Don’t take finals footy for granted

This story was first written and published for NRL.com.

To date, my experience as a sports fan has never been captured as accurately as it was by Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch.

From the moment I opened the cover and read the first paragraph, I knew the words were written by an author who understood me. This was a man who ‘got’ what it meant to be a sports fan:

“I fell in love with [rugby league] as I was later to fall in love with [men]: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.”

This year marks my 19th year as a Parramatta Eels supporter. I first began supporting the club in 1998 after falling in love with Clinton Schifcofske. Once the Eels had my heart, there was no turning back.

Just like any other rugby league fan, during that time I have experienced some tremendous highs and award-winning lows. Highs like the magic run in 2009 which saw Parramatta, from round 19 onwards, win 10 of our next 11 games to finish in the top eight and ultimately lose to the Melbourne Storm in the Grand Final. Compare that to lows like the 2001 Grand Final where despite being the best team in the competition by far, the Eels lost to the Newcastle Knights 30-24 after trailing 24-0 at half time and being the victims of an Andrew Johns masterclass.

Through the highs and the lows though, I’ve never questioned my loyalty to the team that wear the blue and gold.

It takes a special kind of person to be a sports fan and to put your faith so blindly in something you cannot control. If Parramatta lose on a Saturday night, I don’t read the papers on a Sunday. If Parramatta lose on Thursday or Friday night, it spoils my entire weekend. Earlier this year when the Eels lost to the New Zealand Warriors I was so angry I ate half a packet of scotch fingers. When the team win, the world always seems a little bit brighter. It’s entirely unreasonable but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Even though my early years as a Parramatta fan brought plenty of disruption (think about the way we exited the competition in 1998 or 2005 or about that Grand Final loss in 2001), growing up I was a very happy fan. I was happy because I was one of the lucky ones.

I was fortunate enough to support a successful team which meant that I grew up with an expectation that the Parramatta Eels would make the finals. In my first 12 years as a fan, the club only missed the finals on three occasions. Not a bad run. When September came, I was always confident that the Eels would be there.

Then things changed and they changed very quickly. Suddenly I went from having an expectation that Parramatta would make the finals each year, to joking to people that I missed watching Parramatta ‘choke’ come September.

From 2010 to 2016, the Eels best finish on the ladder was tenth. That’s even more horrid a record when you consider by how much Parramatta were over the salary cap during some of those years, the numerous coaches we had over that period and the boardroom squabbling which was the first thing anyone thought of when thinking about the Eels.

These years have been hard, but my resolve and commitment to the team has never wavered.

Then after the hell that was 2016, 2017 arrived.

For the first time since 2009 the Parramatta Eels are playing finals football. When the Eels top four position on the ladder was confirmed last Friday night it was the first time since 2005 that the Eels had been ranked so highly at the end of the regular season.

It’s really hard for me to put into words how much this means to me.

It’s funny, over the last couple of weeks plenty of people have told me that the Eels need a reality check and that the fans need to calm down and take the finals one week at a time.

I agree with the latter, but certainly not the former.

As an Eels fan, to me success this year looked like playing finals football. I have said on countless occasions this year that if the Eels made it to week one of the finals, I would be happy with whatever happened next. And I maintain that.

No matter what happens over the next few weeks, the Eels of 2017 have far exceeded my expectations.

To all those people out there who have teams playing finals football I have one piece of advice – do not take it for granted.

Finals football is special and for your team to still be in the hunt to play in the Grand Final this year is something which should be savoured.

When the Eels run out on Saturday afternoon I will be stressed. My dad will sit next to me and rub his bald head from stress. My stomach will be in knots. My brothers and I will share nervous glances. But I am determined to enjoy every moment of the game.

As a youngster I may have taken September for granted, but I won’t make that mistake again this year.

And whatever happens, I want my men in blue and gold to know how proud I am of them. That I’ll be cheering them on with my family on Saturday and that no matter the result, I’ll be marking 2017 down as a success.