Sport AFL Cats and Hawks: too much of a good thing?

Cats and Hawks: too much of a good thing?

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Last year, about 45 minutes after Hawthorn had broken the Kennett Curse, I torpedoed an old history book onto my neighbour’s roof. It had been an emotional evening and I was not in my right mind. It was the heftiest of tomes and the bleakest of reads – The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS – and it soared into the September night. Parched by January’s furnace and drenched by recent downpours, it lies there still, a suitable reminder of the night. I’d have to call the fire brigade to recover it.

Footy does curious things to ostensibly well-adjusted adults. We dance on seats, hug strangers, vent on internet forums, spend eight dollars on a light beer, punch holes in walls and lower our gaze to avoid looking at a history book every time we leave the house.

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As Nick Hornby touched on in Fever Pitch, we invest so much of our time, and so much of ourselves, into something over which we have no control. Consider the average Richmond supporter following the elimination final last year. Football had floored them.

Josh Caddy looked to have given the Cats a winning lead… Photo: Getty

Geelong and Hawthorn fans are blessed of course. For both sets of supporters, these are the good old days. Still, as a Geelong supporter, harking back to that night feels like being hit with a bag of nuts and bolts. Heading into the game, Geelong’s form was terrible. A fortnight earlier, Fremantle had mugged us. Our best defender was injured. The heart and soul of the club was suspended. But the Hawks were our bunnies. All the pressure was on them.

Like most Geelong supporters, I exited the stadium like George Costanza escaping a house fire.

Late on Friday afternoon – for three-quarters of a glorious hour – it rained. Geelong hadn’t lost in the wet since the Pyramid collapse. On the train, the Cats’ blue-rinse set nattered about how many premierships they’d exchange to beat Hawthorn. Winning a game of football had never felt so important.

What followed was three excruciating hours of twists and turns, counter surges, conjuring tricks, brain fades and near misses. I had a good seat but lasted just one Hawthorn goal, whereupon I retreated to the standing section. If you’re of a nervous disposition and a certain attitude, eschewing a seat, leaning on a railing, grinding your feet into the concrete and risking permanent neck damage is the only way to endure a game like that. Supporting is more of a physical act – the noises more guttural, the experience more primal.

Ten minutes into the final quarter, the Hawthorn supporters could barely bring themselves to watch. When Josh Caddy snapped a goal, the guy next to me tore off his brown and gold scarf. “F*** it!” he screamed and stormed for the exit. His partner – who had stood at two arms’ length all evening – stuck around. Bradley Hill quickly replied and she picked up the scarf. When Gunston goaled, she started shaking. By the time Burgoyne had given Hawthorn the lead, her partner had reappeared, apparently half a foot taller and exploding with joy. All around me, Hawthorn supporters were transported beyond their corporeal state.

…but there was another twist in the tale. Photo: Getty

AFL crowds are rarely like that anymore. A night at the footy, particularly in Melbourne, increasingly resembles a night at the tennis. Crowds are older, quieter and more corporate. Seats are more expensive. There are dance troupes and competitions where you tweet your estimate of the crowd. Fun facilitators whip up excitement between quarters. Fans fiddle with their iPhones, pose for selfies and check their fantasy league scores.

Since that final, something strange has happened. Geelong and Hawthorn supporters have started being civil to one another.

Yet here was this preppy, collar-up, short-back-and-sided supporter base making as much noise as I’ve heard an Australian sporting crowd generate. They could have been on the Kop at Anfield. “The drunks looked lobotomised,” former Hawthorn player Tim Boyle wrote in The Sunday Age, “and the sober voices sounded pissed – warbling and screeching obscenities into the concrete at their feet.”

Like most Geelong supporters, I exited the stadium like George Costanza escaping a house fire. From as far away as Richmond train station, the MCG felt like it was about the blast off. My abiding sporting memory of 2013 will always be that inexorable theme song, sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy, blaring into the night.

Since that final, something strange has happened. Geelong and Hawthorn supporters have started being civil to one another. It’s not quite a thaw, but the Kennett Curse is dead. As far as sporting hexes go, it was always a bit of a stretch. It was too much about Jeff, too little about the games, 10 of which were decided by 10 points or less. The main players – Scarlett, Franklin, Kennett, Dew, Brown and Thompson – are all gone. Chapman, astonishingly, is an Essendon player now. But the most storied rivalry of our footballing epoch grows organically. The games tend to follow a familiar pattern. Hawthorn go in as favourites. One side skips away to a seemingly unassailable lead. The other pegs it back. The loser is invariably desperately unlucky.

‘Football….. bloody hell!’ Alex Ferguson famously said following the 1999 Champions League final. The brilliant old curmudgeon had a way with words. And he would have loved the Geelong-Hawthorn fixture. On Saturday night, both sets of supporters will brace themselves for another season-defining, sea-sawing, paint-peeling and utterly unbearable evening. It’s a footballing first-world problem to have. But Hawthorn and Geelong have to stop doing this to their fans. It’s too much, this thing.

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