After waiting a lifetime, time has come for Parramatta to create new memories for Eels’ faithful

It’s out there somewhere around Blacktown.

All week, debate has raged as to where Parramatta becomes Penrith. Sydney’s western suburbs are vast and sprawling and so many people have crossed the borders back and forth over the years that nobody really knows where the lines are anymore.

Government officers might have answers that divide suburbs in two, but the people’s answer is Parramatta becomes Penrith somewhere near Blacktown.

To the east of Blacktown lies Seven Hills and that’s Parramatta territory for certain. Blacktown itself is Penrith through and through, and everything the light touches from there to the mountains is Panther country.

It’s fitting nobody knows exactly where the blue and gold becomes black. The two bleed into one another, the way neighbouring regions do, and it means local battles are backyard brawls, even when they’re on the biggest stage.

Either Penrith or Parramatta will fulfill their premiership destiny on Sunday. (Getty Images: Cameron Spencer)

When the Eels and Panthers fight it out for the NRL’s ultimate prize on Sunday, it could well be Penrith’s day. They’ve been premiership favourites all season for a good reason and the smart money says they’ll get it done again to claim back-to-back titles.

However, even if the black flag flies over the west and over the rest of rugby league for the next 12 months, this has been Parramatta’s week.

When a team has been without a premiership for as long as they have, it’s only natural for the days leading into the grand final to be swallowed up by the weight of history.

We are in the midst of the Parramatta experience and, by gosh, there’s nothing like it. A replica of the old bus from when they trained out of Granville Park back in the 80s has been stuck in the middle of the CBD as an art installation.

Old heroes, such as Nathan Hindmarsh and Ray Price, and beloved soldiers for the cause, such as Daniel Mortimer and Tim Mannah, have been yarning their heads off all week. Peter Wynn’s Score is doing a roaring trade.

For a side that hasn’t won a premiership in almost four decades, the Eels are remarkably popular. Everybody who follows rugby league knows at least a few Parramatta people and they have all come out this week.

If you start a “Parra” chant in public this week, it’s odds-on that strangers will join in. It’s that kind of week and the Eels are that kind of team.

Call them bandwagon fans if you want, but the truth goes deeper than that. Parramatta fans have been hurt, many times, in the long years since 1986 and it’s happened in ways other fans can only imagine.

A rugby league player takes a selfie with some fans
The Parramatta fans have come in from the cold. (Getty Images: Mark Kolbe )

Misery can become comfortable because, if you don’t expect too much, you might not be let down, but there is no true despair without hope and Parramatta fans have had a lot of hope snatched away from them over the years.

Pull up a stool at Parra Leagues and they’ll tell you all about Paul Carige in 1998, falling at the last hurdle in 2001, the false dawn of Tim Smith in 2005, the complicated Jarryd Hayne experience and the wooden spoons that followed.

Even this current team isn’t without it’s scars: Until two weeks ago, the preliminary finals and beyond were a foreign country to them.

Put simply, the Eels faithful have scars and, if you pick at them, they’ll bleed. It makes them more hesitant to believe and slower to trust. If you don’t expect too much of something, you might not be let down.

But now, with the game fast approaching, their chins are up and their hearts are full and they are everywhere. Their half of the west has come in from the cold and banded together in the face of the Penrith monolith, because who wants to feel alone when you can feel alive instead?

It’s time to believe, even if it might hurt worse than all those other times, and there can be no fear in grand final week because scared money don’t make none and, to the brave and faithful, nothing is impossible.

A new day in the sun 

His name is Tony and he’s been on the Parramatta side of the western divide for some time.

He might not have lit the match to burn down Cumberland Oval back in 1981 but, at 84, he doesn’t need the trouble, so don’t worry about the last name. Just Tony will do.

Tony’s first Parramatta game was back in 1954. It set the tone for the next few decades.

“Souths played Parramatta on Anzac Day. Souths had Clive Churchill, Parramatta had a fullback named Johnny Slade, who was supposed to be the heir apparent to Churchill. It didn’t work out,” Tony said. 

“Parramatta lost comfortably — in those days, they had good forwards and ordinary backs. They’d get flogged all the time.

Tony was there for the bleak early days. Between that year he first saw them play and 1961, they won the wooden spoon eight times and Tony was there.

When they signed Ken Thornett — who they called “The Mayor of Parramatta” by the end — and his brother, Dick, and the Eels finally showed a bit of life, Tony was there.

Two men pose during a rugby league training session
The Thornett brothers changed everything for Parramatta. (Getty Images: PA Images/S&C)

Things didn’t get really serious until the 1970s, when he was a man grown and had passed on the Parramatta fandom to his children, proud Toongabbie people that they were, and it all started to be worth it.

“They ambled along, they were bottom of the table all the time until 1975,” Tony said.

“I’d started taking my eldest son down to games the year before. We’d go down to the old oval, the place wouldn’t be half-full and we’d sit behind the goalposts and watch them get whooped.

“But [they] got Terry Fearnley in as coach and Ray Price over from rugby, then they made the grand final against Manly. They made blue and gold doughnuts and did all the mad things, like they do now, and they lost, but we kept at it.”

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