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Lessons from my father’s positive thinking and life among the pies

21 June 2014 108 views No Comment

THIS afternoon, in a do-or-die struggle at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground, my beloved Collingwood battles against the injury-wracked Hawthorn — who last year won the AFL grand final.

The task of the Hawks today will be made more difficult by the prolonged absence of their senior coach, Alastair Clarkson, who is suffering from a rare auto-immune condition, called Guillain-Barre syndrome.

From as long as I can remember I was taught that Aussie Rules was of the utmost importance to our family life and to life in general.

Indeed, although I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, for dyed-in-the-wool football fans Aussie Rules was somehow regarded as a metaphor for life itself.

In my child’s mind, my father Bill Fitzgerald was famous.

I still can see a newspaper caricature of him when he played for Sandringham in the Victorian Football Association, all knee bandages and broken bones.

This was after dad had a long stint with Collingwood in what was then the Victorian Football League. It was from hearing the footy commentators with my father that I began to be aware of the wonder and magic of words – and the intricacies and tricks of language. “Eat’ em alive!’ Jack Dyer (Captain Blood) would scream. “They say you’re a star, son. You won’t be shining today.

Years ago, the late, great Collingwood champion Harry Collier (brother of the hugely talented Leeta), told me that in the 1930s my dad played first ruckman for Collingwood Reserves — which he captained in 1934 and 1935.

Although dad played all his games at Collingwood with the seconds, according to Harry Collier he was “bloody unlucky not to get a game with the firsts.

Dad was always knocking at the door for selection but, as an up-and-coming player, he had the personal misfortune to be at Collingwood when they were at their peak. Collingwood appeared in six consecutive grand finals from 1925 to 1930, famously winning four in a row (1927 to 1930). They only missed the finals three times from 1919 to 1939. In those decades they won seven flags and came second seven times. That’s how good the Mighty Magpies were in those heady, halcyon years.

All in all, dad appears to have played for Collingwood seconds from 1929 to 1935 — after which he went to Sandringham. In the 1935 reserves grand final, when dad was skipper, Collingwood were beaten by just two points.

Dad, who played when Leeta and Harry Collier were lifted to the seniors, was paid about four or five quid a game. Good money in those days, and there were perks as well.

Every Christmas Day, my birthday, dad would recount how, in the 1938 grand final, Carlton’s Bob Chitty, our garbo who lived nearby in East Brighton, bit the testicles of Collingwood’s star full forward Ron Todd as he flew to take a mark. It was, dad said, called “squirrel munching.

Apart from Norman Vincent Peale’s ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’, which lay on his mantelpiece, as far as I know dad never read a book — but he did devour comics and the pink-coloured ‘Sporting Globe’.

Fit, slim and uncomplaining, he didn’t speak much. His own father was an alcoholic who died from lung cancer and the effects of the booze. As a result, dad neither smoked nor drank alcohol, ever.

As a footballer I wasn’t much good. At Melbourne High School I didn’t make the first 18. I always played for the seconds. Our heavy-drinking history master and footy coach, Ben Munday, had a motto — “Bullshit Baffles Brains — which still seems as true now as it did then. At Monash University, again playing for the seconds, I did manage to kick three goals in a quarter: one from an impossible angle; one from the centre of the ground when a gust of wind seemed to blow the ball interminably; the other I dribbled through. I never kicked as many goals in any other match. As a footballer, however, fuelled by rum and amphetamines, I was voted a “most courageous player.

In 1977, I moved to Brisbane. Under the brilliant coaching of the much-loved, tea-drinking, fitness fanatic Tom Hafey, Collingwood had come from wooden spooners in 1976 to playing in the premiership. Even though it was the first grand final televised live, how I would have loved to have actually been there (standing room was only $2). For the second time in VFL history, the premiership battle resulted in a draw.

Immediately after the second grand final, on October 1, 1977, when Collingwood lost by 27 points, I sat speechless in front of the TV, half-believing that it had all been a dreadful mistake.

In 1987, the Magpies hit an all-time low. On Saturday 20 June, playing against North Melbourne, our firsts, reserves and under-19s managed just four goals between them. Our seniors scored 2.6 — both goals coming in the second quarter courtesy of our steel-eyed full forward, Brian Taylor.

But in football things soon change. A mere three years later, in 1990, we won our 14th VFL/AFL premiership — slaughtering Essendon by 48 points. Then in 2010 the Collingwood/St Kilda grand final, played before a record crowd of 100,016 spectators, was another draw. The wayward Pies kicked 9.14.68 to the Saints 10.8.68.

But the next Saturday, we Magpie supporters were utterly ecstatic when, in the replay, Collingwood thumped St Kilda by 56 points. In the process, we won our 15th premiership.

The reality is that Aussie Rules football has taught me some fundamental lessons: most importantly to keep persisting and never give up, and above all to realise the game’s never over until it’s over.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor in history and politics at Griffith University and has published 36 books.

‘The Weekend Australian’, Opinion, June 21-22, 2014

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