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It’s Football – But not as we know it

An Insight to Australian Rules Football

I’m usually known for my football writing, from the lowliest non-league match – home and abroad – to the international game, no level of football is off limits to me, I simply love the game, whatever the level. Today though, if you’ll forgive me, I’m going to deviate slightly though it is my blog so really I can do what I want. My deviation takes us to one of the national sports of another country – one that even gets a bank holiday for the day of the grand final – that country is Australia, the sport – Australian Rules Football or, as it is locally known, footy. So, whilst I am not technically talking about football, I kind of am.

To explain I have recently come back from a three-week break in Australia, staying predominantly in the Melbourne area. Over there, football as we know it was reaching the end of its season, with their A-League competition at the semi-final stages by the time we got there. One of the local sides, Melbourne Victory, were in one of those semi-finals, at home in the spectacularly designed AAMI Park. I had assumed tickets would be hard to come by and besides there was another sport that I kept seeing on the television screens of every bar we went that had me intrigued, especially given the level of excitement it elicited from the locals. It was a sport with its very origins in the city in which we were staying with no less than 10 of the 18 team Australian Football League (AFL) – the highest Aussie Rules league in the country – from Melbourne or the surrounding area. Add in the fact there was also an opportunity to visit the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), a ground five of those teams call home, I was sold.

The iconic MCG

In the end, we decided we would take in the Anzac Day Eve match between rival Melbourne teams Richmond Tigers and Melbourne Demons. The primary purpose of the visit to the area had been to visit my other half’s son, Rob, and his girlfriend who are currently living there, he has adopted Richmond as his team given that is the suburb of the city they are staying in so it made sense that we went to watch them. The Tigers were nominally the home team although their opponents also class the MCG as home, as do fellow Melbourne clubs Collingwood Magpies, Hawthorn Hawks and Carlton Blues. The remaining clubs in the city and its surrounding area – Western Bulldogs (reigning champions of the AFL), St Kilda Saints, North Melbourne Kangaroos and Essendon Bombers – play at the Etihad Stadium in the docklands area of the city a ground which I mistakenly assumed was the home to the A-League side Melbourne City prior to my visit, given the sponsor’s and the club’s connection to Manchester City back in England. The aforementioned AAMI Park is the only stadium that hosts the round ball version of football, as well as being the Melburnian home of rugby – both codes – too.

The prospect of going was very exciting but there was a tiny problem, I knew nothing about the game other than its name and the fact Aussies seem to get very excited about it. I was aware it was played on a very big pitch, with something similar to a rugby ball being used and what looked like a set of rugby posts at either end with the bar missing each flanked on either side by a shorter post. There was a vague recollection of having seen brief highlights of the sport many years before, the lasting memory of it being quite a rough game but other than that I was lost. In search of some answers, and to avoid seeming like the complete novice I was, I turned to my old friend Wikipedia for advice. It furnished me with the basics such as the scoring mechanism and why there the two sizes of posts; a goal – worth six points – was scored if the ball is kicked between the two tall posts in the middle, a behind – worth one point – being scored if the ball goes between one of the tall posts and one of the shorter ones. A goal counts whatever height the ball goes as long as it is kicked there by an attacking player. If they use any other part of their body or hit the post it is just a behind. That meant anything from a full long-range punt to a scrappy tap in from a yard out all counted as a goal if it went between the posts unaided. I also learnt that it isn’t possible to score an own goal but you can score an own behind – a rushed behind as it is known – if the ball comes off a defending player before crossing the line. If the officials deem the defender to have done so deliberately, to prevent a certain goal, they will award a free kick which translates into what I saw as a penalty it were in ‘our’ football; the attacker gets a free kick at goal from inside the goal square, which is exactly what you think it’s a square right in front of the goal. With nobody from the defending team allowed between the attacker and the goal – nope, no goalies in this game – it is basically a free goal for the attacking team.

When watching the televised stuff, I often saw a player with a free run towards goal before belting the ball in its direction and was curious what that was all about. My online encyclopaedic friend informed me that this was a set shot that came about because of a mark. I’ll explain. Apparently, a mark is when a player catches a ball that has been kicked 15 metres or more. As a result, the player can then take the set shot which is a free kick where no player can touch him until he has kicked it, as far as I could tell. I was also informed about how the ball is moved around generally. To my untrained eye it seemed it was either kicked or thrown as in rugby, but my eyes deceived me. When throwing the ball, the players are actually punching it from their holding hand to their team-mate, a throw is not allowed and can be penalised with a free kick. A player can also run with the ball but must bounce or touch the ball on the ground every 15 metres if they do.

