When I first visited Princes Park at the age of four, perched on Coke cans with head bobbing curiously to view the action, I knew nothing of what impact the team wearing navy blue would eventually have on my life. I knew only that we supported Carlton.
There was no choice in the matter, no decision making process or weighing of the pros and cons. Most of the surrounding throng seemed to agree, with only a spatter of Fitzroy colours to highlight that an alternative existed.
I had been to see a match the previous season, but this was my first taste of the place that was to become as familiar as the living room.
I knew nothing of Carlton’s history of success or failure, nothing to determine whether this life-long inheritance was a sound one. I’d have been just as enthralled and bemused, I’m sure, had I been sporting a Lions scarf that day, and I’d have also been a devastated teenager when the league sent them north to Brisbane. My first hero was Paul Meldrum, but when Stephen Kernahan hoisted the 1987 premiership cup my fate was sealed.
By age six I was a fully-fledged obsessive, never without a football in hand and wearing out videos of The Footy Replay, at times the entire commentary seeping into my subconscious and peculiar facts regarding Carlton lore as customary to me as the Six Times Tables.
What was Bruce Doull’s original number and why did he change it? For how many years did Craig Bradley wear the exact same jumper? At which game did the “woof” for Ang Christou begin? Every incongruous question had an answer and I was at the ready to provide it quicker than the Princes Park scoreboard.
Similar tales are not uncommon, and despite the jibes about Richmond supporters having kids being tantamount to child cruelty, very few rue their lot.
This season marks the 150th since the formation of the Carlton Football Club, the most successful club in the history of the VFL/AFL (with 16 Grand Final wins) and one that – with a total of 23 premierships – have been champions more times than any other Victorian club. The dispute over the validity of the success of clubs from other states either prior to or since the AFL-rebadged itself in 1990 is one for another time, and in any event doesn’t detract from Carlton’s remarkable record.
Carlton are the third such AFL club to reach this milestone (behind Melbourne and Geelong) and are thus the oldest suburban team in the country, and amongst the oldest football clubs in the world. Where Carlton differs from all others is that since their formation in 1864 they have played 149 consecutive seasons without interruption (Collingwood, formed in 1892, are the only other club to have completed every league season since 1897).
While the modern history of the club is less glorious, the Blues have saluted every 6.7 years on average since that first season in 1864, and it is with this in mind that 2014 holds a very special place for all whose heart beats blue. The term is bandied about too often, but it cannot be disputed that Carlton is a truly great football club.
The key to Carlton’s outstanding success has been consistency. While Collingwood led the league premiership table for more than half a century, 11 of their 15 flags were won by 1936. Carlton, on the other hand, won eight in each half of the 20th century, finally claiming sole bragging rights in 1982, a position they have held either alone or with Essendon ever since. Equally, none of the traditional league clubs can claim supremacy over the Mighty Blues, with Carlton holding a positive win/loss record against all of them.
The highlights have been many. From becoming the first club to win a treble of successive league flags to the “Bloodbath” glory of 1945 and overcoming the biggest deficit in finals history in 1970, on and on the successes came for what was the richest and most powerful club in the new world of the John Elliott-led 1980’s, yet even then there were greater heights to scale. In 1995 Carlton set a new standard and the team came to be known as the record-breakers, sailing through the home and away rounds with an unprecedented 20 wins before cruising to an authoritative premiership victory.
In the first 100 years of league football Carlton had won more premierships than any other, beaten all of their competitors head to head and had never finished last. That is an incredible record.
When the Blues shocked everyone – including themselves – with a one point win over Essendon in the 1999 Preliminary Final, no one could have predicted that the team and club would hit rock bottom just three years later.
The club failed to net that 17th flag, so anyone under the age of 20 grew up with a rare beast: a mediocre Carlton. The 2000-2009 decade was the first since the fifties, and only the third in league history, not to feature a Carlton premiership. While finals wins in recent years are beginning to turn the tide, it has skewed the perception of Carlton as one of the league heavyweights amongst the new generation.
