x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Life goes on, and so does the game

Mate, Johnno missed after the siren, lost by two points. Sorry.

Mate, Johnno missed after the siren, lost by two points. Sorry. That text message last Friday from the youngest of this writer's five brothers brought on a wave of isolation and homesickness, only a small amount of which could be attributed to the result of the game. Young Steve was watching the Australian Football League match between the Western Bulldogs and Geelong in Melbourne and faithfully sent scores and details across the world to his brother in the UAE.

Being a Friday night, the match was televised free to air in Australia meaning Showtime had no feed from Fox Footy to bring to the Emirates. (That would appear to be reasonable, until you tune into the four Showsports stations to be assaulted and insulted by hours of championship darts, "professional" wrestling, and that cross between sport and circus known as Slamball.) And on Friday, of course, the internet radio stream had been playing up.

That meant it was up to one bloke sitting in the stands at Etihad Stadium (no, the irony wasn't lost) to provide information on one of the most eagerly anticipated matches of the season. The Cats had beaten the Dogs in last year's preliminary final to advance to the Grand Final (the event carries obligatory capital letters in Melbourne) before Hawthorn Hawks showed us all that the boys from Kardinia Park were not invincible after all.

On Friday, after trailing by 37 points, the Dogs scratched back to within three points in the final stages when "Johnno", the Bulldogs' veteran captain Brad Johnson, marked... and narrowly missed the goals. Should have been there, sitting next to young Steve and the small army we would have gathered for the occasion. It must be the same for other varieties of expatriate but in Melbourne, football (as opposed to "soccer") is life.

Life for some of us came to a temporary end in 1996, when the Fitzroy Football Club, 100 years old and one of the founding members of the Victorian Football League, the precursor to the AFL, was wound up and a small portion sent north to bolster the supporter base for the then Brisbane Bears. The league would not allow Fitzroy to play their last game in Melbourne before some four or five generations of life-long supporters. The last game of the last season was to be played in Western Australia against Fremantle, and neither the game, nor the AFL, could be shifted.

That meant those of us who could, dragged our heavy hearts to the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the year's penultimate match against Richmond, to say farewell to a club our fathers and grandfathers had also supported. We were joined there by thousands of supporters from other clubs. There was none of the tribal rivalry, even from the notoriously rabid Richmond supporters. This was humanity gathered to witness a brutal truth.

Hard men wept as the gutted Royboys line-up left the field through a guard of honour, after having been whipped by 151 points. We left the MCG without a football team. Receiving that final SMS last Friday, having missed the magnificent highs and dreadful lows of what has been described as the greatest match of the year so far, brought back the pain of that cold, rainy day on Sept 1, 1996, and every match day until the pull of the Bulldogs, and the need to have footy back in my life, became too much.

That one text brought the same awful realisation that the first match of 1997 did. The game is going on without me. @Email:pstafford@thenational.ae