An isolated AFL grand final week in Melbourne will be a vastly different kind of experience this year

As Victorians have come to understand — and those nations where COVID-19 is resurgent have failed to grasp — the things that bring us together can also harm us.

And so as much as we craved a return to some form of normality, this will be an isolated AFL grand final week in Melbourne; one with a slight sense of melancholy.

There will be no jubilant crowds watching training at Punt Road or Kardinia Park. Richmond and Geelong have long fled to Queensland hubs that are either “soul-destroying” or “luxurious”, depending on whether you consider this season heroic or merely a touch inconvenient.

That most Melburnian of Melbourne events, the grand final parade, where professional athletes are afforded the kind of rapturous acclaim denied Vietnam veterans, will not take place. Although, in an ode to bizarro 2020, the holiday in its name will.

And, of course, the MCG will host only seagulls and yet another rendition of Up There Cazaly from Mike Brady on grand final day. The big game has been packaged up and sold to the AFL’s Queensland benefactors in a grandiose gesture that inadvertently betrayed Melbourne’s sense of entitlement to the most significant event in a notionally national league.

This unusual dislocation inspired an opportunistic sponsor to transport a patch of “sacred” MCG turf to Brisbane where it will be stitched into the surface by the Gabba’s famously fastidious groundsmen. Hopefully it did not come from the drop-in pitch or the Gabba Test could be a doleful affair.

The AFL premiership cup glistens in the sunlight while sitting on the turf at the GabbaThe AFL premiership cup glistens in the sunlight while sitting on the turf at the Gabba
The Gabba in Brisbane will play host to this year’s season decider.(AAP: Darren England)

Presumably, this gesture is intended to create some kind of physical link between the “home of the ground final” and this season’s placeholder. Although it seems more like a desperate attempt by proprietorial Melburnians to maintain their grip on a game it is incapable of hosting.

Then again, perhaps the corporate turf transporter has cleverly tugged local heart strings. Because for Richmond fans particularly (Geelong is in the rural zone and can at least enjoy some social gatherings), the lack of grand final connection will be deeply felt.

After the Tigers’ victories in 2017 and 2019, huge crowds assembled in Richmond’s Swan Street for what were then known as “wonderfully colourful celebrations” and what would now be classified as “dangerous illegal gatherings”.

Should the Tigers win this time, the yellow and black hoard would presumably be outnumbered by constabulary attempting to suppress the club’s famously excitable fans, who would pose a hazard to the physical wellbeing of fellow Melburnians (and that’s before you even consider the risk of COVID-19).

Otherwise, the lack of shared grand final experiences will deprive Melbourne of a day that either defines our sporting purity or reveals our rare form of insanity, depending on whether you are one of us or not.

A man wearing a tigers jersey celebrates on his mate's shouldersA man wearing a tigers jersey celebrates on his mate's shoulders
Should the Tigers win, there will be no celebrating on the streets of Richmond this year.(AAP: James Ross)

There is an old truism about how in Melbourne the Supreme Court judge, who has just made a conviction, can pause to exchange thoughts about next Saturday’s game with the criminal before deciding on a sentence.

In Melbourne, all-pervasive footy spans the social classes and breaks the geographical boundaries, even when those are strictly defined as five-kilometre and now 25-kilometre exclusion zones.

In Sydney, the grand final is an event. In Melbourne it is like graduation day for a class that has studied closely together over the past seven months and developed a mutual sense of understanding, and also a clannish exclusivity.

Those who acquire this shared experience and knowledge barely tolerate the once-a-year interlopers who mispronounce players’ names or don’t have at least a rudimentary understanding of the favourite’s defensive structure.

Thus, any daytripper asking stupid questions at a grand final barbecue is treated like the Test cricket neophyte who wanders into the living room and asks: “Who’s winning?”

Night grand final sits well with TV

Opportunistically, the AFL has used these “unprecedented times” to impose the night grand final its broadcast partners have long craved.

A captive audience will almost certainly create record viewing figures in turn used to justify the nocturnal decider regardless of what impact the slippery ball has on the game itself.

This season the timing of the game doesn’t matter because when the siren sounds we have nowhere else to go.

But in a normal season, it would mean the traditional post-game celebrations — the lingering post-game analysis at the barbie or the retreat to a favourite watering hole with friends — would be sadly truncated.

This is the potentially dangerous consequence of the COVID-19 season, where decisions are made in the absence of fans, not necessarily in their interests.

A view of an empty stadium, looking a cross the ground with goalposts on the far left. A view of an empty stadium, looking a cross the ground with goalposts on the far left.
We will have to get used to an empty MCG on grand final day this Saturday.(AAP: Scott Barbour)

The cure will become the disease if the measures taken so we could muddle through this year — including a ridiculously crammed fixture and shortened quarters — become permanent features of the game.

But whether you think the AFL administration has been heroic in navigating the rough COVID-19 seas or that this is that rare season when a fabulously well-paid bureaucracy has earnt its coin, there is cause to celebrate the very fact of this grand final.

A decider featuring Port Adelaide and Brisbane would have been more convenient with Queensland rewarded for its contribution to the game and Port Adelaide fans able to cross borders and add to a raucous atmosphere at the Gabba.

But Richmond and Geelong make this grand final more emblematic of a year that is about resilience, not convenience; about tough decisions rather than easy options.

And if thousands of Tigers fans celebrating an amazing third premiership in four years are confined to their homes? Well, every cloud has its silver lining.