When madame rent-a-quote Jane Caro regurgitated some words onto Twitter ahead of the AFL grand final, talking down to sports fans because perhaps J.J. Giltinan once looked at her sideways, it got me thinking.
Well, thinking as much as a sports fan can, because apparently being well-read and a fan of sports teams is mutually exclusive.
So I put down my 12th beer of the afternoon, gave up on trying to discover fire and dragged my knuckles off the ground to consider what it is about sport that encapsulates billions of people around the world.
Rugby league is a mere speck on the sporting landscape when you consider the billions that follow football and cricket alongside the behemoth that is the NFL.
But, at the end of the day many of us, whether we’re watching the Mumbai Indians, Liverpool FC, Green Bay Packers or Parramatta Eels, all share something in common.
If you’re a HSC student of the 2000s and 2010s, then the theme of belonging is going to be very familiar to you, so dust off that copy of Looking for Alibrandi or Catcher in the Rye and get reacquainted with it, for that is what sport is all about.
Sport brings us together, and over the past two years, throughout the pandemic that has never been more apparent.
It didn’t feel right to be watching games in front of empty stadiums without the roar of the crowd, but it also meant we were often interacting with each other online across different forums.
The internet has played a massive role, allowing fans to follow their teams from the other side of the world, and in doing so, bringing us together.
But the foundation of a person’s support isn’t on the internet, it’s intrinsic to them.
“When you start supporting a football club, you don’t support it because of the trophies, or a player, or history, you support it because you found yourself somewhere there; found a place where you belong,” said Arsenal footballing legend Dennis Bergkamp.
People come together for many things. But few things bring people together like sport.
There’s a feeling of camaraderie and truly of feeling like you’re at home, that you’ve found your people.
While belonging may be the foundation of support, sport also acts as an escape away from regular life.
Throughout this pandemic we have used whatever sport we watch as an escape. When the Olympics and Paralympics were on, Australians continuously tuned in to watch the stories as they unfolded.
For rugby league fans based in New South Wales, Victoria or New Zealand, they have had to support their teams from afar.
New Zealand and Victoria in particular have barely seen live sport in the past two seasons but they continue to tune in.
In 2018 Liverpool FC’s marketing slogan was “This Means More” which perfectly encapsulated what it is to support a team.
Voiced by manager Jurgen Klopp, it picked out what we look forward to and why we turn up every week.
“These are our Saturdays, our nights after school. These are our colours, our flags, our pubs, our gates, our mates, our crest, our words, which stand alone.”
If you’re reading this, then there’s almost no doubt you’ve spent the working week eagerly waiting for the weekend to start so you can watch your team play, regardless of how they’re going.
You’ve rushed home from school to get ready to go to the footy with dad on a Thursday, Friday or Monday night.
You’ve got your routine. The jersey you wear on game day, maybe the pub you drop into before or after the match. If you’re a ticketed member then you likely sit with the same people each week.
We’ve all got our story of why we started supporting our team.
For some it’s a family thing, others a particular moment that got you interested, a favourite player or simply a feeling.
Those moments are the foundations of our support.
Every supporter has the story of how they came upon the sport and the club they now hold dear.
There are those of us who are part of a rugby league family and are born into the sport, while others happen upon it later in life.
Some of us follow a club because that’s what our fathers or grandfathers did. The club becomes an ingrained part of you as you hear the stories from generations before.
And that is something relatively unique to sport. It can bring together generations.
Ask someone who was born in the 50s about their favourite music, political leanings or opinions on society and they are very likely to be different from you. But if you’re wearing the same coloured jersey that will bring you together.
Sport reaches across generations, tying you together.
Mitchell Durie is one of those fans who was inducted into the blue and white of Canterbury almost from birth. Despite being born in the Sutherland Shire and eventually moving to Camden, the Bulldogs have been part of his life since he was a child.
His grandparents lived in Roselands and they would take him and the other grandchildren for a day at the footy every time the Dogs played at Belmore.
“I don’t think I had a choice, that was the way our family was brought up. You were brought up as a Bulldogs supporter. I started going to the games in the early to mid 90s and started following them right around ‘95, the year they won the comp and then into when they went to the Super League,” Durie recalls.
For fellow Bulldogs supporter Chris Bodon, it too was a family affair, but it was a little different coming from a migrant family.
Bodon’s father migrated from Lebanon in the early 1970s and moved to Marrickville. His father and uncles happened upon a game at Belmore by chance and the rest was history.
