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‘Now, I love the game but my argument is that the thing that people love about football is that it’s social.’

Born in Richmond and an avid Collingwood supporter, Melissa Walsh tapped her passion for the great Australian game in her thesis on memory in AFL spectators.

Words by Ronelle Richards
 

‘I actually started doing a combined Law and Arts degree and I worked out pretty much from day one that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I got to third year in my undergrad and I suddenly went ‘You idiot, you’re a historian: that’s what you’ve been doing the whole time’.

It hadn’t twigged until then that that was the thing I loved and kept coming back to and kept enjoying.

So that’s when I did my Honours in history and went and trained as a history teacher and went on from there. Then, when I was on maternity leave – my son’s nearly 11 – that was the time where I thought I would go back and do more study, and when I went on to do my PhD.

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I suppose it does partly go back to growing up in Richmond where I could walk to the MCG, and walk to Victoria Park, and footy culture was really part of my school. It was Richmond and it was Collingwood. I’ve always barracked for Collingwood but it was through friendship that I really got interested in football and I would go every week. I was there when Collingwood won in 1990.

In the mid-1990s there were lots of changes in football culture and I began to be interested more in a critical sense, trying to understand the processes involved in the nationalisation and corporatisation of the competition. There was much talk about ‘the end of football’.

But football didn’t end, people didn’t stop going to the football. I wanted to know how fans accommodated those changes. Did personal rituals persist, and did this help fans’ ability to add meaning in their interest in the game? I figured that doing oral history — interviewing football followers — was a way in which to probe that.

In the mid-1990s there were lots of changes in football culture and I began to be interested more in a critical sense, trying to understand the processes involved in the nationalisation and corporatisation of the competition. There was much talk about ‘the end of football’.

Firstly, I discovered that in the late 2oth century there developed a “popular memory” about Australian Rules football fans — that they have “always” been dedicated supporters of a particular club.

But when I looked at the archival material from the 19th century and up to the middle of the 20th century, I discovered that there were many who publicly criticised and questioned the ways in which spectators behaved.

I was able to build the argument that there is a popular mythology or legend about Australian football spectators that really crystallised over the last 30 years.

In periods of change and transformation, societies and groups tend to look back to the past and construct simpler stories about the way things used to be.

The important question to me was: ‘How do football fans today negotiate the legend? Does the popular myth of the football fan — partisan, passionate, loyal, demonstrative — neatly match up with fans’ lived experience?’

All of the people I interviewed still have a favourite player. My favourite player of all time is Gavin Crosisca who wore number 28 for Collingwood and who kicked two goals in the 1990 grand final. I still have a picture of him on my fridge, even though he has been retired for so long.

I draw this conclusion: people still have a favourite player and it’s someone who they picked in adolescence, someone they loved as a kid or as a teenager and it’s a love that just continues over the years as mine has for Gavin.

‘How do football fans today negotiate the legend? Does the popular myth of the football fan — partisan, passionate, loyal, demonstrative — neatly match up with fans’ lived experience?’

The other key thing that I’ve learnt in my research is a really big deal is made about the game. ‘It’s the best game on earth’ sort of thing.

Now, I love the game but my argument is that the thing that people love about football is that it’s social. What I really found was that people have a pretty scant recollection about what happens on the field.

But what people remember are the social interactions. When people stop going to the football it is often because of shifting social dynamics.

At the moment, I work as a facilitator in the Big Issue [magazine] classroom, working with guest speakers in how they tell their story and how they shape their narrative. I think producing the thesis has made me a much more attuned listener.

I also work three days a week at Young Christian Workers (YCW) as an archivist and historian, and one of the reasons they’ve employed me is because I’ve got an oral history background. We’re running a big national oral history project to gather people’s life stories about their membership.

I think the biggest implication [of my research] is to offer a new way of covering history about football fans, a way that looks at personal experience and interrogates the ways in which stories about personal experience are told.’

Melissa Walsh’s thesis was titled: “Re-calling the Game: Oral History, Popular Memory and Followers of Australian Rules Football”.

My PhD is an irregular series in which The Citizen speaks with recent Melbourne University PhD graduates. 

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