The higher purpose at the heart of this
Max Gawn recalls the aftermath of Melbourne’s first AFL Premiership in 57 years where players and fans went from ‘a shared experience of grief to joy’. Even as the pandemic robbed the team of their hometown support they never lost sight of who they were playing for.
I forgot to shower. I can’t believe it, but I forgot to shower. Most of the guys found a moment early on in the rooms to have a rinse and get changed, but not all of us.
There were five or six of us in the same boat, or rather, the same bus. We all had to get onboard to get to the venue for the night, in the Market Grounds of Perth. That was that, so all of a sudden I’m on a bus wearing my dirty boots, socks, shorts and jumper.
View this post on Instagram
I sat with Tommy McDonald and we FaceTimed Lynden Dunn. We tried a few other people and they didn’t pick up. Imagine that, the premiership captain FaceTimes from the bus after the game, and you screen the call.
We got to the venue and there was this massive, snaking line of 500 people, and we go straight to the front, ushered into our own area, and at that point you start feeling like LeBron James and the Lakers.
We had our own little private area. That’s where the footage of me on Adam Tomlinson’s shoulders emerged. I was actually sitting in the back corner talking to a few older people there – I’m more of a talker than a dancer. Then at some point I thought I’ll go see Tommo and say hello. I ended up on his shoulders, the video went viral, and suddenly I was ‘best on’ for the afterparty.
We finished up at about 4 am that night, and got on the bus back to Joondalup Resort. The only tricky part was, they’re quite a busy resort, and they were completely booked the next day.
So we had to check out at 9 am. Imagine it. We’ve been there almost five weeks. There’s a lot of stuff strewn about our rooms. We got back from celebrating the 2021 AFL Premiership some time after 4 am, and had a few hours to get some sleep, get packed, and get back on a bus. That was a hard, hard check-out.
We headed to Forrest Place in Perth’s CBD to do a meet and greet, and show our faces to the faithful. I got an amazing buzz out of that. If we had been in Melbourne, yes, Yarra Park would have been busting with 25,000 Demons fans or more, and by comparison there might have been 5000 Melbourne supporters turn out in Perth, but they filled the place, and they were desperate to celebrate. I loved being able to give something back.
We had a full day at the Cottesloe Hotel, too. We had a courtyard out back to ourselves, which we didn’t leave all day. Family and friends and everyone from the hub started rocking up, and by 4 pm the place was packed. The Melbourne theme song was getting a good run with the DJ, and soon enough I had Goody sitting up on my shoulders, and that went viral, too.
The next few days, we stayed at the Mercure, and there were other things to do, like signing day – sitting for an entire day signing every piece of premiership merchandise and memorabilia you can imagine. There were exit meetings, too, which are important for not only improvement but also to give the people who might be leaving some clarity and closure.
I tried to take one for the team, by asking the leadership to make my meeting early in the day. I didn’t want to stitch up one of the young guys who’d been out partying by asking them to turn up for an exit interview at 9 am. Let them have their sleep.
My meeting was strange though, because, really, what can you say? I was in there with the coaches and footy manager, and honestly, we all just started clapping. It made sense in the moment, because even if my year wasn’t overly successful personally, what we did together was enough. And the people in that room were just as much a part of it all, so we all just clapped one another.
We did talk about what I want to get out of next year, and what I’ve found in my football. That seemed clear to me – I liked what I had learned off Jacko, and feel like the next step for me is being more dangerous after the rucking contest, involving myself as a stoppage threat, or even more as a forward. There’s elements of my game I need to work on as much as anyone.
Eight of us finally left Perth on the Thursday, keen to get home. I took the cup with me, and had it to myself in Melbourne that weekend. Coming back in the door to see Jess, with the premiership cup in hand and a medal around my neck, was a great way to make an appearance.
View this post on Instagram
The next day, I made sure to get a viewing for Don McLardy, our former president. I arranged for his son to get him down to a park in Sorrento, just him, a private affair.
