Malcolm Blight stood tall on the podium flanked by his players. He raised the Premiership Cup as the head coach of the Adelaide Crows. The torpedo-punt specialist-among other things– held aloft football’s reason for living. All of it – the frothing media, the ear-to-ear smiles of Adelaide Crows staff, the hugs, the camaraderie – made me sick to my stomach.
In 1998, the Crows stunningly won back-to-back titles and I had watched them dismantle my woefully inaccurate Roos. Nigel Smart’s shiny, sweat-filled head and goatee still gives me nightmares. Something about him scared the living suitcase out of me as a kid. Every one of Darren Jarman’s five goals were like little jabs to the guts. When the ‘98 Grand Final comes up in conversation from time to time, I mostly flash back to my Father going into nuclear meltdown each time Wayne Carey missed a shot at goal.
Here’s what I knew about the ’98 Grand Final. I knew going into the game that the Crows were a tenacious team considering they’d defeated St. Kilda in the 1997 Grand Final. However I saw them as improbable premiership contenders as they only managed three wins from their first eight games. I also knew the Roos were the best team in the competition. They had finished top of the ladder with 16 wins and had stormed into the Grand Final winning 11 on the trot, including dispatching Essendon and Melbourne in their two finals prior to the big dance.
Being seven years old at the time, my memories of that ’98 Grand Final rely almost entirely on the emotional output of my father: rolling his eyes, looking up to the sky, huffing and puffing and doing his best not to curse. The Roos had 21 scoring shots at half time, 15 of which were behinds. Any footy fan would have felt the same way. The Crows went on to completely control the second half; North kicked 0.7 in the last quarter.
As the Adelaide song blared ceremoniously after the game and as their players lionized on the podium with their yellow, red and black streamers, the next words out of my mouth were probably right up there with some of the worst I could have chosen at the time.
I don’t want to go for the Roos anymore.
At some point between the age of six and 10 nearly every footy fan will identify themselves with a football team for a particular reason. Sometimes they will rarely look back. It’s a crucial and defining life decision that not only has a plethora of influencing factors, but will impact friendships, workplace relationships and divide or unite families. The upside to picking the right team is that it will potentially cause moments of intense ecstasy and happiness. The downside: decades of stress that will take years off your life and cause inconsolable heartbreak. It’s almost unfair how such a significant decision falls upon such a young human.
There’s an interesting hierarchy that exists with supporters in Aussie Rules. At the top of the food chain there’s the dedicated one-eyed supporter who will swear by their team. Then there are the fans that have a team but aren’t wholly invested. Next are the fans who don’t have a team and just want to enjoy a good game every now and then. I call them NBA Fans or Ballers. But below them, at the bottom of the food chain, there are the fans who change teams. Changing teams is taboo in footy culture. The second you decide to jump ship after a rough patch is the second you’re considered inferior to a true footy fan. The thought of staring down the barrel of being branded a “team changer” was a daunting one.
Becoming a Roo started with my Father who had his own set of obstacles in becoming a supporter. As the son of 1950’s Greek migrants he was forced to play soccer – which he loved – as Aussie Rules was far too rough for his parents to accept. But all the kids at school loved footy. They all supported a football team back in the early ‘70’s so he decided to jump on board.
He tells me the only reason he ended up as a North fan was because their colours matched those of the Greek flag so he could sell it to his own father. I called bulldust as the Roos were pretty successful in the ‘70’s having won a couple of flags. He later admitted he loved watching Wayne Schimmelbusch, and was enamored after their first premiership in 1975.
I wasn’t your typical Arden Street groupie by the end of 1998. I was still a bit too young to fully comprehend the benefits of team loyalty and commitment hopefully being rewarded with premiership glory. At that stage I only liked certain players. My Greek and Italian upbringing saw very specific emphasis on the European players among my family. I’d go to my Nonno’s place and listen to him carry on about Tony Liberatore or Saverio and Anthony Rocca. Dad would talk about how good Peter Daicos was when I was little and how much of a shame it was that Anthony Koutofides (who like myself, had a Greek father and Italian mother) played for Carlton.
