Thursday was a tough day for footy.
Basically from the moment the final siren sounded on Wednesday night’s season opener, the details of which were almost instantly overshadowed by what came next, the worst aspects of the game were beamed loud and clear across the country.
Bullying, misogyny, homophobia, racism. All wrapped up in the sort of toxic masculinity that has historically excluded the very people the code outwardly claims to be desperate to attract.
The exposed actions of a few reflected the experiences of many and, as usual, the innocent victim of the whole sorry mess was female.
It was just about the worst start to a season imaginable for the AFL. Instead of spruiking their “festival of footy” in Melbourne and relishing in the return of the men’s game, they were forced once again to stare cultural failings in the eye.
This was the context with which Thursday night’s game between Carlton and Richmond was to be played. For some, it would have been justifiably difficult to shake that off and simply re-engage footy fan mode once the ball was bounced.
The day needed a good news story. Something to remind people that footy is a worthwhile endeavour, something that can truly bring people together.
It needed Sam Docherty.
Docherty was making his return to the AFL after a second bout of testicular cancer. The latest one, discovered in August last year, required 12 weeks of chemotherapy treatment.
That Docherty had recovered and regained enough fitness to play in this round one game was remarkable in itself. For him to produce a star turn in defence and kick a rare goal was beyond all expectations.
Docherty’s goal came late in the second quarter, in the middle of a Carlton fightback. Fans of both sides, all 72,179 of them, applauded Docherty as if he was family while his Blues brothers swarmed from all corners of the MCG to embrace him.
It was genuinely heartwarming. The sort of thing that could put the smile on the face of even the most cynical, worn-down footy fan at the end of a difficult day.
Docherty’s spirit proved contagious through the Carlton squad, inspiring them to a win they have annually dreamed of but not achieved for a decade.
A resounding win for Voss’s new-look Blues
The Blues presented as a disciplined, structured but still entirely proactive team in a win over Richmond that means far more than the four points it earns the club.
New coach Michael Voss has preached a renewed focus on defence since his arrival, and his influence was almost immediately felt.
Docherty was a key part of that, as was the repurposed Mitch McGovern and ever-reliable Jacob Weitering, but crucially this defensive success was predicated on system and structure, rather than individual excellence.
That alone would have been enough to send Voss home happy. But the good news didn’t end there.
Patrick Cripps went back to the future to resemble the wrecking ball of years gone by and Matthew Kennedy looked reborn as a key member of the midfield. Key recruits George Hewett and Adam Cerra were both excellent.
This wasn’t a smash and grab, the Blues weren’t lucky. This was a comprehensive outplaying and outmanoeuvring of a team that many predict will rise back to contention this year.
For the many thousands of Blues fans in the ground, the usual caveats designed to play down round-one victories went out the window. There was genuine emotion in the stands, the sort normally reserved for wins in finals.
Those scenes of jubilation in the crowd, and the love shown to Docherty by teammates and supporters alike, represent the best of our game. It’s supposed to bring people together and it’s supposed to be an antidote to the ails of the rest of society.
None of this is enough to make up for the disappointment of the last 24 hours. Nothing changes if one good game of footy is enough to end a wider discussion of the significant issues that have long plagued the game.
But it does prove that footy is worth something. It’s capable of such good. It can be so much better still.