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Win for the bigger picture

Keeping the faith: Essendon supporters show their true colours on Saturday night.

Keeping the faith: Essendon supporters show their true colours on Saturday night. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

Last week, a phone call to a radio station from a woman claiming to be the mother of an Essendon player offered a disturbing insight into the human cost of the drugs saga. On Saturday, a caller to a pre-match preview show gave a different perspective again.

The clearly emotional woman had been an Essendon supporter for more than 40 years, attending every week with her mother and daughter. But the other pair had pulled the pin on that evening's game against Carlton, and even she wasn't sure whether to go.

She was uncertain whether wearing red-and-black colours might make her the target for some of the flak that's been flying in the direction of Bomber fans lately, the off-field equivalent of what Jobe Watson has put up with most of this season, and publicly contemplated going in ''plain clothes''.

By the looks of things, she wasn't alone. Just 53,630 people were at the MCG on Saturday, the lowest crowd at a Carlton-Essendon clash for six years and a dozen meetings of these bitter rivals.

But those that did stick it out were at least reminded, however briefly, what it means to support a team through thick and thin. And they deserved it. Because they and the Essendon players are the two most innocent parties in this sorry saga, both pawns in a much bigger game.

If the spirit of the playing group had taken a pounding over the past month, its efforts in the final term of a game it really had no right to win proved it hasn't been completely broken. That they came against a backdrop of the likelihood of no material rewards for six months' sweat and toil, a 12-month suspension for their coach, and fears about potential sanctions still hanging over their heads, is remarkable. And almost perversely, Essendon's last-minute steal seemed all the purer for it.

Watson's captain's game, Brendon Goddard's efforts, Paddy Ryder's crucial goal with a bandaged and bleeding head wound, David Zaharakis shaking off a form slump with a monster last quarter, none of those examples were about finals preparation, a competitive edge, pushing the professional boundaries or raising their market value.

They were simply about a team of players, many of them good mates, rediscovering their football instincts, fight and love of a contest, with effectively no more on the line than did Koo Wee Rup thirds at the weekend.

That much was obvious when the siren sounded and in an emotional rendition of the club song in the rooms afterwards. And for the supporters in the stands, the feeling was similar.

As revered a figure as James Hird is at Essendon, he isn't the reason supporters follow the club, as even the legendary John Coleman wasn't 60 years ago. The Bombers will go on without him, the officials who've fallen on their swords or also face suspension, not to mention the misguided attempts to gain that competitive edge.

On this issue, Hird has been slow to come around, and reluctant to take responsibility for his role in the drama. But in the air of resignation that seemed to grip him post-match on Saturday night, perhaps it was sinking in. Or when he surveyed the Essendon hordes celebrating after the siren.

You don't need larger-than-life personalities to sustain your love of football and support for a club. You don't need the promise of ''whatever it takes'' in the lust for material success. You don't even necessarily need success.

What you do need is a sense of belonging. Of being part of the family. And that your support for whichever set of colours you follow means something. Essendon's supporters have done it tough this year, but for those couple of hours against a traditional and bitter rival , the joy returned again.

Monday's expected announcement that Essendon has lost its premiership points will test them again. No side has been docked similarly in nearly 120 years. The stigma will last some time, and for Essendon the club and its support base, so will the inevitable gibes.

It won't be easy. But Essendon has the advantage both of a compelling historical legacy, and a big support base. That's what drives this foundation club. And whatever penalties are handed out, perhaps that roar when Zaharakis ran into goal with 30 seconds left on the clock on Saturday night was already the start of the comeback.

40 comments

  • Thank you Rohan. Its good to read some Fairfax coverage of this that doesn't seem (almost vindictively) trying to create "fear uncertainty & doubt" about Essendon. A crusade that nevertheless hasn't been able to explain to me exactly what anybody has actually DONE WRONG. Thank goodness at least 1 Fairfax writer realises what we care about is the actual game!

