We want to be free

We don’t want nobody telling us what to do. We don’t want nobody pushing us around.

It is almost midnight. I sit in the laptop’s glow, still wearing my beer-soaked clothes.

I went to the ground tonight, thinking that I knew the story I would write. But as I returned home through city streets filled with short skirts and high heels, there was no clarity; no obvious story.

The North Terrace – the “active supporter” group that congregates behind the northern end goals for Melbourne Victory home games – is in dispute with the club. Talks between the parties have broken down. The club says that it is seeking to reduce overcrowding, protect NT members and enable self-policing. The NT says that the club’s demands are unreasonable.

The feeling in the North Terrace was that Melbourne Victory was trying to control the NT, all the while leveraging off the spectacle of the NT in full flight: arms in the air, flags flying. The club’s claims that proposed security measures were in the name of State Government compliance were met with skepticism.

Conspiracy theories swirled about, involving plots to discredit the NT, broken seats and fifth columnists. While the conspiracy theories may have no basis in truth, it was incontrovertible that the supporters in the NT felt alienated from the club administration but steadfast in their love for the team.

So the fairly-silent protest was to continue. The NT vacated its space behind the goals and nestled in the top corner of the stand.

There was peace on the terraces as the game kicked off, so how did the NT come to have an out-of-ground experience by the end of the first 45 minutes? And why isn’t there universal love for the NT?

Most hooligans wear corduroy trousers and comfortable shoes

Most hooligans wear corduroy trousers and comfortable shoes

Before the game kicked off, there were two middle-aged blokes trouble-makers in the bay next to the NT who had the temerity to be standing. A middle-aged bloke in corduroy trousers. comfortable shoes, a warm jumper and a club-issued blue Santa hat is hardly a threat to public order, however the steward saw fit to harangue him and his mate.

This defiant duo remained standing, drinking their mid-strength beers. Wild angels, with rebellion in their hearts.

Australians have a strong anti-authoritarian streak, if the myths are to be believed. Perhaps it is the visible and muscular manifestation of this anti-authoritarianism expressed through football crowds that so frightens those in power. Or perhaps not. Either way, Melbourne Victory Chairman Anthony Di Pietro was booed during a pre-game presentation. Not just the perfunctory boos that greet politicians at public events, but fervent boos.

(Although a cynic would claim that the NT is a disciplined supporter group led by a small band of people armed with a megaphone. The NT submits to its leaders’ authority, so does that in turn undermine the NT’s own anti-authoritarian stance? Ponder that one!)

Chestnuts roasting on an open pyro. The brass band exhibiting its own anti-authoritarian streak by wearing BLUE Santa hats.

Chestnuts roasting on an open pyro. The brass band exhibiting its own anti-authoritarian streak by wearing BLUE Santa hats.

When I was a little kid, I once took a banner to the cricket. Admittedly, it was an old pillow slip as opposed to an old sheet (as was the style at the time), and the message I had written on the pillow slip banner was an obscure reference to Joel Garner’s hat. I have no idea if Joel Garner saw the banner, but one thing I know for sure is that no authority figure tried to remove the banner and/or me.

Banners, it would seem, are part of the NT’s problem. Or, to use the correct parlance, over-size non-approved banners.

If you're not caged animals, it means you're animals on the loose! Photo ©JWPhotography/Jim Webster

If you’re not caged animals, it means you’re animals on the loose! Photo ¬©JWPhotography/Jim Webster

As the banners were unfurled in the NT, the tension in the stand increased. A fight broke out, coinciding nicely with the opening goal. The humour from the opening 20 minutes (“That was off the Perth player!” yelled a bloke in front of me as the ball went over the sideline for a Perth throw-in, “…but I have had a few beers!”) had evaporated.

There was anguish on the terraces. “We love our club; love us back!” cried the bloke next to me.

Security guards were suddenly everywhere. There was a sense that all was not right – and not just because of a powerful beer fart that someone had unleashed.

Towards the end of the half there was a sudden commotion mid-way down the stand. Necks were craned, but those at the back were none the wiser as to what was happening.

“Everybody out!” was the command from the capo via megaphone. Immediately, and without questioning, the NT started filing out of the stand and onto the concourse underneath the stand.

A cri de coeur rang out from the hundreds on the concourse, echoing through the northern end: Melbourne boys are still number one.

