Award-winning journalist and proud Essendon supporter Rohan Connolly has joined the essendonfc.com.au team for 2018. Throughout this season Connolly will be providing his insight for Bombers fans through one-on-one interviews with each of the club’s celebrated Bomber Legends and weekly match previews. In this first instalment of his work with Essendon Connolly explores his history with the red and black.
Why do you barrack for Essendon? Like all football supporters, it’s a question I’ve been asked a lot. And like most, the answer is simple. It was a family thing. I had no choice.
My parents had arrived in Melbourne from Western Australia in 1955, moving into a house in Marco Polo Street, Essendon, about 500 metres from Windy Hill. If that didn’t make the choice for them simple enough, dad had been a staunch supporter of Perth, who wore the same uniform of black with a red sash as Essendon.
By the time I came along 10 years later, the Connolly family were firmly ensconced in the south eastern suburbs, but the allegiance stuck. And to be honest, it wasn’t always easy.
The early 1970s were tough times for a young Essendon fan living in the heart of Richmond’s metropolitan recruiting zone, the Tigers winning premiership after premiership, the Bombers stuck near the bottom of the ladder.
My older brother Steve had worn a Bomber jumper with Ken Fraser’s No.23 on the back. When I finally inherited it, the No.23 was instead being worn by the rather less-celebrated Peter Hickmott.
But my levels of enthusiasm about my barracking destiny rose markedly early in 1972 when after years of conservatism, Essendon boldly went out and poached Collingwood star Des Tuddenham as captain-coach.
I immediately swapped the No.23 for his No.8, and at the age of seven, began going to watch the Bombers every week. It’s a habit that another 46 years haven’t changed, even if the venues and the spectating arrangements often have.
Steve and I used to stand behind the Napier Street end goals, which always felt a lot safer than the visiting cheer squad end we frequented when we had to travel to Victoria Park, Western Oval or Moorabbin.
In my mid-teens, we lashed out on reserved seats on the wing, just below the TV commentary position. But by the age of 20, I was spending most winter Saturdays, then later Sundays, Friday nights, you name it, in the press box.
And yes, more than a few of my colleagues over the years would attest that while my viewing circumstances had changed, my demeanour at any game featuring Essendon probably didn’t.
Yes, there were embarrassments. Breaking my hand on the desk at Waverley in the late ‘80s as the Dons threatened to blow a game they should have had won. A score of pens shattered over the years after I’d hurled them against press box windows.
I’m still ribbed about the infamous 1999 preliminary final defeat to Carlton, when after having turned on an Essendon-supporting colleague who’d dared tell me to tone it down, then having to head into the joyous Blues’ rooms, my laptop computer packed up mid-story and I promptly hurled it across the desks.
There’s the time I was sitting next to my then (for the finals) Sunday Age colleague Leigh Matthews, who to his credit barely even flinched when in my excitement at Essendon’s comeback from a seven-goal deficit in the 1993 preliminary final, I jumped up and accidentally knocked his scalding hot coffee all over his previously white shirt.
Fortunately, “Lethal”, the consummate professional, decided to go easy on me. “Jeez Rohan,” he said, deadpan, “I didn’t realise you were that passionate about them.”
Passionate about the game, I’d say, the team I grew up following fortunately for me also a vehicle for a career I craved with the same passion from the same age my love affair with football began.
And it’s not always easy ground to traverse. Of course once people become aware of which team a football journalist supports he will be accused of bias towards it. It’s an occupational hazard of which we’re all conscious. And indeed, the determination to report and write fairly often leads to accusations about “being too hard on your own”, a compliment of sorts.
But criticism of the club one follows (and for obvious reasons there’s been scope for that with Essendon in recent years) and a certain professional detachment fortunately doesn’t have to compromise the identification with club.
For me, Essendon has always been an exciting team to follow. There were the original “Baby Bombers”, the likes of Tim Watson, Paul Vander Haar, Glenn Hawker and Merv Neagle, all only a few years older than me.
There was Kevin Sheedy’s arrival in 1981 ushering in a whole new spirit of adventure in what had traditionally been a conservative club.
There were the triumphs of 1984-85, a 19-year premiership drought broken in an incredible burst of nine last-quarter goals and the sheer beauty of that blind turn by another all-time favourite of mine, Leon Baker, my long-suffering teenage mates and I in tears of joy on the outer MCG wing amidst a cacophony of Bomber delight.
Symbolically, and perhaps appropriately, that game was one of the last I watched in the crowd without any professional duties attached. But I would still have the delight of reporting on other Essendon premierships, the 1993 flag spearheaded by a whole new batch of “Baby Bombers” another highlight.
That is an emotional memory for other reasons, too. As I strode out on to the MCG with other media post-siren that day, I could see my father Keith and my brother Steve in the stands beaming with delight, an image I cherish.
Both, sadly, departed this world long ago. Indeed, Steve would die at the age of 36 less than two years later.
But until then, he never stopped talking about the “miracle of ‘93”. And about how grateful he was I was able to get him into the Windy Hill rooms the next day and how he got to hold the premiership cup. I love the fact the engraved paving stone we had laid for him out the front of the ground in Napier Street is a perpetual reminder of the place we grew up together.
I’ve long ago passed the Essendon-supporting baton on to my own children. At 22, my daughter Andrea has put up with a barren spell as long as I endured as a kid. She at least knows the sense of excitement that comes with following the Dons. And I remain hopeful she’ll also get to experience the ultimate joy that comes with following a football team.
Me? I’m still loving the game, still loving the opportunity to write and talk in various forums about a passion and be paid for it, and now, grateful for the chance to provide some insights into the team which has been a huge part of my life.
I won’t shirk my professional obligations. I’ll be critical when it’s deserved. And keep just as close an eye on and acknowledge the triumphs and tragedies of all 18 AFL clubs. But yes, I am a Bomber. I had no choice. And all these years later, I’m pretty glad I didn’t.
Good move by the club. Hopefully similar to what Robert Shaw was putting out a couple of years ago. Will be better than the garbage Neil Craig was putting out when he was with the club!