Armed with the basics – more than Rob had to be fair, he’s still heavily into the English Premier League despite the distance involved – we headed for the MCG. It was to be a night-time match and there is always something more special about a match under floodlights, whatever the sport, it’s as if the electric light adds some it’s spark to proceedings. This was to be no different. A tingle already started to go down my neck as we alighted the tram that stopped by the ground, fans of both teams were streaming down to the huge oval stadium the floodlights providing a welcoming glow as they alone lit our path at first.

The glow of the floodlights
The glow of the floodlights

By the time we got to the ground itself, with me happily clutching a programme – I hadn’t been sure they did but given the huge marketing beast I came to learn that the AFL is it shouldn’t have come as a surprise – the atmosphere was already beginning to ramp up. The excited chatter of thousands of fans making their way into the ground, far busier than anything I had seen at a sporting event before – and I have been to the Camp Nou – was drawing me in already to the point I felt I needed to blend in more and had the urge to get myself a souvenir scarf.

As we made our way to the correct gate I scoured the many stalls that lined my route which contained the usual array of fast foods and despite being hungry my desire for merchandise was stronger. It was only once we reached our gate that I spotted a tent set back brimming with Richmond gear. I had decided to adopt them as my team given a: They were the home team and b: they were Rob’s ‘team’, so that looked the perfect stand for me. I made my way down and waited patiently for those in front of me to be served. I saw little money changing hands but in a country that uses contactless payments for most of their transactions I thought little of it until I was asked for my membership number. It transpired the stand was dolling out free scarves to members only. I was directed some way away from the ground for the official club shop which I declined given kick-off (actually it’s a bounce-off) was getting perilously close and opted to head into the ground instead.

Once in and through the standard security checks you get at all major sporting grounds these days I spotted an official AFL stand with merchandise for both teams. At last my quest was over, or so I thought; a quick currency conversion made the miser in me balk at what worked out to around £15 for a scarf, feeling a bit too much for something I would probably only use the once.

With me reconciled to the fact I wasn’t going home with a scarf we made our way to our seats instead but were barred from entering temporarily, through no fault of our own other than timing. As mentioned earlier the game was being held on the eve of Anzac Day, something the Australians take very seriously. We also do so, of course, with our Remembrance Day parades and services but in Australia it goes that little bit further. For starters, Anzac Day is another of their bank holidays, everyone basically being given the day off to show their respects. And show it they do with every town and city holding their own dawn services and parades on the 25th April every year, the date being significant as it was the date the combined forces of Australia and New Zealand landed in Gallipoli in the First World War, with over 11,000 Australian and New Zealand men meeting their end on that fateful day.

In Remembrance
In Remembrance

Since 1995 that day has also been marked with a fixture between Collingwood and Essendon in the AFL, with an Anzac medal being awarded to the player who best displayed the Anzac spirit in the game. A new fixture to rival that one has taken place the night before for the last three years now, the very one I went to between Richmond and Melbourne, with the remembrance service – the reason we were stopped – pre-game being part of that tradition. Getting in late we couldn’t really see what was happening properly but standing as close as possible it wasn’t difficult to tell that the ground had been plunged into darkness with those powerful floodlights temporarily extinguished. Instead the ground was lit by the light of thousands of what I assumed were mobile phone torches. Given the attendance was later confirmed as 85,657 – easily the biggest sporting crowd I’ve ever been in, beating the 80,000 when I went to Barcelona – that was a breath-taking sight, even just the small portion I could see. Out of my scope of sight a cauldron was also lit, representing the eternal flame that burns at many war memorials in Australia, a symbol that reflects the eternal gratitude the Aussies have for those that died at Gallipoli and in other conflicts since. The last post then sounded out before a spine-tingling rendition of the Australian national anthem – Advance Australia Fair – boomed out from those gathered. By then we’d been allowed to take our seats and, as per every English football ground I’ve been to post minutes of silence, a huge roar went up from around the ground as the lights came back on and the players entered the field of play.

As the players took their positions I was getting genuinely excited, more than I ever have been recently for the start of a sporting event. The empty seats around me on my level were rapidly filling up, as were the upper layers as that 85,000 plus crowd built – the biggest ever for this fixture. Behind the opposite goals the ultras – as we would perhaps call them, Cheer Squads as they seem to be called over there – of the two teams gathered, their banners and flags unfurled and waving wildly as they waited for the siren that signals the start of the match. I seem to recall a similar style of time keeping in Rugby League, in that it is taken away from the officials on the field and measured by a time-keeper in the stands who sounds the siren for the start and end of quarters. Nominally the game, which is split into four quarters a la American Football, lasts for 20 minutes in each of those quarter but the game clock in the stadium keeps running regardless of stoppages so there is no way of knowing how long is left in a quarter – not even the on-field officials – adding to the excitement, well for me anyway. It’s something we should maybe consider in our football, leaving the referee and his assistants to concentrate on officiating what is happening on the pitch.