The Blues may have been the worst team in the competition, stripped of draft picks and pilloried as the laughing stock of the game, yet one fact will in time prove salient: they were only out of the finals for seven years. A lesser club wouldn’t be here at all.
It is in times of despair that faith is tested, yet even those dark years brought highlights. Despite the mounting wooden spoons and losing the beloved Princes Park as a league venue, there was still Fevola or Judd or an upset win over Collingwood to keep the fire burning. While in childhood I craved only success, adulthood and a change of fortunes conveyed a deeper understanding of what the club meant to me. Like caring for an ill loved one, my devotion was given a sharper focus when the chips were down.
Someone once said that to see Carlton is to be Carlton, and it rings true. All of the old clubs have their idiosyncrasies, but nothing matches the genuine belief that no matter the score we can still do it, just because we’re Carlton.
Big enough to be a major player yet not so large that every second person supports us, belonging to the Carlton Football Club is a special kind of gift. Unlike in English football, our supporters are separated, making group singing difficult. What other set of barrackers are arrogant enough to begin a rendition of the theme song before the game is even over? We do it at Carlton.
Mick Malthouse and Marc Murphy, fresh from the pulsating and unexpected finals win over Richmond that typified the Carlton spirit, have the honour of leading the Blues into this landmark season, and students of history will be well aware that prior to the breakthrough premiership of 1906 Carlton had endured 19 barren years. The distant ‘95 triumph marks the very same period of time.
Few things will bring a grown man to tears, but the love of a football club can be one of them. Despite the intervening years, the changing face of football and the depressing understanding of what can realistically be achieved in any given year, the excitedly nervous kid peering through the crowd to see The Blue Boys in action remains.
Here’s to the next 150.
The Sad Demise of Bolton Wanderers Football Club
It is hard to believe the dismal state Bolton Wanderers find themselves in
If you watched the English Premier League during the early 2000s, you would have been familiar with the plight of Bolton Wanderers. The long running club is now in absolute dire straits, bereft of resources, searching desperately for new owners as it staves away its seemingly inevitable end. It is truly a sad turn of events for a club that has been around for almost 150 years, once known as the plucky, never-die team of English football’s top flight.
The Greater Manchester club, gleefully nicknamed ‘The Trotters’, were always a group of ragtag underachievers who constantly overachieved. The club, under the tutelage of Big Sam Allardyce, spent several Premier League seasons languishing at the bottom end of the table staving off relegation before progressing to mid-table safety. It wasn’t that they were good, because, for the most part, they weren’t, but it was because they always found a gutsy way of surviving by sheer determination, miraculous last game results, and for finding the last remaining ounce of juice left in washed-up players looking for one last round of glory.
It’s the latter point perhaps, that endeared Bolton to fans who didn’t spend their weekends at the Reebok Stadium. Bolton was the home to many talents that found new life under Allardyce. Players that managed to thrill a mostly dull part of the footballing world with European flair and Nigerian spice. I have fond memories of the indomitable Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff reminding fans of their class. Then there were the bruising, hard-hitting playing styles of Ivan Campo and Fernando Hierro- adding much-needed steel to that Bolton lineup. They complimented the steadfast if not boring quality that came with the ever-present Jussi Jääskeläinen and Kevin Davies. Atop them all sat Big Sam- who long before he became a joke in English football, was the no-frills, old-school English manager who took Bolton up from the old Division One to the Premier League. And during his run, he became known for being able to get Bolton out of trouble at the last minute, no matter how ugly the season had been. They made an FA Cup Semi Final and the Round of 16 of the UEFA Cup, somehow beating Atletico Madrid along the way.
Those days are sadly long gone as the club find itself languishing in the third tier of English football, once again ending the previous season relegated. Mired in financial disarray, the club has been in control of administrators since May, with its long-awaited takeover by new owners (whoever they may end up being) dragging on and on. The sad state of affairs has been punctuated by the club unable to pay its players and staff, canceled pre-season friendlies, and quite possibly the saddest team sheet in all the time I’ve been a fan of English football. As of this time, their official team page has but 7 players listed (no defenders), not even enough to field a full first team. If by the time you read this they’re able to pull their socks up and field a full team, it’ll be a miracle.