“They saw a crowd that was gathering and heading over to Belmore Sports Ground and followed the crowd in. It was Canterbury vs St George and was obviously fiery so there was a lot of passion going on.
“They ended up sitting with the blue and white side and got taken in by the supporters and welcomed in. That’s how they became Bulldogs fans and that’s how they instilled it in us,” Bodon says of his family’s adoption of the Dogs.
The emergence of Lebanon-born winger Hazem El Masri helped to solidify his family’s support of the Bulldogs.
“There was always a stigma always around the Lebanese community, that there was (sic) a few bad eggs, but the sense of community Haz brought to the club. I think we sort of adopted the family club mentality.
“Obviously that came from the 80s, but the celebrations in 04, closing the streets of Belmore with the Lebanese drums and the community coming together that absolutely made me love the club even more than I do now.”
But family support doesn’t always mean someone follows the same team. Sometimes they head in a different direction. Like Gerad Vinko, who decided to buck the trend and follow Manly in 1995.
“In 95 I didn’t follow footy and we went to a barbecue. Everyone was going for Canterbury and me being 12 years old and not knowing the history, I said someone has to go for the other team and I went for Manly not knowing that everybody hated Manly and it’s just stuck since,” Vinko says.
“That’s the memory that’s the defining moment of why I follow the team.”
For some people like Chad Twist though, they’re the first in the family to adopt the sport. A Kogarah native, Twist says the Dragons quickly became his team despite his dad not really following rugby league.
“I had a photo as a youngster with Ricky Walford. It was just natural, I guess. It was the local team and I lived a couple of streets away,” he remembers.
While Twist grew up in Dragons territory, Alby Talarico was born in Balmain, grew up in Ashfield and while that would normally see him become a Tigers fan, the 1977 grand final saw him down the red V.
“Dragons was the very first game I got to watch in colour TV, which was the 1977 grand final. My grandmother had a colour TV, so we went to her place to watch the game and my grandfather explained to me the rules and right after that I was hooked.
“It was a draw and we had to come back the next Saturday. The next Saturday we went back to my grandmother’s place and watched the grand final in colour and St George won, they were my team and that was it.”
The start of our rugby league supporting journey is what many of us romanticise. They’re the memories of the players we were captivated by, the games that became deeply embedded in our memory banks.
Sometimes those memories aren’t even of players that represented our clubs. The recent outpouring of respect towards Benji Marshall is testament to that.
But while support often grows over time as it becomes a habit, there are those matches and players we remember as being part of our early fandom.
For Bodon, his years at a sold out Belmore Oval have left him with plenty of memories.
“I’ve got heaps of memories of the local derbies, going to Kogarah, Bulldogs playing St George. Going to Belmore, packed to the rafters, standing room only.
“The one that stands out was in 1998 at Belmore Sports Ground, Canterbury playing the Storm. We won the game 8-6 I think and Craig Polla-Mounter picked up the ball in torrential rain about 10 metres out and sort of dove from the line from about five metres out and scored to win us the game,” he remembers.
Durie doesn’t point out a specific game. For him it’s more about the days spent at Belmore and the Leagues Club, as well as the players he liked.
“The best memories were sitting in the grandstand and grandpa talking about how much he hated Bill Harrigan, all the good things about the club, then we’d walk back up to the Leagues Club and walk around the big waterfall there and walk through to have dinner there.
“Grandpa used to take me up into the post-match function. I remember he introduced me to Luke Goodwin back in the day. I liked a lot of the guys that weren’t the names. Obviously Terry Lamb was always a favourite, but there were heaps of guys when we grew up like Simon Gillies, the Hughes brothers, Craig Polla-Mounter, Rod Silva, all those guys,” he says.
While the memories of success and triumph often lead to lifetime support, sometimes it’s the moments of despair that keep fans coming back. Like they feel somehow responsible for helping the club pick itself back up.
Vinko may have begun supporting Manly during a premiership year, but he’s still got the memory of the 1997 grand final loss to Newcastle burnt into his mind.
“1997 was heartbreaking. I still can’t watch it today even though I was a kid. You watch it again, and it’s heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking.”
For Dragons fans though, the heartbreak was even more pronounced throughout the 1980s and 1990s with the club losing the grand final on four separate occasions before being merged with the Illawarra Steelers.
“I have a lot of memories in the 90s where we were a pretty decent team and kept losing in grand finals. They probably wouldn’t be highlights,” says Twist.
