When I first moved to Sydney in the late ‘eighties, there was a telephone hotline you could call that informed you of the current levels of pollution in the water of city beaches on that particular day. Having moved from landlocked Canberra in search of a mythical lifestyle that included the living by the beach, seeing bands every night, and ‘making it’, this came as a bit of a shock. More often than not the advice from the disembodied recorded voice at the other end of the line advised that the level effluent and e-coli detected in the water at Bondi was too high for any sane person to enter without the risk of exiting at the end of their swim with red eyes, a raging sore throat and a body riddled with disease. Throw in the risk of stepping on a hypodermic needle on the way back to car park, and let’s just say that the concept of the ‘Bondi Billionaire’ was still a few years off at that stage.
Around the same time period it’s possible that the small gaggle of dedicated Sydney Swans supporters who stuck by their team through thick and thin (mainly thin) may have appreciated the existence of a similar precautionary service to call before heading off to the SCG every second weekend. They were lean years for the recently transplanted South Melbourne Football Club, and like the mechanical voice rating the state of the water, the chances of the struggling Swans may well have been summed up in a similar fashion with one simple word: ‘shit’. Like the transformation of the eastern suburbs’ sparkling beaches, things for the Swans – and Sydney football in general – have come a long way since then.
Buddy, Daniel & Josh would not have been doing this without unwanted consequences in the late ‘eighties…
I’ve been thinking about Sydney a lot lately- not least because I live here – and it’s only recently that I think I’m getting a clearer idea how the Emerald City’s relationship with football works. It’s been a cautious, simmering build up since the Swans first arrived a shade over thirty years ago. It started off with outright indifference, slowly grew into begrudging acceptance, and now feels like an outright embrace (and let’s be honest – the premierships helped the love affair blossom).
Having our very first Sydney edition of Presentation Night coming up this week is what initially set off this train of thought. Having put on three shows in Melbourne, there’s now a whole different set of things to think about in the lead up to Jude Bolton and Urthboy taking to the stage with Francis Leach at the Vic on the Park. It’s exciting. I’m looking forward to hearing Jude’s take on how playing in Sydney is unique, how growing up the Blue Mountains influenced Urthboy’s music and in seeing the glorious Sydney return of Francis Leach who got his first big break in the city, hosting Triple J’s metal show, ‘Three Hours of Power’.
Jude and Urthboy practiced speaking to each other last week ahead of our show. It went well.
It’s fair to say that no other city could hope or expect to have the same relationship with footy as Melbourne, a town that in so many ways is defined by the winter game. Sydney’s relationship – to the outsider at least – seems so much more casual. ‘Fair weather’ some might say, but I think that does it a disservice. I’ve never bought into the Sydney/Melbourne rivalry. It puzzles me when people from either city go out of their way to disparage the other. As far as I can tell, they’re both great and we’re lucky to have them. Melbourne has the MCG, Sydney has the harbour. We get it. One doesn’t out-do the other and vice versa. Why can’t we all just get along?
I was lucky enough to meet up recently with Clinton Walker who has long been one of my favourite writers on Australian culture – music, motoring and sport in particular. Clinton himself is Sydney transplant who ended up north of the Barassi line via Melbourne, Brisbane and London. We were introduced by our mutual friend Toby Martin, singer, song writer and Bluebagger who thought we needed to meet up given our shared interests. I’m grateful for the introduction.
Over a strong cup of coffee in Clinton’s inner west backyard, we sat in the brilliant Sydney winter sunshine and talked about footy, music, writing, Robert Stigwood, the Bee Gees, and all things in between. Every now and then a plane rumbled overhead punctuating our conversation in the way that defines inner west living. I was grateful for the hospitality and I thought it typical of the way common interests between people who were previously unknown to each other brings them together so quickly, cutting through the ‘getting to know you’ stage quicker than a Tinder date (or so I’ve heard ) “Who do you barrack for?” “You like early Bee Gees?”. “I do love the 1969 Kingswood”. It tends to flow on from there pretty quickly.
Originally a Saints supporter as a boy growing up in the (then) outer suburbs of Melbourne and a promising junior footballer in Queensland, the lure of rock and roll and it’s attendant delights took a hold on Clinton during his teenage years and sent him in another direction, writing about music, painting and living the creative life. It’s a theme and story that underpins the entire reason that Presentation Night first spluttered into existence, and one that comes up with different variations and individual quirks the more people I’ve met over the past couple of years.
I like Clinton’s story of how he came to love the Swans and Sydney footy a lot. He puts it beautifully in his fantastic book ‘A Football Life’ where he explains his transformation from Saint to Swan by quoting Steven Stills; that if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. There’s a lot of that in the gradual embrace of the Swans within Sydney and it’s wider culture I think.
Upon settling in Sydney after a stint in London living with and writing about the Moodists, the Bad Seeds, Go Betweens and more, Clinton slowly fell in love with the Swans by virtue of circumstance and geography. They virtually played across the park from his Darlinghurst digs, and as a Victorian raised on weekly ritual of trips to Moorabbin to watch his beloved Saints as a boy, the lure of a 15 minute walk to the SCG in the days of free entry after three-quarter time held a lot of appeal. He went through the lean years of standing with 6,000 hardy souls as the Swans routinely got belted by record breaking margins. During those years the club sailed as close to the edge of collapse as it’s possible to do without actually going under. By the time the 1996 Grand Final rolled around, he’d lived through the tough times, and was as passionate a Bloods man as you’re ever likely to find.
Casual curiosity, convenience, interest, then finally, devotion. That’s the pattern in Sydney. It takes a while to get there in this town, but once people are in, they’re in for life. It was never realistic to transplant a team that grew out of the South Melbourne slums to another city and expect there to be an affiliation, or more importantly, affection straight away. It took years. The Swans had to give something to the city, to contribute something to the culture to be accepted as a part of it. I think that’s where football is at right now in Sydney. It feels like it’s accepted and liked. It’s a part of daily life. It’s earned it’s stripes.
For all that, football is by no means the stitching that brings the fabric of the city together the way it does in Melbourne. A bit like pre-internet music fandom, in Sydney you have to work a little bit harder to find footy, but once you do, that’s it.
I have a friend, Marty, who illustrates the way football – and specifically the Swans – slowly take hold in the Harbour City. Sydney born and bred, Marty is a man with an encyclopedic musical knowledge and immaculate taste. He manages and books bands, hosts a radio show on FBI, DJ’s regularly, and works for record labels. His life over the past decade has been defined by late nights, running clubs, and booking bands, with not much time for anything else. He started following the Swans with a vague interest a couple of years ago. This season, suddenly, something clicked. Now he’s at most home games, and we now spend a good deal of Monday morning going over the on-field events of the weekend past.
This week, he found himself crossing the invisible line in the sand that signals the shift from ‘interested’ to ‘in a relationship’. At some point, he realised that his weekend dinner plans clashed with the Swans v Port Adelaide game on Saturday night. He was conflicted and confused. Why did he feel anxious about missing watching the game live? This was a new feeling to him, but it gnawed away in a way that defied logical analysis. He thought about it for a while. He moved the dinner.
He didn’t need to call a hotline to find out the conditions. He’s in. The water’s fine.
Our first ever Sydney show takes place on Wednesday August 13th at the Vic on the Park in Enmore featuring Jude Bolton, Urthboy and of course, Francis Leach. Details here