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Reedsy Review #13

I chose to review this book because I remember the incident mentioned in the blurb on our national news. I did not realise this book would have quite so much football as it does!

The timing of my reading this autobiography coincided with our Australian Football League’s finals season. This is the second season disrupted by Covid, no finals games played in Melbourne for the second year in a row. The gradual knock-outs of the interstate team to leave two Melbourne teams in the grand final nevertheless buoyed the state of Victoria considerably. I wonder whether Mike Brady will make it through Covid quarantine, because I can’t imagine anyone else singing Up There, Cazaly as part of the pre-match entertainment. There are few songs that choke me up, but that’s one of them because it harnesses fun sharing times from my childhood. (Occasionally some of the balloons released on Grand Final day landed in our backyard, 17 km east of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The clip shows “signs of the times” – the kewpie dolls, corporate advertising from cigarette manufacturers and the daggy/retro-fashionable clothes we all wore … which never raised an eyebrow. For the match, Mike Brady played in an empty Melbourne street, vision of which was broadcast in Optus Stadium.)

Decades ago, when the Victorian Football League became the Australian Football League (in 1990), I suggested that maybe the venue of the Grand Final should be determined by the winner of the previous year. For example, a New South Wales team wins it this year, so it’s hosted in Sydney next year. That year it’s won by a Western Australian team, so it’s hosted in Perth the year after. My brainwave was met with horror by hard-core footy fans, who looked at me aghast: sacrilege to move it from the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the Grand Final’s only venue … ever … How would capacity crowds of 100,000 plus be hosted at smaller grounds, which resembled the suburban grounds like Waverley Park more than the huge (and clear emotional favourite) ground of the ‘G in footy heartland?

The irony is that since I stated what I thought was logical and inspired in the newly-branded Australian Football League, smaller grounds like Waverley are no longer used … and the Grand Final has now been played twice outside Victorian borders. Seems like all the AFL needed to harness my inspiration, still floating out there on the wind, was a worldwide pandemic. (Who’da’thunk?) Although it still hasn’t been systemised by the CFA as I envisaged two decades ago, since Covid I’ve heard people in football circles moot the idea. Am I just light years ahead of my time?

I like Finals time. The in-depth interviews with the players take on a higher importance, commentators demonstrating their expertise through their interpretations and analyses of each team’s pre-match form – complete with complete histories of players and match stats at their fingertips. The matches are usually exciting and dramatic, the teams having worked hard for a year to hone their skills, build their camaraderie and maintain elite levels of fitness. The winner can be decided in the last five minutes, sometimes within the last minute. From my armchair I experience heady adrenaline rushes that are absent in my regular day-to-day existence. And while I often want a particular team to win on the day (guided purely by my heart because interpreting the statistics of “winability” is beyond me), at the end of the day a close, hard-fought contest is the best thing that can be offered.

I freely admit to not having a “football brain”. I never fathomed how the losing team of the Grand could be considered in a far worse light than those who never made it beyond the home and away season, ending up way down the ladder. In fact, I didn’t even understand the rules until I met my husband (in my 20s) and he patiently explained them to me. Despite growing up in Melbourne – the beating heart of the Victorian Football League, as it was then, with all teams except for Geelong based in the capital, most (if not all) in the inner suburbs – I knew more about Rugby Union because that was what my father had played, having spent his adolescence in Sydney. I’m not sure why he was Union and not League, but I always found the University Gentleman’s Team highly amusing as his team’s name for “thugby”.

Spoiler alert: I am not, and have never been, a professional sports player, something I’ve alluded to previously. In fact, as spoiler alerts are customarily associated with revealing details about the item being reviewed – which hasn’t happened, and as readers could have reasonably assumed beyond a shadow of doubt that professional sport is not within my direct experience … the ‘spoiler alert’ tag probably doesn’t suit this paragraph at all. Ah well – creative licence and all that.

I like to consume narratives about sport for precisely the reason that, beyond community level, I lack direct experience of it. I like to learn, through the characters’ eyes, of the tactics of game play and the feelings associated with competition: the lowest lows of injuries and being dropped from a team, the highest highs of ascending to the dizzying pinnacles of trophies and player awards. The insights I gain from these books and films stay with me.

To write a successful sports book, the writer needs to write to the knowledgeable and to the ignorant. The knowledgeable are the fellow athletes who can compare the experiences they’re reading about to their own. The ignorant are the people like me, who watch with a cursory glance, engaging primarily during Finals season, the ones who need key terms like “pass” and “tackle” explained to them before they can understand their impact. (I can also be guaranteed to forget who played, and who won, within a couple of months: luckily I’m married to a “walking encyclopedia” who remembers this stuff for me, for the rare occasions I want to fact-check something.)

I liken it to J.K. Rowling needing to explain quidditch to new audiences in every book of the Harry Potter series. Those who read each book in sequence understand from The Philosopher’s Stone (The Sorcerer’s Stone in the US) what the game is and how it is played. Readers who pick up a book three or four into the series, however, have no idea of it and no outer reference, as it is an invented game. Rowling, therefore, had to create inventive ways to introduce the game and its rules anew – without boring her avid fans. Enter the mid-series historical journal found, with the rules of the game quoted in a different format (did this form the basis of Quidditch Through The Ages?). Readers new to the game learn its basic rules and format, while fans already familiar with it delight in the nuanced old-fashioned language and fancy text type that adorns its pages. This is a very effective format, in my opinion, which serves multiple purposes while encompassing a range of reader backgrounds. Onya, J.K.!

Does Les Jackson achieve the same level of writing proficiency? You’ll need to read my review to find out.

Les Jackson has updated his book since I read it, adding a new chapter about recent events. Watch his moving interview on the Leg It podcast to find out more.

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