Anatomy of the losing AFL club: when is the sting of sporting failure worse? | Melbourne Devils
OWhen I was a kid, our family friend Lyn was my first encounter with a football fan. In my house, our team was Geelong, but we didn’t live and breathe their day-to-day success or failure. Lyn loved the Melbourne Football Club with a completeness that was both puzzling and courageous. Confusing in that, as a child, I wasn’t used to adults demonstratively adoring their interests the way we did. Courageous in this even then, I knew that some teams were marked with a shadow, doomed to suffer.
The anatomy of the losers club fascinates with its variety. Growing up in the 1990s, Fitzroy and St Kilda wrestled in the mud at the foot of the ladder as Sydney watched. There was Richmond still finishing ninth, missing knockouts by one. Footscray’s long streak of preliminary finals without ever breaking through. Geelong have made great finals but lost them relentlessly – four in seven years. This creates a compelling philosophical debate: when is the sting of failure worse? Just falling short? Never knowing what it’s like to get close? Land between the two, avoiding one or the other of the poles?
Among those losing teams were Melbourne, deep red and deep blue, the oddly generic name of an entire city where other clubs bristled with suburban specificity, the cartoonish Demons with their horns and pitchforks striking an absence of fear in all the world. Often downstairs with the Saints and Lions, sometimes dancing for a season. There were patches. The era of Garry Lyon and Jim Stynes. David Schwarz between knee surgeries, David Neitz clunking a few. Russell Robertson would do tricks, Adem Yze would cross midfield. Most often it was Jeff Farmer, dancing in the pocket and standing on someone’s head and threatening Fred Fanning’s kicking record for a dazzling hour.
But even when Melbourne did well, it never felt like Melbourne was Well. It was something that happened to them, not a quality they possessed. In 1988 and 2000, teams from Melbourne contested the grand final, but they both entered as stepping stones for crowning champion teams. The mark could not be deleted.
With so many methods of failure, what has tied losing teams together is the wait. As upstarts like West Coast and Adelaide strolled around and began to pile their shelves with shiny silver cups, these longer-running clubs marked the times. Richmond had the newest flag in 1980, but had been a comedy case ever since. St Kilda hadn’t won since 1966, Melbourne 1964, Geelong 1963, Footscray 1954, Fitzroy 1944, South Melbourne 1933. Back to the days of flat caps, night carts and studded boots.
All of this collectively was abnormal. One of the charms of the AFL, with its equalizing structure and inexplicable forms, is that any supporter of any team can go into each new season thinking this might be the year. Some are less likely, some soon see their hope dashed, but often pre-season analysis is rendered worthless when a team surges or falls like a stone. The cycle continues, with the suitors changing in the fall.
Meanwhile, the bloated leviathans of European football appear each season just weeks after their last outings, the shadows fading all around them, dividing the spoils between the few other host bodies for the dystopian petrostates. The 2016 English title wasn’t about the fairy tale of Leicester City winning the league, it was the fairy tale of anybody win from outside monoliths. The Monoliths immediately redoubled their efforts to ensure that no one would ever take what was theirs again.
In today’s AFL, no drought is long enough to qualify for the Losers’ Club again. Next could be Fremantle, approaching 30 years from its birth, while Carlton is on the fast track after two decades of dysfunction. But not yet. And one by one, since the 2000s, the existing losers started to leave. Fitzroy was the least intact, but what remained in Brisbane saw three flags in a row. Sydney has won two, six years apart. Geelong collected three in a dynasty, Richmond did the same. The Bulldogs came out of the clouds in 2016. And now Melbourne, finally here. Leaving only the Saints, so close three times in two seasons, to turn off the lights at the exit.
When the Demons were halfway to smashing the Cats in the preliminary round, in a fast-paced footy fire that didn’t allow time to blow, I started thinking about my long-suffering Melbourne friends. It was a different sauce, a team full of self-confidence, all their own. I thought about the weight that was taken from me in 2007 when Geelong broke through; exhaustion more than elation, and something deeper than sports skeptics understand.
I especially thought of Lyn, of an age where she remembered perhaps a little of 1964 but mostly remembered what had happened since. This figure in all reports, 57, was fictitious to most people who said so. For her, each of those years had been lived. “Enjoy the grand finale,” said the text I sent. I didn’t piss her off by telling the other side that they were going to win. They weren’t going into this one as a prop for someone else’s glory. They were going on their own.