A Voice from the Stands: Pride

The turf doesn’t feel quite real underfoot. It looks too perfect. The blades of grass are crisp, trimmed at the same length and standing to attention.

I step gingerly towards the rows of people lined up on either side of the banner. This isn’t the first time I’ve stood on Whitten Oval, but it’s the first time I’ve felt nervous doing so.

Image: Kirby Fenwick

All I need to do is stand in a line with a bunch of other people, mostly members of the Bulldogs and Carlton Pride supporter groups, and wave a flag. But still my belly churns.

Tradition can be a wonderful thing. In it, we can find security and safety, a sense of the familiar that can be heartening. But there’s value in the new, too.

On Friday night, my Bulldogs and Carlton established the foundations of a new tradition: the AFLW Pride Game.

It’s a game that feels especially important in the wake of the plebiscite masquerading as a postal survey that the LGBTQI+ community were subjected to last year.

I’d arrived a good hour before the first bounce and the ground was already filling with rainbows. On jumpers and flags and, most enjoyably, on the socks of the umpires.

There was an authenticity to this night. A sense that it mattered more, that it was personal. To the players, to the fans. And it was.

Out on the ground as the two teams ran through one banner, the crowd roared and a shiver ran down my spine. There was something palpable in the air. A feeling that reverberated around the crowd.

The banner down, the siren imminent, we were ushered off the ground. A grin plastered on my face, I bounded back up to my seat in the stands. I don’t do bucket lists, I prefer a more abstract approach, but if I did, being a part of the guard of honour for my beloved Bulldogs would be right up there. And now I’d be able to cross it off.

That grin held on as the Bulldogs put on a scintillating performance. They outclassed Carlton all over the ground, but it was Brooke Lochland’s seven goals that was the standout.

Behind me in the stands, Brooke’s younger sister brandished a sign that said ‘B. Lochland’s #1 Fans’. She stood up to wave it at every goal. She spent most of the night out of her seat.

On Saturday afternoon, the Lions and Freo battled each other and the weather. More than 60mm of rain had fallen the day before and the ground became a wading pool as more rain fell throughout the match. While Freo came out firing, it was the Lions who were victorious with Jess Weutschner’s two goals helping her team to victory.

At the other end of the weather extreme, Melbourne and the Magpies took to the field in 30+ temperatures in Alice Springs. Melbourne went in heavy favourites and while the Demons looked the goods early on, they were no match for a Collingwood outfit with something to prove.

In Sydney on Sunday afternoon, the weather was again a topic of conversation with near incessant rain for the Giants vs Crows match.

A scrappy affair, similar to the Lions and Freo game the previous day, the scoreboard seesawed with neither team winning a clear lead.

As the final seconds ticked down, both teams were playing desperate football, willing the ball into their forward fifty for a score, any score. But it wasn’t to be. At the final siren, it was a draw. The first for the season.

On Friday night, after the final siren had sounded and we’d sung Daughters of the West until our voices were hoarse, I found myself sharing the footpath with an older gent on a mobility scooter on the short walk to West Footscray station.

“Nice colours,” he said to me, pointing at my guernsey. I smiled.

“Right! How good was that game, hey?”

We traded small talk up Cross Street, heaping praise on Brooke Lochland, Bonnie Toogood and Aisling Utri.

He told me he’d come all the way from Ashburton. He told me that he’d played for the Footscray under-19s in 1969 and that he’d known EJ, Charlie Sutton and John Schultz. At the steps, we parted ways but that briefest of meetings has stayed with me.

In thirty or forty or fifty years, I too will have memories of Bulldog greats to share. Names like Katie Brennan, Emma Kearney and Hannah Scott. I know the story of the night Brooke Lochland kicked her way into the history books will be right up there too.

With only the single season under its belt, the AFLW is in an enviable position. Unburdened with a heavy, and at times restrictive, history, it can be whatever it wants to be. There is a freedom in that. But a responsibility too.

Authenticity is a buzzword these days. But it feels the right way to describe this competition we all love so much. From the players on the field to the fans in the stands, there is a genuineness that permeates every moment.

What this league looks like in thirty or forty or fifty years when I’m retelling the story of Brooke Lochland’s seven goals is anyone’s guess. But I hope the heart, commitment and drive that brought us here, that delivers that authenticity, never fades.

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