Dustin Fletcher: So Long and Thanks For all the Fish

 

Mid-September 1993.

The early spring sun and bright blue sky surrounds me. After a typical Melbourne winter, never underestimate the way the first blue skies and warm sun of spring can lift people’s spirits. Never also underestimate the spring it can put in the step if your team is involved in the finals. After a season in which my beloved Bombers were meant to take a hit as a new generation replaced Foulds, Watson, Madden, Daniher, Anderson and Grenvold, they not only finished on top of the ladder, but are considered a red-hot chance to win the 1993 premiership. It’s true that everything’s better when it’s sunny.

I’m supposed to be studying for an Arts degree at Victoria University of Technology – known as V.U.T. I should have been in a tutorial, maybe even in the library doing some study, but instead, I’m sitting in my car, parked down near the Maribyrnong River. Behind me is Footscray Park and ubiquitous palm trees where there’s no conceivable reason for palm trees to be. Directly opposite me on the Maribyrnong is Flemington racecourse. A cyclone fence, some stables and industrial gardening equipment separates me from an uninterrupted head-on view of the straight six. You can’t quite smell the roses just yet, but there’s no doubt the track manager’s focus is well and truly fixed on that first week of November.

I’m reading the little paper; specifically a story about a young James Hird who’s in a race to be fit for the remainder of Essendon’s finals campaign. I can’t recall who wrote the article, but as well as Hird, the article talks about Sheeds’ Baby Bombers’ and how, despite losing to Carlton by a solitary point in their Qualifying final, Mercuri, Misiti, Calthorpe, Olarenshaw, Hills, Hirdy and Wanganeen continue to confound expectations. Special praise is reserved for Dustin Fletcher – at the time known mostly for being the son of former captain, Ken, and standing Ablett, Modra, Lockett, Dunstall and most famously, Stephen Kernahan all while doing his VCE at Essendon Grammar. And all this in his debut season, no less.

By contrast I’m a remarkably immature 21 years old. I have absolutely no idea what it is that I want to do. All I know is that I believe I need a University degree if I’m to get anywhere. My course – Cultural Studies – shits me to tears. To this day, the mere mention of either Stuart Hall or the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies has me reaching for a handful of Xanax and a vodka flavored vodka drink. The only study stream I truly enjoyed was Drama.

My drama studies lecturer – he was more of an MC, truth be known – was Peter Green. Peter’s experience in Australian theatre and film was pretty solid; La Mamma, The Pram Factory, a stack of films from the 70s and 80s as well as some solid TV Helper roles (non-headline parts that help make or break a show. The same exists in movies. John Cazale, for example, is the King of Movie Helper. Watch him in The Godfather films or Dog Day Afternoon if you’re still not sure what TV or Movie Helper is).

Peter knew Barry Dickins, whose work I had discovered and loved through columns in The Age newspaper and his books in VUT’s library, quite well. Dickins was the first writer I’d come across whose writing made kicking a footy on paddocks in Preston sound like pure poetry. Instead of cultural cringe, Barry’s words celebrated shirts v skins, broken bones, jumpers as ad-hoc goal posts, Mum or Dad calling you in for dinner and playing on well past twilight, even though you couldn’t see a thing. It was like Barry had been watching our games of street footy in Sandpiper Street. Peter had acted in a few of Barry’s plays and had more than a few bottles of wine with Barry. It was interesting to talk to Peter about what kind of a bloke Barry was, and it was interesting to listen to Peter talk about the ins and outs of acting. Above all he was a great teacher.

While I wasted time at Uni, my passions were directed towards music. I was playing drums (half-arsedly on reflection) in a couple of punk and power-pop indie bands. Such is the adorable innocence of quixotic youth that I believed at least one of these bands might somehow rise to the top of Melbourne’s huge punk-rock scene of the 90s and equal the feats of bands like Spiderbait, Bodyjar, Hoss, The Poppin’ Mammas, Bored! and The Hard-Ons. I was hoping to become one of the lucky few who could make a living from playing music.

Band practice took place in Abbotsford just near the brewery. The space had been converted from some kind of warehouse to rehearsal rooms. They were run by some hardcore punks with equally hardcore smack habits, and had a lot of friends and hangers-on with equally hardcore habits who’d be hanging around in the ‘office’. You’d collect your mics and cables from the office and see various human forms in the background in the throws of the nods, listening to anything from GG Allin to Rancid to Velvet Underground to Neil Young or to The Beatles (the White Album, natch.).

