As the AFL finals approach, Australia is divided into two groups: footy fanatics and those who just don’t get it.
The latter are often left scratching their heads when otherwise sane adults become nervous wrecks, scream at the TV and collapse in a heap after a big loss.
Is footy fandom really that strange? Not if you speak to those who know and love the game.
Historian and die-hard Collingwood supporter Professor Joy Damousi of the University of Melbourne says it is no surprise that AFL clubs are an important part of many lives. In some ways, including the unwavering devotion of fans, she says it is like a religion.
“Loyalty to a club would be the longest unbroken connection people might have in their lives and so it has a link to one’s own history and past,” says Professor Damousi who, with Carlton fan and honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne’s School of Social & Political Sciences John Cash, wrote a book on the subject, Footy Passions.
Professor Damousi says footy fans understand this connection whether it brings elation in victory or heartbreak in defeat. She says following an AFL team can provide meaning, a sense of togetherness, and sometimes even a premiership.
Highs and lows
Gerard Egan is Richmond Cheer Squad Chairman and has been a club member since 1977. He vividly recalls the joy he felt when his team won the 1980 Grand Final against Collingwood.
“It was pure elation,” says Mr Egan, who was 16 at the time. “I thought over the next decade we were going to win the next 10.”
The Tigers are yet to win another flag and have won just two finals since 1982. Now a 53-year-old father of four, Mr Egan has seen more than his share of epic losses in that time.
Among the worst was the 2013 elimination final against Carlton, after the Blues were elevated from ninth following Essendon’s disqualification over the peptides scandal. Richmond coughed up a 33-point lead to lose by 20 points and Mr Egan was shattered.
Following such a defeat he often sits alone in the Punt Road oval stands for an hour, then “goes quiet” for several days until he feels human again. “It would probably take me four to five days,” he says. “Carlton probably took me about two weeks.”
Purpose and bonding
Mr Egan’s experience is mirrored by thousands of AFL diehards and it fascinates Professor Damousi, who is a professor of history at the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. Footy Passions documents the lives of devoted AFL fans like Mr Egan. It found that following footy provided connections often unavailable elsewhere, such as bonding to a community, a wider sense of the collective and connecting with family and friends. This engendered a fundamental sense of belonging.
“Such highly charged attachments to a team are often dismissed as immaturity or mere diversion,” Professors Damousi and Cash wrote. “But only by those who have never had such an attachment themselves, or have never taken the time to listen with attention to the multitudes who are committed supporters.”
On the positive side psychologically, football club membership can provide a sense of purpose and friendship. But Professor Damousi says some fans can lose perspective and find the game all consuming.
She says it can also be very deflating and depressing to lose year in, year out. “But following a club is more than its success,” she adds. “Your footy club is one constant thing that can take you right through life.”
As Mr Egan will tell you, and Professor Damousi agrees, there are no negatives in winning. When the Western Bulldogs broke a 62-year premiership drought last year, some wondered how their fans would cope with such rare success.
history and passion
“I have never heard a single negative comment about the Dogs’ win last year – from supporters or others,” Professor Damousi says. “There’s a kind of romance in that story.”
Having qualified for the finals, if Richmond breaks its 37-year drought by going on to win the Grand Final, Professor Damousi says it will be “very exciting” and bring untold joy to Tiger fans and those who feel empathy like they did for the Bulldogs.
Mr Egan, whose team is like a second family, already has Richmond’s banners, which the players run through before each game, planned through to the Grand Final. He’s not confident, but always hopeful that the Tigers can make it.
If miracles do happen, Mr Egan says it will be “up there with the biggest celebrations of all time”. “I’ve already told my wife that if we do win, just come and see me at Punt Road at some stage on the Sunday,” he says.
But would we feel the same about Greater Western Sydney, which joined the AFL in 2012? Professor Damousi is not so sure a GWS flag would engender such passion. She says while it’s fine to create a team to market the AFL to a region, the Giants are yet to capture the imagination.
Professor Damousi likes to quote the Bulldogs’ famous banner from its 2016 Preliminary Final against GWS: “Our Club was born in blood and boots, not in AFL focus groups”.
“They’re trying to invent a history,” she says. “Brisbane had Fitzroy, the Swans had South Melbourne. There’s something about a creation that doesn’t have a base. The fans who follow the club would love it, but I think the rest of us would probably feel a little bit flat.”
Banner image: Richmond fans get behind their team. Picture: Supplied