Goodwill gets a side only so far – it’s hatred that counts
It wasn’t all that long ago that a great many sports fans loved the Swans. In Sydney, despite most having a rusted-on allegiance to rugby league, if you didn’t love the Swans at least you respected them. In the AFL heartland of Melbourne, as long as the Swans didn’t keep winning, most footy fans admired their no-fuss brand of tough, contested football.
How times have changed.
Tonight at ANZ Stadium in Sydney’s Olympic Park, two of the AFL’s most despised teams will go head to head in what is an utterly crucial game.
My beloved Collingwood has always been hated. Moreover, in recent years, under the leadership of Eddie McGuire, the Magpies have become the epitome of a big, bold, successful club. And, inevitably, those who are not part of the Mighty Magpies rally against us.
The club’s marketing message a few seasons ago was “It’s us against them, and that is exactly how we Collingwood faithful feel.
Now, after a decade, perhaps more, of feeling the love from many in the AFL community, the Swans rival Collingwood in being the most despised. Success — lots of it — and bold ambition have seen the most lovable team in the competition become one of the most hated.
Winning the 2012 premiership, coupled with the SwansÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ canny recruiting, has swiftly produced a concentrated campaign of attack. Hence a concerted chorus from less successful teams has resulted in the SwansÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ cost of living allowance being abolished in the mistaken belief that it was the main reason behind the club’s success. Those who had previously lauded the club were now changing their tune to make Sydney’s success seem all about dollars and cents.
So Swans fans, while the wheel may have turned full circle, take it from this lifelong Collingwood supporter and see it not as a reason to be concerned but an opportunity to relish. It’s no coincidence that the most successful sporting clubs in the world are also the most polarising. Think of Manchester United.
For 30 years the Swans battled in what is one of the most competitive sporting markets in the world. They have achieved a lot but, in relative terms, compared with other AFL clubs, their key numbers have been moderate.
Since 2004, Sydney’s membership has risen from 25,000 to a tick over 36,000 last year. With similar results in terms of on-field success in that 10-year period, Collingwood’s membership has climbed from 41,000 to more than 80,000.
So while being loved by one and all may have its advantages, goodwill will only get a team so far.
That is why IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m more than happy for the world to hate Collingwood, and that is why Swans fans should enjoy their new-found notoriety.
It may seem counterintuitive but all the outraged outbursts from rival club officials and the Melbourne-based rumour-mongering about who is fighting with who at the Swans can only be good for the club. It has worked wonders for the Magpies.
Soon enough, as Collingwood has found, the more others hate you, the more your own will passionately adore you. Suddenly a casual supporter who ticked the turnstiles over once or twice a year will turn into a diehard fan and overnight acquire the mandatory 10-15 player badges to pin on their red-and-white scarf.
Like the Magpies of old, for the Swans it will be a case of “us against them as the red-and-white army is galvanised into a united force.
This is not to say that, after their defeats in round one, both sides don’t have some serious questions to answer.
As the outside world forms a disorderly queue to deride Sydney’s prime recruit, Lance “Buddy Franklin, those in the red-and-white family will most likely find themselves supporting him like a prodigal son.
But it will be fascinating to see whether the 27-year-old’s nine-year, $10 million deal with is worth the candle. Tonight Franklin, who was hospitalised in January with a suspected seizure, needs to start performing.
For us dyed-in-the-wool Magpie supporters, it will be vital to see if ex-Collingwood captain and Brownlow medallist Nathan Buckley has what it takes to be a top-class AFL coach. Also it will be intriguing to observe how Collingwood fares without Heath Shaw and Dale “Daisy Thomas.
But what really matters is tonight’s contest. Both Sydney and Collingwood have started the season in forgettable fashion. While Swans fans will be hoping to see much more from their $10m man than they did in Franklin’s underwhelming one goal debut, we at Collingwood will be hoping that our biggest signing for this season, Jesse White from Sydney, can play tonight and show his former club what they are missing.
The stakes are huge. On Sunday morning which team will be the AFL’s most hated club?
Unsurprisingly, my tip is the Pies.
Ross Fitzgerald is contributing co-editor of ‘Australia’s Game’, a collection of writings about Australian football. His memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, is available as an e-book.
The Weekend Australian, March 29-30, 2014, Inquirer, p 14