There’s something special about travelling interstate to watch your team play. Professional sport in this country is based around national competitions with teams spread across this massive island continent of ours.
We’ve all seen our local team play at home, with familiar surroundings and a team that knows the ground well. The vast majority of the crowd supporting the local team. The home team will win more often than not.
Then there’s the derby, the clash against the local rival. There’s a couple of them per season. In some cases, the away derby will see you in a different seat, but at the same stadium. The stands are more populated, the support is split and there’s plenty of noise and atmosphere for both teams. There’s plenty of feeling. It’s something you look forward to all season.
For non-derby games, if you’re at home you’ll see a small pocket of away fans, outnumbered and likely to lose.
But what’s it like to be in that small pocket?
For the true diehard fan, there’s nothing like the adventure of an interstate away trip. Wearing your team colours on the flight and to the ground, lost in a sea of opposition colours. There’s a pride in being there, vastly outnumbered by the locals. You’re there to fly the flag for your team and to be as vocal as you can so your team knows that even in a hostile environment, they aren’t alone.
Supporters who may not be part of the vocal cheer squad group at home will join them for an interstate trip. If you’ve travelled to fly the flag for your club, to be around your own kind and get some sort of critical mass to generate support is part of the experience.
For the AFL’s newest team, Greater Western Sydney Giants, last Sunday saw them make their first visit to Melbourne, taking on Carlton at Docklands. They are a new club and are yet to win a game. Surely no-one would be there to follow them, would they?
I’d checked myself in for a 6:30am flight, and was pleasantly surprised at the gate to see a couple decked out in the charcoal and orange, also flying down for the game. Touching down at Tullamarine, I took the bus into Melbourne and had a stroll through the city.
It was too early for most fans to be arriving, but there were the odd comments from passers-by. “Go Blues” said many, some wearing their navy merchandise. “Wow, a Giants supporter! Didn’t think there’d be any down here”. Many were happy to talk footy.
Then back to Southern Cross Station and over the bridge to the Docklands. It was overcast, but the roof was open. By now, fans were coming in on the trains. Navy blue everywhere, but the occasional sighting of a person in orange. A sponsor was giving away Giants badges. The Giants had a membership marquee up and merchandise stands were doing a busy trade. With this being GWS’s first game in Melbourne, there was a reasonable amount of charcoal and orange merchandise being sold.
Our seats were behind the goals at the southern end. The cheer squad had flown down with some flags, but Docklands regulations mean the flags are smaller than what are waved in Sydney. Slowly but surely the grandstands fill, a running tally coming up on the small scoreboard panels.
And a contingent of Giants fans make their way in. Anyone spotted near the cheer squad area in charcoal and orange is invited to move around to the cheer squad area. Some decline, but most accept. Some have flown down from Sydney, but a surprisingly high number are locals. An oasis of orange in a desert of navy blue.
The players run through their banners, as the team songs are played. As the players take their positions for the game to start, the cheer squad capo jumps to his feet. “Give us a G”, “Give us an I” and so on. “What does it spell?” And the cheer squad come to life “GIANTS”. Applause echoes around the ground. The Carlton fans nearby certainly heard us.
Carlton are kicking to our end in the first quarter and they’re soon on the attack. The Blues have a set shot to our end, a tough angle but not too far out. Trying to put him off, the flags wave and the kick is off-line. But soon the Blues have three goals.
Not that Carlton getting the jump daunts the spirit of the Giants’ fans. After goals, at various throw-ins and ball-ups, the capo jumps up to generate more noise. “Let’s go Giants, let’s go”, hands clap and feet are stamped, echoing and shaking the retractable grandstand.
But the Giants fought back. Setanta o’hAilpin, discarded from Carlton and given another chance with the Giants, spearheads the charge with a couple of goals late in the quarter. A few ignorant Carlton fans boo, but O’hAilpin had been delisted by Carlton before signing with the Giants.
The Giants played with plenty of spirit. It was hard and physical, the young Giants throwing their all into every contest, tackling with vigour and denying the Blues any easy possessions. Twice the Giants levelled the scores and the orange flags waved proudly. Hopes of an upset were raised. Carlton scored two late goals to lead by 10 points at half time, but if Carlton had come into the game expecting a walk in the park, they knew now that they were being given a run for their money.
But the Giants were never able to take the lead, and more concerning was the injury toll of their talls. Dean Brogan damaged his shoulder, but although he tried to return to the action, it just wasn’t working and he had to be subbed out of the game. O’hAilpin went over on his knee, and looks to be out for the season. Jonathan Giles copped a knock and his game was over.
The young players who are still developing struggled to complete such a hard, physical game. And with the tall players out of action, the team struggled to last the distance and the Blues took control. For all their efforts, the Giants had become the walking wounded, and were unable to manage a score in the final quarter. The Blues got a run-on to win by 67 points.
The grandstands on the side, quiet during the first half, began to cheer louder as the Blues asserted themselves. The capo sings out “You only sing when you’re winning” before again springing to his feet to attempt another chant to lift the Giants. But a strong first half has faded, and the Giants will have to wait another week for their breakthrough win.
The final siren sounds, the Carlton song plays on the PA system. The Giants players come to our bay, and the cheer squad clap their hands in appreciation of their efforts. The Giants players respond, then throw footballs into the crowd, souvenirs for the lucky. They came, they saw, and although they didn’t conquer, they showed courage in adversity and continued to develop.
At the after-match function, coach Kevin Sheedy was upbeat despite the loss. Always the optimist, always the visionary, he is loving his role and what his club stands for. Already, 23 players have made their AFL debut at the club this season, and there’s plenty more who will get their chance this season. This game is giving our top sportspeople more opportunities than ever and more reason to choose our game.
And then it was time to fly home. Without victory, but with the knowledge that our team never surrendered in the face of adversity.
And for the fans that travelled, to have put in the hard yards with the team they know that even in Carlton’s territory, there is a place for the Giants.
This is the experience that hardens the most casual fan and turns them into the true supporter – the interstate away trip. Whatever your sport, whatever your club, don’t miss the chance of doing an interstate away trip.