There’s a moment in David Williamson’s play The Club where Geoff Hayward, Collingwood’s prize new recruit, is confronted by his coach, Laurie (played in the 1980 film by Jack Thompson) after a game which he’s mostly spent watching a seagull while stoned out of his gourd. “Marry-a-wanna?” asks Laurie, incredulous.
Hayward is unrepentant. He identifies the absurdity at the heart of what he does. “It’s a load of macho competitive bullshit,” he says. “You chase a lump of pigskin around a muddy ground as if your life depended on it, and when you finally get it, you kick it to buggery and then go chasing it around again! Football shits me.”
“Well, I wish to Christ you’d told us that before we paid out 120 grand for you,” Laurie replies.
I thought of The Club when I heard of the retirement of Tom Boyd, a former No.1 draft pick, his enjoyment sucked from the game after 61 matches, only nine of them with his first club Greater Western Sydney, before the Bulldogs landed him on big money. At that time, like Hayward, he was just a kid with potential. He ended up winning them a fabled premiership.
I see a lot of parallels between Boyd and the fictitious Hayward. The expectations that accompanied his outsized talent, draft standing and salary. His awareness that sport is fundamentally unreal, even as each body-on-body contest put him in physical jeopardy. That he was living out a fantasy that compensated for the frustrations and jealousies of others.
Another character in The Club, the veteran Danny, harbours his own resentments. “If I’m going out there to risk a fractured skull or a ruptured spleen for the amusement of a pack of overweight drunks in the grandstand, I want to get paid!” he yells at the club president. If the film was set in the present, he might also be addressing warriors behind their keyboards.
Were Hayward real and playing today, as a high-profile and highly paid recruit, he might have taken the same path offered to Boyd: made an unavoidably public declaration that he was struggling with his mental health, taken time out, and been treated with care and sympathy by his employers and teammates, if not by those in the outer and playing at home.
I’ve covered football on and off for 14 years now. It’s an enormous privilege but there are times when it shits me, too. I grew up supporting and crying over a club, not the one I mostly write about. On weekends as a kid, I ran around a muddy oval, struggling to get a kick, blessed with no discernable athletic gifts, much less physical courage. (Those who can do, et cetera.)
In the earlier days of the internet, I lurked and posted on message boards and observed the way football totally consumed the lives of some people, many of whom seemed to relish tearing down players for their lack of effort or skill or dedication or all of the above. But I also recognised and revelled in the same joy and love and communion they took from the game.
Here in Brisbane, I’ve seen one final in 14 years. In footballing terms, that’s failure, and many of the players I’ve watched have been worn down by it. They might be 20 years younger than me – the kids coming through now, 30 years – and I see their physical and emotional resilience as they try to take each day one day at a time. Those words are a cliche for a reason.
At times, away from work, I’ve struggled with my own issues. For me, tuning in to the homespun wisdom of coaches could be as useful as an extra therapy session. They’d remind me that everything is temporary and that nothing is ever quite as good as bad as it seems (useful for someone prone to black-and-white thinking, and I don’t mean Collingwood).
I hope Tom Boyd’s experience reminds all of us that footy is a game, no matter how much money or prestige or pizzazz is attached to it, and that if it’s not fun anymore it’s not worth doing, or even watching. He’s 23. He’s got a crook back but he’s also got the rest of his life to live and the world at his feet. He doesn’t owe anyone a damn thing more than what he’s already given.
He was a kid with potential, who delivered in spades. With five minutes to go in that 2016 grand final, Boyd grabbed the pigskin, kicked it to buggery, and it bounced between the two big sticks. In that moment, he gave hundreds of thousands of Bulldogs fans a pleasure they’d never known before and will never, ever forget. I hope he never forgets it either.
First published in The Age, 18 May 2019