    Commenter
    Linda
    Date and time
    August 26, 2013, 8:05AM
    • Fairfax did what it is meant to do, tell us things. I for one appreciated it even subscribed to help them be around.
      It would take too long to explain the difference between right and wrong in this case, we all have to care about more than the actual game, a fair and level playing field is essential otherwise we won't have a game.

      Commenter
      Rabbitflat
      Location
      Ballarat
      Date and time
      August 26, 2013, 9:08AM
    • I agree, whats more disappointing is the blue boys efforts. Mick Malthouse was called the "messiah" and "Magic Mick" when Carlton got into the highly respected NAB Cup... now they look like a second rate team without a clue... What I want to hear from tomorrow on-wards is all about footy...actual footy... whether it be Melbournes continued slump....North Melbournes ability to shake up the finals (if they get in) or maybe it's Garrys form "slump" (if you can call it that) ... I've heard nothing about the brownlow and I think it's just heating up!

      Commenter
      Dick
      Location
      Syd
      Date and time
      August 26, 2013, 9:18AM
    • I think Fairfax have been the shining light in this saga. Reminded us all that fair journalism still exists. Unfortunately their rivals have been telling it through the eyes of a boy club which skews and panders to people who don't want the truth, just the best outcome for themselves.

      Commenter
      footyfanforever
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 26, 2013, 9:29AM
    • Don't mention the injected banned substances or your comment won't get through, thanks Rohan (bomber) Connolly.

      Interim report, meaning more to follow...

      Commenter
      dragit
      Date and time
      August 26, 2013, 10:04AM
    • Yeh, thanks Rohan for restoring a bit of balance to an otherwise nasty campaign waged by the media and non-EFC supporters.

      I too was reluctant to go to the footy on Saturday night with my two daughters because I felt that the nastiness had got to a scary level and I was worried there would be some aggro in the outer. How sad that I couldn't feel safe going to the footy. The lynch mob mentality that has been whipped up around this issue exemplified by the ridiculous and ugly booing of Jobe shows that it's not just EFC that has brought the game into disrepute.

      Like other EC supporters I am disappointed in our officials, but like most EFC supporters, I still support our players and the club. Nothing will change. If the snipers from the other clubs want to keep giving us hell, I guess we'll just have to cop it sweet, and like Saturday night keep serving it up to our detractors on the field. Great work Rohan. Time for The Age to tone it down.

      Commenter
      Reality Check
      Date and time
      August 26, 2013, 1:12PM
  • Look at world sport history. All clubs stripped of premiership points were stone-cold guilty of some form of cheating - match-fixing, salary cap etc. Adelaide blatantly cheated the draft, yet were not stripped. Carlton systemically cheated the salary cap, yet were not stripped. Essendon being stripped for....governance issues?? Who are these genius in charge at AFL, they making game a laughing stock.

    Commenter
    G-Man
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 26, 2013, 8:37AM
    • I see you point except its based on ignorance. Essendon were caught breaching the salary cap in 1996. They also won the 1993 premiership due to this. So theoretically Essendon are the only club to have won a flag after cheating.

      Also governence?? Consider that for a moment. Cheating with money is one thing cheating with player safety is entirely different.

      Commenter
      slaugh
      Date and time
      August 26, 2013, 9:07AM
    • You are Wrong Slaugh. There was no salary cap breaches from the '93 premiership side. It was a list full of kids!
      Do you really think that they breached the cap by overpaying a bunch of second and third year players?

      Commenter
      Barney
      Location
      The Real World
      Date and time
      August 26, 2013, 9:56AM
    • Yes you are correct, in my opinion. Governance issues, not cheating. Essendon was done for salary cap breach because they failed to put their hand up, which other clubs did, so were penalised. A governance issue! Only a fool would call the '93 flag an il-gotten gain..

      Commenter
      Captain Carrot
      Date and time
      August 26, 2013, 10:29AM

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