There is no week in the calendar I love more than the one that counts down to the AFL grand final.
As an ex-Melburnian, much of whose past is there, it’s a nostalgic festival of kinship and mates and memories and, foremost, the game – for all its anthropological intrigues and tribalism, hatreds and loves, history and mythology.
No matter who’s in the granny, the week that counts down to it is an intoxicating, anticipatory celebration of Melbourne-ism that crescendos at the MCG around Saturday dusk and whose afterglow lingers for days.
Since I left the city almost three decades ago, that week has often meant a few days off and a jaunt down the Hume for what I’ve always felt is like some special version of Christmas on steroids for grown-ups. The place is jumping and the atmosphere electric.
In the years when I’ve not gone, I’ve suffered the worst, most melancholic fomo imaginable.
Take my first year in Sydney, 2017. I stayed put, though I felt emotionally invested in the result on account of my Collingwood-supporting granddad who’d played for Richmond long ago. I sat alone in front of the TV. An NRL-supporting mate dropped in unannounced (“What are you watching?”). We drank one solitary beer each. He asked many questions about the rules.
While I traded texts with elated Tiger friends and my eldest Richmond-supporting daughter at The G after the siren, I felt discomfortingly detached from a cultural ritual that is part of my heritage. I’m tempted to write “just like church” … except that Australian Rules has always meant more to me and has earthed me in greater human and communal and situational – and perhaps even spiritual – belonging, than any formal religion.
The priests at the old school might be turning underground to know that. Though I doubt they’d be too surprised.
Grand final 2018. I drove down the Hume with my black labrador, Ronda. We posed for a pic at the Dog on the Tucker Box, her draped in a Collingwood scarf. We had the warm inner glow of all putative premiership team supporters (everyone with a dog – or human – in the grand final fight lays claim to that warming feeling in granny week).
The rest of the family arrived on the Friday. I’d planned to go to the match. I had a ticket. But the kids couldn’t get in. And they wanted to watch it with me. It was our son’s birthday … so we stayed in our digs not far from The G. We watched it on TV. The sound of a thousand other televisions and radios echoed amid the barbecue smoke and yelling and oohs and ahhhs and amateur commentary, and of the kids kicking footies in the streets at half-time as we walked to manage my anxiety.
And then came the howls and cries at that final West Coast goal when I shed a tear of disbelief and disappeared to the bathroom and then the siren drifted on the ether from The G was made real by that blasting from the TV screen. That’s Grand Final day in Melbourne. Whether you’re at The G or not.
That was as genuine and memorable a Melbourne grand final experience as being at the ground.
Last year Covid upended the world but somehow the season continued, to the great comfort of the game’s (15 million) Australian supporters. It ended in an aberrant (or so we thought) evening grand final of Victorian teams interstate. Except it turned out to be a precedent for this year’s most Melbourne of contests in Perth between perhaps the oldest football club in the world, the Demons (with a reputation history has outgrown for being of the establishment, and who’ve been without a premiership since the year I was born) and the AFL mob still most proudly geo-located in its multi-ethnic, working-class base – the Western Bulldogs.
If ever there was a grand final Melbourne deserves, it is this one. The suburbs are festooned with the colours, I’m told. But the scheduled (east coast) night-time bounce has discombobulated the place – for the granny must be played of a Saturday afternoon at the end of a celebratory week of that distilled Melbourne-ness, not least Friday’s grand final parade through the streets.
Instead the thoroughfares of the city, locked-down for more days than any other in the world, were overrun by rioting malcontents, including a fair share of fascists. Amid all this violent mayhem Melbourne, as if out of fucks to give, simultaneously hosted an earthquake!
At the end of such a unique grand final week, I’m now imagining a grand final like no other. Of hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of suburban windows aglow with a match played a continental-breadth away. Of damp shiny, empty streets. On a night too cold and wet – too quintessentially, seasonally Melbourne – to barbecue. An empty G.
How to get a sense of it from this end of the Hume? Impossible, really – though I’ll go through the rituals. Re-watching old grand finals. Reading everything. Watching the pre-match hype. Footy food. Beer. Mad texting and phone calls throughout the day. And yes … I’ll try to be happy for my mates in Perth (if they promise not to get used to it).
Sydney is picnicking in the sun, preparing to come out of lockdown. And yet I’ve got serious Melbourne fomo today. l wish I was there, despite the lockdown, for what could be that enduring and resilient city’s most emotionally poignant, memorable, grand final in history.
See you next year old friend. Therein lives hope.
Paul Daley is a columnist for Guardian Australia