The AFL may be thriving because of its salary cap and draft arrangements and its lucrative media deal. But the real reason it is a powerhouse among Australian sports is culture. Fans. People who really care about and engage with the sport, and talk about it.
Annual publication The Footy Almanac showcases such vital folk, and their community. It comprises of match reports on every game written by unpaid partisans, with all the angst, bias, pain, humour and ecstasy left in, and the "objectivity" and passionless analysis left out. It has spawned a website that covers everything from Ladies' Day on King Island to a rumination inspired by the windows of Richmond's St Ignatius church.
Almanac number six was launched Thursday night. The venue was telling. The All Nations Hotel is an intimate, unaffected, traditional local, close to the MCG, but inconspicuously nestled in a still-unfashionable quarter of Richmond. It serves high-quality tucker, but serves are substantial and unpretentious. It has a tipping comp, and a betting syndicate. It does not have pokies, and never morphs into a disco.
Neil, a 50-something Mortlake resident, was first to arrive. He said that he never thought he'd "do a facebooky thing", but he had been busy connecting with fellow writers via the website since submitting his Western Bulldogs reports. A recent two-week internet outage in his district had hit hard.
The Almanac connects those who love writing and sport. On the evidence of the launch, that cabal is lively, amusing and self-effacing. John Harms, in un-laced Dunlop Volleys, shorts and a Geelong jumper, and Paul Daffey, clad in a vintage Tiger guernsey, set the tone. Both have been championing footy's backwaters and characters for years in their own books, but their stewardship of the Almanac may prove their greatest contribution to Australian culture.
Writers filled the All Nations beer garden in "footy weather" (rain), talking about slow racehorses they owned shares in, writing, the way their stories were edited, and of course, footy. They signed each other's editions, all star authors for a night.
Neil had said how amazed he was to be compiled alongside barristers and academics and "real" writers, but the charm of the gathering was determined by shared passions, not professional status.
Thickset men of a certain age were predominant, but among the ranks were artist Yvette Wroby (mad Sainter) and journalist Cheryl Critchley (rabid Tiger). Harms and Daffey are particularly proud of the "broad church" the Almanac has become, and both highlighted how multicultural the writing roster had become, reversing the norm in mainstream footy coverage.
Almanac webmaster Cooky, the tallest, youngest scribe in the beer garden, decked out in Cats' gear, was dragged off to an office Christmas party taking place in the lounge because a barmaid wanted him to pretend he was ex-Cat ruckman Mark Blake. A charmer, he was pulling off the ruse, but there was one too-knowledgeable fan among the revellers. In Melbourne, we know our footy.
The best piece of sportswriting I had read recently was committed to the Almanac website by Tasmanian woodchopper and veteran footy nomad Matt Zurbo about the establishment of a famed fans' website by a 10-year-old.
Harms said the endless late nights spent producing the book were lightened by receiving such "original, fresh new ideas". One of his favourites was the piece "45 reasons to hate Essendon". He cited a memorable line about a fan going to a game and "standing in a sweet spot amongst good people".
Such vibrant writing reminds us that the roar of the crowd is made from thousands, even millions of individual voices.
Daffey's favourite piece was a round 15 match report written with a medieval theme by a Carlton fan he described as a "classic ratbag". Harms agreed, but insisted on "archetypal" instead of "classic". The production of books depends on such dedicated pedantry.
The guest launcher was made for the Almanac. Troy Carrington, coach of the Bodgy Creek Roosters (comedian Damian Callinan), treated the audience as his team, and the occasion as half-time in a losing game. His inspirational address hilariously mixed Elizabethan verse ("is this a tagger I see before me?") and "Iambic chatometer" with vintage footy vernacular. His team intended to traverse the Kokoda Trail in pre-season, but settled for the Dandenongs. Its altitude training took place in the You Yangs. He advised the team's shearer to improve his tackling technique, his inappropriate "crutching" hold giving away unnecessary free kicks.
After the laughs came a group photo of the writers, most of them in their footy jumpers. The snapper, instead of saying "cheese", exhorted "Richo!".
Neil, who described himself as "lowly" at the outset, could be seen bailing up Callinan, all shyness banished.
Harms said he hoped he could keep the project going. But in some sense, his work is done. Even if this was to be the last Footy Almanac produced, the footyhead community it connected are conversing and writing via the website. The friends have been made, and new fans and friends are discovering its pleasures every day.
As Harms said: "It's a fantastic community to be part of."
Books available at www.footyalmanac.com.au