Inside Story

Collective madness

Books | George Megalogenis gives a vivid account of the development Australian rules football. But what does it mean for politics?

Ryan Cropp 14 August 2018 1961 words

Who has won the football? Dejected Richmond players after the clubs loss to the Greater Western Sydney Giants and the Richmond Tigers in Sydney on 14 July. Craig Golding/AAP Image

The Football Solution: How Richmond’s Premiership Can Save Australia
By George Megalogenis | Viking | $32 | 272 pages

I have a friend in Sydney who is a lifelong supporter of the English football team Watford. Once a week, for more than nine months each year, he endures two long midnight hours in a cold sweat while his team is dismantled by more glamorous and better-funded opponents. For most of his life Watford has been one of English football’s perennial strugglers, eternally on the verge of lower-league oblivion. My friend’s blind faith makes about as much sense to me as playing a poker machine. His passion has provided him with almost nothing but pain. Stubbornly rational in all other aspects of his life, his support of Watford is like a pathology, a midnight madness.

George Megalogenis is another rational man with an irrational obsession. His football team, the Richmond Tigers, once one of Australia’s most successful clubs, went thirty-seven miserable years without an AFL premiership before last year’s drought-breaker. So cruel were some of its failures that the club earned the nickname “Ninthmond” for its uncanny ability to narrowly miss out on the AFL finals. But despite the relentless on-field disappointment, Richmond’s supporters remained as passionate as ever. For the “Tiger Army,” the 2017 grand final victory felt like some kind of cosmic reward for decades of loyalty.

Amid the euphoria of his team’s triumph, Megalogenis found himself wondering: what makes a successful football club? Can history tell us something about who wins, who watches, and why? And might the carefully managed nature of Richmond’s most recent success have some deeper meaning, perhaps even a “lesson for leadership in Australia”?

The resulting book, dramatically titled The Football Solution: How Richmond’s Premiership Can Save Australia, is more social history and fan memoir than political analysis, and its lessons for Canberra, wedged into the last ten pages, seem like an afterthought. For the most part it is a story about a suburb and the incredibly popular football team it spawned, and a passionate (if Melbourne-centric) historical account of the rise of the sporting club as a social institution. It attempts, in the tradition of the best sports literature, to go beyond the boundary, to weave the game into the social, political and economic history of the city and the nation, and to find the historical roots of this not-quite-national obsession.

These roots, it turns out, are in colonial Victoria. It is there that we meet Tom Wills, grandson of a convict, child of the squattocracy and founding father of Australian Rules. The tale of the game’s invention, and Wills’s role in it, is ground zero in football’s history war.

In 1840, Wills’s father claimed 200,000 acres of land in Victoria’s Western District. Young Tom was the only white child in the area and — according to some contemporary accounts — grew up playing improvised ball sports with the local Indigenous children. As a teenager he was dispatched to the mother country to receive an education, and he returned to Melbourne in 1856 with a very British belief in the character-building benefits of organised sport.

In 1859, worried that without a sport to play over the winter, the young men of Melbourne would become idle, Wills suggested they “form a football club” and “draw up some laws.” Victoria’s hard paddocks were thought to be too dangerous for rugby, and soccer’s rules were not codified until 1863. Instead, the men of Victoria invented a game of their own. How much they borrowed from marngrook, the Indigenous version of football, is hard to say, though recent evidence seems to suggest it was quite a bit. Megalogenis sits on the fence: for his part, Australian Rules is a combination of the games Wills played with the Indigenous children and the games he learned in England. This Australian hybrid is both white and black.

For some reason, colonial Victorians went wild for this new game. To make sense of their enthusiasm, Megalogenis rolls out his tried and true explanatory weapons: economic statistics. Relative to almost anywhere else in the world, Victorians had higher GDP per capita, bigger houses and higher wages. They lived in less densely populated cities and towns, they were better fed and, supposedly, they read more books. When Tom Wills returned from England in 1856, the Victorian settlers were allegedly “ready for a sport that reflected their free spirit.”

I am willing to concede that Australian Rules football might have “suited the egalitarian personality of the migrants,” in contrast with the “class-conscious codes… imported from the old world.” But only a rusted-on AFL partisan could truly believe it was “the greatest expression of the Australian faith in human nature.”

To the perpetual dismay of the Victorians, the game failed to excite the northern states, whose loyalties remained with the “English” rugby codes, league and union. When those codes declared war on each other in the early twentieth century, the southerners sensed an opportunity and exported several Australian Rules matches to the northern states. As always, the game failed to take hold. We are offered several explanations for this, one of which was that Sydneysiders no longer “respected” Melbourne. Megalogenis even allows that rugby league was a “more enlightened game” at the time, reflecting New South Wales’s “openness” at a time when “football’s gaze had narrowed to the suburb.”

But for this economic historian, the deciding factor was money. By allowing player payments, rugby league captured the best talent, and thus the interest of Sydney’s working classes. It is hard not to suspect a sense of betrayal in this very Melburnian explanation: the Anglophile northern elite stifling the one true Australian game with a brown paper bag full of cash.

