James Hird signs autographs at the Bombers’ family day. Photo: Angela WylieIt was another broiling day. By mid-morning, the temperature was already well above 30. It was too hot for kicking footballs – only one pair even tried – but not nearly too hot for a show of staunch football faith.
Long, slow-moving queues stretched radially across Windy Hill, each leading to a distant tent that might contain Jobe Watson or Michael Hurley, autograph pen in hand, but might also feature a baby-faced draftee, identifiable only by a plaque affixed to the tent.
Sweat trickled down the faces of the fans, but few gave up and no one complained, not even the children. Outside, the line for the merchandise shop ran out the door and down the street, ever growing, ever patient.
Only the membership tents lacked patrons. These, evidently, were the converted, and perhaps the lapsed, suddenly staunch again. This was Essendon, looking the world in the face.
Broadly speaking a football club consists of two sections. One is the players and support staff, professionals, mostly moving through. The other is the fans, amateurs, unconditional and lifelong. Out of logistical necessity, the two parts usually have to keep their distance, but on days like this – family day – they briefly commune.
On Monday, this seemed more important than ever for the Bombers. Everyone came in the colours; even president David Evans and chief executive Ian Robson were in club-issue polo top, shorts and track shoes.
No one ignored the elephant in the room. Evans and coach James Hird both made reference to this ”difficult time”, and so did captain Watson.
Instead, they claimed it as their own elephant. Asked about parallels with Cronulla, veteran Brent Stanton, the day’s nominated spokesman, said: ”It’s totally different. We opened up our doors.” Essendon, he was saying, had precipitated its own crisis, the better to deal with it.
In football, there’s nothing quite so unifying and galvanising as a crisis. ”These things, unfortunately, bring people closer together,” said Stanton. On Monday, this seemed equally true of the worshipped and the worshippers.
Of course, there is a corollary to all this strength-in-numbers, turning it into a double-edged sword. Most of these people grew up with a strong Essendon, at times indomitable. They want that Essendon back. Players, coaches and officials want it anyway, because football defines them.
It all adds up to a power of longing, palpable on the inside and outside. Essendon has toned down the ”Whatever It Takes” campaign, but not disowned it altogether; it featured on big screens on Monday. Whatever Essendon did or did not do last year in an effort to realise all those dreams, you can be sure every other club at least has thought about it.
It has been a long off-season at Essendon; for all at Windy Hill on Monday, round one cannot come too soon, even if it is in Adelaide.
We could spot only two mavericks on Monday. One was a lad in the all-white of Real Madrid, with Ronaldo on his back.
The other was a middle-aged woman who figured to beat the long lines by discreetly stationing herself by the change rooms and catching the players as they came and went, knowing that all would oblige her this day. It was queue jumping, but it was also the sort of inventive play-reading Hird once used to free himself from the madding crowds.
She did whatever it took.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.