Growing up watching Australian Rules football in Melbourne I had a different experience of ‘away’ fans than in most other professional sports. Crowds were typically close to 50-50 in support, and sometimes you could even be outnumbered by the supporters of what was nominally the ‘away’ side.
This started to change in the late-1980s and 1990s as the Victorian Football League expanded and became the Australian Football League, with the addition of non-Victorian clubs. At that novel stage of away AFL fandom you usually made comments about how hard it was to tell if the away club had kicked a goal or a behind, because of the lack of noise for either result (the comments themselves became less novel). But other than that I don’t remember thinking about non-Victorian fans too much as having a distinct nature from other opposing fans; in my younger days all opposing clubs and fans were ‘scum’ for an afternoon, as was anyone from anywhere who said anything derisive about my team.
Away fans really only started to take on a distinct nature for me when I began attending the matches of the rugby league club the Melbourne Storm. At most Storm matches the home fans made up the overwhelming majority of the crowd. The away fans were mostly gathered in a small group in a corner of the stadium, watching their team get pummelled by Cameron Smith and company six tries to one. Penalties against the home team were met with loud boos and insults. Penalties for the home team were met with ironical cheers.
In such an atmosphere that small group of away fans started to seem like the trolls who weren’t playing along. They were the people delighting in and even confident of the possible ‘upset’ (I hate the term ‘upset’ – it always seems to have such a smug tone, shorthand for ‘what happened to you guys, hey?’). They cheered, seemed to over-cheer, when the rest of us were booing, they over-celebrated tries while the rest of us grumbled.
Except for the fans of the New Zealand Warriors. There were always too many of them about. And they kept beating us in big matches, and strutting around outside the ground afterwards, yelling their team name at the top of the voices. Individually I’m sure they are nice people but by God I can’t stand the Warriors fans (except for when the Storm assert their rightful 40-point dominance).
I’ve really only had one experience of being an ‘away’ fan myself. That was when I was living in Sydney and I watched my club Richmond take on the Swans at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Unexpectedly we won. I don’t remember being that obnoxious (others may disagree). I don’t remember feeling that outnumbered either. Perhaps the mindset of the away fan is not what I imagined it to be after all.
I am glad in Australia though that we typically don’t have the awful experiences away fans have in some sports in some parts of the world. Nick Hornby was probably not in real mortal danger when he and the travelling Arsenal fans were ‘chased all the way on to our train, bottles and cans cascading around our ears’ following Gunners star Charlie George giving home fans the V-sign, but it sounds unpleasant nonetheless. I wouldn’t think of doing that to the NZ Warriors fans, in part because they’re often much bigger than I am. Us Australians just grumble a bit and then go down to the pub, hopefully one that the away fans don’t know about.
The photo above was taken when I was sitting at Etihad Stadium for the ‘special’ match each year when Richmond MCC members can sit all together in a nice area. Hence there were no opposing fans anywhere near us. We played the Crows that day and they belted us. Their fans were mostly congregated in a small area behind the goals. They seemed to over-cheer a lot. They seemed arrogant and annoying. But I guess at least, unlike the fans of other Melbourne clubs, I could mostly ignore them.