I never stood a chance.

I’ve been a Raiders fan as long as I can remember. Well, actually before I can remember.

To be fair, my dad can hardly be blamed. He’s Western Australian and didn’t know any better. When my family moved to Canberra in 1986 he can’t have known much about the New South Wales Rugby Football League. An Aussie Rules man through and through, he started taking me to games as a little tacker, presumably because Canberra in the 1980s lacked for entertainment.

The first games I can remember are in 1988. A Saturday evening at Seiffert Oval. It was against Norths, and the Raiders lost. Even then, I remember understanding that the Raiders losing at home was unusual, but what captivated me wasn’t even the game. It was the old blokes, smoking and swearing and sinking tins, leaning against the barrier that demarcated the hill behind me. I’d never smelt cigarettes before, and its combination with stale beer was a timeless experience until society (rightly) decided small children shouldn’t be exposed to such things. But the swearing and the yelling – it was music to my young ears. What magic could elicit such a response?

I was in love.

On the field there was also plenty to love. The Raiders’ dynasty was just getting warmed up and I was in on the ground floor. Somewhere along the line I fell in a deep, deep love with Gary Belcher, much to the confusion of pretty much anyone who didn’t get it. The size of Mal made him seem inhuman, Lozza was too slick for me. Dean Lance was the toughest man in the world. I simply couldn’t relate. The way Badge jinked and stepped through the hoards that would rampage at him was intoxicating. That’s what I wanted to be. The smaller guy, using his guile to get by.

Smoking, drinking, yelling and Gary Belcher. How could I resist?

The final nail in the coffin came when the Raiders started winning premierships. I don’t actually remember watching 1989 at the time, but I do remember hearing adults talk about the game and about how the town felt different now. Canberra spends so much time apologising for existing. This was something to be proud of.

In those days we moved from Seiffert and its grimy charm to the relative modernity of Bruce. It was closer so we used to walk to the game, up O’Connor ridge and over the back to the stadium at the AIS. It was a very Canberra experience – suburbs, bush, then a national institution. It was there Dad and I took up our spots on the hill at the south-east end of the ground. It’s a spot that for years later I would naturally gravitate towards. Even when seats came in, and even when crowds were minuscule, I’d always want to sit in that same area. That was the angle that I watched footy from. Shouts to AAMI for always putting away supporters in the extact same spot.

I learnt about the game just sitting next to my Dad. As I said league wasn’t his first love (or even a love) but he knew I was all in, so he deciphered a game that had been foreign to him a few years ago. I learned that you had to be patient, that you couldn’t just throw it wide and run around them all the time. In the backyard I would go the chip and chase against my older brother on every tackle (Dan’s family always had at least two dogs which made backyard footy doubly dangerous – Rob). Apparently that wasn’t a sustainable solution in professional sport. And I learned that while Badge was amazing and rightly my favourite, this Stuart bloke was something else. My dad said he could kick as well as an Aussie Rules player, which was pretty much the highest praise he offered.

The next few years should’ve taken some shine off it for me. I was crying on the front lawn when Mark Geyer burst onto Gary Belcher’s short drop-out, so dismayed was I that the Raiders might lose the ‘91 grand final. Then they damn near collapsed. Then, just when the world was righting itself in 1993, Sticky’s ankle happened and what was a goddamn inevitability became a rabble. People used to make jokes that Stuart was the only person on the team who could count to six. 1994 was redemption and we were great again. In 1995 we lost in the semis and I didn’t cry because I thought we’d be there forever.

You know what happened next. The passage from dynasty to also-ran happened slower than I remember. At the time it seemed sudden because so many of the names were the same for so long. If Mal could just…if Loz could hold on…If we hadn’t let Sticky and Clyde go. Croker and Furner and Wiki…Then it became ‘maybe the Mac Attack is the real deal’, ‘what about Royston Lightening?’ ‘I hear about this Todd Carney kid.’

Within a decade Canberra went from the greatest rugby league team in history to just another mid-ladder club and gone was the optimism and expectation of success of the glory days. It had been replaced with a passive acceptance that it was never going to happen for us. It was protective. You couldn’t hurt me if I never believed. I’d been completely rebuilt. Instead of the small boy crying in the front yard in 1991, I turned up to games, loved the boys but knew this was going nowhere, and walked back down the bike path to Dryandra street with a resigned acceptance. Me and Rob did this for more than a decade, with a charming and slightly insane regularity. We sat in that South East corner of Bruce, as it moved from grass, to seats, to the supporters bay where the Green Army lived. Then they disappeared. All the while Rob and I sat there, like the old fans from Major League, never expecting much, a bit frustrated but accepting of our fate.

We had some good times. The biannual finals run sustained us. Jason Smith was fun but we also knew it was a good time, not a long time. Campese at his height tempted me to believe, but in the 2010 final when he broke so did my heart. The semi against the Sharks in 2012 was the first time I remember Bruce rocking like the old days. That crowd basically willing a talented but flawed team into the second week of the finals. 2016 was exhilarating, the thrill of mattering again combined with an electrifying football team. I thought it would last.

But in the end that made 2017 and 2018 hurt much more. By this stage I was knee deep in this blog and unlike previous years, when things became tough (and for me there was no more painful time to be a fan that the first four weeks of 2018), I couldn’t look away. I kept writing. Kept detailing every horrific moment like a budget Halberstam, chronicling the misery before me.

During 2018 my wife and I had our first child. Days later I sat next to my sleeping wife and newborn and watched the Raiders lose another heart-breaker to Penrith. Before the child was born my wife and I agreed he would be a Raiders fan, but living in AFL territory I began to wonder if I’d ever be able to convert him to my team. Would I just end up like my dad, taking my boy to an adopted game? How could I convince him to love a sport when he couldn’t be suckered in with atmosphere? Was it even fair to subject another human to this? Would I seriously be trying to win him over to the Canberra Raiders with stories of how they were good when I was his age? Who would be his Gary Belcher?

2019 was my salve. If you go back and read the reviews it was clear from round one that something had changed. The Raiders were playing a different brand of football. It wasn’t as flashy as before but it was definitely better, underpinned by a resilience and a wherewithal that was downright inspiring. Ask any neutral fan who they’re going for this weekend and they’ll say “Up the Milk”. What’s more lovable than a scrappy bunch of rebels fighting the damn galactic empire?

So for people that say Raiders fans are too excited I say you’re simply wrong. Not only is this our first chance to celebrate our side on the last day of the season in a generation, it’s given us a whole new story to tell to the next generation about what the Canberra Raiders mean. When you sign up to have this side in your life it can be ridiculous, it can be disastrous, but it can also be resilient, brilliant and hopeful. I am choosing hope, because like Andy told Red in the Shawshank Redemption, “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

Now when my boy actually can start to understand what is going on in front of him, I can tell him about players that he can still see playing. I might be able to sit with him as he falls in love with champions in their prime, rather than the stories of his Dad’s past. Papalii, Bateman, Hodgson, Nicoll-Klokstad, Cotric, Jack. These can be his heroes. How could he resist?

He doesn’t stand a chance.

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