Positions gentlemen, please
Positions gentlemen, please

As we waited for the siren to start the game I was already taken with those gathering around me. It was so pleasing to see fans of both teams sitting side by side sharing jokes and drinks as the game went on. These are friends and family who support different teams and manage to do so without causing trouble between each other on a day to day basis so why not on a match day. Coming from a British football background of segregation it was great to see, if a tad confusing as the game went on. Given the complete novice I was I had very little idea what was going on most of the time and it didn’t help that alternate pockets of the crowd were appealing to the officials for different things at various times of the game. First a bunch of Tigers fans would jump up to remonstrate, which was fine but when moments later some Demon fans appealed for something I was left momentarily confused given everything seemed in order from a Richmond point of view. Once I got used to the fact fans of both teams were there it was fine and amusing, as it is being a neutral at any match when you don’t have a vested interest in either team. What was different here was the banter between those friends I mentioned earlier taking the rip out of each other for their protests without a hint of the animosity you see at the top of our game, hence the segregation we have.

As I mentioned earlier these friends were not only laughing together, they were drinking together. I’m not always one to drink at matches, especially given we’re not allowed sight of the pitch with a beer in our hand at home, in football anyway, but when in Rome…Rob and I made our way into the back of the stand with both of us hungry and thirsty. He opted for a pie like me in the food stakes – clearly a staple offering whatever kind of football is on offer – both kicking ourselves when we came across a pizza stand moments later. I had opted for a beer to go with it, just a standard lager none of the surprisingly fine craft ales I’d sampled whilst away being on offer, Rob opting for a coffee. We made our way back to our seats and started to demolish our pies, the drinks on the floor forgotten about for now as we munched along to, what was turning out to be an enthralling game even to my inexperienced eyes. About half way through the pie I fancied a slurp of my beer to wash down the minced beef contents when I was verbally attacked. The voice came from behind me and it came from a 70-year-old plus steward who was waving his walking stick at me as he shouted;

‘You can’t have that in here, it’s a dry area!’

Before I had chance to react he was forcefully repeating his admonishment, I apologised profusely as I gathered my stuff together and hurried back into the bowels of the stand where, thankfully, the presence of several large screens meant I didn’t miss a moment of the action. I had no idea about it being an alcohol-free zone, there were no notices that I could see to tell me and I didn’t even have my ticket given both our e-tickets for the game were on Rob’s phone. In the circumstances, I thought the steward’s reaction was a little over the top, but I shouldn’t have been that surprised given similar rule enforcement elsewhere on this trip.

Australia has a reputation as being a laid-back kind of place, and largely that is true but where they have a rule, boy do they enforce it. The best example is their strict speeding laws, particularly in the state of Victoria, where Melbourne is. You get fined a minimum of $272, around £160, if you go over the speed limit – even by a mere kilometre of that limit, with the fines rising the more you speed and the more you’re paid, with these rules strictly enforced. It made driving there a nightmare, especially when you added in an inordinate amount of traffic lights and the largely discourteous drivers they have over there. The no beer in a dry area was clearly a similar rule; a simple, calm request to leave would have sufficed but the steward concerned was in no mood to mess about, or listen to reason. I had felt it was okay to drink there given the copious amounts being drunk in the block next to us, clearly our block was where the dry zone ended. I wasn’t the only victim of the ageing jobsworth, with two guys treated similarly shortly after I returned to my seat and a further bloke getting accosted whilst he walked down the aisle between the two blocks with a tray full of beers. He ignored the angry septuagenarian turning right into the drinking area rather than left into ours.

Footy and floodlights
Footy and floodlights

Sans alcohol I returned to my seat and finally started watching the match properly, noticing things I hadn’t noticed earlier. One was the on-field coaching; over here in our football if a manager, or any of his staff, leave their technical area they can get in trouble, it appears in Aussie Rules it positively encouraged. From what I’ve seen on television the head coach sits up in the stands with a headset on presumably in contact with his on-field coaches who stood out in their all pink outfits as they passed on instructions, fluids or both while the game was still going on. The other thing I noticed was the flock of seagulls that had taken residence on the huge playing area. I’m not sure of the actual measurements of the MCG playing area for football but according to the rules can be as long as 185 metres and as wide as 155 metres. That’s a heck of an area to cover so unsurprisingly at times there are large parts that are clear of play, hence a home for the gulls who had to move as swiftly as the play did on the oval playing surface. The size of the playing area also means the players must be tremendously fit, but add in the rough side of the game, the need to be able to jump and catch balls in mid-air their physique had the look of a decathlete, having similarly to be an all-rounder.

