It’d be great if there was some grand reason for supporting Collingwood, some family tie, or inspirational victory that won my family over.
But there’s nothing. It’s not like we lived in the suburb, or that they won over my family with some amazing premiership win, or that they had some assortment of guns we just had to follow.
Instead, it was an assortment of little things.
My family’s large. It’s not just my three older brothers, but lots of cousins. My brother John, twelve years older than me, is the oldest of the kids, so he’s the one who consigned a lot of us to the black and white path that we followed.
We used to live in Fitzroy, so we had some affiliation to the Fitzroy Football Club. My dad would take John both to Fitzroy games and Collingwood games, although mostly to Fitzroy games. However, Collingwood was doing better than Fitzroy at the time (in the 1960s), so that was a plus in Collingwood’s favour. There was also some girl in Grade Prep who liked Collingwood, so that was another tick for my brother.
My uncle Fred, an Essendon man – and all my mum’s side is Essendon – tried to bribe John to go for Essendon by offering to buy him an Essendon jumper. My brother refused. My uncle Fred succeeded with my cousin Vic, who was originally a Geelong supporter. His brother Paul followed him shortly after. But my brother stayed Collingwood.
When I came along, that’s what I knew. I had a brief sojourn following Geelong, because I liked cats. And I was about five-years-old, and being a kid I was stupid and impulsive. While the stupidity and impulsiveness have lasted my whole life, following the Cats didn’t. It felt wrong to change. So I went back – if I’d ever truly left in the first place.
Other cousins also followed Collingwood. A few had supported other teams (like Melbourne and Footscray) but changed over. Collingwood became ingrained with my dad’s side of the family, all but for two cousins who followed Carlton because they kicked puppies when they were kids. Actually, they followed Carlton because friends did, (although the puppy-kicking thing is yet to be discredited).
But we were Collingwood. Through and through.
One of my brothers had bought a book, The Courage Book of Finals. I read bits and pieces, but being a stupid, impulse kid was more fascinated by the pictures – our players in action. Frozen in time. Feats of champions. There was a mystique about it.
Although over time, it’s seemed Collingwood are always on the opposing ends of feats. If there’s a possible mark of the century, it’s bound to be the Collingwood player who’s the stepladder. If there’s a goal of the century, it’s the Collingwood players looking foolish. Or maybe that’s just the way it seems. I mean, I was aware of Ray Gabelich’s famed run … in a losing grand final. Oh wait. Well, there was Phil Manassa’s famed run, too. Hmmm.
Anyway, at the back of The Courage Book of Finals, there were scores of finals. I looked through them, quarter by quarter, working out the margins. It was always a thrill to see Collingwood win. More often than not, they’d find a way to triumph. It bespoke of an indomnitable spirit, a refusal to surrender, and a desperation to succeed.
Unless it was a grand final.
I’d follow the scores quarter by quarter, calculating the margins, finding so often we were in front. A win had to be inevitable. It just had to be, damnit! But the only real inevitability was the turnaround.
1970, the year of my birth, was a major disappointment. I thought it had to be a misprint. At half-time, we were 6.8 up. Forty-four points. But we lost. How did that happen? How could it happen? It seemed mathematically impossible. I still think it’s a misprint. All the other evidence to the contrary is just a misunderstanding, or some sort of mass hallucination. It’s possible, isn’t it?
1966 was another shocker, because that came with a picture of Darrell Baldock, wearing a Collingwood jumper, holding up the premiership trophy. Unfortunately, the caption identified him as ‘St Kilda captain.’ Surely this had to be another misprint. He’s in our bloody jumper, after all! But my brother Lou explained that at the end of the grand final, they swapped jumpers. When I asked why, he said they just did. Stupid, misleading tradition.
The shattering loss became a common theme. Wherever I checked the scores, there was ultimate failure – usually after seeming to be in a position of certain victory. Disappointment flooded me. How could they lose? I wished I could turn back time and give them that opportunity to try again … although I started to grow fearful of how that would’ve turned out.
Oh, there was 1958. That was against all odds, thwarting rampaging favourite, Melbourne, from tying our unique record of four successive flags. There was glory, even if it was twenty years old at the time I became aware of it.
The only prestige available to me, really, was we led the premiership table, which begged the question: where were our premierships? Where were they being hidden? The truth was that 1953 and 1958 aside, eleven of them had been won by 1936.
Then there was nothing but failures.
That’s the Collingwood I grew up with.
