Born that way

I reached the height of interest in football in 1997. I was 13, and the Bulldogs were challenging for the premiership for the first time since the ’50s. There was no religion in my childhood, but with the help of my father, I’d learned about mythology through the Dogs. Chris Grant occupied a good part of my imagination, a flawed god who seemed physically enormous and very impressive to me.
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I sought out the strengths in the Bulldogs’ average players, too, sometimes irrationally, until I found a glint in the names across every line of the field. I even waved a flag, a good measure of fanaticism, and I was gutted in the preliminary final when Darren Jarman dipped and stepped and kicked three perfect, horrible goals that ended the Bulldogs’ season. Dad left matches early when he knew it was over, and when the siren went I was trailing him through the car park. I barracked for the Bulldogs because Dad did. Dad barracked for them because he played with the club in the ’70s.

I didn’t understand why the Bulldogs affected me, but they were certainly easy to cheer for and played what people now call ”a good brand of footy”. In other words, they did what every coach tells his players to do: they tried hard.

But I don’t care a lick for the Bulldogs now, nor for any side in particular. Now when I tune in to football I am distracted by the chatter, the process and fabrication and the checked sentences of struggling coaches or gagged players. There remains the ever-present interest in brilliant play, and the aching loyalty between teammates expressed this week in The Age by Bob Murphy when he described his Bulldogs’ near miss. But my interest is gravitating toward something linked more closely with reality TV than the Bulldogs of ’97.

Footy offers me an allegory, not of heroes and underdogs, but of gossip and trolling. I don’t know how many more programs discussing football are running today than there were in ’97, but it must be many. There were more limited opportunities to propagate and insinuate back then. Rex Hunt was fun on Sundays, and The Footy Show was only just beginning to take the midweek hyperbole seriously. Watching anything beyond that felt like overkill.

You sense a sudden jerk in the football dialectic towards the American mode of relishing and perpetuating bad news, of passing whispers. And there is a fluorescent thread running through these shows now that reveals a public preference for spilt blood and confrontation.

Through subtle methods and listener preference, the myriad football programs have begun rubbishing individuals and teams for entertainment. It’s as if a generic shift toward on-field marketability has seen the perversities and spite that were once exorcised during play be reserved now for the public forum. Otherwise timid voices are emboldened because the target cannot respond meaningfully. This is my understanding of ”trolling”. In recent weeks, Mark Neeld, Michael Voss and Brendan McCartney have all expressed the sentiment that they are not interested in discussions about their future, because they spend their time concentrating on coaching.

This is the only riposte you can hope for from a besieged figure in the AFL, a minor deflection that nowadays can only be partly true. If they’re not listening, they must be wondering what that humming noise is.

Mark Fine’s SEN program was on in my car after Melbourne lost to the Suns last week. I had tuned in deliberately in the hope of being entertained by some grim or dramatic news. And Fine dutifully hosted the show about Mark Neeld and his Demons like an evangelist would host a conversation about the devil – he allowed his callers to emphasise with passion that Melbourne is no good. While there is a certain vulgarity to hearing each caller try to outdo the previous one, I know as the listener what my interest is: I want to know how bad things can get, and how a person like Mark Neeld responds to a barrage of criticism.

The most outraged of the callers were, of course, Melbourne supporters, and the most verbose of them was a man claiming to have joined the Demons in 1965 – one year too late, as Fine pointed out. ”I’ve seen terrible times,” he began, ”through which I’ve always maintained my allegiance, and used to at least have Robbie Flower to cheer for.”

But now, he said, ”The club is not only losing, it’s toxic. It’s a dog, so abysmal and pathetic that no sponsor would go near it.” He was the best caller, the most articulate and entertaining.

Fine gave him rope and the Melbourne man ran with it until he had exhausted his adjectives. When he finished, Fine paused for dramatic effect and thanked him for his call.

I thought then about the Bulldogs of ’97. I recalled the strange pain in my chest when Dad said, ”Let’s go,” and we left the MCG to the Adelaide people. What was the nature of the Melbourne man’s allegiance? Was he born into his Demons, as I was to the Bulldogs, or had he simply liked Melbourne’s colours as a child?

Either way, he sounded without choice, like an atheist who had been christened as a baby. His type of angry allegiance is interesting because, unlike other allegiances, if he chose to support another football club, his decision would not be threatened by eternal hellfire.

And I thought also of those Twitter followers who attack a person they made the choice to follow. Allegiance can be beautiful, like my Dogs were in ’97, or it can be backwards and isolating. I thought of those poor Demons people still waving their flags in the Southern Stand with a blind and unceasing faith and how, like Mormons on New York stairs, they endure a winter of doors slammed in their faces.

Perhaps sensing that his callers sniffed more blood, Fine eventually announced that he would field no more calls about the Demons. At that point, I changed stations. I’d been in it for blood.

Regular columnist Timothy Boyle played 31 games for Hawthorn from 2005 to 2008.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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