I think he thought his son was going to propose to his girlfriend, so he got all dressed up. Then I rocked up with the cup. He was thrilled – like he had played the game himself – and I was thrilled for him. He was at the helm during that unfortunate 2011–2012 period, and deserved more for his efforts, because he lives and breathes Melbourne.
Then I settled back into life in Melbourne a little, and that was beautiful. Things were still locked down, but perversely – because the season was over – I felt like I had all this freedom.
Suddenly I didn’t have strict AFL restrictions looming over everything I did or everywhere I went. I was able to do whatever the general public was doing. I could go to Coles and get food for the house. I could walk down the street and get a coffee. I could go to the beach. I’m presuming I’ll be fitter than ever when the pre-season really kicks into gear, because we can’t really travel much yet, and I reckon I’ve had the least amount of alcohol in any season I’ve played. I’m not a big drinker anyway, but I’ve already started running again – that thing I once hated but now love.
We are thrilled to announce the acquisition of 2021 ALF premiership captain Max Gawn’s Captain’s Diary.
Max Gawn Captain's Diary will relate how, after 57 long years, the Demons 2021 season turned to gold.
— Hardie Grant Books (@HardieGrant) October 14, 2021
It’s hard to say what’s driving me into 2022. People want us to say that we’re driven to win next year so that the fans locked down at home this season can see it all in person, and that’s absolutely true, but I also stop to think about how hard it is to win a premiership – how you need everything to go right, and how it’s not just going to happen for us. I think it’s a realistic goal for us, and it’s where we should set our sights, but winning it again would be a bonus.
The players who missed out this season will be part of that driving force. They’ll be keen to set extremely high pre-season standards. We will need to improve. If we stay the same, we won’t win again, because the competition moves on quickly. There’s a very good reason that no premiership side has ever taken to the field together again.
But I think Simon Goodwin will figure out how to address us going forward. Last pre-season, he and I had some long and robust summer discussions about what we wanted to achieve, how we would set it up, and the language we were going to use.
Goody will make sure he gets that language right again, and set those goals out from the very beginning. I suspect his focus will revolve around family and friends, and connection. Connection is important to him, because it’s what football clubs are about. That’s their heart, beating true.
Last year we had a great idea. We wanted to add something to our Saturday morning hill sessions – an hour of pretty intense hill running. Sprint up and jog down, sprint up and jog down. What we came up with was using those sessions as a chance to invite past players along. I asked David Neitz about it one day, to see how many of the old group wanted to come down. He wasn’t sure, but suspected quite a few.
I turned up and there were 50 blokes.
They ran up with us, and because they’re a bit older they slowed it down for us, which was nice. But it became a cultural event rather than just a fitness event. To get down there and see James Strauss and Tom Couch and Anthony Ingerson was such a brilliant thing.
They all came to lunch afterwards, too, at Hobba in Prahran. We just squeezed everybody in – nearly 100 people all up. We wanted to keep those sessions going, but COVID got in the way. We thought about doing similar sessions with partners and girlfriends, too, and hopefully we will.
It’s important to me because part of the reason we play football is the sense of community we can create, and the impact we can have – the way we can make Melbourne supporters proud, and how we can make those people who know us feel proud of us, and close to us. That’s the bigger reason we play, according to Goody. He has a phrase for it: the higher purpose.
The higher purpose is James Harmes being best mates with John, the boy with Down syndrome. Or it’s Jake Lever heading to the Royal Children’s Hospital because he’s found a connection with a sick kid called Noah. Majak Daw – after what he’s been through – is playing for a higher purpose. Kysaiah Pickett – with his early struggles in life – is playing for a higher purpose. I think of the whole team and the reason they all play, and the supporters and the reasons they all watch, and I think there’s a higher purpose at the heart of it all.
I’ve never seen a group connect with their fans like Melbourne do, and perhaps that’s because we’ve been there with them in some of the darkest days, and they’ve been with us.
It really feels like we have something in common – a shared experience of grief and then joy. Playing the game now that the drought is broken feels like it’s about pride, and love, and proving that what we have in this moment isn’t some flash in the pan but something real. Something true. Something pure.
This is an edited extract from Max Gawn Captain’s Diary published by Hardie Grant Books.