Their financial downward spiral hit breaking point in 2015 when the club found itself £172.9 million in debt. It only seemed to get worse from there. Unpaid taxes, transfer embargoes, manager changes, poor results, and most depressingly, non-playing staff having to use food bank donations to feed themselves (including donations from rival club Preston North End).
It really is hard to believe the dismal state Bolton find themselves in. I can’t imagine what it must be like for a true Wanderers fan to face the reality of their club in 2019. It’s not that the club has ever been successful (their last significant trophy was the 1958 FA Cup), but from the outside, their grit, their pluck, and their ability to seemingly escape the direst of circumstances made them endearing. They were the underdog team of has-beens, never-rans, forgotten souls, and Big Sam.
Now it seems their darkest days are closing in. Football fans surely would love for new owners to come in, reset the club, and start that long, arduous journey back into stability. But their new season hopes don’t even start on any positive note, with their financial failings they’ve already been docked 12 points before the start of the new season. Even with new owners, it will take a significant time to turn things around. The best they can hope for is to pull a Rangers and find themselves back on the up after 5 or so years… but the English Premier League is a far different beast to that of the Scottish Premier League, just ask Leeds United.
The long road back is never going to be easy. And for Bolton Wanderers, once a club that found its soul with players looking for one last spot of luck, may have run out of its own.
The Long Goodbye: A Spurs fan’s final salute to Kawhi Leonard
Am I a product of my generation? Yes, just like Kawhi and many of today’s younger generation of fans are a product of theirs.
The saga of Kawhi Leonard is over and while his signing to the Clippers means that two fanbases are left incredibly disappointed, there’s one group that is making their overdue final goodbyes. For Spurs fans like myself, it is clear that while the Board Man is a special player, he is a product of the current generation of players- loyal to themselves. It’s OK, I’ve resigned myself to moving on because I was happy that he won in Toronto, happy for everyone involved (except for Drake) because I knew that as soon as he signed for the Clippers, his legacy would no longer be built on unbreakable bonds but rather on personal pursuit alone. And that was never the trait of the silver and black. At times during this saga, I’ve felt like Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s 1973 movie The Long Goodbye, blinded by what I initially thought was loyalty. But after living through Kawhi sitting out, his demands for leaving, and ultimately, his winning a ring for the North, I’ve realized that in today’s NBA, allegiance, integrity, and trust are the exception, not the norm.
One of my earliest memories of being a Spurs fan was the ragtag group of players assembled for the 1992 season. It was early in my Spurs fandom and only two years into the storied career of David Robinson. The Admiral would become my favorite Spur, and ultimately, my favorite NBA player of all-time, but it was clear early on that he needed help. While Sean Elliott, Willie Anderson, and Avery Johnson were nice pieces, it was memories of wayward Rod Strickland passes that would ultimately encapsulate that time as an NBA fan. But the truth is, it was an important learning phase for any true NBA fan- that success comes with smart moves and dedicated, loyal, and hard working players who forever would put team above the name on the back of the jersey.
The years that followed was a mix of frustration and hope. The team gelled, especially for the 1994-1995 season where the team finished 1st in the Midwest (62-20) and David Robinson would end up capturing the league MVP after a dominant season (27 ppg, 10 reb, 3 blks). It was all awash come playoff time where vivid memories of Hakeem Olajuwon “dream shaking” The Admiral out of his shoes still haunt me to this day.
Perseverance paid off. Both for the Spurs and to fans like myself. Then general manager Gregg Popovich took on the additional responsibility of running the ship from the sideline, David Robinson was never traded, he rarely complained, and the miracle of the 1997 NBA Draft changed the fortunes of the franchise forever.
