I was five years old when my parents packed a bag with colouring books, crayons and snacks and took me off to my first footy game at the MCG. The colouring books were left unopened, crayons remained in the packet and dad was mildly astonished that his young daughter was captivated by the footy. It was 1995, the beginning of my admiration for a tall Irish man named Jimmy Stynes and the catalyst that renewed my family’s allegiance to the Demons. An allegiance that is just as strong in our locked-down Melbourne homes.
Footy, for me, has always been about the stories and the narratives that run parallel to and intersect people’s lives and community experiences. Sure, I do love a good deep dive into statistics, determining exactly how those extra four contested possessions made all the difference. I am particularly good at forming multiple hypotheses about the motivations for magnet shuffling, and I can tell by the look in a player’s eye that they forgot their lucky socks that day.
But, ultimately, the greatest joy footy gives me is the way it helps us tell stories and allows us to relate to others with whom we may not otherwise have any commonalities. Despite working in footy most of my career – witnessing multiple finals campaigns at North Melbourne and coaching two grassroots premierships – my proximity to the Dees’ success has been severely lacking.
After an emphatic 83-point victory over a decorated and finals experienced Geelong, the Melbourne Demons are playing in their first grand final in 21 years. This cohesive and strident Dees outfit have the opportunity to break a 57-year premiership drought. The Doggies did it in 2016, and whilst I have a distinct fondness for Melbourne’s west, they’ve had their fairy-tale, it’s our turn now. Dees fans, no doubt, have many stories to tell about the last 57 years, and tell them we will, because we have endured some pretty low lows, and the current airwaves of positivity give us space to tell our stories now.
In the buildup to the grand final, the framework for a new story is being built. The story will have a duality and juxtaposition of emotion is all too familiar in this pandemic, where moments of pure gratitude for what’s good in life have been coupled with a grief highlighted by what is not possible at this time. As the Dees head into a premiership decider being played thousands of kilometres away, there’s a solidarity in fans’ collective experiences in their lounge rooms, accompanied by the weight of physical isolation.
I was 10 when the Dees last made a grand final. Rather than being at the MCG, my Melbourne-based family had taken off on a three-month camping trip around Australia in July 2000. We were in Perth during grand final week. No one truly expected the Dees to go quite so deep in the finals that year. Dad toyed with the idea of flying back, but money and leaving mum behind with three kids in the tent wasn’t feasible.
Instead, my parents wrote to the club to seek out Dees fans in Perth. Enter the Melbourne Western Demons supporters’ group with their plan to host a grand final party at the Melbourne Hotel in Perth. They concocted a fake boundary fence in front of the screen, red and blue floggers, and had their vocal cords well primed. We left our campsite, my hairdo being two large buns on the side of my head, for maximum red and blue ribbon placement, and we joined the passionate Perth-based Dees. We yelled and then cried as the Demons were bashed and trashed by an Essendon team that was far too strong even for the brute of David Schwartz, heart of David Neitz and peroxide tips of Shane Woewodin.
The last time the Dees came close to a grand final was the 2018 preliminary final. Again, I was thousands of kilometres away. I had recently moved to Beijing to complete a masters degree as part of the Schwarzman Scholars Program. With two other Melburnians, my husband and I filled a college common room, prepped with a pre-game kick of the Sherrin – to the bemusement of the Chinese students walking past – and promptly fell flat in our enthusiasm. Five minutes into the game, it was clear West Coast would quash our dreams. I begrudgingly closed my computer tabs that mapped out the cheapest flight route home.
I still feel a jealous pang in my belly having missed the excitement and lead up to that prelim. It’s visceral in my imagination thinking about the feeling in the MCG, an electrifying win in the elimination final against Geelong, and in the semi against Hawthorn when the seeds of the 2021 Melbourne midfield were truly being sewn.
In the years of despair Dees fans have endured, there has been little respect given from outside the club. Dees supporters have had to wear pitying looks and sly suggestions about the acceptability of jumping AFL ships. When faced with ship-jumping suggestions, I would call on the resilience built through the worst times and state my one main ask: to be able to witness just one Dees premiership in my lifetime which I can celebrate with my Dad.
The pandemic and the many ways in which is has made us feel isolated has made me amend that and now I want to witness at least one premiership, with my dad, even my whole family, together at the MCG. And I’d like to do it with everyone else who saw the last one locked down in their lounge rooms.