That’s the Collingwood I knew.
When you’re growing up, there’s three stages of awareness in regards to football.
- Stage 1: you know football exists, and generally there’s an inclination toward one team or another, (although at this stage, allegiances are still malleable, unless you’re born into a family who program you early).
- Stage 2: having that casual interest in whether your team’s won or lost, and if they’ve won, even asking by how much. At this point, there’s a knowledge of a few players and an inkling of your favourite, (although your favourite might, in reality, be a spud, but he’s become your favourite because he’s signed your footy or somebody’s given you his number on your jumper or whatever the obscure connection might be).
- Stage 3: knowing your team and watching them.
I was late to Stage 3, which is weird given I had three older brothers who all followed Collingwood, and two of whom went every week, (and the other regularly). I was introspective and hyper, nerdy and bookish, although I did regularly play sport. When I played cricket, I wanted to be a bowler, modelling my action on Jeff Thompson’s, albeit left-handed, (although I batted right-handed). Footy, I was a left footer with an ungainly style, but a sharp(ish) kick and a good mark.
However, while I wasn’t going or watching games regularly quite yet, I did all the other regular footy stuff. I played footy matches with cousins and at school. I played kick-to-kick with my brothers. I bought football cards and lamented how I rarely ever seemed to get Collingwood players. Xavier Tanner for North Melbourne – he was somebody I got a lot. He must’ve been a gun. They must’ve made five Xavier cards for one of every other player. I also got in friendly banter with other kids about rivalries I didn’t understand.
I was getting hooked into Collingwood, though, in that organic way kids do, subverted bit by bit, until there was no escaping it and it became my reality, as if supporting Collingwood was a form of schizophrenia.
There was no escape. Which is the way it should be – not just with Collingwood, but any team, (but really with Collingwood; why would you want to get hooked into another team?). I don’t understand the dynamic where kids support teams that their parents don’t. I have a friend who supports Richmond. His son barracks for Hawthorn because Richmond has been crap since 1982 and Hawthorn won the 2008 grand final. How difficult is it to say to the kid that he can have free will or a roof over his head? That’s what allegiance is. Blood. Not whim. My cousin did it recently when discussing who his daughter would support with his Essendon-barracking wife.
‘Does she want to support Essendon or does she want her father’s love?’ my cousin asked.
There were other guys who lived down the street my brothers age, and they’d play footy, cricket, and stuff. Sometimes, being the goofy little brother, I’d tag along. They anointed me Fabulous Phil Carman – probably because I cried a lot and threw tantrums, not that I knew that was the connection. Instead, they told me how good Phil was, which was true, and I imagined myself like Fabulous Phil, taking marks and dominating games.
My brothers brought me the plastic numbers which were the rage of the day – none of this jumpers with numbers printed on, or ironed-out. You (read: your mum) sewed the plastic number on your back, which looked real good – even if felt weird whenever you flexed – until they got a rip in them. Then it was just a matter of time before they tore the whole way through.
Still, awareness of the actual footy was something peripheral. During grand final week in 1977, I saw on the News that some baker baked a cake with heaps of black and white layers in expectation of Collingwood winning the flag. One of my brothers watched the game at home with his friend. I watched with about as much attention and investment as seven-year-olds have, unaware that our gun CHF, Phil Carman, was out suspended, seriously harming our chances; of how Collingwood threw away a match-winning lead; how administrators celebrated the win before it occurred (allegedly popping champagne bottles open); or how iconic Twiggy Dunne’s game-saving mark would become, leading to the flat punt which would tie the scores, resulting in only the second draw in VFL grand final history.
There were hopefulness for the replay. Of course there would be. This was another shot at it, even if Carman was again unavailable (although they tried to get him off). I wasn’t aware of the stories that followed, of (allegedly) coach Tom Hafey training the players into the ground, so they were flat come the replay.
Which was a loss. Of course. Situation normal.
There are your three certainties in life: death, taxes, and Collingwood in grand finals.
1978 was a bust (with Collingwood bombing out in the preliminary final to North Melbourne), other than for being given a new player to like in Rene Kink. Kink was broad-shouldered with ripper definition in the arms and bore a passing resemblance (for a kid at least) to Lou Ferrigno, who played The Hulk in the tv series The Incredible Hulk. It was a nickname Kink would earn as he stacked on the muscle.
