“I’d like to see a win. Hell, I’d like to see a goal.” Those words spoken at the Imperial Hotel, the pre-game drinking venue of choice for Heart supporters, stayed with me through the evening’s game.
The Melbourne heatwave had broken, leaving locals to ponder the eternal Melbourne question: cardigan or no cardigan? AAMI Park was no longer the sweltering inferno that it was on Tuesday night. The South End (as it was on Tuesday), after capturing the heat for the whole day, was crammed that evening with thousands of people, sweating beer. It was a yeasty sauna.
Across the road, the Australian Open tennis tournament was being played. Play had been suspended during the week because of the heat, in the 40s for most of the week, and the city was swarming with sunburnt tennis fans, lanyards around their necks.
The game tonight marked Melbourne Heart’s 100th A-League match. The opponent, Newcastle Jets, had brought a modest travelling contingent. The crowd figure was just over 5000. Three crowd members arrived by helicopter, along with Robbie Slater and the match ball. (At some point during a marketing meeting, that had sounded like a good idea.)
Underneath the main stand, the corridor was almost deserted. Marooned in a corner with no customers, the face painter stood alone opposite one of the unopened food outlets. I was tempted to boost her business and ask for the Carlton Soccer Club logo painted on my face, but it was sausage roll time (AAMI Park seldom stocking pasties) so I began my search for an open food outlet.
Once I’d shown a sausage roll and chips who was boss, I sauntered into the northern end to case the joint. I found myself sitting beside a group of red shirt-wearing corporate types, engaging in what appeared to be a Westpac team-building exercise. I wondered if any of them had arrived by helicopter.
The away support was relaxing in the north-west corner of the ground. There were no tarpaulins surrounding them, just six security guards who had scored a cushy gig. No Newcastle supporter was wearing an Aquascutum cap, but three of them were wearing sombreros.
When Iain Ramsey scored the Heart’s equaliser, the crowd didn’t allow themselves to celebrate with abandon. There was a cautious restraint.
As Gad Salner said in an interview in Thin White Line Issue 1, “…football is not just the ball being kicked or the goal scored, it’s much more.” Tonight it was much more; tonight Heart’s second goal was a trigger for joy.
A joy sparked by self-forgetfulness, as CS Lewis might have put it. Forgetting restraint, emotions overflowed. There was no taste of aggression in the celebrations. These were celebrations fuelled by genuine joy. Smiles abounded.
Lightning slashed through the southern sky as the first half ended.
At half time, I moved to the Yarraside. Shuffling past a security guard chatting up a ground attendant, I settled near the Melbourne Heart active supporter bay and its tarpaulins.
Heart’s second goal may have sparked joy, but when the third goal was scored the Yarraside erupted. There was belief that a win was on its way.
The crowd’s mood changed. As Mate Dugandžić later bore down on goal, the crowd made an immense noise, a noise filled with palpable emotion. The final whistle would surely prompt an outpouring of deep emotion.
But by the 80 minute mark, the home crowd was exhausted. The team too. Players were reduced to a shuffle, or were conserving energy.
Finally, after three minutes of time added on, the whistle sounded to signal the end. A roar went up that startled the seagulls and pigeons.
There was euphoria. Players toured the ground, posing for photos with fans and signing shirts. It was more than a win. The club’s 100-game milestone seemed unimportant – this was about celebrating a win after enduring months of dire football.
At the Imperial before the game, we had spoken about a club’s identity. Why follow a particular club in a two-team town?
Perhaps the answer is simple: who cares about identity when you win?
DISHONOURABLE MENTION (1): Tennis supporters arriving at Rod Laver Arena dressed in their tennis gear. Get the message: YOU WON’T BE PLAYING.
DISHONOURABLE MENTION (2): The drunk bloke shadow boxing a bench near the Swan St taxi rank.