BY LINCOLN BERTELLI
At first glance, a quiet, nondescript sports hall at Fremantle’s John Curtin College and the roar of 40,000 spectators at Subiaco Oval has nothing in common. But look deeper and you will discover that the match-day AFL experience very much depends on these humble premises.
Every Monday night during the season, a loyal and committed group of Fremantle Dockers supporters gather here to produce painstakingly the team banner; that unique symbol of team pride that is now embedded into AFL supporter culture. To spend hours on something that will be destroyed in seconds then discarded begs the question: why do they do it? And how do they do it?
The Fremantle banner team consists of between 10 and 15 volunteers who gather after work in an unpaid capacity. To do this every week requires considerable passion for their club. There can be no doubting this passion; a simple look at the car park outside shows at least half of the team members have personalised club numberplates. Inside, all hands are on deck as scissors and sticky tape are being given a considerable workout.
Creating a memorable moment
The group are responsible for producing banners for all of Fremantle’s home matches. With this typically taking place fortnightly, producing the banner can be made into a two week process. On the Monday following a home game, the base is put together. The giant purple structure takes shape, with dozens of square metres of crepe paper being stuck together to create one giant rectangle. This method has become unique among AFL clubs, with a trend towards more recyclable banners.
Some clubs use a fabric-based banner with a velcro piece allowing for the players to run through comfortably. Others will use partial crepe paper, to allow for the “breaking” effect that has become synonymous with the player entrance. Fremantle, however, make the banner solely out of crepe paper. This makes for an entirely disposable banner and requires considerably more effort.
The second week of production involves turning this base into something memorable. The job involves producing the individual letters that will become the motivational message for the players as they run onto the field. When I meet them, there is no milestone match, so the banner’s message is relatively simple by usual standards. It simply reads: “Fire up Freo – give the Saints hell”. Twenty-seven letters are each produced twice to cover both sides of the banner.
While this provides some welcome relief, after all – who doesn’t appreciate an early night after a full day of work – it is still a meticulous process to complete the banner. Part of the banner team work with large stencils to trace each of the required letters. These are then transferred to other members of the group who carefully cut the letters out before ordering them ready for placement on the banner itself. Once all letters are placed in their ideal position, the sticky tape comes out with each letter needing to be firmly stuck to the crepe paper.
The banner is now complete, and the message the club wants its players and fans to see on match-day is now a reality. This is the one area of banner production the club has a direct involvement in, coordinator Maria Giglia explains.
“They like to know the final saying and make sure they’re happy with what goes on it,” she said.
“On match-day we arrive at the ground about two hours beforehand. We go into the race and put the banner into the poles. We have sleeves, they slide into the poles and then we put the banner inside the sleeves,” team member David Winkless said.
At 26 years old, Winkless is by far the youngest member of the Fremantle banner team. An active and committed supporter, he has been a member of the group since 2004.
“I just enjoy helping the club and feeling like I’m doing something for the club,” he said.
“Going out onto the ground is the big thrill. Seeing the boys run out, hearing the crowd and seeing all the flags waving is a real buzz.”
The irony of a task like this is that after the players have run through the banner, it is taken off the ground, where it is disposed of. Hours of care and effort, destroyed in seconds and never seen again. Yet it is just part of the job; it will be exactly the same for the next match, and the match after that.
How to be a team artist
People of all ages and from all walks of life make up the banner team; there are no prerequisites to be involved. It could be defined as a hobby, and one that anybody can be involved in. There is no inflated sense of self-worth or elitism within the team; even I, a complete outsider, am invited to get involved when I meet with them.
“You just need a good pair of hands, scissors, socks, good cutting skills, a great imagination and a good sense of humour,” Giglia joked.
She says she has never counted the amount of materials they go through, but I observe several rolls of tape being used throughout the evening, and stocks of purple crepe paper must surely be depleted across Perth.
“The first year they started having banners, they had them made in Melbourne, and all up it cost them $10,000, although a lot of that was in transporting them.”
While the team exists for the purpose of completing an important task, one cannot forget that these are a group of people brought together through a shared love of their football team. They are relaxed, friendly and affable. Talk is understandably about football, but there is a close friendship among members of the group, and their banter helps makes them good company. They have a routine of enjoying a takeaway dinner before departing for the night and they chat happily about life.
Football coaches often speak about team unity and its value in producing success. Fremantle’s banner team are a strong example of a united and jovial off-field group. This is perhaps best summarised by Giglia, whose response to being asked the best thing about her involvement with the banner was simply: “my lovely banner team people. But don’t tell them that.”