The more the game went on the more I was getting absorbed in it despite having little idea what was really going on, especially when it came to the rougher side of the game. Most challenges seemed to go unpunished, despite the pleas of those around me, as did a full on punch up that broke out at one point. There was none of the ‘handbags’ we get over here, this was a full-on trade of blows that the officials showed no interest in as far as I could see, teammates and coaching staff having to break things up. It was incredulous to me that they got away with it until I learnt post-match that the protagonists had been fined by the league. Swift justice indeed, the F.A. could learn a thing or two from the AFL. That said it was still surprising that an official didn’t get involved given there’s plenty of them; three main umpires cover the field of play with another four positioned around the boundaries and one each behind each goal to adjudicate on whether it was a goal or a behind, a double forward point from the hip – reminiscent of a wild west gun slinger – indicating a goal and sending the Cheer Squad and their flags wild along with the rest of the supporters of whichever side had been awarded the full six points.  I found it quite amusing too the way an umpire would return the ball into play after going over the boundary line, they would stand with their back to play and throw the ball back in over their heads, reminiscent of the park football games of my youth, to avoid favouring one team over another.

We reached half-time with the game finely poised; the Demons shading it by a goal at that stage but even given my inexperience of the sport seemed unlucky not to be further ahead Richmond looking far from the unbeaten side they were going into the game. They seemed to be second to every ball, and to my untrained eye were making a lot of handling errors, especially given the rain that had descended in buckets at the beginning of the game had subsided. That form continued through the third quarter as the Demons seemed to turn the screw leading by 73 points to 53 at the siren for that period, the scores mirrored; Melbourne’s 11 goals and 7 behinds to Richmond’s 7 goals and 11 behinds. Little did I know at that stage but another feature of the game would swing the game in the Tigers’ favour.

An Aussie Rules team has 18 players on the field of play at any one time, reasonable given the size of the field to cover, with a further four players on the bench – interchange players – who can be rotated on and off as much as their coaches want to give someone a rest. The catch is that if someone gets injured and can’t continue their replacement comes from the interchange players, thus reducing a coach’s options. By the final quarter Melbourne had lost two players to game ending injuries and hence only had two replacements left to interchange. I only learnt this post-match but given the pure physicality of the game it’s comprehensible that you need these rolling substitutes and that if you have the number of replacements reduced it is going to give an advantage to the opposition – just as it did in this game.

Joy and relief

Richmond absolutely dominated the final period scoring five goals and five behinds to just two one point scores from the ‘visitors’. Each of those home side’s goals were greeted with the roar of an animated tiger on the scoreboard and the p.a. system, as they had throughout the game. Each one sent a shiver down my spine, building the excitement inside me and around me, with each one – particularly in that final quarter. An explosion of joy greeted the final siren with the win only really being secured four tense minutes prior to that sounding. It was the kind of noise you only get from a crowd the size this one was, it expressed relief and jubilation all in one go. The relief from the fact they had been behind for most of the match and the fact it was their first win over their opponents since 2013. The final siren was also the cue for the club’s song, ‘Tigerland’, to boom out, with furious flag waving from the Cheer Squad and delighted dancing in the aisles accompanying the tune, this win clearly meant a lot to the Richmond fans. I stood mesmerised by it all drinking in the moment, only later did I have a slight regret that I didn’t capture it all on my camera phone. Given I had been snap happy on that trip, to some annoyance at times, it was something of a surprise but on reflection I was pleased that I allowed myself to just experience the moment instead. It taught me you don’t need to capture every moment on film to be able to remember it, to remember how it felt, as this piece is testament to.

It was those post-match celebrations more than anything that hooked me, made the experience complete. I saw the pure delight on the faces of the Tigers fans and I could relate. I was well and truly hooked, even though it’s unlikely I’ll ever go to another game. Sadly, though it felt as though I brought a curse on them after this game. I’ve followed it closely since that game, and the Tigers went from a 5-0 start to the season to 5-4 within the month after I got back. It was a run of defeats that started with a thrashing at then league leaders Adelaide Crows the following week, before suffering three successive narrow defeats – including an agonising defeat on the final siren in their next home match against the Fremantle Dockers – their next win only came two weeks ago, against another local rival Essendon.

With there being little regular football to keep me going offer the coming weeks, it’s one of those horrible close seasons with no international tournament to keep you going – the Confederations Cup doesn’t count in my book, it is a time when I start getting interested in other sports just to fill the void. With my introduction to footy Aussie style it might just be an easier void to fill now.

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