Elias Canetti’s 1960 classic Crowds and Power begins with a chapter on the fear of being touched: ‘There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching towards him and be able to recognise or at least classify it … all the distances men create around themselves are dictated by this fear.’ Our experience of just about everything we do, think and feel right now seems touched by this idea. 

When I heard that this year’s games would be played without spectators, my mind sifted questions. How strange will it be for the players? From where will they draw energy when needed? What will the coverage be like? What is the nature of spectacle without spectators? Should they really be playing?

I had a moment of normality at work on the Tuesday when a colleague and fellow Swan stopped me in the corridor. ‘Matthew Nicks’ first game as coach of Adelaide,’ he said, interested. ‘Rory Sloane’s 200th,’ I replied with concern.

Our family tested the waters on Thursday night. It was odd – familiar, but like they’d hung the wrong backdrop and queued a strange soundtrack. By Friday night, we were filling the spaces on our own, toying with things such as player names: Josh Bruce – he of two first names; Bailey Smith – he of two last names; Bailey Dale – one of each but in the wrong order. The shapes and flows of the game were the same and there was genuine intensity. But I kept wondering about the idea of competition at this moment in history when the world requires an unprecedented unity.

Somewhat acclimatised by Saturday afternoon, I watched the Swans run out onto a pristine Adelaide Oval. Blakey looked bigger through the hips and legs. McCartin huge through the shoulders. The game started with a semi-silent leap in the middle and a rough of player shouts and instructions. They reminded me of Saturday afternoons on the hill over Henson Park in Sydney, watching the local comp with poppyseed cake and coffees. I suppose we’ll get to know the unique echoes of all the different stadia.

Heeney scored the first goal of the season. New recruit and number 15 Sam Gray turned a nervous shot hard left. But Kennedy managed an opportunistic kick and roll. Tex booted a quick reply but a lovely feed from Mills via McCartin landed in Hayward’s maturing hands. I was animated by the delicious two-way speed in the game and the return to clearance dominance for the Swans. It’s a warming thing, the site of Naismith in the circle, swarmed by Josh and Luke and James. 

The Swans whittled the quarter time deficit with the next six scores. Hayward made gold from straw with a pressure ball stolen by Cunningham’s intent. Blakey steamed onto a Cunningham pass but leaned it left. While the forwards were full of zip, Florent and Aliir were showing defensive ferocity, Rampe was designing again and the Swans looked target centric. Blakey finally guided an opportunistic curl and Gray cherried a stunning pass from Florent. Rory Sloane was able to interrupt the Swans with a goal and his own ‘Yeah baby!’. But the red and white rolled their lead onwards. When McInerney handed a stunner to Heeney I verbalised for the first time this season! ‘Oooh,’ I cried to no-one as the margin went eight points clear.

I leapt up to cook in the break. ‘Life goes on’ is what we’re all trying to believe these days. But putting the dinner on is now the equivalent of half-time bevvies and catch up with the O’Reillys. More questions swooped as I crushed the garlic and stripped the oregano stalks. Is intensity built on brute competitiveness or somehow on solidarity too? Will the advantage of a home ground become irrelevant without its parochial voices? Do players actually kick straighter without the crowd? I guess the sports and behavioural scientists will have a field day.

And what about the players? They are in their own kind of isolation for not being part of the newly normal distant – a unit of men asked to continue portraying ‘life as normal’ when all of us around them are changing our ways. I wonder how they feel about it, carrying on for our ‘common good’.

I wandered back into Living Room Stadium to see Isaac Heeney on the screen and the score at 64-49. Cuddles (as Gwen from Row T calls him) was the joy of the game. He looked like the Ryan O’Keefe we’ve often imagined him to be – fast, regularly airborne and correct. While Papley folded himself around the post, Cuddles stalled the line ball for a score. There was an urgency, energy and lightfootedness that I don’t remember from last year. I stirred the dinner and reappeared to a super tackle from Ronke. A body fling from McInerney to whip the ball forward again. The Swans looked systematic even when it was chaotic down back, like someone would be there when one of them turned looking. The blood pressure spiked momentarily when Tex lined up on the 50, but the three points stayed our way. The cat rolled in the bean bag. It was dark outside. Thanks, fellas.

Ironically, Canetti’s antidote to the fear of being touched by the unknown is to join a crowd: ‘As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch.’ That’s the way it has been for footy supporters, season upon season. But in 2020, we know that the one thing which may help us to avoid the contact of the invisible unknown we are being touched by is not to be a crowd. A mind-bending paradox that the togetherness which has so often salved is the thing which threatens us for now.

We have a perfect win record by the time the season is postponed on Sunday. It’s a new world. And a very new season of footy.