I was becoming aware of other players, too: there was the Charlie Chaplainesque appearance of Ray Shaw; the graceful hunchbacked loping of Peter Moore; the Beatlesque head and seeming ungainliness of Billy Picken; the Oompa Loompa brutality of Stan Magro (and, fast-forwarding briefly, after he flattened Carlton’s Alex Jesualenko , I was always disappointed whenever I saw Magro and he didn’t flatten somebody – the expectation was he always would). The list went on. Of course, these were a kid’s impressions, and similarities were correlated to a fleeting understanding of pop culture.
By then Fabulous Phil was on the way out, and I was too young to appreciate that many couldn’t forgive him for being unavailable for the 1977 grand finals. I’d develop the disappointment retrospectively, the way you do with Collingwood. It’s a birthright you grow into. It didn’t matter that I didn’t experience it at the time. It’s like inheriting a blood oath. A black and white blood oath.
In 1979, I watched raptly as Collingwood took on Hawthorn in the Escort Cup (night) grand final. It was the first tension I felt following a match unfold, being aware of the scores and what they meant to the contest. After we won, captain Ray Shaw vowed that was number one, now for number two – the actual flag. Again, being a kid, I was too young to appreciate how hard premierships were to win. And that vows aren’t always fulfilled.
I was hardly aware of our fluctuating fortunes that season, or the grand final itself – other than we led. Then we lost. And Wayne Harmes tapped the ball back in from the first row of seating. Years later, I read Wayne Johnston’s autobiography and he mentioned of that incident that Harmes should be given credit because he chased the ball down, while everybody else slowed to a canter, expecting the ball to dribble out. He’s right. Even if the ball was out when Harmes tapped it back in.
Anyway, this – footy – was still all new to me. I thought such things as injustices shouldn’t happen, but started realising they could happen.
I just didn’t know that while they shouldn’t happen, they would happen to us more than they wouldn’t.
I was still too young to truly appreciate where Collingwood stood in the grand scheme of things – that they were coming off another grand final loss, and what that meant, or that it was their second loss in three years (or third failure to win a grand final in three years, if you include the 1977 draw). I knew these defeats existed, but was just a stupid kid too young to understand their significance.
There’s something to be said about innocence. And stupidity.
If I was older, I would’ve understood that the 1970s marked a decade of the grandest failures. The 1970 grand final wasn’t just a loss. Many felt it scarred that generation of Collingwood. In 1973, Collingwood finished the H&A season on top, two games clear of second place, and crashed out of the finals in straight sets. In 1976, they won their first wooden spoon ever. Then there were the 1977 and 1979 grand final losses, both capitulations from strong positions. Maybe the thing about the scarring was true. Of course, 1970 would’ve only compounded what had begun to develop since the 1930s – because, in my humble opinion, that’s when it all began.
You look at Collingwood and up to 1936 – just forty-four years into their existence – they had eleven flags. Eleven. One every four years. Their record at that point was 11-9. Then there were losses in 1937, 1938, and 1939, and not another grand final appearance until 1952 (another loss). Then, whilst there were victories in 1953 and 1958, there were losses 1955, 1956, 1960, 1964, and 1966 and then, of course, 1970, 1977, and 1979.
Their record between 1936 –1979 is 2-11, for a total (up to this point, mind you) of 13-20 and one draw. That’s just going into 1980. (If I flash forward to 2013, you can add another 2-5 to that record, for a total of 15-25 and two draws.)
What happened? How do you manage 11-9 in forty-four years and (again, flashing forward) 4-16 for the rest?
There are obvious factors, horror stories of the club refusing to pay players their worth, and losing stars to VFA and country leagues. Some argue we just weren’t good enough, fielding battling sides which were only ever strong enough to be competitive (at best). One of Collingwood’s greatest players ever, Bob Rose, left the club at 27, because he had a better offer to captain-coach country team the Wangaratta Rovers. He wasn’t the only one. There was a prevailing attitude that players should play for the jumper which, while noble, created an inequality. Other clubs were paying guns to stay, and paying overs to secure guns. Our attitude was you played for the jumper and in doing that, I guess, that virtue should’ve aggrandized their talents and that nobility should’ve realised ultimate rewards.
Of course, this isn’t a fairy tale. Just ask my grey hair.
Perhaps these attitudes are indicative of the greatness – or at least the sense of greatness – which must’ve immersed the club. At the very least, I often think complacency must’ve set in. How could it not? Nobody’s close to you. It’d be impossible not to cushion yourself in your own hype. I recall an interview with a former Collingwood administrator who said they use to misplace flags back then (in the 1930s), there were so many of them. So maybe they got comfortable, thinking success would always be there and forgot that it’s something that has to be fought for, earned, and won.
