Our Sporting Life

By Bruce Menzies*

The Dockers are in the finals.

In the olden days it would mostly be those of us who identified as males who would play fantasy games in our heads, imagining our heroes in action, and winning brilliantly, sometimes with the last kick of the match from an impossible angle. And of course it was easy for our fantasies to blur. We could conjure up ourselves as the young guns of the moment, miraculously endowed with abilities far beyond any reality, and inserting our bodies into the fray in the manner of John Gerovich or Ray Sorrell or Polly Farmer or, in my case as a Subiaco tragic, the magnificent Laurie Kettlewell, who could kick with both feet and mark anything in sight.

Those days are long gone but twenty-year old minds coexist with 76-year-old bodies, and fantasies linger.

I was reminded of this the other day when the headmaster of the school where the final nails were driven in my coffin of secondary education, wrote a glowing endorsement to former students about recent successes in a wide variety of sporting endeavours. This institution, which purports to “build good men”, had finished Top of the Pops in more sports than had any school in over 100 years since earnest competition began. On a physical plane, the building process appears to be working.

By accident, luck or perhaps intelligent design, I still ramble, caffeinate, and cogitate with a cohort of former classmates. In the aftermath of the headmaster’s communication, cyberspace crackled with a series of exchanges on the merits (or demerits) of our respective sporting histories, whether in the pool, on the pitch, the court or the oval. Needless to say, some of us had more to brag about than others.

As always, our conversation segued hither and thither. On this occasion, we did not debate private versus public, or same-sex schooling, or the privileging of the body over the mind, or anything deep and inherently mysterious. No, we stuck mainly to our reminiscences, suffused with the odd lament (“a pity surfing wasn’t a recognised sport back then”).
No, the only surfers I recall were a couple of peroxide blonde types who, even in school hours, could be found anywhere between Cottesloe and Scarborough when a light easterly blew. In their sunburnt skulls, avoiding a maths class with Jock or divine instruction from Fred seemed like a no-brainer.

But though the range of exercise outlets was nowhere near as extensive as today’s kids have to contend with, we did have a fair amount of choice. As always, many factors influenced whether we wound up specialising as swimmers or runners; footballers or cricketers. Family pedigree, genetics, peer groups, teachers, and perhaps an attraction generated by reading or hearing about the elite sports people who captured the imagination of our community or nation. And, of course, some kids were blessed with multiple talents and would excel as “all-rounders” – competent in a range of activities. Others, before there was any hint of a path to Hollywood, may have sussed out that sporting glory and a well–muscled frame was a tried-and-true recipe for attracting the attention of the opposite sex – in our case, those of female persuasion.

As my mates shared their sporting stories, I thought about my beginnings and what might have prompted me (long before girls entered my field of vision). Born within a dropkick of Subiaco Oval, the roar of the footie crowd came to us every Saturday arvo in winter. I was knee-high to a grasshopper when my father – a West Perth supporter – first took me to games but it was probably the influence of my classmates at Subiaco Infant School that saw me take a shine to the Mighty Maroons. Football was my first love. In the playground, we kicked the pigskin back and forth. We also had a concrete cricket pitch where we learnt to wield a bat and bowl over-arm with a hard rubber ball. A few years later, I would catch a tram down Hay Street to the WACA ground to watch a languid day of Sheffield Shield cricket, quite at home with my own company and a packed lunch. Such an excursion was a far cry from a boisterous and boozy evening at the Big Bash.

At the age of nine, I found myself in Bunbury after Dad was transferred. Somebody gave me a Boy Scouts diary, which has miraculously survived. Daily entries reveal I had drunk the Kool-Aid. Sport was life – and life was sport. Cricket and tennis and swimming filled the summer, interspersed with catching blowfish from the Bunbury Jetty and crabs in the estuary. When Melbourne hosted the Olympic Games in 1956, I lapped up the new gods – Betty Cuthbert, Marlene Matthews, John Landy, Murray Rose, Dawn Fraser, and the Konrads, Jon and Ilsa. Television had yet to arrive in Western Australia so radio was the go; that and the newspapers. I was short and stocky and never destined to be a great athlete but some organising ability germinated and I had the local kids perform in a kind of street Olympics. We ran and jumped and had a heap of fun, incubating our competitive instincts. I have no recollection who took home the gold medals.

Back in the Big Smoke, our family moved to Claremont. My allegiance to Subiaco didn’t waver but I was soon part of local underage cricket and football teams, and joined a tennis club. By that stage, competitive instincts were well honed. Less well-developed was my temperament. Losing came hard and tantrums came easy – particularly on the tennis court. My sister says I was equally combustible over the Scrabble board or at the card table.

Family support gave me and my siblings a boost. Mum had been a top badminton player in Kalgoorlie and gravitated to tennis and later golf. Dad made a fair fist of Australian Rules and then rugby, and had a background in surf lifesaving. I reckon this encouragement, as it does in other households, was crucial. Parents celebrated our successes and commiserated when things went awry.

They say you learn more from defeat than from victory. I’m not sure what I learnt from a junior tennis championship at Kings Park. In the first round, I drew a young bloke called Gary Penberthy. He beat me 6-0, 6-0. Later he became a State champion while I put the tennis racket in the cupboard.

At high school I found myself well behind in the puberty stakes. Though the hormones raged, the body grew slowly. But by my 5th year, I found a place in the cricket and football teams. At this point, however, I plateaued. Pesky distractions like study, rock ‘n’ roll music, and endless daydreams of bikini clad maidens challenged the hallowed place of sport in the pantheon of my teenage life. Moreover, opposing football players included young hulks like Malcolm Brown, and, in the cricket department, Justin Langer’s uncle knocked me over for a duck in the final.

Sport, as always, can be an exercise in humility.

Well, a few days out from what we hope will be an epic final at Perth Stadium, one thing is certain. There will be tears and there will be triumph. Those of us embedded in the Docker camp will be praying for a dry night and that our boys will finish on the right side of the ledger. Then again, we know our prayers and hopes need to be humble. A win on Saturday is but one small step. Three more will be required if we are to be blessed with that ultimate joy – the raising of the Premiership Cup.

The stuff of dreams. Yet, I find, it is so hard to be a watcher, rather than a player. That old, familiar impulse kicks in and I want to be out in the middle. My body, on the couch, anticipates every move. I swerve, I feint a hand pass, I tap the ball forward into the path of a teammate, I launch myself into a pack, about to pull down a spectacular mark. And when I watch someone from my team line up for goal, I am inside their head, willing them to kick straight. This all happens in front of the television. It’s different at the game – trapped in your seat, your only option is to close your eyes. At home I’m a nervous wreck. The tension is too much. I have to walk around the block and hope to come back to find the Dockers 10 goals in front with 10 minutes to go. Only then can I relax.

I suspect I’m not the only football supporter reduced to a quivering blob, especially if you’ve been following a team that has never tasted ultimate success.

My mates who ramble each Thursday are not all Dockers supporters. But it’s a fair bet there won’t be a dry eye in the house if the lads, against the odds, go all the way this September. Hermes may be the Greek God of Sports but the celebratory eruption will have more to do with the Dionysian blood that has coursed through our veins for seven decades. In our dramatic post-mortems, the coffee may need a strong additive as we relive the match and park it’s every moment into our overflowing bank of sporting memorabilia.

Let the games begin!

* Based in Fremantle, most of the time, Bruce Menzies is the author of three novels, a family history, and a recent memoir. Details at ‪BruceJamesMenzies.com If you’d like to read more of Bruce Menzies’ work on Fremantle Shipping News or hear a fascinating podcast interview with him, look here!

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