'You better get home. Your fish shop's on fire'. I don't know when I first heard that burst of abuse from the terrace. In the old VFA people loved to barrack. And my then black hair and dark brown eyes were the source of many myths as to my origins. Greek, Spanish, Aboriginal. I had a multitude of origins, but no father. Even in a crowd of 5,000, as was often the rule in the VFA of the 70s, there were distinctive clusters of savagery. 'How does it feel to be a murderer?' a bloke had cried on the wing at Coburg after Port's Peter Wilkinson went down unconscious in 1982. In the social club afterwards the same bloke smiled and offered me a drink.
In the rampaging old VFA, every ground was different and every sound and smell distinctive. When I first played at Port in 1975, I was stunned by the smell. We all thought it was grass fertiliser. Later we discovered that boiling soap fat at the Lever and Kitchen factory behind the scoreboard was the source of the caustic stench. They were a no fuss mob under the Norm Goss stand. 'You dirty mongrel, wait till Bullwinkle catches up with you', they'd shout. Bullwinkle's real name was Bob Profitt and he had a big moustache and elbows that would have done a classical violinist proud. When he opened a cut on John Scholes' head in 1976 the same mob went into paroxysms of laughter after the Port doctor wrapped Scholes' head in medical tape. 'Can you believe it? There's bloke in a Turban,' yelled a fat bloke waving a 'tinny' in the air.
So venomous were the supporters at Port I didn't summon the courage for an after-match drink until the mid 80s, nearly a year after I started in the VFA. Finding the vinyl windows of my car ripped to shreds and a note saying 'fuck off back to Coburg' didn't help build harmony. Then again, I'll never forget the notoriously rugged 'Sudsie' stopping me on the way to the gate in 1983 and demanding I share a drink. When he opened the car fridge and produced a Crown Lager, I wondered whether I'd been a victim of my own demons.
The beauty of the old VFA game was that when all the vitriol was swept aside there was a sense of commonality that transcended the tribalism. The VFA was a competition at war with big brother, the VFL. For all the on-field bloodbaths and the threats dished out from the safety of the terrace, VFA supporters believed Sunday was our day and knew the VFL wanted it. This generated a solidarity that all the abuse in the world couldn't fracture. 'Geez, I've abused you. But we really love ya'. If only I had the proverbial dollar for every time a little old lady offered that compliment. They didn't really love me or what I did on the field. They loved the fact that I spoke out against the VFL and to that extent they could lay claim to me.
All over Melbourne people who understood their identity through the prism of geography and sense of place immersed themselves in the VFA. At Port Melbourne it wasn't unusual for three generations of dockside workers to gather in front of the Goss Stand and simultaneously cry 'Get back to Pentridge where you belong'. The funny thing was I had lived very near the famous prison. While Port was iconoclastic, a day at Shepley Oval, Dandenong was epic. In the '70s it took hours to make it down the Princess Highway and the ground always adorned with a canopy of brooding clouds. They perfectly complemented the red and black colours of the Redleg players and the ferocious denizens who occupied every inch of space in the little wooden grandstand. Shepley was the only ground where I was offered a police escort to my car.
Yet only at middle class Sandringham would you expect a lawyer to jump the fence, grab the football and kick it into Beach Road to stop a player, Mark Weideman, taking a kick to win the match after the siren. Weideman didn't make the distance and I was ordered to attend the local police station to answer the charge that I'd assaulted the bloke. Who needed reality TV when in the VFA even a bloke like that could become a star?
In the '70s and early '80s, League players converged on masse to the local VFA ground. At Coburg there'd be a cavalcade of Bombers on the terraces. Ron Andrews was always the first into the social club. Big, irreverent and assigned the task of protecting the empty car fridge, Ronnie drank all day and night. Those were the days when footballers stood and savoured the game and afterwards gave a running commentary at the bar. Now the only time they speak is when it's a paid gig on the Footy Show. And whilst it's true that the football, AFL or VFA/VFL has never been better, there's no denying the magnetism of VFA on a Sunday. From the sound of the train at Cramer Street to the wind at Williamstown it had a rhythm of its own. After all these years I can still hear those voices. I hope one day we'll hear them again in the VFL.