This story was first written and published for NRL.com.
Even though Retro Round isn’t an official NRL round, it’s great to see so many rugby league fans sharing their favourite memories from the 1980’s.
When I hear the words ‘retro round’, a couple of other words immediately spring to mind – ‘head tape’, ‘biff’, ‘black boots’, ‘moustaches’ and ‘Tina Turner’. I’m also reminded of certain players like Brett Kenny, Wayne Pearce, Ray Price, Benny Elias, Michael Hancock and Tommy Raudonikus and plenty of classic rugby league rivalries like between the Parramatta Eels and Canterbury Bulldogs or the Sydney Roosters and South Sydney Rabbitohs or the Manly Sea Eagles and Western Suburbs Magpies (more lovingly known as the rivalry between the fibros and the silvertails).
But whilst I have all these memories from the 1980’s, the truth is that I made none of these memories on my own. I needed a little bit of help.
I was born in 1989, long after many of these players had retired, those fashion trends had disappeared (thank goodness) and those rivalries had been born.
But I almost feel like I was there because I have heard the stories from that era so many times that I can recite them word for word for myself. Stories about the speed of the ‘zip-zip man’, or how Ray Price said he would destroy Peter Sterling on the footy field if he ever left Parramatta or how Parramatta’s back-line was essentially the same back-line as that of the Australian Kangaroos or about the treachery of that infamous referee Greg Hartley and stories about how much he hated Parramatta.
These stories have been shared with me by the same person that made me fall in love with footy in the first place – my dad.
My dad was eight years old when he first came to Australia with his parents from Greece. It is the typical immigrant story – they arrived on a boat with little more than the clothes on their back and a couple of blankets in an old suitcase. They came to start a new life in Australia and to give their young son the best possible shot at a very different life from that back home.
When my paternal family arrived in Australia from Greece, the first place they lived in was Parramatta in a small fibro home on Buller Street. That home is still there now and my grandfather lived in this house until he died seven years ago. I have fond memories of that house and the orange and macadamia trees which were planted out the back.
As a young man growing up in a new country, my dad had plenty to learn. But part of fitting in involved him latching onto the universal language that is sport.
He lived in Parramatta so there was only one choice of team. Like everyone else in the area and at Arthur Phillip High School, my dad grew up supporting the Parramatta Eels. He was fortunate enough to be there for the glory years through the 1980s and experience the rickety seats and the magic that was Cumberland Oval. He saw Parramatta win premierships and watched players like Bob O’Reilly, Peter Sterling, Ray Price, Eric Grothe and Steve Ella in the prime of their careers.
Dad spent a lot of time passing on the love of the blue and gold to me. But just as important as love for our team was learning to deeply dislike our biggest enemy – the men who wore blue and white. For each story I can share about the Eels during that era, I have another that I can share about our greatest rivals during that time – the Canterbury Bulldogs.
As an eight year old girl, it was important that I learnt to love the Eels and to hate the Bulldogs.
To be fair, I didn’t need much help in the latter department because as fate would have it, my first year as a Parramatta Eels fan was 1998.
For those of you who don’t remember how that year ended for the men and blue and gold, I can remember it like it was yesterday.
This game was played in the days of delayed coverage of finals. I had been at a school event on the Sunday and on the way home mum and I were listening to ABC Grandstand. My beloved Eels were up 18-2 with 10 minutes to go in the Grand Final Qualifier.
We got home and I ran inside and told dad that there was ‘nothing to worry about – we had this’. I curled up next to him to watch the last half hour of the game and watched tragedy unfold in front of my very eyes. Craig Polla-Mounter scored in the 70th minute. The Bulldogs scored again. Polla-Mounter missed a field goal right on full time. Then in the first minute of extra-time, he kicked a field goal, scored another try in the 85th minute and then kicked another field goal to break the collective hearts of every single Eels fan. We lost that game 32-20 and so concluded my first year as a footy fan.
And so it began – as deeply as I loved the Eels, I just as deeply hated the Bulldogs.
It’s a funny thing about rivalry. Despite the Bulldogs causing so much heartache in that first year, they have also been the source of some of my greatest rugby league memories. My favourite ever footy moment to date has been Parramatta defeating Canterbury in the 2009 Grand Final Qualifier. I don’t even remember the score that night, but I remember driving back to Parramatta with dad and dancing down Church Street with people I had nothing in common with, other than love of the blue and gold.
It’s fitting that Retro Round kicked off this week with a game between arguably the two greatest rivals in rugby league history. Congratulations to the Parramatta Eels who won 20-4 on Thursday night and have now won six games in a row for the first time since that magic run in 2009.
I hope you all get involved in Retro Round this weekend. Get out your old footy cards, wear your old jerseys and if you were around during the 1980’s gather your family around and share an old yarn. Some of my fondest rugby league memories are ones I didn’t even see with my own eyes.