Peacefully, in full voice, the NT left the ground and, from all accounts, engaged in a monster kickabout involving 300 people and one ball.

Word filtered through via social media that a Victory supporter in the NT had been punched while a banner (with the words “FOOTBALL IS FREEDOM” daubed on it) was being removed. The NT leadership had then been asked to leave, which led to the call to vacate the stand. “The security company decided to be heroes,” said one NT regular afterwards.

Throughout the first half, while the NT didn’t sing, the South End was raucous. At half-time I wandered round to Aisle 16 and joined the South End throng.

The South End was heaving. There was no trace of the ill-feeling that had reached a dramatic climax in the northern end. The NT’s exit had been greeted with widespread bemusement in the South End.

“They do their thing,” said a woman standing near me, “It’s better when there’s singing at the other end, but we’re not going to stop just because they stop.”

Her companion said, “I don’t know anything about it mate. I’m just here because I went to school with Kosta Barbarouses.”

The South End focused on their thing – drinking beer and having fun. There’s something a bit more rock ‘n roll about the South End.

“I love it in the South End because it almost reminds me of a party. You drink, you chant, you have a laugh with your mates and you go home happy,” said Miki, my South End Spirit Guide.

Meanwhile, there was a rumour going round that there was a game taking place right in front of our eyes. “Stand up, if you’re wearing shoes,” sang the South End.

A second goal was scored and I was showered in beer. And not just me – other people too. Crazy times.

The final whistle sounded and the South End departed, content, buzzing. I lingered, unsure how I felt. A first half marked by confusion, edginess and rebellion contrasted with the open party that was staged 120m away in the second half. Eventually the security guard ushered us stragglers out of the ground. “Mum’s cooking me dinner,” he said, “it’ll be cold if I don’t leave soon.”

The city’s streets were littered with pretty young things and office Christmas parties. I bumped into five blokes wearing Victory shirts – South End regulars. What did they think about the NT and the associated goings-on?

The first bloke said that the NT should do something anatomically improbable to themselves. It quickly became apparent that these five had no love for the NT.

“These pricks come to the South End and try to impose their silent protest on us.¬†Well I’m not a sheep. I’m not going to have some silent protest just because they have a problem.”

“Why isn’t there ever trouble in the South End?” another one said, “That’s what you should ask.” Over kebabs at Stalactites (why isn’t there a Stalagmites kebab restaurant?) we talked about crowd politics, splinter groups, policing, and why I’m awesome. The general thrust seemed to be that the NT brings trouble on itself.

Listing the quintet’s complaints about the NT’s behaviour would unnecessarily inflame the situation. What is obvious from discussions with supporters is that the NT is not blameless. Supporter groups from other clubs are not innocent little lambs either – yes I’m looking at you, Sydney clubs.

The leftover kebab from Stalactites found its way into a bin as I threaded through the partying crowds. This was going to be a nice article about how Melbourne Victory treats the NT poorly, but different stories were emerging. “Give the NT more space,” say some supporters. “We don’t have a problem with the police, so why do they?” say others.

The problems between Melbourne Victory administration and the NT are deep-seated. Their differences are not unbridgeable, but there needs to be a willingness on all sides to find solutions, bearing in mind that solutions are not always obvious, and that sometimes solutions don’t work and other solutions have to be tried. This, of course, relies on a reasonable level of trust and collaboration.

Police and security have their part to play. Some people in the NT might not be angels, but some crowd control policies seem out-of-step with what is required.

To an outsider, many of the problems between Melbourne Victory and the NT appear to stem from a club trying to exert control over a group that has grown organically.

To resolve these problems, pragmatism must triumph. Pragmatism demands that the club focus on ways to let support grow – even if it’s uncomfortable with banners and flags (to name but two). Pragmatism also demands that the NT considers how it negotiates with the club.

If pragmatism doesn’t triumph, then there will be no winners. The club won’t be able to simply replace an active support group, either in terms of dollars or in terms of atmosphere. The supporters won’t find a new club to support – and the club administration is probably banking on this.

Supporters at other A-League clubs should be watching this situation closely. A half-baked sensationalist headline might be all it takes to spoil the relationship between any club and its supporters.

– Just what is it that you want to do?

We want to be free, to do what we want to do.

We want to be free to support our club without being hassled by the man.

And we want to get loaded.

And we want to have a good time.

And that’s what we’re gonna do – we’re going to have a good time. We’re going to have a party.