Megalogenis is on more solid ground explaining why Australian Rules captivated the southern colony towards the end of the nineteenth century. Crucial to this was its cosmopolitanism: Victoria’s population exploded in the gold rush years, and the flood of migrants, “too diverse to worship in the same church,” turned Melbourne into an antipodean social laboratory. The invention of the eight-hour day provided unprecedented leisure time, and this, combined with sustained wage growth, made football popular with both the working and middle classes. Football became a source of entertainment that crossed class divides — a “glue” to bind the “disparate tribes.”

As the depressions of the 1890s took hold, footballing loyalties became more vociferous and entrenched. Economic and social shocks turned “a once-confident people inward.” The football clubs that had formed around the city’s neighbourhoods took on distinct tribal identities, often along “the fault lines of class and sectarianism.” One-in-ten Melburnians had fled the inner city for the leafier outer suburbs between 1891 and 1893. Richmond, the central character in our story, lost almost two-in-ten. Those increasingly working-class neighbourhoods became “literal representatives of their people, raising their spirits in a way that politics could not,” a trend that contributed to the massive growth of the battler clubs during the dismal 1920s and 30s.

Once the economy recovered, “football’s balance of power” shifted, and working-class clubs like Richmond and Collingwood lost their advantage. Megalogenis crunches the numbers in his favourite data set — migration statistics — to explain how a club’s success was usually tied to its racial and ethnic homogeneity. Richmond’s decline in the postwar period coincided with an increase in the suburb’s ethnic diversity, while the most successful clubs (Melbourne and Essendon) were predominantly “middle class, Anglo and Protestant.” He recalls that his father, a Greek migrant, was more interested in the South Melbourne Hellas soccer club than Australian Rules.

Strangely, as a cheerleader for his chosen sport, Megalogenis ignores its perpetual anxiety about soccer, the clear sport of choice for successive waves of European migrants. Instead he repeats — surely unintentionally — that familiar dog whistle of the Melbourne AFL media: that only Aussie Rules can “unite” the “warring tribes from the old world.”

Megalogenis is a confessed “data nerd,” and he is at his statistical best explaining how class, family and geography determined the patterns of football-team loyalty in Victoria. The interwar period, for example, was the last time a person’s choice of football team was mostly determined by where he or she lived and worked. After the second world war, as populations continued to pour into the tribally blurred outer suburbs, the decisive factor was not where you were raised but whom your parents supported.

Later, as Melbourne’s demographics changed yet again, so did football crowds. Compared to the “joyful swarm of young faces” who went to games during Australia’s baby boom, football today is more like “a Midnight Oil reunion concert.” Whether by history, heredity, geography or just “collective madness,” football fans remain deeply attached to their teams. It is the tie that binds.

Running somewhat awkwardly alongside this history is the extended argument of the book: that the Richmond Football Club is a national bellwether, and the lesson of its fall and rise is a remedy for Canberra’s instability. The club’s success in the 1960s and 70s was built on the competing ideals of a win-at-all-costs ruthlessness and, if things went sour, a blameless victimhood. The Tigers’ tradition of hiring and firing coaches in pursuit of short-term success finally sent them into premiership exile at a time when sport was moving into the modern, fully professional era.

But eventually Richmond changed tack, adopted the voguish “values” and “culture” rhetoric of corporate Australia and — crucially — stopped punting coaches after one bad season. This was Richmond’s “new way to win.” No points for guessing the “lessons for politics.”

The Football Solution is in sync with Megalogenis’s previous arguments about national leadership. In 2012’s The Australian Moment, he celebrated the sensible “reforming” governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. In 2015’s Australia’s Second Chance, he demonstrated that Australia’s historical booms and busts were closely tied to its openness, especially to migration. When things went bad, Australian leaders usually made it worse by turning inward. These lessons, he warns, have not been heeded by our major political parties.

But the dilemmas of modern politics — leadership instability, short-term policy-making, a declining faith in basic political institutions — won’t be solved by this nostalgic yearning for the heroes of the 1980s (even if it has been cloaked in a modern sporting analogy). As Megalogenis himself admits, the current crop of politicians — and indeed the rest of us — are “sick of being told that Australia was once governed by grown-ups.” The political goalposts have shifted, as they are always prone to do, and the new circumstances demand new solutions. Social media and “presidential style” campaigning might diminish our politics, but they are now the rules of the game; politicians must get on with it.

If we did require a simple political lesson from sport, we might instead look to AFL’s unique response to the structural inequalities of uncontrolled capitalism. In other parts of the world, professional sport has become a monotonous battle between haves and have-nots. But as Dean Ashenden has suggested, the AFL’s equalisation measures — a salary cap, a player draft and redistributed television revenue — have managed to lift (just about) all boats. Any club can win. The code’s spectacular growth in recent years has partly been the result of these social democratic policies.

The problem with such analogies, of course, is that they inevitably break down. Reality is complicated. Neither sport nor politics will submit to such simple explanations. As Megalogenis’s own historical narrative makes clear, one era’s formula for success is another’s recipe for failure. There is no solution. Nothing works twice. Richmond fans, riding the sugar high of sporting success, should remember the comedian David Mitchell’s immortal aphorism: “It will never be finally decided who has won the football.” ●