This is the age of the long wait. We waited for the first wave of the pandemic to pass, then the next and the next. We waited for the curve to flatten, the numbers to fall. In this state, we waited for one lockdown to end, then another five more. We’re still waiting. We waited for vaccines, then waited a little longer for the recommended vaccines. Now we’re waiting on the vaccination rate.
None, though, have waited longer than Melbourne Football Club supporters. It is 57 years since they won their last premiership, longer than any other club’s current wait. They did play two other grand finals in that interim, but with no realistic chance of winning either. Today they are slight favourites on the field and sentimental favourites off it, both unfamiliar statuses. To add to the poignancy, their opponents are the Western Bulldogs, who were only too happy to pass on the unwanted mantle of longest loser when they broke through in 2016.
We’ve had to wait an extra week for the grand final, too, and whoever wins will have another wait to parade their spoils before their faithful en masse. For the second year in a row, the finale is being played away from the MCG and outside the COVID cordon, this time in Perth’s swank new Optus Stadium. A proper grand final spectacle is assured, and for that Western Australia has our gratitude. But like this day last year, it will make more acute an inescapable sense that Melbourne has become a ghost town. Nothing says abnormal times more than an empty MCG on grand final day.
It would be easy to portray this as bluebloods versus blue collars, furs versus fluoros. Even Melbourne fans have joined in this week, some taking the mickey out of themselves. At last, they can do it from a position of strength. After so many decades of waiting, few would begrudge them grand final victory this time around. Schadenfreude has a statute of limitations. But the Dogs still have sentimental credit appeal and the almost hereditary title of underdog. It makes this a confusing finale for neutrals. Much as we might want all to be in this one together, someone has to be left behind. That’s the devilry of sport.
The AFL also has had to learn patience, and to hold its nerve, and to move with alacrity when needed. Footy might have surprised even itself with its nimble footwork. It has been tense at times, and a logistical nightmare, but is now an administrative triumph. The players have been obliging, the clubs resilient and the fans stoic.
It might be argued that footy has been granted liberties denied to the rest of us, but footballers also have had to deal with unique stringencies, and besides, the distraction they have provided has been even more welcome this year than last. Two years under the kosh has taken its toll. The mood in Melbourne this year has been tetchier and our community more fractious. Footy has had to be what it normally is anyway, but doubly: one of the threads that binds us together.
We’ve waited, and waited, and now wait again – for twilight in Perth, nightfall in Melbourne. When we return to normal, this may be footy’s new normal. We’ll have to wait and see. For now, it remains only to say what has been so rarely said with conviction on grand final day these past 57 years: Go Dees.
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