A long, long time ago, I can still remember
How the Magpies used to make me smile
And Dad and I would sing and dance
As the Pies stuffed up each finals chance
And lost each shot at glory with such style
But 1990 made me shiver, with every victory they delivered
Bad news on the doorstep, the Woodsmen had much more pep
I can’t remember if I cried when I heard that they had made the five
But something kicked me deep inside, the day the Wobbles died.
You’ve got to really hate Collingwood to bother adapting all eleven minutes of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ into a lament for the death of the Colliwobbles. Still, in 1990, I’d never lost a relative. I had no experience with grief. All I knew was that a beautiful force that had been for decades, the one that had controlled everything from the bounce of a mongrel punt in 1966 to the bulge of a boundary line in 1979, was no more. Besides, it was VCE swotvac, and hating Collingwood was more compelling than reading Guiseppe di Lampadusa’s The Leopard.
Nearly 12 years on I was printing out the words and preparing to perform ‘The Day the Wobbles Died’ at an open-mike poetry night at the Perseverance Hotel when Steve Foley from The Age called.
‘We’d like you to go down to Victoria Park, you know, participate behind the scenes at the most famous sporting club in Australia.’
Most famous sporting club in Australia! Don’t get angry. Control the breathing. Don’t scream. Just quietly state that they’ve won three flags since 1939. Be calm. Actually, don’t say anything. You need the job.
‘Sure Steve. That could be good.’
‘Maybe make it a ‘my role in their win’ type piece,’ he added.
I managed a carefully measured ‘okay’. The sort of ‘okay’ the Petrovs were punching out in the preseason of 1954. .
Tuesday 3pm. Victoria Park
I had a knife in one hand and one of Nathan Buckley’s match boots in the other.
‘So I scrape, rather than jab,’ I asked bootstudder Neil Price.
‘Yeah, just use the knife to knock the grass off,’ he instructed, as he got to work on the other Buckley boot. Together we scraped, then together, sudsed his soles. One of us, though, was scraping and sudsing with feeling.
‘I love Collingwood,’ Neil said. ‘I’ve barracked for them all my life. Last week I barely slept and it was only the preliminary final. This week is just chaos.’
I asked Neil if he was wishing bad luck on his opposite number bootstudder at Brisbane.
‘Na. I want their players to go pretty badly, but the bootstudder to have a good one.’
Neil had a kind laugh, and while we each toweled off a UK size 10, he regaled me with bootstudder war stories. Like the day he made it from the MCG to Victoria Park and back again in 25 minutes – to fetch the boots Brodie Holland forgot. ‘Didn’t miss a connection. Ran to and from the train. Nearly died.’
Then he told me about the bootstudders of old, the late great Billy Scott, who never threw out his store of old leather stops. With a necklace of old high ankled boots Billy smiled down on us from a black and white photo on the wall. And while Neil looked at Billy, there was just Billy left to look at me, so I smudged the black nugget into the white of Buckley’s Adidas three stripe. Not deliberately. OK, sort of deliberately. If Buckley’s good enough to put the nugget smudge behind him and just play football, good luck to him.
‘We polish all the boots again Friday,’ Neil said. Bugger.
I walked through the change rooms, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a white ant in black jeans. On the way to the video room, I drifted past Mick Malthouse (who said ‘G’day mate’), a toweled up Nathan Buckley (who said ‘Hi mate’) and Glenn Freeborn who was bent over with his feet in an ice bath.
‘Do you mind if I grab half a dozen ice cubes,?’ I asked.
He said he didn’t, so I grabbed a handful, potentially throwing the temperature out by a fraction or so of a degree. Not enough to get me in Brisbane’s best, but as any coach will tell you, it’s the 0.001 percenters that count.
In the video room, Football Technologies Manager Aaron Castles was making opposition player tapes for analysis by the coaching staff. He was a wizard on his laptop, the sort of man who can make a mouse look like an extension of his arm, and he was driving $26,000 worth of editing software.
‘We edit the game live. The feed comes in, is converted to a digital image, and then we use this Sportscode program to click on players involved in the play. The we export the footage that relates to each individual player and give it to the coaches.’
