Gone, But Not Forgotten – Fan Engagement Under A Different Name

With the dearth of live football at present, the major broadcasters are replaying meritorious matches of yore, and if that’s not your fancy, then most ardent fans have a well-curated stash available for times of emergency like this.

In much the same way that listening to old music from your youth reminds you of past relationships, reminiscing on old football matches naturally will fondly remind you of some highly enjoyable moments, and more than likely have you yearning for the way things used to be.

Now I’m not, for this moment at least, opening the old Pandora ’s Box to state that ‘footy was better/tougher/more watchable/more skilled in my day’. Instead, I’m concentrating this piece on the forgotten traditions and rituals that were, at stages, as much a part of the fabric of the experience as a hot pie and cold drink. Although even these staples have been replaced with sushi rolls and kombucha by brash executives tasked with capturing the attention of the “new” generation who do in all seriousness have more “entertainment” options on which to spend their time and dollars than ever before.

Little did the aforementioned officials – whose decision-making today controls the destiny of the game tomorrow – know that while the fabricated term “fan engagement” was created by an overpriced marketing agency, the concept had been firmly entrenched in the very essence of the game since its inception. Here we will explore some of the more popular peripheral activities to the main event and some perhaps best left in the past.

I cannot stress enough the importance of the concept that the game itself is and remains THE main event. Whatever form the additional “fan engagements” take, they must always be secondary, and yes, Head Office, that even includes the half-time Grand Final entertainment.

For those of a certain age, everyone knew someone who had played a few Under 19 games (maybe even one of the Mongrels – Ed), while the reserves was where you served an honest apprenticeship before becoming an ‘overnight’ star. While coverage of the game has never been more thorough, there was something inherently satisfying about getting to the ground with only a few hundred other diehards and taking in the ‘dew-kickers’ trying to spot the next big thing or scouting a returning favourite.

Grand Final day took this to the next level where even though you were guaranteed a seat, you arrived not long after 8am and watched the entirety of the Under 19s and Reserves premiership deciders before the big one at 2pm. The nostalgia, along with commercial and development benefits is strong for this one in particular, and there has been serious discussion amongst the key decision-makers about bringing back a reserves competition featuring all AFL clubs. An alternative might be once all clubs boast an AFLW team for these matches to be played directly before or after the men’s fixture. Obviously, this is pie-in-the-sky stuff for now, but ultimately it comes down to the fact fans want more football/value and not less.

The fabled 100 goals in a season barrier achieved 57 times in history, by 28 men from 1929 (Gordon Coventry) – through to seemingly the extinction of this occurrence in 2008 (Lance Franklin). Goalkicking reached its crescendo in the 1990s as the ton was topped an amazing 14 times, reaching the high watermark in the 1993 season with three players topping the 100; Tony Modra, Gary Ablett Snr, & Jason Dunstall.

This gluttony of prolific goalkicking has tapered off since the turn of the century, with only Matthew Lloyd twice, Fraser Gehrig in 2004, and Franklin in 2008 climbing the mountain, seemingly for it to never happen again. The thrill not only of your favourite star reaching this most desired milestone, but to be able to revel in it as fans streaming onto the ground in a shared outpouring of excitement and passion is something that can’t be replicated in sumo suits, or chasing an LED pacesetter around the boundary dreamed up by the marketing gurus. As Stephen Quartermain’s immortal words describing the answer to whether a sanitised league would ‘allow’ fans to join in the show after Franklin kicked his 100th in Rd 22, 2008 ring in my ears ‘people power has spoken’!, Some of the those in charge might be advised to remember this at their next corporate brainstorming session.

Growing up in the 80s, while there was little in the way of TV coverage of home and away fixtures, you could actually get your fill of top-level footy during the school week as the night series and state of origin matches were played, usually on a Tuesday. Several iterations of the night series concept were employed from 1956 to its eventual demise in 2013, but it’s my article so I’ll indulge in the one I’m most whimsical about, concentrating on the period between 1977-1987 which variously included the best clubs from state leagues invited to compare their talents against the VFL clubs. Often games would be played in the depths of winter on muddy fields on a Tuesday night between weekend premiership matches!

While never as prestigious as the flag won on that last Saturday in September, the games held a certain F.A. Cup like alternate trophy charm and showcased emerging talent on the national stage to an adoring public.

This next recollection was almost certainly forcibly removed from existence due to greater observance of OH&S principles and rampant litigation opportunities, but the kick to kick sessions on the ground immediately proceeding the full throttle dash to be first to the centre square after the second siren are a special memory firmly entrenched in my mind. There was nothing more thrilling than spotting the front runner as they leapt the fence and made the break for the circle, often the winner would manage to continue on unimpeded for a triumphant victory lap while those flailing behind ended up in a tangle of arms and legs as 100s of kids and adults alike ran wantonly at each other from all 360 degrees of the ground.

The kick-to-kick sessions were no less fraught with danger as parents teaching their little ones the fundamentals of a drop punt shared the hallowed turf with teens and delusional adults attempting to replicate their heroes with searching leads and bone-crunching collisions, often with unsuspecting victims. So yes, it’s well understood why this practice was toned down, firstly with the rope around the centre square, and then abolished altogether, but those who bore witness to its glory will always remember the good times in a world a little less worried about the odd bump or bruise (or broken arm, concussion, peanut allergy etc).

