Of shadow and substance

Kevin Bartlett Reserve on a cold Friday night in September.

Kevin Bartlett Reserve on a cold Friday night in September.

It was a journey into the twilight zone.  A strange yet striking realm created by the collision of separate and disparate worlds; it is neither here nor there, it is not in the past yet it is not in the present.  It is in the city but not of the city.

Its name is Kevin Bartlett Reserve.

There is only one way to voyage into the twilight zone: in an ageing Volvo.  It conveys an air of otherworldliness – a boxy, indestructible machine, mixing it with modern, flimsy sardine cans.

I found myself on a desolate road, with darkness on every side.  I was no longer on the map – somehow I’d fallen between the pages of the street directory.  The headlights were on high beam, but I was only a goal kick or two from the city centre.  The map had promised a football ground nearby, but there was naught but the night.

But then, a glow, shimmering in the dark, caught my eye.  A pool of light when all around was pitch black.  Floodlights beating down on a rectangle of turf.  The journey’s end was in sight.

It was not a perfect night for football.  The cold wind sliced through me as I stepped out of the Volvo, mocking my high-tech jacket.  Mother Nature was in a mocking mood, as I discovered a solidified stream of bird poop on the passenger door.

Undeterred, I put on my best stiff upper lip (it may have just been frozen) and marched to the ticket booth, where I was relieved of $12.

“Just grab a programme from the box,” the security guard said, his hands never threatening to leave his pockets.

The programme (volume 11, number 11, according to the cover) promised a match between Richmond and Melbourne Knights.  It was a game without meaning – neither team could reach the finals, and relegation was not even a mathematical possibility.  Nothing to play for except “pride in the jumper”.  Or match bonuses.

Kevin Bartlett Reserve is a patch of grass wedged between an arterial road and the river.  It is a place where fragments of the past linger on.

A dirt path led from the ticket booth to the brick club house.  Following the smell of Deep Heat, I somehow managed to enter via the toilets, and eventually found myself in a fine example of the classic soccer club clubroom.  Men in tracksuits were clumped around the bar and the tuck shop, while a couple of families wearing club scarves sat at tables underneath a wide screen TV showing an Australian Rules football match.  Photos of club champions adorned the walls, while a banner over the door proclaimed Richmond as Champions 2010.

In one corner sat an older lady with golden hair who served tea, coffee and cake.  But more on the cake later.

Unsettled by the incongruous and inexplicable presence of a bearded hipster near the bar, I took my hot chips and potato cake outside for the closing stages of the Under 21s game.

The crowd was divided into two groups: those who had an emotional investment in the outcome of the game, and those who were eating fried food.  My investment in chips had been poor – they lacked crispness – and the potato cake purchase wasn’t prudent either.  Perhaps those watching from the VIP suite were given the best chips.

The VIP suite, a forbidden land of unknown pleasures, was guarded by a vigilant security guard.  “Are you a sponsor?” he asked, as a spotty youth made to climb the stairs.  “Club sponsors only upstairs,” the security guard said.

The players’ race was completely covered by chain-link fencing.  A necessary precaution if any of the dozen or so supporters turned violent.  The violence that troubles local junior Australian Rules football seemed a remote possibility when most of the crowd was on first-name terms.

The grim weather soon forced me back inside the clubrooms.  I turned down the opportunity to indulge in more fried food, and instead studied the team photos and framed articles on the walls.  The preponderance of German names and photos of the Deutsche Fußballnationalmannschaft illustrated the club’s German roots.

Herein lies one of the problems faced by clubs stuck between the world of “old football” and “new football”.  It is a German club but it is not allowed to be German.  Their opponents are no longer allowed to be Croatian.  But clubs’ identities continue to be intertwined with their origins.

At this point I noticed that the hipsters had multiplied.  The bearded hipster had been joined by a bespectacled beer drinker with mutton chops.  Was there something ironic about the clubrooms that I’d missed?  This thought troubled me as I returned to the sidelines to wait for the seniors to start.

The teams jogged onto the ground without the benefit of music or the urgings of a demented ground announcer.  The players shook hands, and the match started.  As did the rain.

A football game is an opportunity to immerse ourselves in 90 minutes away from the world.  We can forget about the bird poop that needs to be cleaned from our car, or Monday morning’s mountain of paperwork on our desk, or the diet that should start, must start, as soon as we finish this deep-fried dim sim.  We worry only about the contest, and the outside world can go to hell.

At Kevin Bartlett Reserve, reminders of the outside world’s existence are constant.  Passenger trains cross a diagonal bridge near one corner of the pitch, while the far wing is bounded by the south-eastern arterial road.  The constant flow of traffic and the endless glissando of trucks changing gear had a hypnotic effect, such that when a club volunteer asked me to buy a ticket in a raffle I found I had no choice but to say yes, yes my master.  The prize on offer was a bottle of schnapps, but my three tickets for $5 proved to be another investment in folly.

When the referee put a goalless first half out of its misery, I retreated to the clubrooms to seek out new ways to part with my money.  The lady with the golden hair had on offer an irresistible selection of desserts and cakes, and $3.50 bought me a slab of poppy seed cake (with whipped cream), which could have caused me trouble on the drive home if I had been pulled over by the police for a random drug test.

Good evening sir. Please step out of the car. How many poppy seed cakes have you eaten this evening?

Good evening sir. Please step out of the car. How many poppy seed cakes have you eaten this evening?

As the second half started, I stood near a man wearing shorts.  Perhaps he had his own micro climate, or perhaps he had lost a bet.  There was no sensible reason for shorts when it’s ten degrees, wet and windy.

As we counted down the minutes to oblivion, or full time, whichever came first, there were small highlights to keep us entertained.  The police pulled over a car on the arterial road (perhaps the driver had been eating poppy seed cake), and later the ball was stuck on top of the players’ race, requiring intervention in the form of a broom handle.

These moments seldom arrive if a match in a stadium descends into tedium.  We’re held hostage, suspended in the stands, cut off from the true, full sensory experience of the game.

In some ways, the modern match day experience is a sanitised one.  We are reduced to theatre-goers, or worse still mere props who pay for the privilege to provide atmosphere to be pumped through television sets across the land or around the world.

But such cynicism is not becoming of the passionate football supporter.  Instead we must hold on to hope, even in the most futile of circumstances, that our team can win, or, at the very least, that we can find our car in the car park after the game.

Sometimes salvation comes in the form of a long-range strike, as it did this frigid Friday.  Roused, Richmond lifted, and put away a second goal as full time drew near.  Knights supporters were rewarded with effort, and perhaps a slice of poppy seed cake if they got a wriggle on, but little more.

Three blasts of the whistle marked the end of this voyage to the twilight zone, and a return to reality beckoned.  I looked back over my shoulder as I hustled back to the poop-encrusted Volvo, and saw little kids hopping the fence and running onto the ground.

Words and photos by Ian Kerr