My weeknights at this time are spent delivering pizzas. I used to work in a McDonald’s, but I got the arse for ‘stealing’ an orange juice. It was a Saturday morning and I was hung-over after being out at the Commercial Hotel in Werribee the night before. I hid behind an ice-making machine and down the hatch went that sweet orange concentrate. I didn’t think anyone would see me. I was wrong. It didn’t help my cause that I was one of the more expensive people to roster (I was over 18, so earned about five dollars an hour more than the 15 and 16 year olds on the playing list and what was known as a ‘crew trainer’) and my disciplinary record wasn’t exactly blemish-free. (Tip for new players: it is not a good idea to get high before helping unload the truck that brought the weekly stock delivery). Strangely, my reliability at the pizza shop has seen me given a pay bump from $2.50 per delivery to three dollars. Vegas baby, Vegas.

My weekend began on a Thursday evening. Apart from the aforementioned drama workshops, VUT pretty much did the right thing by everyone and largely avoided scheduling lectures or tutorials on a Friday. I’d work Sunday night through to Friday night, so my weekends revolved around band practice and seeing gigs at The Espy, The Prince of Wales, The Arthouse, The Great Britain, The Tote or The Punters Club. You only went to the Evelyn for CD launches and the Prince Patrick, like the Dan O’Connell, had moved to a hybrid of stand-up comedy nights and folksy, blues, roots and country.

Mid-September 2015.

I don’t recognise what the Essendon Footy club is anymore. I have no idea what it stands for other than pithy membership slogans and a manufactured ‘us against them’ mentality that so far has yielded nothing. The events the last three or four years – both Essendon’s defence and the AFL’s prosecution of the club’s use of P.E.D use (or not) have left a horrid taste in my mouth. I find much more enjoyment, an undoubted spiritual boost by watching the code at grass-roots level; both in the city, and whenever the opportunity’s presented itself, in the bush. Footy’s footy. It’s been refreshing to get back to where the footy is what people care about, not the ‘optics’ of a hip and shoulder to soccer mums, where ‘match day experience’ revolves around green can(s) and pie in a camp chair in the country air, and people give a shit more about whether their team won or lost and not what the death of a coach and the resulting suspension of a game means to their fantasy team.

I think V.U.T dropped the [ofTechnology part sometime in the norties and are now simply known as Vic Uni.

I didn’t get a degree until I was in my thirties. Maturity comes to some of us later than it does others. Too much time acting my shoe size and not my age.

I haven’t touched a drumstick or tuned a drumhead in well over 10 years and more often than not, I’d rather drink radiator fluid than go and see a live band. I’ve been told that I’m coming into ‘my true self’ by a Jungian therapist. I tend to think it’s just that there’s fewer venues around and jangly acoustic songs about the trauma of being a white-middle-class young person in conservative Australia is just not my bag.

The Arthouse no longer exists. The Great Britain, The Prince Pat, The Punters Club and The Evelyn no longer exist in the fashion they did so many years ago. The Prince of Wales is for people far more attractive than I, and slick property-developing shysters with skinny suits, excessive hair product and cologne that enters a room before they do continue to circle The Espy the way hyenas’ circle crippled wildebeest on the Savannah.

I’ve worked in radio, I’ve worked in finance, I’ve worked for an international Humanitarian organisation, I’ve worked as a writer. I’m in my forties and I still have no idea what I’m going to do when I grow up.

I’ve been married twice.

I’m still as broke-arsed now as I was when Dustin Fletcher was in debut season.

And what of Fletch? In the corresponding years Dustin Fletcher has played alongside and against guys who weren’t even born when he started playing for Essendon. He’s played in two flags, been named an All-Australian twice and earned an Essendon Best and Fairest in a premiership year. He currently sits fourth on the all-time games played list. He turned 40 this year.

There are many things that separate mere mortals from the elite of anything. Be it in business, law, medicine, performing arts and especially sports there are a number of universal traits you’ll find in the best of the best; oodles of talent meshed with generous scoops of direction, focus and self-belief.

In sport, the (unscientific) average career span lasts around a decade or so. Injuries curtail many a career – Lee Walker, David Schwarz, Neale Daniher, John Coleman, John Greening to name just a few – in a much shorter time span. For others, the off-field temptations are greater than the pre-season sweat. For some, education or faith commitments may become too great and that ten year career window shuts in the blink of an eye.

Since 1993, Fletch has copped and given out plenty of hits, he’s copped suspensions, sat through endless hours of video reviews, team meetings, opposition analysis and the many other countless joys that have come to make up the 24/7 regimentation of a footballer’s life as the professional demands of AFL have increased exponentially.

He’s done this not just for five years, not just for a decade, but for 20 years. For some, that’s a lifetime.

Fletch is and always will be a marvel.

Thanks Fletch.

Enjoy your spell. You’ve earned it.

This post first appeared at The Footy Almanac: Yes, I would like to go there…

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