Melbored? – Gosch’s Paddock

Jack Watts watches his teammate stretching. Because stretching is fascinating.

Jack Watts watches his teammate stretching. Because stretching is fascinating.

This article first appeared in Farrago (Issue 4, 2013)

With no disrespect to the Neighbours cast or the gangland community, the closest thing Melbourne has to celebrities are footballers.

If they’re not on the back pages of our two tabloid newspapers, you can almost guarantee they’ll be on be front – either modelling a designer t-shirt or being kicked out of a nightclub.

On week days, they make presentations at primary school assemblies, and promote Swisse Ultivites on radio. On weekends, they’re the gods of the city, going about their business in front of thousands of worshippers.

To meet one’s favourite footballer, however, one doesn’t need to line up outside a red-carpet award ceremony. Nor is it necessary for one to stalk their hero’s twitter feed, in search of clues or misplaced GPS co-ordinates.

Rather, if you’re the kind of footy supporter who gets school-girl crushes on elite athletes, all you need to do is google the training times of your favourite club, and accordingly rock up at a public park.

When I ventured to Gosch’s Paddock to watch my beloved Melbourne Demons practice, all that separated me from my idols was a thin wire fence. It was an odd feeling knowing that this group of men were existing simultaneously on a poster in my bedroom and on the oval in front of me. But the novelty soon wore off, to the point where I began feeling a tad invasive. Every time I made eye contact with the players, I wondered what on earth those men must think of me – braving the cold just to watch them do laps.

If an AFL match were a catwalk, attending a training session is like watching the supermodels change. The private, routine nature of the event makes one feel voyeuristic, yet it’s also strangely intoxicating. In no other circumstance is it acceptable to watch a group of men practice their leg stretches. But when those legs are the same legs that once scored a winning goal, the spectatorship becomes justifiable – if not normal. The greatest legitimiser, however, is the presence of the media – who gather at the oval en masse to conduct news reports on said legs.

Whereas the lines are clearly drawn on MCG game day, the segregation between player and patron at training is only temporary. After an hour of weaving, kicking, role-playing, and laughing, the players leave their enclosure and mingle with the masses.

Children get their t-shirts signed by their heroes, giving their middle-aged fathers an excuse to gather “inside information” from athletes half their age. Later that day the fathers will jump on footy message boards to inform their cyber-mates that “Maccas a top bloke, he reckons hell be back in the seniors in 2-3 weeks. He singed my sons top too – what a champ. (sic)”

As much as the supporters love this intimacy, this isn’t exactly what the clubs want. From a business perspective, keeping the fans and footballers separate is healthy marketing. Football clubs don’t want their fans to think footballers are mere mortals; they want to preserve that secret for as long as possible.

The City of Melbourne is likewise keen to withhold that information. Because they know, as well as you and I, that footballers are the only people in this city worth stalking.