Tomorrow is a day of hopes, dreams and nerves. It is a time many have yearned for. A vital moment in the lives of thousands of Australians. The day the Australian Football League holds its national draft. Across the country, alone and in groups, huddled around radios and the Internet, footy fans will be hoping for the recruitment of a saviour. For the player, or players, who will lead their club to the promised land - to the premiership.
Such hopes bring considerable pleasure.
“I love this time”, one fan told me. “You’re always optimistic that every one of the draftees will be a superstar.” The football media helps fuel these dreams. “This is the most exciting part of the year”, wrote a Western Bulldogs fan - with the nom-de-web “always right” - on one of the footy Internet forums. “Every young player up to about pick number 30 is a budding champion. I love reading the papers listing your draft picks. You’ve never seen them play but the description of each player is usually so glowing that it’s difficult to see how we’re going to squeeze them all into our team without dropping Westy and Johnno.”
Aussie-rules is commonly described as a religion, and days like this help us see why. For the readiness of many footy fans to embrace such hope is a sign of their faith that the premiership they so long for truly is on its way. The promising attributes of the new recruits are taken as portents of glory because glory is what is expected, it is what should be coming.
But the hope that this faith fuels is double-edged. For hope opens the door to the suffering that most football fans know only too well - the frustrations of failure, the anguish of lost dreams, the tragedy of being on the verge of great triumph only to have it snatched away. And at times it seems like the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was thinking of football fans when he pronounced hope to be the “worst of all evils, for it protracts the torment of man”.
The dangers of hope lend an air of anxiety to the anticipation of the national draft. Moments of concern punctuate the intoxicating descriptions of prospective players on Internet forums. Will the incredibly athletic Nicholas Naitanui develop the decision-making skills and awareness to become a dominant player? Is the consummate midfielder Daniel Rich a tad too slow? Would recruiting Ben Cousins be worth the risk?
Debates rage over the merits of individual players and clubs selection policies, rumours swirl, and fans pore over innumerable test results and snippets of video footage, compiling wish-lists but knowing that someone else will get to make the final choice.
Though it is the future which is at stake, the past constantly features. Everyone wants the new Chris Judd or Lance Franklin, while no one wants to be like the Adelaide Crows and miss out on a player like Matthew Pavlich. When a club selects a relatively unknown youngster over someone with supposedly better credentials, or fails to redress perceived weaknesses, fans can react with disappointment and anger. “I feel like someone in my family has died. Went for an hour walk to clear my head and emotions” wrote an Essendon follower when they passed over the much-hyped Rhys Palmer for the lesser-known David Myers. But most fans are quick to search for positive stories and deeds which show that the unexpected recruits selected by their club will deliver the glory they crave.
A Sydney supporter summed up this process, noting that “The more i read about Ves [Patrick Veszpremi], the happier i feel [sic]”. The national draft generally remains then, a site of feverish, uneasy hope; the bitter recriminations will come later.
Bruce Dawe concluded his wonderful poem on the Life-Cycle of Aussie-rules barrackers with elderly fans still “loyally crying Carn … Carn (if feebly) unto the very end/ Having seen in the six-foot recruit from Eaglehawk their hope of salvation”.
Dawe wrote this poem at a time when the end of spring and the summer that followed was a time off for Aussie-rules fans and players. A time of recovery, a time of cricket. Back then barrackers would first hear of the new recruits in the preseason that began at the end of summer, and a strange hope would rise that this season might somehow be different, that a premiership victory was on its way. But now this hope rises earlier, and the national draft at the end of November has become one of the most eagerly awaited moments in the seasonal lives of many Australian football fans - a time when faith is renewed and a nervous hope reigns.
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