How does a club handle such failure? Even if players change, how does the weight of expectation affect them? Or do they go into grand finals feeling almost an entitlement – a largesse that they will win, because that’s what they had done before in the distant past – which undermines them, however unwittingly (and psychologically), undercutting their efforts? Or do the losses simply burden them, incapacitate them when it matters?
Maybe some will think I’m reading too much into it. But look at the record. Something happened.
As a nine-year-old going into 1980, I didn’t understand this. I knew we were a successful club but had lost lots of grand finals, and our last one was back in 1958 – twelve years before I was born. And I also knew that footy was becoming more noticeable in my life.
At one point, my brothers took me to watch Collingwood train at Victoria Park. I didn’t really understand the significance of the stadium. It could’ve been any other football oval, other than for the rows of seatings and stands. The names on the stands meant nothing to me. Nor the history that must’ve been ingrained in the place, the wars the ground must’ve seen and remembered, stained in the roots of the grass and the grain of the wooden seats. It would be another couple of years before the ground meant anything to me, and another decade before I looked it as a fortress.
Still I was excited, although I was unsure what I was expecting. Watching the players run drills back and forth wasn’t as entertaining as I thought it would be. In the end, I wanted the players to get off, so we could get on the oval and have a kick of the footy I brought.
After they were done, we went onto the oval, where my brothers spoke to a very young Peter Daicos, who was a second cousin. Daics (whom I didn’t know at all), grabbed my footy at one stage and had a shot at the goals at the Sherrin Stand end.
Buy a cheap footy today, and you’re bound to get something which is a perfect shape and weight. Back in 1980, cheap footies were, well, cheap. They usually weren’t perfectly oval, and were bound to be bulbous somewhere or other. A lot of them were weird weights, too, either too heavy or too light.
There was no way to gauge the distance that night. Again, a different time, so there were no fifty metre arcs. But we were standing forward of centre. And Daicos didn’t turn around, line up, focus, and poise himself. He pretty much just turned around and kicked it. His kick must’ve sailed, oh, geez, at least 120, 130 meters – at least that’s the way it looked to me. The goals seemed tiny and the ball sailed through at post height. The ball had travelled further than I was capable of running uninterrupted. I had no idea that such a feat foreshadowed the career he would have.
A little later in the year, Wayne Harmes and a group of Carlton players came down to run a footy clinic at our primary school. I wore my long-sleeved Collingwood jumper, (again, not really understanding the full significance of the Collingwood-Carlton rivalry).
During a drill, somebody kicked the ball miles over my head. I went up for it one-handed – it really was my only option. Harmes barked at me to use both hands, that the ball wasn’t a teddy bear. I need a bug-eyed emoticon here. I don’t know what that was about. But I did manage to snare the ball. Maybe Harmes was just snapping at me because of the Collingwood jumper. I should’ve kicked him in the crotch. Who’d hold that against a ten-year-old?
But little events like this signalled the leap I was taking. I crossed from a casual observer into an active supporter and as I did that, I began to study the team, began to memorise names and numbers.
The 1980 side comprised a handful of guns, a lot of plodders and recyclables from other clubs. Coach Tom Hafey had coached Richmond to four flags between 1966 and 1976. He’d taken over Collingwood’s inaugural wooden spoon side in 1976, and brought us to the 1977 and 1979 failures. Oh the fairy tales that they could’ve been. The dynasties which could’ve been born. But this is Collingwood.
Again, a lot of history I didn’t really understand at the time. I just expected to win – and not even because we were Collingwood either (and regardless what’s said, regardless how opposition supporters descry it, there is an inherent majesty about Collingwood). I just expected to win because being a kid, that’s all you know and expect. That innocence isn’t robbed of you until later.
Of course, maybe that expectation developed because we had been successful at that time, because we did win more often than we didn’t. I wonder what it would’ve been like to support a team which was crap at that time, like Footscray. Would I have had an expectation to lose, to not play finals? It’s amazing how supporting a team can shape so much of your life around you – attitudes, friends, enemies, and who you kill and dismember after a grand final loss and bury under a tree in the parking lot. (Not that I’ve ever done that, of course.)
But it’s something that a lot of people either don’t think about, or which they take for granted.
Footy can really shape your life.