The ultimate show of respect is to swap guernseys with your opponent after a Grand Final, most famously by St Kilda’s sole premiership captain in 1966, Darrel Baldock is photographed holding aloft the holy grail adorned in Collingwood black & white stripes. While this enduring image might’ve been the death-knell of the practice, in Aussie Rules football at least there are still random examples in the decades since.

Matthew Kennedy and Peter Schwab swapped jumpers after the 1987 decider and close mates Don Pyke and Ben Allan exchanged the numbers off their back post the 1991 playoff. Whilst it is certainly understandable that players having just achieved the pinnacle would want to hold their own piece of history close to their chest, figuratively as well as literally, the simple mutual show of reverence the act of swapping stood for is definitely one to be applauded, even if it just belongs on the pages of history now.

Another long-time staple synonymous with the euphoric post premiership celebrations was the pouring of a magnum’s worth of champagne into the much sought after cup to accompany players on their lap of honour around a heaving MCG. While conservatism and healthy messages around moderation have crept into society, it still bemuses that this small but opulent gesture has ceased. Even the most ardent subscribers to the evils of alcohol would recognise the use by adults in a controlled setting and purely as an acknowledgement of a mighty team achievement.  Furthermore, it’s not like we don’t see players with beers in tow during the after-game festivities so there is no expectation of a total ban in front of impressionable youth.

And if we are looking for modern equivalents, F1 still religiously celebrate each race with the eruption of bubbles onto the doting crowd below the podium. I, for one, would love to see this return to the AFL arena.

The 2020 AFL landscape is riddled with fearsome home ground advantages for the likes of Geelong, West Coast and the Brisbane Lions, but back in the 12-team VFL, partisan support was the norm and often in extremely hostile environments. Of course, supporters of those clubs who receive the benefits of unique conditions and one-eyed spectators rightly point out the inequity of Grand Finals being played at the MCG, but that’s a discussion for another day. The challenge for players, and more seriously, travelling fans visiting enemy territory had its own certain appeal, although I’m sure those who were routinely doused in urine, saliva and scalding pies may not quite see the same charm as us dreamers.

Under the stewardship of Sir Kenneth Luke, the future of VFL football opened its doors in 1970, and thus a beautiful love/hate relationship with the public commenced that lasted all of 30 beautiful seasons. Later known as Waverley Park or AFL Park, and colloquially (and very appropriately) as Arctic Park, but to most good old VFL Park was less a football coliseum built in Melbourne’s South-East heartland, and more a rite of passage. The magnificently unforgiving timber bench seats, the icy wind reverberating through the stands and chilling you to your very core, the echo of the supporters’ chants complete with hand-clapping against the thin corrugated cladding surrounding the ground’s perimeter, the many stories of aimless treks around a darkened car park trying to locate a misplaced vehicle and the bizarrely sepia-toned replay screen at the Police Rd end are more akin to a horror scene than one which is remembered with almost universal affection.

Long before the days of direct debit and smartphones, football fans needed to use all the creative imagination at their disposal, and boy did they excel in fundraising activities and the simple task of keeping up to date with scores at other venues which we now take for granted. For those unfamiliar, half-time was for a hot pie, a sandwich and soup, or trying to land your loose change onto a tartan blanket pulled taut by members of the cheer squad circumnavigating the boundary aiming to supplement the funds raised as part of their special effort raffle.

It was also the time where you could hear hushed whispers all around inquisitively pondering who teams A and B were that showed up the board as a mighty thrashing listing 12.8 to 1.6, there was always a sense of satisfaction when one of the participating teams’ alliteration matched the letter allocated to them, but you obviously needed someone in your party jotting down the quarter by quarter scores in the record just to be sure.

A curiosity of early broadcasting was the fear people would not attend live matches, instead preferring to watch in the comfort of their living rooms. Cricket, in particular, would only televise the first two hours of play, while the AFL showed matches on 50 minutes delay into local markets. Now, this would rarely, if ever, prevent fans of the teams participating from attending, but for the neutral fan a delicate game of cat and mouse was undertaken every Friday night to avoid an inadvertent reveal of the ‘live’ scores, thus rendering the next two quarters obsolete. This was a battle I waged every week with my beloved Oma who always asked if I wanted to know the scores while waiting for the game to commence on TV. My answer would invariably be an emphatic “no”, to which she would without fault reply, “Okay, it’s 4.4 to 7.8 at half time.” Ahh the memories!

A remnant of the past which may actually be one of the few included here to enjoy a renaissance in the future is mid-season trading. While there are a vast number of hurdles to overcome such as salary caps and fair compensation to the former club which weren’t necessarily considerations in times gone by, the extra element of strategy and luck could very well be embraced by a public desperate for their teams to be successful.

Due to the oversaturation of breaking news though the likelihood of recreating the situations of the late 70s and early 80s whereby new teammates would comically find out about trades as they pulled up beside each other in the carpark are a thing of the past.

Last but not least, the liberty of being able to decide on the day of the match to go along rather than navigating the drama of the dastardly fully-ticketed model would receive an overwhelming vote of support by the majority of the football going public.

Hopefully the above have provided a pleasant trip down memory lane, a stark reminder of repressed nightmares or an insight into the ever-evolving game, possibly at the detriment of a little bit of its soul. Whatever your take, there can be no doubt, that our love of the game is multi-layered and what might appeal to some, may strike a completely different chord with another.

What changes will take place over the next few years that make you pine for aspects of your “good old days”? Maybe you’ll be asking what peoples’ memories are of days when quarters ran 20 minutes and time on?

I’ll probably miss that, too.