In 1964 at age ten, I had the worst day of my life. My beloved East Fremantle lost their third successive grand final to Claremont, sentimental favourites who had not won the flag for twenty-four years. I took myself off into the bush and sniffled and fought tears, reflecting bitterly on the whim of fate. East had the game on toast but in the closing minutes best afield Norm Rogers went down with cramp. His opponent Ian Brewer, until then well held, slipped away for two goals that changed history. I felt no animosity towards the Claremont fans or players, just as fifty-two years later I can say I am genuinely happy for the legions of Bulldogs fans that get to celebrate a premiership at the hands of my Swans. Of course, no passion matches that of a ten year old, and I’d be lying if I said I lived and breathed Swans. I don’t, I am a loyal supporter, that’s all, and I do believe the Bulldogs are worthy winners. I admire the gutsy Liam Picken just as I do Luke Parker, and of course JJ is an East Fremantle player whose talent was obvious to me in his first games even when the Melbourne media barely noticed him. However, and the however is the point of this essay, I feel utterly gutted at Melbourne-centric nature of the AFL at every level from media coverage to national governance, to what actually happens on the field of play. Sometimes the messenger has to be prepared to be abused and shot for delivering the message but I am going to deliver the message regardless, on behalf of Sydney supporters in particular and non-Victorian fans in general. I am prepared to be accused of sour grapes, having my head up my posterior and worse, to deliver this message, because no club official can, and most non-Victorian journalists are compromised in one way or another. The message is simple: Contrary to Eddie McGuire and other Victorian lobbyists’ positions, the competition is hopelessly biased in favour of the Victorian clubs and the grand-final was the epitome of this bias.
Here is a statistic you won’t get from any of those Melbourne footy or radio shows or newspapers that dominate the AFL landscape: In 2016 there were 22 games played between Victorian Home and Non-Victorian Away teams in Melbourne or Tasmania in which one of the teams received 56% or more of the free kicks. On 20 of those occasions it was the Victorian team which was the beneficiary. That’s right, a ratio of 10 to 1. Before the grand final (the 22nd of those games) I tweeted for Swans fans to standby for the inevitable avalanche of Bulldogs’ free-kicks, but just because you know it’s going to happen doesn’t make it any easier to stomach. Now, almost all Melbourne journos are big enough to acknowledge the Bulldogs got the better deal with the umpires, but this is qualified with the statement the Swans would have won if they were good enough. Maybe this is right. Even if the Swans had the free kick count in their favour, I freely acknowledge they might not have won. After all, the Bulldogs had beaten them the last two times they’d met, the Swans had demonstrated a propensity throughout the season to lose tough games, and players who were failures in the 2014 grand final, repeated their effort this year. On the weight of what we ultimately saw, it’s difficult to suggest a different result. Nonetheless, let’s ask this. If in the experts’ opinion a free kick count of 20-8 didn’t actually influence the result, then what might have? 30-8 say? Or would that still be a situation where the prevailing wisdom was the umpires didn’t make a difference? If you’re not prepared to acknowledge umpires can make a difference why bother with umpires at all? Had the game been played in Sydney and the Bulldogs been on the receiving end of an 8-20 free kick count, would they have won? And if they didn’t, would those same journalists be confidently stating that they would have won if good enough?
The truth is we simply don’t know what might have happened had the Swans been given a fair go by the umpires. There is no question the Dogs dominated the last fifteen minutes of the game but just look at what happened when the Swans were paid a belated free kick for one of the many throws committed by the Bulldogs that went unpenalised. The Swans goaled and were suddenly back in the game. Earlier in the game when the Swans had momentum it was ripped from them by atrocious free kick and 50m penalty against Keiran Jack. Maybe, as they did against Geelong, they should have been good enough to overcome that but the Dogs were just more resilient than the Cats.
What we can say with certainty is that the Dogs were worthy winners, and that the Swans battled on despite a heavy handicap, but fell short. This essay is not about who was the better team on the day – history records clearly that was the Dogs – rather this is about what constitutes “the day”, about the Melbourne-centric nature of AFL, and bias against non-Victorian clubs and their fans. For example, plenty has been made of the Bulldogs mighty efforts in winning away twice and defeating the reigning premiers on their home ground to make the grand final. Rightly so. There was very little comment though about the Swans journey. After finishing on top, the Swans were denied a first final on their home ground and forced to play at a ground a number of the players had never seen, let alone played on. After losing, they won one home final then had to travel interstate to play the (then) highest ranking club Geelong. After winning that game, despite being the highest remaining qualifier, they were forced to once again play interstate in the grand final. Just imagine the furore from the Melbourne media if the reverse had happened. Imagine if the Bulldogs after a 62 year drought had finished on top, been denied a home final, and then asked to travel to Sydney to play the team that had finished 7th.
