It was a beautiful and moving moment at the conclusion of Port’s gritty win over Collingwood on Thursday night: players gathered around the centre square, the stadium darkened with the lights turned off, while the screens played homage to Phil Walsh. Thousands of phones raised as lanterns in salute to the club’s former assistant coach was a stirring sight.
In all my years of following Port Adelaide, I have never witnessed such an emotional footy event.
This was an important tribute. The senseless sadness of the past week has, appropriately, focused on the Adelaide Crows. But it’s a testament to this man that the impact of the tragedy runs far wider, affecting the whole football community and beyond, and the Power in particular.
Walsh spent a total of 11 years at the club, and was a central figure in both the 2004 premiership success and last year’s stunning climb up the ladder. In landing the coaching job at Adelaide, he had been sorely missed at Alberton this season.
Walsh’s move to the Crows was another intriguing development in the great antagonism between the state’s two AFL clubs. Malcolm Blight has made a habit of ruffling Victorian feathers by stating that the Port / Crows rivalry is the fiercest in the league. This passionate, competitive spirit is one of the great joys of footy in this state, saddled with a fascinating history that predates the formation of the Adelaide Football Club. There’s been many twist and turns since then: Port’s surprise win in the first Showdown, the Power drafting both sons of former Crow’s coach Graham Cornes, the mismatched Showdown semi-final of 2005, football’s relocation to the city. So when Adelaide managed to poach Walsh from Alberton, it was another curious development that added a new flavour to the rivalry.
But, in responding to this awful tragedy, the past week has shown us something new through the solidarity demonstrated by both clubs in grieving Walsh’s death. Transcending tribalism, South Australian football has never been so unified. And while it is also never been more evident that football is just a game, these events have underscored the strengths of our game, which is truly at its best when it connects people through a palpable sense of community, even across such entrenched allegiances.
And so, it will be a very strange experience, but tonight this die-hard Port fan will be barracking his heart out for the Crows.
Vale Phil Walsh.
Written by Matthew Trainor
Photo by Paul Bidmeade