The years that followed were graced by the very best kind of basketball for basketball purists. While the league continued to flourish under the star power and glamour of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, the Spurs quietly put together championship pedigree devoid of front page drama, superstar whinging and a sense of loyalty to the city and team that has all but become extinct in today’s NBA. My generation of Spurs fans are lucky to have lived through 5 championships, but also lucky that we were able to stay true to a team that had loyalty in their DNA. We were blessed that Tim Duncan got to take the court with players Tony Parker and Manu. Both absolutely crucial to the titles and the teams, both exhibited the kind of character seemingly rare today.
Kawhi was supposed to be the next titan of the team. We saw what was possible with his captaincy and Finals MVP run for the 2014 ring. He was supposed to continue the Spurs legacy. What we got instead was an endless whinge-fest, culminating in his sitting out all but 9 games of the 2017-2018 season. The mysterious ailment that plagued him, his battle with Spurs management, his desire to “go home” to California, and his distance from other Spurs players led to so much unnecessary frustration. In March of 2018, Manu was quoted as saying; “For me, he’s not coming back because it’s not helping [to think Leonard is returning]. We fell for it a week ago again. I guess you guys made us fall for it. But we have to think that he’s not coming back, that we are who we are, and that we got to fight without him.”
It’s the kind of distraction that my 7th-grade basketball coach would have found embarrassing. Kawhi did the Spurs dirty, and while fans often project the burden of legacy on to players even when they never set out to be, it is the unfortunate fall out of being a great player- especially one that at the time, seem to fit the mold. Kawhi has now done the Raptors dirty, and if he wins a title in Clipper-land, he will most likely do them dirty too. It’s his MO, it’s his way, and really, in today’s 2K video game NBA, it’s OK because that’s just the way it goes.
Team basketball is dead, superteam basketball is now the play. Raptors fans are playing it cool, saying that the one title was more than they could have ever asked for. But really, if I was a Raptors fan I would be disappointed because Toronto seemed like such a great place for him to be. A good coach, a good front office, an adoring nation, everything he said he was unhappy with in San Antonio. If I was a Raptors fan, I would be disappointed not because the team didn’t do what the Clippers did and mortgage their future for a chance for more, but because Kawhi proved that there’s no such thing as loyalty- and that it’s OK today as long as there’s some transient success. Perhaps I have been spoiled by Spurs basketball. Spoiled by Popp’s team-first mentality where the glory of championship parades is not the end, but the next beginning. If I was a Clippers fan I would be wary. Not just because Kawhi isn’t as superhuman as we’ve all made him to be. But because the Clippers DID have to mortgage an entire future for Kawhi and Paul George to battle it out against LeBron, against AD, against an entire city that will always hold the Lakers above the Clippers. If I was a Clippers fan, I would be wary of Kawhi’s new 3-year, $103 million dollar deal (with the option to opt-out in two). Not because it means he’s positioned himself for that supermax pay off, but because potentially, he could weasel his way out of the Clippers in two years too.
Am I old and a little bitter? Maybe. I’m grateful of Kawhi’s contributions to that 2014 title- his performance during those finals, especially after the bitter disappointment of the previous year, proved that he was more than capable of being the next Spurs great. He came alive in Game 3, proved his MVP status in Games 4 and 5, and cemented what seemed like the future for the franchise. But in the end, what stands out more for me is the letdown that Kawhi just wasn’t up to par with the Spurs giants that he was supposed to follow. Am I a product of my generation? Yes, just like Kawhi and many of today’s younger generation of fans are a product of theirs.
He could have been placed next to The Iceman, The Admiral, and The Big Fundamental, instead, Kawhi becomes another in the long line of a new generation of NBA superstars beholden to no one but themselves, playing their former teams and fanbases for fools. I feel like Phillip Marlowe, manipulated, trust broken, hearing Kawhi telling me that “maybe I’ll never learn, maybe I’m a born loser”. Maybe he’s right, maybe I’m just waiting for my harmonica moment. It’s the way things go today.