July 2020

Cautious optimism: My years as an Eels fan

Following the Eels my entire life has been a rollercoaster of emotions.

There’s a popular saying: Once bitten, twice shy. Well, for an Eels fan try 200 times bitten, 400 times shy.

For those lucky enough to experience the halcyon days of the 1980s where the Eels were kings for three consecutive years and then gave legends Ray Price and Michael Cronin the perfect send-off, that may not be entirely true.

They’ve still got those memories, those feelings, those experiences.

For people like me who were either too young to experience the 80s or were born long after the last of those legends retired, it always seems like that feeling is just out of reach. It’s an imagined fantasy – an Eels captain lifting the trophy on grand final day, the parade through Parramatta, those t-shirts emblazoned with “PREMIERS” – I can half feel it, but it’s not real.

The teams I support in other codes have given me a taste. The Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV. Liverpool only last year won the Champions League, and they collected their first League title in 30 years this season. So I’ve had that feeling of seeing a trophy being won.

But it’s not Parramatta. It’s not the side I was born into and the team I grew up supporting on the Brett Kenny Terrace at Parramatta Stadium.

My grandfather told me of the great Ken Thornett. The greatest player he ever did see. He handed me tapes of Eels grand finals. Only the ones we won, I’m pretty sure he taped over ‘76 and ‘77.

He spoke of the old dirt track at Cumberland Oval. Of the rickety wooden seating.

Pa passed last year. I didn’t get to celebrate that Premiership with him. The last game he went to? Our thrashing of the Tigers at the new stadium. Until the day he died he spoke about Parramatta.

About his hope that Moses would be the halfback we needed, how young Dylan Brown was so calm. And what about that Sivo fella? He’d give Eric Grothe Senior a run for his money.

My dad’s still here, still desperate to see another Premiership. We still go to the games together. Just like we did when Parramatta Stadium had the southern hill. My son will join us one day. Three generations together to watch Parramatta once again.

We drove mum mad when I was younger. In another life dad would’ve been a football coach.

I grew up in the Brian Smith era. An era of close but no cigar. The late 90s we became contenders again. Premiership heavyweights some would say. Top four, finals, preliminary finals, we’d have probably made a grand final if it weren’t for those damn Broncos.

The less said about the 1998 preliminary final the better. The name Paul Carige still brings out the thousand yard stare from Eels fans.

2001 came. The year of the baby Eels. Jason Taylor pulling the strings. The entertainers. Statistically the greatest side the NRL has ever seen and will likely ever see.

Except on the one day it mattered. For 40 minutes their minds weren’t on the pitch and it was all the Ben Kennedy and Andrew Johns-led Newcastle Knights needed.

Hopes dashed, dreams over. 

We lost the unlosable.

For the years that followed, we were neither here nor there. A couple of years in the wilderness. We were seemingly going to try every half that was available.

Barely 10 years since his retirement and Peter Sterling’s shadow was already long.

Then 2005 came. Another chance. 

A different side to the 2001 team. The baby Eels had grown, were becoming legends. Timana Tahu, a member of the Newcastle 2001 side had joined, Mark Riddell and PJ Marsh shared the hooking duties, a barnstorming prop by the name of Fuifui Moimoi was unveiled.

And the feather in the cap was the arrival of the uber talented Tim Smith. He enjoyed the most successful rookie year for a half the NRL had and will probably ever see. 40 try assists. It hasn’t been matched since.

Darren Lockyer, Cooper Cronk, Jonathan Thurston, Andrew Johns, Allan Langer. All legendary halves. None of them provided 40 try assists in a season.

2005 wasn’t to be though. They secured the minor premiership in the final round against a Brisbane side that would collect the premiership the following season.

But they did it at great cost. Team workhorse and spiritual leader Nathan Hindmarsh went down with a knee injury. It ruled him out of the finals.

Minor Premiers. Major Headache. Read The Sydney Morning Herald’s back page the day after that game.

First week of the finals they dispatched old rivals Manly. This is it. This is our year.

But the Cowboys would see to it that it wasn’t to be. 29-0 read the final score. Preliminary final. Again.

Brian Smith would be gone the following year.

2006 would see the arrival of Jarryd Hayne. Rookie of the year. The Eels would win nine straight to make the finals. Then hit Melbourne in Melbourne.

Glenn Morrison’s no try was a try, Bill Harrigan. The No Try call still haunts me from the elimination final.

2007, Michael Hagan’s first year. He owed us. Dear God he owed us for 2001. Fifth spot. A tough place to be, but maybe? Two straight wins. Then. Melbourne in Melbourne again. Again, Bill Harrigan with his finger on the No Try button, this time to Krisnan Inu.

Melbourne in the finals. Bloody Melbourne in the finals.

2008 came and went. It took Michael Hagan with it.

Daniel Anderson arrived. For half the 2009 season we were also rans. Until he handed the keys to Jarryd Hayne.

Those seven weeks likely will never be matched. Speed, skill, strength, power, agility. Hayne was unstoppable.

Round 26, finals secured, up against the minor premiers St George Illawarra Dragons. Coached by Wayne Bennett. They won 22-0. But Anderson out-coached the super coach.

