Everything was going so well for the AFL. It had just signed off on a mind-boggling TV rights deal. The football had been exquisite. The stadiums had been heaving. The Brownlow Medal count was compelling. The outgoing CEO was on a giant victory lap. The grand final was one of the most eagerly anticipated in years.
That all changed with Wednesday morning’s story on the ABC website. It evoked a sense this entire competition is built on bullshit, that it’s hard to take anything coming from the mouths of clubs seriously.
Football clubs, and the entire industry that feeds off the game, throw around words like “culture” as though they’re building orphanages. “Bloods Culture” and “The Family Club” almost become marketing terms. We build up the leaders, and particularly the coaches, to the point where they are apparently unimpeachable. We often forget that their ultimate business is winning, and that they will do anything to accomplish that. The “Whatever It Takes” sign at Essendon became something of a running joke during the supplements scandal. But there’s no joking about this story.
It will now be the backdrop to this year’s grand final. As the AFL chief executive, Gillon McLachlan, said on Wednesday, “it will be contextual in everything we do.” While Robbie Williams is warming up the vocal chords and Max Holmes is testing his hamstring, it will keep bubbling away. It cannot be ameliorated with snappy, six-sentence press releases, or shilly-shallying stand-ups. It will remind us that this isn’t really about Hawthorn, or even football generally. It’s the story of our country.
This time last year, the backdrop to the grand final was the global pandemic. Most of the eastern seaboard was in lockdown. At the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, protesters pelted police with golf balls. The city had been hit by an earthquake. The decider had been relocated. The mayor of Perth, Basil Zempilas, wanted 60,000 Western Australians to stand and applaud those doing it tough on the other side of the country. It went down like a lead balloon. Football was a welcome distraction from all that.
Before the ABC story landed, this grand final had such rich storylines. This time last year, Paddy McCartin’s Wikipedia page listed him as a “former Australian Rules footballer”. Heading into the 2014 draft, he was one of the standout juniors in the country, together with Christian Petracca and Angus Brayshaw. There was a fascinating extract from Emma Quayle’s book in the Age that delved into St Kilda’s deliberations about whether to draft McCartin. It was as if they were buying a house. Or a horse.
But the game wasn’t kind to him. Bedevilled by head knocks, he managed only 35 games over more than five years. He watched Petracca become one of the best footballers in Australia. He was interviewed in 2019 and it was one of the saddest football stories imaginable. “I’m sort of just a shell of a person that I was,” he said. He was hyper-sensitive to light and sound, sleep deprived, depressed and out of league football. “I’ve sort of lost my footy identity a little bit, but then also my identity as a person as well.”
On Saturday, he will hold down a key defensive post as the Swans play for the premiership.
There were compelling storylines everywhere you looked. There was Robbie Fox, who was working as a substitute teacher earlier this year. There was Lance Franklin, who was pensioned off by Leigh Matthews a fortnight ago, and who announced a contract extension as the Queens’s coffin was being carried into Westminster Abbey. There was Jeremy Cameron, who sometimes gives the impression that this professional football caper is a bit of a lark. There was Chris Scott and John Longmire, who have led parallel coaching lives since 2011.
It feels as though their two teams have been circling each other for years now. But they’ve never really had a proper crack at one another, never caught one another at their best. The closest they came was probably the 2016 preliminary final, a game Geelong went into as warm favourites and were asleep at the wheel. They haven’t met since that crazy night in March, back when people were picnicking, getting down on bended knee and scattering ashes on the SCG. Between them, the two clubs have won two dozen on the trot over the past three months.
All those storylines recede now. All seem a bit quaint. All the bread and circuses will seem a bit silly.
“What a shame this dropped in grand final week, of all weeks,” someone said on radio on Wednesday.
And indeed, this week is so often a showcase of everything we love about the game. I was looking forward to watching my own team, a team that’s lauded for its “culture” and “connection”. Instead, it’s a reminder that we elevate and venerate men and organisations whose core business is collecting silverware. We obsess over their contracts. We consider their characters beyond reproach.
For anyone who loves this sport, it is a week of uncomfortable truths, and a profound shame.