the pub. That is our only connection to your country."
Two days later we bumped into fellow Aussie fan travellers Clive Newall and LynC in Harlech Castle. We introduced them to the Langfords, chatted for a bit, and went our separate ways. Two minutes later I stopped, "Damn!"
"What's wrong?" Wendy asked.
"I didn't ask them if they know who won. I might never find out who won."
From Harlech we moved on to Birmingham, and stayed with Martin Tudor. None of the Brummies we met proved helpful in my quest to find out The News from back home. So I put in a call to Australia House in London.
"Carlton won. 104 points to 71."
I wanted to believe it but the score sounded somewhat familiar.
"So?" Wendy said.
"I think I may have been given the Second Semi scores. I'm going to ring Victoria House."
"Carlton 15.14.104, Hawthorn 9.17.71."
"That's the Grand Final score not the Second Semi Final?"
"Yes. That's right."
I put down the receiver, and threw my arms triumphantly in the air. That afternoon I sent a postcard to Toby and Daniel Collins, my Go-to-the-football buddies. It was a "Having a good time, but for three hours I wish I was where you were" postcard. Carlton were Premiers. And all because I stood for and won a fan fund. What other explanation could there be?