No game plan, no secrets shown. The following week they’d do it all again and the Eels would win. Hayne danced circles around them

The Titans knocked off in the minor semi-final.

Then came the Bulldogs. Traditional rivals. Revenge for 1998. This time there was no Paul Carige inflicted madness. No Daryl Halligan conversion to haunt us.

A Mortimer scored, but this time against Canterbury. The game was won, grand final here we come.

Melbourne again. They started better than us. Then we clicked into gear. Eric Grothe Junior hit the scoresheet. Then Fuifui was too hard to stop.

Game on. But it wasn’t to be. Short again. Melbourne again.

Ando was gone in 2010. Cayless retired. Hindmarsh and Burt the only ones left from the baby Eels. Their careers entering a twilight.

In came Stephen Kearney. 15th place and then a wooden spoon saw him out the door. 2012, Hindmarsh and Burt retired.

2013 Ricky Stuart signed on as an Eel for life.

Turns out “for life” meant 12 months.

Brad Arthur. Rookie coach. Head coach. Eels man born and bred.

2014 equal eighth but for and against meant 10th. Jarryd Hayne a second Dally M. 

“Here we go” we thought. We’re building to something. Corey Norman, Nathan Peats, Will Hopoate, Anthony Watmough all joined.

Jarryd Hayne left. Off to the NFL to chase a dream. Another missed finals series. The years racking up since 2009.

Kieran Foran came and went.

The 2016 salary cap scandal hit hard. Enough wins to play finals. Not enough points though. Another wasted year. Players leave. Peats to the Titans, Junior Paulo to Canberra. Watmough retires.

2017. Not much is expected. It’s a bit of a rag tag group. Beau Scott is there for one final year. We’ve pinched an Eels junior by the name of Mitchell Moses. Clint Gutherson and Bevan French are dueling for the fullback spot. 

Top four. Well that was unexpected. First finals series in nearly a decade. 

First week of finals. Melbourne in Melbourne. Who in hell did we piss off? Melbourne win again. Next week, the Cowboys deliver another loss. Season over.

Better luck next year, right?

No. Terrible luck next year. Jarryd Hayne returns. The prodigal son. Plays half the season, tops the try tally. Semi Radradra isn’t there. We’re last. Football review ordered. 

Arthur survives. 

We’re told we’re mid-table in 2019. Will be lucky to make the eight. By the end of the year we’re fifth. The revival begins. Moses wins the Dally M halfback of the year award. Junior Paulo returns and adds some punch. 

Blake Ferguson joins. He knows how to win. And a bloke by the name of Maika Sivo shows us what it’s like to have a wrecking ball on the wing again.

We’re flying again.

Finals week one. Elimination. Do or die, there is no try. Brisbane in Parramatta. Some revenge for the late 90s will be sweet.

We do more than that. 58-0. Brisbane’s worst ever loss. It’s a match that will never be forgotten.

The following week. Guess what. Yep, that’s right. Melbourne in Melbourne. They blow us out of the water. They know finals football. We don’t. Our intensity isn’t there. Our defence is non-existent.

2020 arrives. We win our first two games. A pandemic shuts down the season. We become a Premiership favourite. How? I don’t know. 

The season resumes. We win our next three. 5-0 for the first time since 1986. You know what happened in ‘86.

But this isn’t ‘86. There is no Ray Price or Mick Cronin. No Steve Ella or Eric Grothe Senior. No Brett Kenny or Peter Sterling.

Hopefully, in the years to come we’re discussing Moses and Brown. Sivo and Jennings. Mahoney and Junior. 

Round six. Against the champion Roosters, looking to be the first team since the ‘81-’83 Eels to complete a threepeat.

We’re good. They’re better. They’re professional. They win. But we’re installed as second premiership favourites.

You’ll excuse me if I’m a little skeptical of that tag. I’ve seen this movie before and it usually ends in heartbreak. Usually at the hands of Melbourne.

Until we win that elusive fifth premiership, that nagging sense of doubt will always be at the back of my mind.

But, in a way, I welcome the premiership heavyweights tag. It brings hope. And it’s something I haven’t heard said about Parramatta in a long time.

Because without hope, us Eels fans have nothing. Where’s the joy in turning up every season and waiting for your side to lose? Titans fans. Broncos fans. Dragons fans. We see you. We were there for seven years. It ain’t fun. It ain’t pretty.

So I’m going to watch this season in hope. With my guts constantly twisted in knots, too scared to truly believe we have a shot of winning the big one. It’s never been done in my lifetime. 

In fact the last time that trophy was hoisted by Ray Price I was nearly a decade from being born. Now I have my own son. He’ll be an Eels man. He won’t have a choice. But I hope he’s not waiting as long as I have for that Premiership. 

So I hope that on October 25 it’s Clint Gutherson lifting the Provan-Summons trophy. That we’re allowed to celebrate in Parramatta Leagues and we get a parade with those PREMIERS t-shirts being sold at Peter Wynn’s Score.

But it’s just hope. There’s a long way to go, and no doubt Melbourne will be in the way again.

We have to win though. I’m sick of “There’s always next year”.

What if it’s this year?

What if?

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