Football has an innate ability to invade our memories and recycle the past. A reminder of youth. A reminder of a garage and a cat. Of bullets and tools. Of a clock and an old radio.
Reminders. Of what happened when I was a kid. I remember 1978, when North Melbourne won their first eight games. I was seven years old.
I grew up in Oak Park. A suburban house on a quarter acre block on the corner of Jacaranda Street and Willet Avenue. A two-car garage built before I can remember sat on the high side of the block. It was a working garage, filled with tools. My father, Bill, did not pay tradesmen to do anything.
At the back of the garage, Bill built a huge bench complete with a vice and woodworking tools. Hanging on the wall above the bench was a big-faced, century-old railway clock. Tucked into a shelf on the right hand side of the bench was a small, old single speaker radio with a huge tuning dial.
The shelf also contained a box of wooden joiners, small cylinders shaped like bullets. Our cat, Mehitabel, Pussy for short, would sleep in that box of joiners. She was named after the comic strip, Archy and Mehitabel. Archy was a cockroach, a free verse poet. Mehitabel was an alley cat. They were best mates.
I loved Mehitabel, but I always called her Pussy. It seems funny now, a seven year old boy calling for Pussy at the back door.
If I did that now, no Pussy would come and I’d probably be arrested.
Pussy was a multi-coloured tabby, brown, white, ginger, black and yellow. She was not always the best behaved cat. My mum, Patsy, who named her Mehitabel, said she was from a litter of cats rescued from a tabby who was sleeping rough. In other words, feral.
And Pussy was not averse to the odd scratch or bite.
In 1978, during North’s undefeated eight game stretch, there were some big wins, 69-points against Footscray, 73-points against Richmond and 76-points against Melbourne. North defeated our fiercest rival, Hawthorn, by 25-points and backed up our 1977 premiership with a nine point win against Collingwood during that stretch.
North Melbourne was flying. But the streak was not without punishment. David Dench did a knee in round three and missed the year. I recall a mate, Paul Whitfield, telling me Dench’s absence would hurt us badly.
There were all manner of injuries throughout that stretch, to Stan Alves, Phil Baker, Brent Croswell and Stephen Icke. Whitfield ended up being right, but his foreboding words went beyond Dench. Injury became collective calamity as the season wore on.
In round nine, North went to Princes Park to play Carlton. The Blues were eighth, two games out of the five. The Roos were on top, two games clear of Hawthorn.
On form, it should have been a cinch.
Bill was at work. Patsy did not order me outside. She just made it clear that she did not want to listen to the football. Back then, our family had a black three-in-one stereo in the lounge room. We did not have radios in our bedroom. If I wanted to listen to the football, I had to go to the garage.
That was fine. I was alone. With all those tools. I belted a few tiny nails into the bench with a small hammer. Rustling through Bill’s screw and bolt draws, I found a handful of .22 bullets scattered throughout.
I was rugged up, a singlet, jumper and coat. Listening to the broadcast on the old radio. Alone in the garage, patting Pussy in the box of joiners. She was curled up, sleeping. I left her alone and rotated bullets between my fingers.
I did not know it then, but North Melbourne’s record at Princes Park was appalling. From memory, in 1978 we had won just three or four times at Carlton’s home ground in forty years. Princes Park seemed a dead zone.
And so it went. Carlton jumped us, six goals to three in the first quarter. They held us scoreless in the second quarter to take a six goal lead in at half-time.
Carlton led by 28-points at three quarter time. Pussy was gone, inside for the heater and dinner. The day was darkening as the final quarter started. I was rolling bullets. I kept looking at the railway clock, hoping for more time.
I cannot remember the radio station I was listening to, but I recall a commentator saying that’s how easy it is after Carlton kicked another goal. With juvenile hope, I kept looking at the clock as Carlton’s lead blew out beyond 50-points. The final margin was 58-points.
Trudging inside, for a bath and dinner, I argued with the family to watch The Big League and was overruled because North had lost.
In the days following, I thought it was a wakeup call. History shows North Melbourne made the grand final in 1978, but injury and suspension ruined any chance at becoming premiers. Hawthorn were the premiers.
For a seven year old, it was hard to deal with. I don’t think I have ever gotten over it.
I am no longer seven. I know and understand much more about football than I did then. But the basics remain the same. North Melbourne should beat Carlton this weekend, like they should have in 1978. Amazing how football has thrown up the same scenario it did 38-years ago.
North with eight wins to start the season. Carlton a game and a whack of percentage outside the eight. On the rise. Looking to knock off the top club.
Forgive me if I feel uneasy.
There are differences. Age differences. The garage at Oak Park is gone. Burned to death in 1983. The fire destroyed everything, including Patsy’s Mini Moke and our cabin cruiser, Moonraker. All of Bill’s tools.
The fire was so intense Patsy feared it might transfer to the house, which was ten metres away. The fire was investigated by the arson squad and the fire department. The cause was never known.
Mehitabel was put down in 1987. Pussy must have been 15-years-old. I was on holiday when my parents made the decision. When they told me, I tried to act nonchalant. Pussy used to seek me out. It was my bed she slept on. I fed her. She sat on my lap.
I’ve never been that close to a cat since. Never owned one. She scratched me on occasion.
North Melbourne has scratched me a few times too. Grand final losses. Years of mediocrity.
Football has scratched me too. And those scratches keep throwing themselves up. Round nine, 1978 has become round nine, 2016. North Melbourne against Carlton, just like it was way back then.
Perhaps it is the juvenile part of my brain, but I can’t help but think the 1978 team was better. And like 1978, there is a team lurking that could kill our grand final. Hawthorn. The best going around.
There are other teams, Sydney and Geelong. Both handy, both experienced. I can’t help but think our best might not equal their best.
And that leads me to the folly of winning. Every win is the beginning of defeat.
After winning eight straight in 1978, North faltered, winning eight and losing six of the remaining fourteen games. We finished on top, 16 wins and six losses. Hawthorn were second with the same win-loss ratio but a lower percentage.
After winning eight straight in 2016, North is expected to beat Carlton.
Forgive me if I am sceptical.
When North Melbourne plays Carlton on Saturday night, I will be in my own garage, the Arden Street Bar. No one will order me outside. I will go willingly. I will not be banging nails into my bench, folding bullets or stroking Pussy.
I will be alone. I will be willing North to win. I will be watching the clock.
I have my own railway clock now, gifted from my grandmother. Not as big as the one burned in the garage, but no less grand. It sits in my lounge room. I wind it occasionally. The tick-tock is very loud. It keeps me awake so I usually let it sit idle.
I will not be winding it this weekend. I will set at the time the game starts. The hands will not move. History be damned. North Melbourne will have enough time to win. This is 2016, not 1978.
(Apologies for not writing more this year. Some of you might be relieved by that. I have a side project that is taking up all my spare writing