It was the kind of news you don’t want to hear when you call your parents for a catch up. The Mudgee Black Swans – the club where I played my first games of aussie rules football – are close to folding, according to an article in the local paper.
Hearing the news took me back to my first ever game of aussie rules. I was 16, and had been playing soccer for a local club. While soccer paused for the school holidays, the footy kept going; and the club took advantage of the fact by recruiting some much needed playing numbers.
It was pouring rain – turning the field into a mudheap and testing the skills of the seasoned players, let alone the rookies. One of my teammates went to take a mark; the wet and heavy ball slipped through his hands and broke his nose. We lost by some margin, but I had the time of my life. The next week I was up before the sun and on the bus for the three hour road trip to Parkes; where we lost by roughly 100 points.
I was hooked though. I played the rest of the year when I could – playing footy in the morning then soccer in the afternoon for home games, even having my first taste of men’s footy late in the season (of which my only memory is being welcomed to seniors with a massive late hit by a hefty country player).
The Black Swans started with the kind of mythology every sporting club should have – the sporting culture of the town is dominated by rugby league and union, but one day after watching the AFL grand final, a group of friends decided Mudgee needed an AFL club and resolved to start one. That day one of the group spotted a black swan on his dam. It was fate.
The first few years were a success – playing in the CWAFL reserve grade, the Black Swans lost two grand finals in a row. Life was harder after a short stint moving up to first grade though, and the club was struggling when I started playing.
That first year I played I never once heard the club song for a victory. So it wasn’t until halfway through the next season, as our under-17s group gradually improved together, that I won my first game of aussie rules. I stood silently satisfied as a few of the club stalwarts belted out, to the tune of John Mellencamp’s Jack and Dianne;
“Oh yeah, life goes on; playing football for the Mudgee Black Swans
Oh yeah, the game goes on; we never give in ’til the final siren’s gone.”
Sadly that season the under-17s were the only team singing. The seniors lost every game and morale was definitely not at a high point.
It’s funny though how things can change. As we gathered again for pre-season in 2005; there was a new coach, some new players. Half a dozen of us had graduated from the juniors, where we had learned how to play together and to win. There was a new feeling around the place.
In the Black Swans’ finest moment, we went through the season winning nearly every game. Our star full-forward kicked 100 goals. In a year when the local rugby league and union teams both failed to make the finals, the back page of the local paper was solidly AFL for all of September. The week before the grand final there was a double page spread profiling each player individually – we were even asked to describe for readers our best playing attributes (I was a handy player off the half back flank, but found the question way too awkward so answered, as an in-joke, “fiery red hair”). That newspaper is probably saved at my parents’ house somewhere.
On grand final day we went to Bathurst and came home with the Black Swans’ first and only flag. It was the last game I ever played for the club though – by the time the next season started I was playing for the Southern Sharks in the Sydney AFL.
A couple of years ago the club held a fancy dinner to commemorate the 10th anniversary of that premiership. I didn’t make the journey down for it, though I had a twinge of regret when I heard that the Black Swans, who barely won a game that season, had a stunning win over the eventual premiers aided by some of the weekend ring-ins.
The news of the club’s impending demise gave me a kind of nostalgia for those few years of teenage footy. It’s funny though because I can remember virtually nothing that happened on the field in those years. The memories that make me smile are everything else that comes from a footy club – the impromptu community that developed among the friends, family and randoms who would come and watch the game. The kids we would help coach during the week who on game days would hang around and work the scoreboard for the seniors games. The unlikely mix of people, from tree-change yuppies to outback shearers and teenage schoolkids, who would get together on freezing winter nights in singlets and shorts to run around a field.
The grand final? I remember precisely nothing of the game, but I can vividly recall an exchange at training two days before. One of the players suggested we all wear shirts and ties to the game. Another, our huge and heavily tattooed forward pocket, said he had never worn a tie. The statement was greeted incredulously. “You don’t wear ties in jail,” he replied with a shrug.
Those few years I spent at the Mudgee Black Swans taught me a lot about how to play football, but they taught me a lot else too.