I need to admit something: I haven’t been watching.
1-0, 3-0, 6-0, nine games in a row unbeaten to open the season. The Demons winning, actually winning properly, convincingly, for the first time since before I was born, and doing it inside a fortress kingdom that also contains my family? The sporting success I’ve waited for, from any team, for my whole life, happening inside an indefinitely sealed border? It was too cruel to contemplate.
Every weekend, my partner, Dan, offered to get the footy up on his computer in our living room in Paris—’What about just the highlights, Meg?’ But I couldn’t watch.
He doesn’t understand me at all. For years he watched me wrap myself in my red and blue scarf and wander off to the G, often alone, to watch Melbourne lose in the rain—by 20 points, 50 points, 100. Paying $300 each year for my membership to go and see a team that was sometimes losing on purpose, for the draft picks who either didn’t deliver on their promise or left the club to do so elsewhere.
‘This is optional,’ Dan—also an immigrant, also an emigrant—would tell me, back then. In the worst years: ‘You can always pick another team—you didn’t inherit this, you don’t have to keep supporting the Dees.’
I migrated to Melbourne at the age of 13 from a small village on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent, a city in the middle of England which is often described as ‘depressed’, ‘post-industrial’ or, memorably by one London journalist, ‘a moonscape’, but is actually, like all the bearers of such monikers, simply a place where people live.
We were outsiders there too, blow-ins after a blow-up in Harare, where my parents had tried to be part of building a new, post-independence socialist paradise but ended up on the wrong side of Robert Mugabe, a man who, it transpired, lacked a right side. Humbled into a return to Thatcher’s Britain, we stumbled into Stoke, a clutch of pottery-producing towns whose economic decline the Iron Lady had presided over, where my mother got a job in the psychology department at the university.
I was an awkward child with no family connections to the Midlands, the wrong accent and a preference for sitting in my room and reading, but there was one way I managed to integrate—football. More specifically, Port Vale: a lower division team that played in what was essentially a large tin shed with a football pitch in the middle. Ted Lasso eat your heart out.
My brother’s a smart man. He held onto our origins in London when we moved to Stoke, ignoring the local derbies between Vale and the superior Stoke City and supporting top-flight Tottenham instead. But by signing up for a lifetime of misery and adopting Port Vale, I could walk through Burslem, past the pub owned by Robbie Wiliams’s parents and take my place in those rickety stands, with people I knew, singing chants (usually some variation on ‘we hate Stoke City’, no matter the opponent) and eating chips. If the Valiants ever scored, I was usually in the line for the toilet. No matter, during the season, I had something to talk to people about in the playground, something that made me feel less odd. All I had to do was look at the matchday program, learn the names and regurgitate them to my classmates on Monday.
Give up on the Demons? I’ve spent a lifetime supporting the second-best team in Stoke-on-Trent. No premiership win since 1964? Try holding the record for number of seasons spent playing football without ever reaching the premier league (151, for those counting). I was always destined to be a Dees fan; I was forged for it in the kilns of Potteries.
We arrived in Melbourne in September 2000—not the last week, but the first, when a very important ‘Aussie rules’ match had been brought forward to avoid a clash with the Olympics. How Australian, how brilliant, to think that a strange game that, like most marsupials, occupies just the one continent on Earth might compete with international, once-every-four-years Olympian superhuman feats.
I did not yet know that supporting an AFL team was obligatory, but, with my experience with Port Vale in mind, I did know that by picking one I would hold the keys to integration, something to talk about in the classroom while I waited for my vowels to lengthen enough to sound the part. I was a child but I knew that supporting a footy team was fast-track to integration for an outsider—I was white and middle-class in inner-suburban Melbourne in the 2000s, it didn’t take much for me to slip into the category of an accepted local, a privilege those from most other countries, even their children, cannot expect in Australia. And picking the Demons was better than switching to the Australian cricket team (bunch of cheaters—never).
I had moved to a city called Melbourne. There was a team called Melbourne playing in this Grand Final (whatever that was). The choice seemed obvious, this was clearly a team of winners already, destined for greatness no matter the result on September 2 in the year 2000. Ha!
I sat down to watch my first game of footy with my mum, dad and brother in the barely unpacked living room of our Clifton Hill rental. When I say it was baffling, I do it a disservice. I don’t think that people who grow up watching footy understand how objectively insane it is. Giant men in tiny shorts ripping through grammatically dubious threats written on crepe paper. Match officials doing semaphore in lab coats. Huge pom-poms? This is mad, I thought. I love it, I thought.
My new team lost, but who cares? I’d spent the 90s watching the England football team cruelly tossed out of international competitions on penalties. The Demons would be back, I had a team and I had a way of understanding this new place. My dad and my brother picked Carlton, they were no happier in the two decades that followed.
In those early days I was unaware of the cultural and class connotations that came with picking the Demons. I knew nothing of Range Rovers nor that quintessential yet baffling Australian phrase: ‘to go to the snow’, as if weather were a thing a person could visit. (To this day, ‘the snow’ has only ever been a thing that came to me, sometimes while watching Port Vale, but never while avoiding the inevitable fate of the Melbourne Demons.) I also did not know how constitutionally incapable we were of winning AFL matches.
