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.
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.
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.
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.”
There were other close calls after that first grand final defeat. When Parramatta and St George drew in the 1977 decider and played a replay a week late which the Dragons won handsomely with a roughhoused style born of the belief that nobody gets sent off in a grand final, Tony was there.
He was there again when the Eels travelled to Kogarah Oval in the first game of 1978, where Lew Platz, a star Parramatta recruit, went after St George’s Rod Reddy for retribution and got it. To Reddy’s credit, Tony says, he took his medicine.
“One of my daughters used to go down when they were training and kick the ball back to Mick Cronin while he was practising kicking goals,” Tony said.
“They weren’t just the local side. They were our side.”
Glory days revisited
Then the 1980s came and, with it, all the glory and Tony was there. He was there in 1981 with his wife, her sister and a few of his kids, sitting in the old MA Noble Stand when the Eels beat Newtown for their first ever premiership.
“I said to my wife at the start of the season: ‘If we can’t win under Jack Gibson, we can’t win,” Tony said.
“He got them all going. We’d been watching Peter Sterling play in the Under-23s and he was a hog, he wanted to run the whole show. Gibson got hold of him and he was a different player.
“We were behind the goalposts in the MA Noble Stand. We’d always sit right up on the fence, so the kids could see the footballers up close. I was with my wife, her sister, three of my sons and one of my daughters.
“Through the whole second half we were on tenterhooks. Once Grant Atkins got over, I thought we were coming, but it wasn’t secure until Brett Kenny put that big dummy on Phil Sigsworth to score.
“The mob went mad. They were predominantly Parramatta. The people in front of us opened their esky and had a bottle of champagne. I hadn’t brought any. I wasn’t as confident as they were.”
Tony was a big deal at the old Cumberland Catholic Club back then, so that’s where he went to celebrate and, in the glory of the club’s first title, the bar was thrown open and the beers were free.
“We thought nobody was going as mad as us, until we heard they’d burnt the bloody ground down.”
After waiting 34 years for their first premiership, the golden era was now upon the Eels. They won again in 1982 and 1983 and then again in 1986.
Four premierships in six years is the best return any team has had in the past 50 years, but they’ve been waiting for number five ever since.
Tony’s been patient and he never got bitter because there’s a winning time in every man’s life and his was better than most.
He doesn’t get to the games like he once did. Time might make you bolder but children get older and life gets in the way of days at the football.
But he’s still Parramatta to the core. So are his seven children and most of their children and, once his great-grandkids grow up a little bit, there’s a fair chance they’ll end up with a touch of the Eels in them.
Parramatta are their side, the family team. It’s a part of them. Their veins run blue and gold and they’re not the only ones.
Through the generations
An entire generation of families like Tony’s have been waiting for this chance to live in golden times, just like their mothers and fathers and Tony did all those years ago.
Tony wasn’t sure about 2001, because he wasn’t sure about Brian Smith. He wasn’t sure about 2009, because the Storm were so good he couldn’t see them losing.
He’s not sure this time either, but he’s believing and that’s enough.
“Penrith deserve to be favourites. Unless someone handles [Nathan] Cleary, he’s going to be a pain in the arse for them,” Tony said.
“But, if Parramatta really get stuck in, really stand up to them and knock them over, they can win. That’s all you can ask for.
“[Reed] Mahoney’s a great tackler, the tall bloke’s come to life. Dylan Brown is the key, he can step and tackle and he’s got a turn of speed. Nathan Brown’s got nothing to lose.
“[Clint] Gutherson was a tin pot winger from Manly and look at him now. Maika Sivo … I wouldn’t stand in front of him, and the other winger, Waqa Blake — I suppose the expression is ‘hot and cold’.
“And miracles do happen. They could do it. I won’t write them off. I watched them through those hard years and those seasons were very long. It’s been a journey.”
The way Tony sees it, he’s had his time. He had it with those old Parramatta sides back in the day when the bar was open and the old home ground incinerated in a joyous, manic blaze that rose high and danced into the western Sydney night.
Stadiums won’t burn if Parramatta do it again. The beer might not even be free.
Those things don’t really happen anymore, even when a team wins a premiership. Tony might drink an extra Resch’s or two, but that’s about as wild as things will get for him.
He’ll leave the mad stuff to others, because burning things down and shouting the bar and living like tomorrow will never come is a young man’s game.
Tony had his time with the Eels. It’s someone else’s turn.
Will they rise again?
Those recollections of the old days his are treasures, but he knows it’s time for a new generation to create their own lasting moments during their own day in the sun.
The 80s were wonderful times, but they can’t sustain a club forever and new glories must be forged if the ghosts of the miserable days since are to be banished forever.
Men have grown old waiting for the Eels to rise again and it’s past time for the current crop to go out there and make some new memories, ones that could last another 36 years.
And Parramatta can do it. It won’t be easy, because Penrith are mighty, but Parramatta can do it. They have the muscle and the skill and the will, and they have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
It has to happen somewhere and it has to happen some time. So what better place than here? What better time than now?