“I was pretty disappointed and I wasn’t happy with it. Half the reason why I was fairly accepting of it was because the colours didn’t change and it was seen as more of a takeover of the Steelers. We kept our name for the most part, had the red V. So it didn’t feel like we were being swamped, whereas if I was a Steelers fan I would have been disappointed,” he adds.
Talarico though had a different outlook on the merger, saying he thought it was only a matter of time when he was a high school student in the 1980s.
“I knew it was going to happen when I was in year nine and year 10. Because I could see when St George lost that grand final in 85, I could just see that the future wasn’t in that area because every area had changed.
“I wasn’t too perturbed at all. I’ve always thought that Illawarra was the little baby you took care of, it was the little brother and they have for a long time and they still will and they still do and I get it. I know a lot of people don’t, and I get it, but for St George to survive, they can survive in both areas,” he says.
As Talarico explained, premierships can help to heal those wounds. Premierships can also serve to strengthen bonds between supporters and their club.
“I remember watching 1979 (grand final) on the TV but winning the premiership in 2010 was extraordinarily special,” says Talarico.
Being a joint venture, the Dragons premiership also served to unite what was sometimes a very divisive partnership, with the Illawarra and St George sides coming together to celebrate.
“The best memory was 2010 when we finally won the premiership against the Roosters. So lots of good times but the actual highlight was a long time into supporting them,” adds Twist.
Supporters such as Vinko though, began supporting during a grand final, but states his favourite moment is a more recent triumph.
“To be honest my favourite memory as a Sea Eagles fan would have to be Beaver (Steve Menzies) scoring the 2008 grand final on his final goodbye. Beaver is a league legend and to see him score in his last game is pretty memorable,” he says.
On other occasions it’s not the good times that bring people together, but tragedy. When 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives at Hillsborough, sport meant both nothing and everything.
It was nothing compared to the lives lost, the families impacted and a club still feeling its impacts to this day. But it was everything in how the club supported the families as they fought for justice and in how it helped to heal a city.
Closer to home and the tragedy of the Bali bombings didn’t leave sport untouched. AFL players Jason McCartney and Mick Martyn were injured in the blast. For South Sydney Junior rugby league club the Coogee Dolphins, the attack was even more tragic, claiming six of their players.
Alby Talarico was the Coogee president at the time, and he says it was a tough time to rebuild the club, but was made sweeter when the Dolphins claimed the A-Grade premiership in 2004.
“We lost six boys in Bali when I was the president and we had to rebuild the club. We had to win every game from the end of June and we got in the top five. We came in fifth place, and we beat everyone before us. We beat Le Perouse.
“That night I sat down and cried because it was so emotional. After Bali I went to seven funerals, two memorials, fundraisers and I just think that I held it all together. It was a pretty tough time but that was special too, that was very special.”
Those six players have now become part of that club’s identity with their jersey numbers adorning the Coogee Dolphins crest.
Support in Hard Times
Outside of human tragedies, there are also the difficult seasons on the field that can test the strength of someone’s connection to their club.
The mark of true supporters are those who stick by their side through the bad times. When the wins aren’t coming, when seasons finish early, when there’s little to look forward to yet they’re still going to games or watching every week.
Every club goes through dry patches and periods that are bereft of success.
Bodon’s beloved Dogs took out the wooden spoon in 2021 and finished second last in 2020, but he believes there are always positives to look for.
“I can see the club taking a new direction but obviously we’ve never lost passion, we’ve stayed members. We always look at the positives and we can say we’ve got a few signings coming up, a few good players coming in and we’ve just got to back the new guard.
“We’ve always loved the club no matter what and we’re looking forward to the future I suppose. Our family, our whole extended family, we’re all members. I’ve been a member since 2002, so I’m on my 19th consecutive year.”
Vinko agrees, having watched Manly struggle under the tutelage of Trent Barrett.
“Still stuck by them. We went through a pretty bad patch recently with Trent Barrett and for me it’s part of a team. You have to take the good with the bad really and if you can’t support them at their worst, then you can’t support them at a grand final.”
Meanwhile Talarico believes the Dragons will rise again.
“They will need to rebuild what they had but it will take a long time, but I’m of the opinion that they will get another premiership but it might take them a few more years.”
History beckons for the Parramatta Eels as they head into a preliminary final against the heavily favoured North Queensland Cowboys.
Recalling a legendary player or former coach is often tempting for a club trying to recapture former glory. But rarely does it work, and often it tarnishes the coach’s legacy.
Harry Grant has filled the Melbourne Storm boots of Cameron Smith and seems to be taking the hooking position to the next level.