We left the hostel and flagged a cab — it was a chilly morning in New York and I was still feeling extremely hesitant that the ‘Australian bar’ we had found would actually be showing the game. The streets were completely bare. New York — the ‘city that never sleeps’ — was sleeping. Or, at the very least, snoozing. To my delight, the bar was open when we arrived, and we gravitated towards the back, where we could hear a few TVs and quite a few excited Australian accents. The game was about to start.
Within one hour, my delight had turned to heart-wrenching despair. At half time, Essendon were beating North Melbourne by 27 points, and I was getting horrific flashbacks to our 100-point thrashing by West Coast in 2012. We’d waited two years — two long years— to get back into this position, an elimination final, and I had really thought we might be able to make up for the embarrassment of that day. We’d brought in big-game players, won big games, improved so much. And yet, North were doing a North, and giving it all up so easily.
The Essendon fans, who made up most of the crowd, were justly excited. My friend, neither an Essendon nor a North supporter (according to him he supported ‘good football,’ whatever that means) was quiet in the chair next to me. The second half commenced, and I started to mentally prepare myself for the loss. I didn’t want it to affect my holiday too much — I have a tendency to get too emotionally involved in North Melbourne from time to time. I reminded myself that this was a football team, and the amount I was invested in it was fairly unhealthy. It didn’t help.
All of a sudden, good things started to happen. Sam Wright took a mark in the back half. Ben Brown scored a goal. Firrito won a one-on-one and suddenly we had two goals. And a third. I was out of my seat. And a fourth! Oh my god! Could we do this?
For the rest of the match, my stomach remained in a tightly bound knot. North fought and fought, but the Bombers somehow managed to stay one step ahead. My friend was decidedly awake now, and if I hadn’t been so fixated on the game I would’ve reminded him that shouting ‘Go the Roos’ didn’t make him sound like someone who wasn’t taking sides.
Finally, with four minutes left to play in the last quarter, Petrie gathered the ball at ground level. Time slowed down, the knot in my stomach tightened, and my heart stopped beating. With a quick snap, he made North history.
That was two years ago. The memory is still almost as clear now as it was at the time, and I can’t help but smile when I think about it. Today, it was a different story. North tumbled out the finals, just as everyone expected them to do. The feeling for me was bittersweet, even before the game. Since the club announced that it would not be renewing the contracts of four veterans, Brent Harvey, Drew Petrie, Michael Firrito and Nick Dal Santo, the last few weeks have felt very weird indeed. Like we’re in some sort of transition period, a changing of the guard, the end of an era - and this final was simply a backdrop for that much larger story.
Perhaps I’m writing this article as a way to make sense of it all, to allow myself some sort of catharsis. For any North fan, the retirement of premiership champion Brent Harvey (especially due to the way it played out) doesn’t feel quite right. He was always there, was always going to be there. I only started supporting the club in the 2000s, so I have never known a North without Boomer. On top of that, I’ve spent so much time longing for that elusive premiership, the perfect sign-off for our champions who’ve worked so hard. The dream of them retiring at the MCG, holding up the cup as confetti falls down on their heads. And now, I have to come to terms with the fact that this will never happen, and I will never know that feeling.
But you know what I’ve realised? I already know that feeling. That day against Essendon. The next week against Geelong and the next finals series against Sydney. Every time we’ve fought back from behind, every upset we’ve been involved in. Oh yes — it would be great to win the premiership, but only because I know how it would make me feel.
I’m sure many people will be quick to point out that this is just cognitive dissonance, my way of being at peace with the whole situation. It probably is. But one thing is definitely true: I don’t really care about things like ‘glory’ and ‘legacy’. I get very little enjoyment thinking about the premierships that North won before I was born. But I will always remember that one random game in 2014 when Boomer kicked the sealer outside the 50 to beat Port Adelaide.
This is true for any fan. Replace ‘North’ with ‘Fremantle’ or ‘Richmond’ or ‘Perth Glory’ or ‘West Ham’, and you have the same thing. The successes these players have achieved can’t be counted in medals and trophies. Sport, from a supporter’s point of view, is simply a series of moments that evoke a range of intangible emotions.
The final whistle blew. Standing there in that random bar in the middle of New York, arm in arm with some stranger who happened to support the same team as me, I was in shock. The Essendon supporters smiled at us, shook our hands, and wished us best luck in the rest of the finals.
My friend and I left the bar, drenched in sweat, and headed towards an IHOP for some pancakes. The sun had just risen over New York, it was a clear day, and I couldn’t keep the smile off my face.
We sat there eating piles of hot cakes and sausages and steak and coffee, discussing the game. I can still remember the feeling of utter joy. We’d done it. We’d actually done it. Nothing else mattered. Whatever happened next week, or next year, or in 5 years, I didn’t care. We had won, and I felt, for that one moment, happy. It may sound melodramatic, but that’s how I felt.
Take out all the reporting and scandals and betting, the injuries and the rebuilds and the disappointments, and that’s what sport, at its purest, can do. Those moments. Those feelings. For me, it was thanks to the likes of Brent Harvey, Drew Petrie, Michael Firrito and Nick Dal Santo. Despite the sudden and tumultuous manner of their retirement, those moments they created will never die.
Farewell, champions. It’s been a blast, and you’ve done us proud. Thanks for the memories.
Images courtesy of AFL.com.au