There might be the small matter of Spurs v Arsenal, a Ryder Cup and GB’s Froome & Co. going for World Championship gold, but there is only one sporting event this weekend for the majority of the 112,000 Australian expats living in the UK.
Alarm bells will ring around ‘The Big Smoke’ well before the AFL Grand Final kicks off at 5:30am (for those who make it to bed) this Saturday. They will mostly belong to London’s 44,000-odd contingent from Down Under, but there are sure to be a fair few Brits among the myriad early risers. Aussie Rules is no longer solely Australian.
Many will flood to central London’s only-remaining Walkabout pub, in Temple, where doors open at 4am and £20 will get you entry, a breakfast bap and two VBs. The Alexandra, Jetlag, the Clapham Grand and Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes are among those offering similar deals to watch the Hawthorn Hawks take on the Sydney Swans in a repeat of the 2012 decider.
Others will bunk down in Victorian basement flats in Shepherds bush, Hammersmith and Earls Court with healthy supplies of meat pies, Tim Tams and Vegemite on toast to watch the game live on ESPN. Some might even brave a breakfast barbecue in the sub 10 degrees celcius English Autumn morning.
“I arrived in London in 2002 and have watched the Grand Final in a pub every year,” Wimbledon resident Steve Cull said.
“When I first arrived, the only way to catch a game was to head to the Shepherds Bush Walkabout. The availability of AFL on Pay-TV and internet now means the only real demand to watch AFL in a pub is for the Grand Final alone. Support for AFL will always remain in London; you can change career, house, women but you never stop barracking for the team you supported as a boy!”
This last weekend in September must leave the UK’s Office for National Statistics Migration staffers scratching their heads as flocks of Aussies repatriate for a fly-by weekend. But for many, being away from home is part of the fun.
Collingwood fan Ben Crough, aged 36, from Blackburn North, Melbourne, now lives in Cheltenham, 175 kilometres west of London. “This will be my 11th Grand Final in the UK. I am traveling to London to catch up with mates and soak up the atmosphere. We’ll be up early doors, pie and beer for breaky, followed by more beer. Go Swannies!”
It’s not solely about beer and pie for British and Irish Sherrin-lovers however. AFL England now has 30 affiliated teams, (not to mention AFL Scotland, AFL Wales and the AFL League of Ireland) including seven university sides, and 23 clubs, eight of which are London-based. Many of these put out more than one side every weekend during the English summer season; others run up to three teams across different levels of competition. West London Wildcats are the reigning champions after they defeated Wandsworth Demons in the 2014 Premiership Grand Final.
Former Wandsworth Demons player and coach, Mark Staiger, explained how non-Australian participation has grown in London AFL since he first got involved four years ago. “It’s the culture around the game that attracts more and more guys, whether they are Australian or otherwise–backpackers or long-term residents,” he said.
Rugby players and Gaelic footballers keen for a runaround in their off-season are regular recruits, but there are opportunities for all shapes, sizes and ages, male or female. It is mandatory for half of the players fielded by each team in the London Premiership to be non-Australian. The European contingent among them could be representing their respective national sides in the Axios Euro Cup this year on October 4. Eighteen male teams and five female teams will be competing.
The passion displayed for the code here in London is emulated across the globe, as former Swans captain Brett Kirk discovered in 2010. When the AFL made Kirk an International Ambassador and sent him to 23 countries across Asia, Europe and America to spread the word, little introduction was necessary.
“We found the passion for AFL breathtaking all around the world,” reflected film director Michael Stringer McIntyre, who captures the journey in his documentary Aussie Rules the World.
“The breadth and depth of commitment to the game shocked us. The oval ball offers an openness and freedom to anybody and everybody. People love that it’s Australian, there is a real cultural attraction. As Australians, we undersell ourselves; this adventure made me proud of the game and proud to be Australian. Nobody tries to change the name, it’s ‘Aussie Rules’ wherever you go. I think the egalitarianism on the field reflects what modern-day Australia stands for.
“We were welcomed with open arms everywhere we went. It was a real highlight for me to watch Brett interact with people of all backgrounds. He has a great talent of bringing people together.”
As the profile of Aussie Rules rises around the world, sadly, there are less and less flags bearing the Southern Cross hanging out of West London windows. The UK Government made changes to the visa regime in 2011 to abolish the General Visa Category under which many Australians had previously applied. They introduced a cap of 20,700 on the number who could be sponsored by UK employers, and permitted a further 1,000 only of those with ‘exceptional talent’.
For this weekend, at least, London residents across the city will be woken by AFL fans from around the world enjoying a jar or two and screaming ‘BALL!’ at some unearthly hour.