Going to the Footy, Old Style

There are many ways of experiencing a football match. In the few brief years that I've been a Western Bulldogs member, I've seen our team play many times in a half-empty, roofed stadium. Sometimes I've been in a big group of extended family; once or twice, I've sat alone. It's not always a soul-less, depressing experience; a few weeks ago, I was perched above an astonishing goal from wunderkind Marcus Bontempelli, and the whole crowd rose to their feet as one, cheering. Late last year I was present during a regrettable (ahem) melee when a spine-tingling chant slowly growled from the crowd: Bull...dogs...Bull...dogs... We don't do that a lot; it was spontaneous, thrilling, tribal.

I've also seen the Doggies play in the tropical warmth of the Gold Coast, the bitter chill of a Canberra winter, and at the icy Hawks fortress of the Launceston ground. I've seen footy at the MCG (not often, and a long time ago, when we still played finals occasionally), and even, in ancient days, once, at Waverley (my first footy game, St Kilda versus someone, and mist hid the play on the other side of the ground). I've watched matches on TV, in the comfort of my lounge room, where I can swear and pace up and down and even run to another room if the strain proves too much. I've listened to games on the radio, busily scrubbing down the kitchen cupboards to calm my nerves. I've hunched over games on the tiny screen of the iPad, sitting in bed, squinting at the poor resolution and hoping my fellow spectator won't lose his temper and hurl the device across the room.

But I have a new favourite way to watch football: the old-fashioned way. This year the Western Bulldogs have started their own VFL team, and they play some of their games at the Bulldogs home, the Whitten Oval in the heart of Footscray (the team is called Footscray, too). Last Sunday we went along. The sun was shining; we took a picnic rug and sat on the grass in the forward pocket (see above). We ate gourmet hot dogs and chips, bursting out of a paper bag -- twice the amount and half the price you'd pay at Etihad. At half time, kids and parents rushed onto the oval and footies flew in all directions. We took the dog, and walked her around the ground, and she made friends with other dogs. There were two or three thousand people there -- enough to hear a decent roar when a goal went through, not so many that you felt cramped or overwhelmed. An injured Bulldogs player hobbled up the hill on crutches and sat on the grass behind us (he signed our football). It was intimate and friendly, relaxed and fun.

And suddenly I understood: this is what football used to be like, before the corporates got hold of it. This is what everyone is nostalgic for! But you don't have to be nostalgic: because it's still there.

NOTE: I planned to write this post all week. But quite coincidentally, last night I started to read The Book of Emmett by Deborah Forster. And lo, it's set in Footscray. The very first scene takes place in the shadow of the Whitten Oval! Synchronicity strikes again.

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