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Down and out on the sidelines of history

Any player who says during grand final week, “It’s all about the team”, is either a certainty to be playing in the game, or employing the appropriate rhetoric because he understands it’s undignified to tell the truth about his feelings.

The best of whatever love there is in a team comes from shared experience, that old way of respect between players who have suffered together – physically and emotionally – and then leant on each other in relief. So, in spite of any love that a player might have for a few of his teammates, he will not feel much of it around him if he is not chosen to play alongside them in a grand final.

“Team” is an abstract idea, a thing we fashion from a need to be lifted up, and out, of that empty place in our minds – that place you remain in when a team is long gone; or a wife; or a dream. The promise of a team is to get some relief from that place, and perhaps make a new one to call your own.

‘in spite of any love that a player might have for a few of his teammates, he will not feel much of it around him if he is not chosen to play alongside them in a grand final.’

Surely there’s more to it, you say. Maybe there is, but try sitting in a crowd of 100,000 people, anonymous while your team wrestles history without you. The self will come roaring back to life in the form of a lump in your chest, one that desperately wants to be thrown back into that team so it can dissolve again.

Watching teammates dance and embrace when a premiership is won creates the most curious, and confusing, flux of emotions for a sportsperson. To be wearing a suit, for instance, surrounded by battered bodies on the MCG while the medals drop around their necks, is to have less presence than a ghost. It’s a crash course in how to mime happiness, and how to stand upright when you’d rather sink.

And it’s in the nature of some players, I think, to experience a wave of envy, even resentment, for a team that goes on and wins a premiership without them. But equally, it’s every player’s desire to rise above these feelings and never let them be known, so that if they can’t have their team, they can at least have their dignity.

Regardless of how much of themselves a player has given up to be in a team, it remains a melancholy truth that if he doesn’t play with his team in a premiership, he has vanished, absent from the cold archives, and from the warm reunions. But this all makes sense. It’s how it has to be. It’s a wager that every player and coach makes when they set out with real ambition. To win big, you have to be willing to lose.

It’s the prospect of missing out when history knocks that helps give such value to the experience of those sneaky few who have the mettle, and good fortune, to be there when it counts. All of this is a solemn truth that settles on a few players every year and, perhaps unfairly, makes a tragic figure of them.

My friend Ben McGlynn has watched a couple, and felt a bit tragic. Now he’s got the chance to play in one. He takes this kind of thing to heart, as every player must if it is all going to mean anything.

Another of our friends, Brad Sewell, has played in a couple already, and may or may not play this week in another. The doors swing open and closed.

A few days after the grand final, a few players from both clubs will stand on a cliff top in Indonesia watching a mutual friend marry. Some will have played in the grand final and lost. Some will be premiership players. And some will have sat in the crowd with envious eyes.

Whatever happens, they will all share a drink and a story. They will congratulate and console, comfort and confess. They’ll be a team, if you like, of their own making.

Tim Boyle played 31 games for Hawthorn from 2005-08.

This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.