I return to Melbourne after a year away, and all my footy friends echo the same sentiments: North are in trouble. According to them a cloud of doom and gloom, more threatening than ever before, is descending on Arden St. It’s only a matter of time.
I laugh it off with brazen confidence. I’ve seen it all before, in 1996 and 2007. I’ve read it throughout North’s history, I’ve heard all the arguments. North will survive, they always have.
But then I sense something new. Their tone is different – there’s an honest fear in their voice, in their eyes. They actually believe that North are gone.
The thought troubles me. Good football people are losing the faith. Has the AFL won the war of propaganda?
I ponder the issues.
The issues that have created North Melbourne’s predicament are complex and wide-ranging. History, geography and conspiracy all play their role. But put simply, North is a small club. It always has been and always will be. In the modern AFL world, the flow-on effect is startling, almost cancerous.
With the modern footy arms race – coaches, medicos, sports scientists – no-one believes that North can compete. They don’t have the cash or the cattle. And the AFL, wielding their most brutal and powerful tool, the fixture, are hell-bent on breaking them.
The administration is dysfunctional and the new democracy unstable. Brayshaw lacks leadership and integrity. The board is divided.
The media, hungry for a headline – any headline – entrench the perception into the minds of the masses. ‘Struggling’, ‘cash-strapped’, ‘downtrodden’: straight from the journos’ North Melbourne template.
I churn and process it all. The truth is hidden.
And yet the truth is stark: North Melbourne will survive this cold war, just like they survived the others. And it all comes down to this.
The AFL can make or break a club, almost any club. In 2010, 38% of North Melbourne’s revenue came straight from the AFL (in various guises). If they want North to fold, they can do it with the stroke of a pen. But they won’t.
For all their perceived evilness, the AFL know what all of us know in our hearts. Football is about the fans. And footy fans go to watch their club. Players wither and age, coaches get sacked, club fortunes rise and fall, but the fans still come. To see their club play another. Not a meaningless contest among 36 men, but a battle of something much more.
While football in this town is no longer the tribal warfare it once was, club identities and cultures were formed in that suburban furnace. Geography and history has forged clubs with culture and character. Clubs we adore and abhor. Clubs we love to flog, and clubs we like to do well … except when they’re playing ‘us’. Clubs with soul.
The AFL may not be concerned about losing North Melbourne – a club with a meagre following in an overcrowded city – but they are concerned for something much bigger.
All my footy friends, without fail, qualify their assessment of North’s imminent apocalypse with sympathy. If North are ousted, or pillaged beyond recognition in some faraway place, they too will have lost something. Their clubs may go on, but the game will have changed in their eyes forever. A piece of its soul will be lost.
Football’s soul cannot be bought, sold or manufactured. And the AFL know it. And while the AFL continue on their seemingly merciless campaign for the hearts and minds of the northern frontier, they know that they must protect what it is that made it special in the first place.
North Melbourne Football Club: founded in Royal Park among the cattle yards and gold rush immigrants in 1869. North Melbourne Football Club: the VFA ‘Invincibles’ of 1914-1919. North Melbourne Football Club: the Shinboners from the Irish slums of the depression. North Melbourne Football Club: where Ron Joseph, Albert Mantello and Allen Aylett mortgaged their houses in the quest for a VFL Premiership. North Melbourne Football Club: who sacked the game’s greatest player in the name of principle. North Melbourne Football Club: part of the fabric of Australia’s great game.
North Melbourne Football Club: a club with soul.
North Melbourne will live through this era and beyond it. And it will continue to fight with its soul.