Jews and the AFL: Some of my best friends and relatives are Carlton supporters, but
This week the NAB cup started again, and those of us suffering from summer-long withdrawal symptoms have regained our voice. But more prescient is the link between Jews and the AFL. Anyone can point to those Jews who are influential in the AFL – Graeme Samuel as master of the universe, those who are prominent at club level such as David Smorgon and Ross Levin, commentators such as Mark Fine on SEN, the only AFL senior player Todd Goldstein, and those who serve as medical professionals such as Harry Unglik.
But the real question everyone wants answered is how many Jews support each AFL club. Well I am going to answer that query by delving back into my own history. From 1972-1981 I attended the Burwood campus of Mount Scopus College. And in those days every male Jew had a football team, and almost every male Jew wore one of those old VFL woolen jumpers to sports sessions. Mine was Fitzroy which requires some explanation given that we neither lived in Fitzroy or had any connection with Fitzroy, and didn’t even know Ernie Joseph, the Jewish businessman, who was then President of Fitzroy.
In fact, my father had grown up in an avid St Kilda-supporting household. But, his first love was cricket and St Kilda Cricket Club in particular. So when St Kilda Football Club left the home of the St Kilda Cricket Club – the Junction Oval – in 1964 to play their home games at Moorabbin, he felt betrayed. So he stopped supporting St Kilda Football Club which he regarded as traitors. Then when Fitzroy moved to the Junction Oval in 1970, he adopted them as his new team. So that’s how I came to support the maroon and blue.
But I was in a small minority. I would estimate from my admittedly imperfect memory the roll call in Grade 3 (1972) as follows: about 60 per cent Carlton, 20 per cent St Kilda, 10 per cent Collingwood, a small number of Essendon and Richmond, one South Melbourne, no Melbourne, no Footscray, no North Melbourne, no Geelong and no Hawthorn. There was one other Fitzroy supporter who soon left the school. A later replacement also departed quickly. They were obviously pussies rather than lions. The breakdown in secondary school changed little. One or two Melbourne supporters popped up, and the St Kilda supporters became quieter and quieter in the dismal post-Alan Jeans era. There were also a few South Africans who either stuck to rugby, or alternatively were too gentle to support AFL.
So why Carlton? I assumed it was because many of their parents had first lived in Carlton after arriving in Melbourne as refugees from Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s. And there was also a bit of group think and conformity involved. At that time, Carlton was the most successful club in the competition, boasting Big Nick, the flying doormat Bruce Doull, Robert Walls, the great indigenous goal sneak Sid Jackson, and the greatest of them all – Jezza. When the kids flew for marks, they would all yell Jezza – trying to imitate Jesaulenko’s famous mark over the hapless Graeme Jenkin in the 1970 Grand Final. I would yell Ruscuklic when I flew for a mark – he was the high-flying Fitzroy full-forward in the early 1970s – but no one took any notice.
I hated the Carlton masses. Their fanaticism and arrogance bred in me a life-long dislike for the Carlton Football Club that has only mellowed slightly over the years as they transformed from leader to also-ran. I remember almost every Monday morning on the school bus, two older Carlton supporters would taunt me as I jumped into my seat: “What happened to Fitzroy?” The sneer would be even louder when Fitzroy had fallen victim to Carlton. And that is to say nothing of Carlton stealing Fitzroy’s champion young wingman Frank Marchesani at the end of 1980, or John Elliott’s later despicable refusal to allow Fitzroy to attain match-day reserved seat or catering fees whilst they were guests at Princes Park from 1987-93.
Has much changed since the 1970s? In pure numerical terms I think not much. The many wooden spoons Carlton acquired in the last decade don’t seem to have reduced their avid Jewish support base. Three of my closest Jewish friends and my uncle, who lives in Israel, still passionately support them. St Kilda also still seem to have plenty of Jewish supporters spurred by their relative success of the last five or so years. A few other clubs have or have had Jewish Presidents and committee members, but lack major Jewish rank and file support. But nobody has done an empirical survey. Surely the Monash Centre for Jewish Civilisation can offer a scholarship for a worthy scholar to investigate this important topic.
Philip Mendes was greatly saddened by the death of Fitzroy in 1996, but after some grief moved on and regularly attends North Melbourne games with his son Lucas. He retains a long-term ambition, however, to write a book on his younger AFL memories to be titled, “Superboot Bernie Quinlan and Fitzroy’s last Golden Era, 1978-86.”