In May 1965, my family (Mum & Dad and my sister Bev) moved from Bendigo to Melbourne. A question that was asked of anyone in Melbourne in those days was 'Who do you barrack for?'. This of course meant identifying with one of 12 clubs in what was then the Victorian Football League. In Bendigo, like many residents of country Victoria, Dad had been a keen follower of his local club, which in our case was South Bendigo, who wore the same colours as South Melbourne (now the Sydney Swans). This meant Dad almost choose South Melbourne as his team. However, they were not a particular successful club back then, and he ended up choosing to follow the team who had most recently won the premiership, which was Melbourne. At the time, this probably seemed like an obvious choice; the Demons had won 6 of the past 11 premierships, and been runners-up in 2 more (with losses in 1954 to the Bulldogs and in 1958 to Collingwood). They had a famous coach, Norm Smith, who had not only coached them to premiership success, but had also been a star player and captain for the club, playing in four previous premierships. They had won a closely contested Grand final in 1964 over Collingwood, and had made a flying start to the 1965 season, winning the first 8 games (out of a season of 18 games). This was despite the tumultuous loss that year of Ron Barassi, favourite son and revered captain, who had parted ways with the club after the 1964 season to become the playing coach of Carlton. Then came the infamous mid-season sacking of Norm Smith, only to be reinstated a week later. But despite Smith remaining as coach until 1967, the Demons were never the same, beginning what is now known among us Demon tragics as The Curse of Norm Smith. This was a long period of lack of success, both on and off the field, with the glory years of the 1950's and early 1960's morphing into distant memories amongst a thinning pool of old diehards. Perhaps ironically from Dad's perspective, Norm Smith finished his coaching career as coach of South Melbourne.
So I grew up knowing Melbourne the city as my home, and Melbourne as my footy team, as that was Dad's team. He took me to many Melbourne games as a kid, which were all in the Melbourne area (apart from away games against Geelong), so we got used to travelling to a variety of suburban grounds, as well as the MCG, our home ground, and the bizarre but neutral territory of VFL Park in Waverley. Back then, victories were rare, and to be fully savoured when they came. We supposedly had a rivalry with Collingwood, often epitomised in regular matches on the Queen's Birthday holiday; my memory of these is that this rivalry was more based on the result of the 1964 Grand Final than any more recent matches, as Collingwood seem to win most of the encounters that I witnessed, and, unlike us Demons, would often feature in finals. I remember a lot of good-natured banter between Dad and a friendly neighbour over the road from us who was an ex-Collingwood footballer and later part of the Magpies' off-field team, most of which from my perspective was "Yes, but wait until next week/time/year/... ". I also remember talking about football with my great-aunt Olive, who was a staunch Carlton supporter. Given the relative fortunes of Carlton and Melbourne at the time, the conversations were fairly predictable, and usually unfavourable to the Demons. The irony of Barassi being the chief architect of Carlton's success was not lost on Dad. There were occasional beacons of hope in those years, such as the amazing skills of Robert Flower (nobody's idea of a footballer to look at, but absolute magic in motion), both comings of Carl Ditterich, the second one as playing coach, and of course the return of Ron Barassi himself as coach in 1981. I remember going to Barassi's first game in charge, which was at the MCG against Hawthorn, and the standing ovation he received just before the game when he walked (as coaches did in those days) from the player's race up to the coach's box in the Members Stand. Like many such instances in that era, it was a false dawn; the Demons were well beaten that day, and won only a single game that year (by one point over the Bulldogs, ironically enough). So, despite the return of the fabled coach, the Demons were only saved from a winless season by a last-minute pack mark in the goal square and subsequent major by none other than Robert Flower. That seemed oh-so-Melbourne.
By the time Melbourne again appeared in the finals in 1987, my wife and I were living in Edinburgh, and so were very much removed from the near success and ultimate tragedy of the preliminary final loss that year. Dad, of course, kept us well-informed from home, regularly sending us reports on Demons games cut out from newspapers, which would often arrive up to a week after the game itself. In 1988, when we made the Grand Final, Mum & Dad happened to be visiting us in the UK at the time. In the pre-Internet era it was hard to find timely news of the big game; ultimately a phone call home from a public phone box at a carefully selected moment brought the news of the disastrous result. Somehow it seemed easier to move on from that being physically and culturally a long way removed from the game.
After we returned home in 1989, the Demons were regularly in the finals, but never seemed close the ultimate success. It was certainly a change from the days when I was a child, and the weekly lunches with Dad would be peppered with optimism, but there was still the nagging feeling that we hadn't finished the job yet. Dad passed away rather suddenly in 1995, having never seen anything like the on-field success he would have expected when he started barracking for Melbourne in 1965. As any Demon fan can attest, the story since 1995 has been largely a tragic opera built more on hope and disaster than achievement -- the merger talk of 1996; the coming of Neale Daniher; the 2000 Grand Final (thrashed by Essendon who only lost one game that year, to the Bulldogs); the yo-yo years of the early 2000's; the black years of 2007-2013; the impact and loss of Jim Stynes as president; the Paul Roos era, which finished with a 100-point loss at Geelong. The tale of the era of Simon Goodwin as coach is yet to be written, and has already had a few twists. I don't really know what Dad would have made of all that, but he would have noted the irony of Paul Roos being the coach who broke South Melbourne's premiership drought, and then later coaching Melbourne when they were at a low point being almost the historic reversal of the coaching career of Norm Smith.
So whatever outcome today may bring, it is a time for me to reflect, and think about the influence of Dad on my life, how I make choices, and what effects these may have had, particularly on my own children. All four are now fully grown, but as kids were subjected to the usual parent-to-child football bribes (attendance at games, junior memberships, Demons paraphenalia, etc) with varying effects. Earlier this season, when we could attend games, I went to a handful with two of my children and my brother-in-law; it was easy to feel that Dad was there in spirit with us. Here's to you, Dad. Go Dees.