The end of the 1998 season was the tipping point. I declared to my dad that I wanted to change teams and barrack for Collingwood, who won in 1990 the year I was born. Dad looked at me like I’d shot the dog. He then retorted with a deal:
“If the Roos win next year, you have to be a North Melbourne supporter. If they don’t win, you can go for anybody you like, even Collingwood.”
So that was that. I agreed to the deal.
To me, 1999 will be remembered mostly as the year I agreed to be a Roos supporter to see if they could win me over. So I took an interest. I started asking questions. This is exactly what my dad wanted to happen. For me, the Roos had my attention right after the ’98 Grand Final when they picked fellow Tasmanian Brady Rawlings with pick no. 15 in the national draft. I saw that as a sign they were picking me as well so I dug my heels in for the next 12 months.
North Melbourne lost three of their first four contests that year. As soon as the fixture was released in the Hobart Mercury, I had circled two important games. The first: a round six clash with my front running favourite at the time, Collingwood. If the Roos went on and lost that one, this story might have been told differently and I could be missing a few teeth today.
The second: a round seven, revenge match against Adelaide. As it turned out, North easily dispatched Collingwood by 28 points without their prized spearhead Wayne Carey. I distinctly recall 13 goal kickers that day. The following week again without the King, the Roos obliterated the Crows by 56-pts at the MCG. In Round 22, North travelled to Football Park and thumped the Crows by 76-pts. The old enemy had been vanquished.
“All my heroes had made up for their mistakes. Boomer Harvey was shaking tackles and taking paced bounces up the wing. Winston Abraham, Peter Bell and Shannon Grant were kicking goals from every spot imaginable.”
The Roos kept on winning, and only lost two more times in 1999. I remember my dad all year getting into me saying “See that? Arch knows you’re watching” or “woah, I reckon that goal was for you Nikos!” He had me on the hook, all that was left was to pull me out of the water.
The ‘Deal Game’ had arrived, otherwise known as the ’99 Grand Final. North had easily put away Port Adelaide and Brisbane in the opening weeks of the finals. They’d avoided a scary Essendon and Carlton, it seemed, had played their Grand Final against the Bombers the week before. Brett Ratten kicked the first goal of the game which made me want to stick my head in the couch and never emerge, but Corey McKernan’s 65-metre bomb in the 2nd quarter had the family at fever pitch.
All my heroes had made up for their mistakes from ‘98. Boomer Harvey was shaking tackles and taking paced bounces up the wing, Winston Abraham, Peter Bell and Shannon Grant were kicking goals from every spot imaginable: snaps from both pockets, set shots from 40 and 50 metres, or crumbing off contests into an open goal. David King was Mr. Reliable and falcon-punching balls along the boundary.
My favourite footy memory still to this day was watching Wayne Carey falling backwards and taking that ridiculous mark against Stephen Silvagni wrestling one on one. The fourth quarter was strangely reminiscent of how Adelaide ran over the Roos the year before but the tables had turned. At that moment the ’98 catastrophe felt it had happened in 1908.
Whenever I explain the failure of ‘98 and the success of the ’99, people usually ask me: “would you still have become a North Melbourne supporter if they didn’t win the ’99 Grand Final?” The short answer is probably, yes. My dad would have tormented me for life if I’d chosen otherwise.
But honestly not only is the ’99 Grand Final my favourite childhood memory, so many things appealed to me about them that season: most notably the four wins over both Collingwood and Adelaide respectively. I also felt vindication: Adelaide finished 13th and Collingwood got the wooden spoon that year.
I tend to think about what would have happened if I had of ended up a Pies fan. I’d without a doubt have a very different relationship with my father, especially considering his experiences in 1977. I wouldn’t have wanted to attend Jason McCartney’s final game in 2003 after the Bali Bombings, or the span of North Melbourne games at York Park and Bellerive in Tasmania the same way. Even my friendship groups may have shifted.
When the 2000 season finally rolled around I had learned that Saverio Rocca – who I already liked – had been dropped by Collingwood and given a second chance by North Melbourne through the draft which sent my expectations sky high.
It has been a rollercoaster of emotion ever since.
You can follow Nick Papdakis on Twitter @pappy182