A recent catch-up with a friend from out of town found us reflecting on our respective journeys as footy supporters. As we discovered, there can be different stages in a lifetime of club support.
The business of investing emotionally in a football club, it must be acknowledged, is largely based on make-believe. At some level of consciousness, the typical supporter is committing to the notion that his/her club is the single goodie and the rest are dressed in black. While such fantasy is easily embraced and maintained through childhood, it’s open to challenge as one begins thinking as an adult.
The theme of stages in a sport-related compartment of one’s life prompted me to recall one of cricket’s most famous after-dinner addresses. It was delivered in 1961 at the Silver Jubilee dinner of the Forty Club: a group of cricketers who have played into, and in some cases beyond, their fifth decade.
The speech was delivered by London barrister, Humphrey Tilling. It wove together, with the risque humour of the time, the synchronised rise and fall of a man’s cricket and sexual performance. Tilling drew on Shakespeare’s "Seven Ages of Man" in traversing the seasons of a cricketer’s life.
The first of these he described as the Age of Youth. Roughly paraphrased, this described the hubristic phase when the suggestion of fear was eschewed to the extent that wearing an abdominal protector (a "box") was a sign of effeminacy. The time when one departed the ground at close of play in a fast sports car, accompanied by a glamorous companion who would be "more easily acquired than the century at that moment being inscribed in the score-book beside your name".
There followed what Tilling described as the Age of Maturity, followed by the Age of Retirement. Performance – both on and off the field – was now in steady decline. The stage was eventually reached where fielding was only possible with the feet. To be asked to bowl was a deliberate and calculated insult. Forgetting your box was worse than forgetting your wife’s birthday.
Ultimately, there came the age when being a spectator was all that was left. One now perambulated the ground’s perimeter, "a magnificent silhouette in the dying sun", relating grand tales of youth to anyone stupid enough to listen. This was the age when "sex, alas, was no more than a Latin numeral".
So, it was that I came to ponder – with not a double entendre in sight – the ages of football as experienced by an average club supporter.
There is the Age of Induction, when one first observes the ritual, most likely introduced by a parent or within a family group. Powerful forces are potentially unleashed. There is belonging. There is colour, noise, and excitement. There’s also passion, and something is lodged deep in a young person’s psyche when grown-ups are observed expressing it. The unmistakeable message is that this is truly important.
The supporter’s second age might be described as the Age of Irrational Commitment. The age when it’s not just important that your team wins, but that those of others in your peer group lose. This is an age when football has taken a hold. The psychological whys and wherefores of this have long been pondered but still aren’t exactly clear.
Then there’s the Age of Distraction: when one’s growing independence starts to provide options. Some of these are sufficiently appealing to challenge what, until recently, had been cast in stone. The Age of Distraction can, in fact, change priorities.
Which is where my friend and I began our chat. Just as questions might already have been raised about God, now even footy might be subjected to serious scrutiny. After all, does it really matter whether your team wins or loses? Does it really affect the quality of your life for more than an hour or two afterwards?
But … then, for many, comes the Age of Parenthood. The age when you want to share with your own children the experience that once so captured your imagination. And this closing of the circle brings new life to a footy existence.
The fortunes of your team, that you rode so fervently in childhood, become important again. Now there’s even greater meaning, as you watch a junior investor in football enjoy the thrill of the ride you once took. Just when you felt the Age of Irrational Commitment was the best part of the journey, there’s something new.
And, so it goes…
Without a strong connection to a team, though, it’s a fragile web. This is where, even after 120 years of an extraordinarily successful competition, the future remains unclear.
For the teams that provide the connection between club and supporter are nowadays split into two groups: 10 Victorian (including one in Geelong) and eight from four other states. And despite logic suggesting rivalries across state divides should be the strongest of any within the AFL, this isn’t proving to be the case.
It’s the old, local rivalries – and even the new local ones – that give the competition its heart and soul. The Melbourne clubs were originally defined by inner-suburban divisions, and perhaps by religious difference. Yet, today, these bear little or no relevance to the modern incarnations of the nine clubs. So, how and why do we make sense of our personal commitment to any one of them?
The answer for most, I suggest, is history. Before our parents had their teams, and passed them on to us, many of their parents had done likewise to them. Generational passage will go on as football’s most powerful source of sustenance.
As to whether it will sustain the idea of commitment to one club within an increasingly homogenised collection, only time will tell.
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