Grounded MCG is feeling the Dees’ pain

Steven Smith feels that the MCG is hurting. Smith played 203 games at full-back for Melbourne, later became MCC president and an honorary life member, and still lives within earshot of the “G” and walks around it often.

“I’ll walk there because it’s within the 5km,” he says. “It just feels so desolate. It lacks energy. It’s almost like it’s suffering as well. It’s as if it needs the attention. It needs people there. It’s actually sad that it’s so empty and quiet.”

Former Melbourne footballer and MCC president Steven Smith at the MCG on Friday.Credit:Joe Armao

Melbourne is more than the footy club of the MCC. And the vast MCC membership is not exclusively Melbourne, far from it. But the clubs are joined at the hip, and now in a bittersweet twist of history.

The Demons have their best shot at the premiership for 57 years, and it all should unfold on what those of a certain vintage still call “the cricket ground”, but won’t. It won’t even be in Melbourne, nor within reach of Melburnians.

It will be on television. “I’m really shattered about that,” says Smith. “I struggle to watch it on television. “At the ground, you can see what’s happening all around the ground. You just get a better sense of it.”

You also get camaraderie. Smith says he has never been as excited after a game as when Max Gawn kicked the Demons to post-siren victory over Geelong and the minor premiership last week. “I was shaking,” he says. But he was shaking alone at home. Text messages between old playing mates are a pale substitute for hugs and backslaps. “It’s not the same,” Smith says. “It takes the edge off it.”

A bumper MCG crowd.Credit:Wayne Taylor

In a normal September, the MCG would be the city of Melbourne’s social club, booked out around the clock. This year, with the Demons to the fore, the list would have been as long as Gawn’s arms. Instead, under “coming event” on the club’s website, the next is a Sheffield Shield match in October. At least crowd contagion won’t be an issue.

Mark Anderson readily envisages what won’t be seen this coming month. Anderson is to MCG manor born. He’s a Melbourne fan so devoted that he did not miss a match even in 1981, when the Demons won one match, by one point.

He played 300-plus games of cricket for Melbourne, was chairman of selectors for 17 years, has worked for the MCC for more than 30 years, and is now club manager. As such, he is careful to clear all his commitments before the first bounce on match days.

“It just feels so desolate. It lacks energy. It’s almost like it’s suffering as well. It’s as if it needs the attention. It needs people there. It’s actually sad that it’s so empty and quiet.”

“We all know what finals do, not only for the ground, but the members’ reserve,” he says. “It’s like the Melbourne footy club social club. It’s like if Collingwood played a final at Victoria Park, but on steroids because of the size of it. You win a final and ‘it’s a grand old flag’ echoes through the bars. You don’t hear other songs echo quite like that. It’s going to be missed.”

The Demons celebrate taking out the minor premiership at Geelong.Credit:AFL Photos

Anderson’s brother, John, also played cricket for Melbourne and Victoria and was chief executive of the footy club when they last played in a grand final in 2000. In 2018, when the Demons last played in finals, the pair made a lightning flit to Perth for the preliminary final and what became a juddering halt to Melbourne’s season. But they’d do it again if they could.

“Now that’s been taken away as well,” Mark says. “You’d be over there in a heartbeat. That’s the great frustration of it. There’s a domino effect. You can’t see them at the ground. You can’t travel. What’s the next best thing? Gather a few mates and supporters around a big screen and create some atmosphere? You can’t even do that.”

Lynda Carroll will be at her desk at home, finishing off the edit of a Melbourne past players newsletter. “I’ll have the radio on and a strong cup of Earl Grey tea,” she says. “Yeah, I know. Very Melbourne!”

Carroll’s first Melbourne memory is of Robbie Flower, “flying down a wing”.
“It was absolutely beautiful,” she says. “It’s an image I’ve held ever since, and now that he’s not here, it’s more precious than ever.” Full-back Smith was out there at the same time, too, it should be noted!

Optus Stadium in Perth, the likely venue of the 2021 grand final.Credit:AFL Photos

Carroll worked for the football club until 2013 as a historian and publisher, wrote a history of the Dees, and was drafted on to the past players’ committee. She’s toiling away on a new history, writes an engaging blog called Balcony Banter and meantime works in the MCC library on match days.

People come in for research, to finish off school assignments while their families watch the footy, or for the striking view of the city skyline. “Occasionally, if it’s nice and sunny, they fall asleep,” Carroll says. “You’re meant to close at half-time, and very occasionally you have to go and tap them on the shoulder.”

In what should be a month of blissful communion, football club, ground and fans will be far apart. Carroll intends to deal with it as stoically as her beloved Dees as they were shunted around the country this season. “I’m very proud of them. You never heard any complaints,” she says. “You saw Ben Brown with his pillow under his arm. They’ve adapted all the way along.

“As the song says, ‘every heart beats true’. It’s about where the hearts are at the moment. They’re with the team, no matter where they are.”

An empty MCG members reserve during the round 23 Essendon v Collingwood game.Credit:Getty Images

Melbourne fans are torn between bullish feelings about this team, and tempting fate by admitting to them. It’s been a long road since 1964. Smith never played in a final, Flower only in his last season. There were grand finals in 1988 and 2000, but as distant underdogs both times, and it showed. One good year is no guarantee of another; the last three years demonstrate it.

If the grand final is in Perth and Melbourne are in it, Smith won’t go. The bells and whistles of the build-up there would act only as a reminder of what was missing here. Besides, going would be asking for it.

As for a flag won by Melbourne, but not on Melbourne’s famous ground and not with Melbourne’s core fans to behold it? “Of course, you’d take it,” says Anderson. “Will it be hollow? Of course. But as long as we’re there to watch back-to-back the next year, that’d make up for it.”

Carroll’s in accord. “Of course it would be lovely to have it at the MCG,” she says. “But you can’t cry for the moon. The way things are at the moment, even if it was at the MCG, most people wouldn’t be able to go. We might have to get them to do it again next year at the MCG.”

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