My best friend at school was a Demons fan. He later became my boyfriend. Every week, for years, we would go together to the MCG or Telstra Dome, as it was then – me, him and ‘the boys’, a collection of male adolescents who were usually horrified at my presence and preferred I didn’t speak, whether to ask for the 200th time when it was that I should shout ‘BALL!’, or why it was that I should not clap for a behind. (And why it was that no one thought it was funny that a point was even called ‘a behind’ to begin with.) This did not deter me. I did not survive the lad culture of Cool Britannia for nothing and there was enough happening on the ground to keep me entertained even if I was banned from discussing it with ‘the boys’. It truly did not matter if I was queuing for the loos when David Neitz put the Sherrin between the two big sticks. There would always be more.
When my boyfriend’s MCC membership kicked in during his late teens, he left me to go and sit in the Members’. I should have paid attention to those class connotations at the beginning but it was too late now. No matter, we broke up anyway and while my new bloke was a Pies fan, and though Melbourne fans were thin on the ground in the early 21st century, I always found my way to the G on game day. There was usually someone from the other team I could tag along with, and when that didn’t work I found other solutions.
In my university years, working reception a run-down hostel in North Melbourne, I would organise ‘cultural outings’ for unsuspecting backpackers to go and see their first AFL game with an expert guide—always the Demons, almost always a crushing loss, but now it was me explaining when to shout BALL and that no, you might think it is good to score one point but this is Australia and we don’t cheer losers and you only clap for six. ‘Your team is the Demons’, I would solemnly say, passing a mid-strength beer down the row of backpackers, usually fellow Brits who I had sent off to the Neighbours trivia night the previous evening, ‘take that home with you’.
Why did I persist, after live gigs came into my life, and wild house parties, new friendships, new relationships, new cities? Maybe the same reason I still have a ceramic Port Vale moneybox on my shelf, 21 years after I left the Midlands. These teams gave me something no-one else could—credo, belonging, shared joy and pain (OK, usually pain), a bit of deflected masculine privilege at a time when to be a girl was mostly to be receptacle for the contempt that poured out of men and boys. I’m not sure that’s something you can give back.
So no, by the time Dan, a Bombers fan, came on the scene (on the evening of the first St Kilda-Collingwood grand final of 2010, for those keeping score), I was not about to give up on the Demons. I did not give up on them when we left Melbourne for my birthplace of London in 2013, I did not give up on them when we moved to Paris together a couple of years later. On visits home between the months of March and October, I would wrap myself in my scarf and walk across the new singing bridge from Flinders St Station to the MCG, sometimes to join my ex and his wife in the terraces of the MCC with the help of a guest pass, ‘the boys’ long a thing of the past.
In 2018, I sat on my lucky stool in the Café Oz on Grands Boulevards, and watched the Demons dispatch. ‘I’m flying home if we make the Grand Final,’ I told my perplexed Parisian friends who had come to witness the spectacle of a grown woman yelling at men running through crepe paper at 11 o’clock in the morning in a fake Australian pub with a crocodile affixed to the façade. They looked at me in horror. Dan shrugged at them and shook his head. ‘She really loves the Demons.’
All of those years of what everyone told me was misery but to me felt like outrageous fortune, sticking with the Dees, learning every other teams’ songs because I heard them more frequently than our own, losing the footy tipping because I always picked my boys instead of literally anyone else, bellowing the ‘WHAT DO WE SING?’ in our rare moments of victory, and now my Demons are actually, properly good. Better than 2000, when I was a very confused, bleary tween on the carpet of a furnished townhouse near the Yarra. Better than 1964? Who is even old enough to remember?
And I haven’t been able to watch. That’s why Dan thinks I’m mad. All those years of losses and this of all seasons is the one I won’t tune in for?
But I couldn’t watch while this place where I worked so hard to integrate myself sealed itself off from the world, and from me. While it threatened to put people in prison just for trying to get home from an unfolding disaster in India. While it stranded citizens but let in movie stars. While it told people to charter private planes to say goodbye to dying parents, messed up a vaccine rollout and pretended it didn’t matter because if you don’t love it here you should have left at the start. I have always known what Australia is, at its border-obsessed, world-eschewing, racist core. We saw that on the footy field, it wasn’t particularly hard to detect. But I used to know what else it was. Now I just saw the fortress walls.
And so the Demons kicking the footy around with skill and aplomb, first in full stadiums, later empty, became the symbol of all that I could not do in this pandemic. Hold a funeral for my father. Squeeze the cheeks of my newborn nephew. Hug my fully vaccinated mother with all of my own fully vaccinated body.
Because flying back for the Grand Final for me was never just about the footy, or even mostly about the footy. If it was about the footy, I would have listened to Dan and given up years ago. It was about saying that I’m still here. I’m still part of this, wherever I happen to live.
It could have ended like this, but last week something shifted. As my beloved home away from home slid quietly into what seems like another endless lockdown, as numbers spiraled and I felt the despair set in from afar, my Demons embargo began to feel like an empty gesture. No one was flying to any Grand Final this year (in a deeply satisfying development, not even Eddie McGuire).
The vast majority of the Dees faithful will be experiencing this finals series as we have experienced most other things since March 2020—remotely. My one-woman footy pity party began to look ridiculous. So last week, I paid up for my AFL Finals Pass, immediately cursed the fact that we are relying on the same group of tedious men to tell us what’s happening on-field, and settled in to watch the Dees storm to victory. Same scarf, different seating.
I don’t know what will happen when we meet the Cats on Friday. I don’t know what will happen if we beat them. I’d never seen England in the final of the Euros until this year either. If you stick with a team for your whole life, or for as much of it as that team is available to you, you will probably see most things, eventually. And if you are like me, win or lose, you will cry. You will hug whatever partner is available to you. And it won’t really be about the footy.