I asked if I could make a player tape, and Aaron handed over the mouse. I chose ‘Martin Pike’, the Brisbane backman who attracts premierships and repels chairs out of hotel windows on footy trips. To capture the first player instance, Aaron told me to release pause on the video and play the laptop file at exactly the same time. I didn’t. We dropped 18 frames. Three quarters of a second of the handball that got the ball to Voss who then moved it onto Pike. Malthouse would probably cope but who knows. Small steps little Nikita.
9.00pm Perseverance Hotel
And we knew it wasn’t just a whim, by the 1965 Prelim
At the time it made me muse, man I dig the way you lose!
It was a lonely teenage, St Kilda ruck
Who in 66, a behind he snuck
But 1990 – no such luck
The Day the Wobbles Died
This was risky stuff. You wouldn’t have caught agent Kim Philby at an open mike at Cambridge, singing Red Army choir songs. But was he ever wooed with a 4-pack of pies and a plastic football? And are people really as passionate about global ideologies as they are about football? I sat down, lowered my eyes, and sipped a beer.
Thursday 3.45pm, Victoria Park
I arrived on Thursday and immediately suspected that the club was onto me. I can’t say how it happened. Maybe it was because of the open mike two days earlier. Maybe it was because I accidentally mouthed ‘They Know How to Play the Game’ instead of ‘We Know How to Play the Game’ when the players ran onto the field for training Property Manager Wayne ‘Disco’ Connor saw me do it, which would explain why he didn’t let me help put out the marker cones. My plan had been to move them back two metres for the warm up in an attempt to make the Pies leg weary. Later, in the property room, Disco was similarly vigilant as I ‘helped’ with a load of washing. He pulled me up as I attempted to overfill the detergent vestibule. Imagine the headlines. DIDAK TO MISS WITH SOAP RELATED SKIN IRRITATION.
It was difficult not to like Disco. With the players, there was good natured ribbing back and forth on the subject of not returning towels. With me, there was appreciation that I’d help with a load of washing.
‘Rare for someone to volunteer to do a load,’ he said.
‘How did you get the name Disco,’ I asked as he cut my scoop down by half.
‘Twenty years ago I turned up to a cricket match in a silky tracksuit,’ he replied. ‘The boys said it looked like I was off to a disco.’
Massage therapist Megan Sayers taught me how to massage Brodie Holland’s adductor magnus, longus and brevis, commonly known as a groin. Oil on the hands, then a rowing stroke, then kneading, broad long, broad cross, deep long, and deep cross strokes. Then reverse. Head trainer Rowan Bownds, the man in charge of the massage roster watched from behind. He had been reluctant to offer up the limbs of certain Grand Final starters.
I watched Holland to see if he’d noticed that I’d changed the order of the broad cross and the broad long, but after some initial surprise that a man with a microphone was palming his inner thigh, his lids had closed again.
‘Maybe not quite so hard there,’ Megan said. ‘It’s a sensitive area.’
7.15pm, Loughan Hall, Richmond
I’d missed the making of the banner. My sources had said that the cheer squad would be making it most of the night, and I’d wanted to get along to try to smuggle in some spelling mistakes. At the very least a stray apostrophe.
But now the great crepe masterpiece had been packed away. Finished early because run-through coordinator Sheree and her co-workers were off to The Footy Show.
‘Can you give me the message?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, but leave some of it as a surprise.’ Sheree smiled. ‘It was written by Eddie.’
Then she handed me a slip of paper.
Our first flag came in 1902
A Magpie Tradition Born …
You’ll have to wait to see the rest. The only clue I’ll give is that the phrase ‘boom recruit Gary Shaw’ has again missed out, as has ‘3 flags in 62 years’.
Then Sheree and the cheer squad gave me warm handshakes and headed off for their big night.
By the time I reached the car, I began to wonder whether I really cared about Collingwood losing. After all, the team plays an utterly admirable brand of tough, accountable footy, and its time in the cellar seemed to have reined in the arrogant excesses of yesteryear. And what wasn’t there to like about the individuals who had given up a slice of their Grand Final week to let me participate? Surely it was these who were the club. The most famous sporting club in Australia.
But then again, it’s the losing that’s been doing them good. Let them continue on the improvement curve.