This is my point. It’s all very well to announce the Swans should have won if good enough but what does that mean? That they have to be good enough to overcome biased umpiring and an unfair finals draw, otherwise they are not worthy winners? The Melbourne media have lived with this lopsided arrangement for so long, they don’t even recognise its fundamental unfairness. Much has been made of Hawthorn’s tremendous three premiership run. The last two of those victories came on their home ground against interstate sides who qualified higher than them and had hardly played a game on the MCG. When Melbourne journos compare the great Brisbane and Hawthorn teams, you’ll never hear any of them mention that Brisbane had to win all their flags on foreign soil. And so far I’ve not heard any mention of the fact that the last three flags have gone to Melbourne clubs who got a home grand final even though they ranked lower than their interstate opponents. Is that a fair competition? But I suppose it is sour grapes to point this out, Non-Victorians are just to suck it up and accept that they should glory in being allowed onto the hallowed MCG at all. It seems a home advantage that is so prized during the season becomes immaterial for the biggest game of all. It’s all very well to say the best side won on the day but what shapes that day, including the venue, is critically important.
This concept extends to the fans. I’m a man of modest means and though I managed to get four of us to the 2005 grand final, we simply can’t afford to travel whenever our team makes the grand final even if we can secure tickets. Melbourne-based fans need only to secure a ticket, then they can sit back and relax and enjoy festivities. Many will be afforded the chance to see their team in multiple grand finals but for interstate fans the expense is prohibitive. Those writing or appearing on camera during grand final week have no first-hand knowledge of the problems of having to try and book air-fares in peak holiday time to get to Melbourne’s GF, or arranging days off work to drive. Even the non-Melbourne journos are guaranteed air-fares, game tickets and accommodation. They love grand-final week, it is a “working” holiday, so they are not going to raise these issues. The fact is the AFL is very much a sub-department of Tourism Victoria.
And why should this be so? In a truly national game the grand final location would be determined either by a city bidding for the right to hold the event, or by the rights of the highest qualifier to hold the game in their state but the AFL and the media covering the game don’t even debate the point. In a few short years, if not already, there will be more fans following the game who witnessed their first match post-1987 than before. What happened between Collingwood and Melbourne in the 50s will have little or no relevance, and yet they and their team will be asked to traipse to Melbourne, to shell out money they don’t have, and to have the game officiated against their team, all to satisfy the ghosts of the long dead. To highlight my point let’s just look at what happened when the AFL determined that there would be no grand-final replay in order to be more fair to the interstate teams. Well hang on, here’s another solution: if the replay is between Vic and Non-Vic teams, then it should be held in the home state of the Non-Vic team. I guarantee that would sell out!
The Melbourne clubs and their fans and some media would rather bleat about GWS recruiting advantages than look at what is right in front of their face: the lowest ranked Victorian team will still get a home-state grand-final against the top ranked team from outside the state. The AFL rewards the tanking Melbourne with high-draft picks, and then over compensates them for the loss of one of those picks (Scully), while punishing the Swans who stayed within the rules. Paranoid the Swans were going to win the 2014 flag and terrified of Melbourne backlash the AFL acted hastily and immorally in banning the Swans from trading. Even earlier when the Swans secured Tippet, they were the ones punished by him having to stand out of football for half-a-season. How about acknowledging a club that forged success not so much from high-priced recruits but from late draft picks like Parker and Smith, a Canadian rugby player and an Irishman? Instead, we have Gillon (he’s on first name terms with all his journo mates) throwing a curry-night for the Melbourne coaches and forming football policy based on their self-interested belly-aching.
I’ve always loved football but at this minute I am totally disillusioned and depressed about it. The Dogs were worthy winners of the 2016 flag, they battled and overcame much adversity and their supporters deserve to savour every moment of their success, and that success looks assured to continue. I’m pleased they were the team that beat the Swans. But what is the point of following your team if they are constantly forced to have to triumph against the odds, to be handicapped by officialdom at every level? It is true the Dogs were the best team “on the day”. But the Grand Final is purported to be a race based on “set weights” not handicap. If people think it is fair that umpires favour Melbourne home teams 10 to 1 in blowout free-kick counts in Melbourne, and blandly accept the Umpiring Department’s assurances that all is good in the world, then I suppose I’m the loony barking at the moon. But let me postulate a revolutionary alternative: When the ball is first bounced in the grand final, both teams deserve to be there with whatever benefits the entire season has wrought, and when the final siren sounds, both teams should be able to say they had the exact same chance of stamping their name in glory, whether they were ultimately good enough or not. Otherwise it is un-Australian, and just not football.
Dave Warner October 2016