'It is in your blood': The shared agony, and joy, of being an Eels fan

The turf covering the Sydney Cricket Ground was patchy at best back then, worn thin and bare thanks to too many wet weather games and the rudimentary grounds-keeping methods of the times. The Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs were determined rivals, looking to win their third-straight premiership against a Parramatta Eels club that had won the three years prior to that.

Despite the arsenal of attacking weapons on both sides, it was a dour, defensive battle fought between some of the hardest forwards to lace up a boot and orchestrated by two of the best halfbacks to ever play the game in Peter Sterling and Steve Mortimer.

At the end of the 80 minutes, the Eels had kicked two penalty goals to the Bulldogs' one, to claim a bruising 4-2 victory. Two Eels legends of the game, Michael Cronin and Ray Price were chaired from the field having retired as champions. The blue and gold army on the hill waved their flags, and threw streamers and cut up pieces of newspaper, as the players ran their victory lap holding the Winfield Cup trophy aloft.

None of the 45,843 fans there that day had the slightest inkling that they were witnessing the last premiership the Eels would win. No one could have imagined that the talent assembled would not produce a similar result in the coming years. Surely, success would breed more success.

It would be a long 15 years before Parramatta would even play in another Grand Final, another eight after that before their next and a further 13 before they would have another chance, this Sunday, against the Penrith Panthers. A third Grand Final appearance in 36 years, with nothing, as yet, to show for it.

It has been a long, hard slog for their legion of fans. Being a Parramatta supporter brings with it an acceptance that the occasional highs are going to be outweighed by the many lows. It's a feeling that brings them closer together. It would be easy to give up on such a pastime, and only those that stick with it understand the torment and earn the respect of the others. From young to old, they are taking a deep breath ahead of Sunday, a combined feeling of hope, a desire to finally be rewarded for their faithfulness.

Connor Fitzpatrick of Winston Hills and Jack Dawson of Toongabbie weren't alive the last time the Eels tasted premiership glory. Both born around the time of the 2001 Grand Final, they represent the generation of fans, now old enough to vote and drink alcohol, who have never seen their team win the competition.

Alan Dawson, Jack's father, and Bronwyn Hay of Cammeray are of an earlier generation. They were children when the Eels ran that victory lap in 1986, they have fleeting memories of those glory years, and have been through the heartbreak of both 2001 and 2009. All four tell of how family played such an important part in their fandom and in ensuring their enduring love for the Eels.

Jack: "I'm mainly an Eels fan because of my dad, he got me into it when I was a young kid and from there I just felt a real connection to the club, and I love the game of rugby league. My earliest memories are of dad taking me to the old stadium, we were members for a while there. I remember the Nathan Hindmarsh days as my favourites. We had the same seats there for about six years, win or lose we would go to most games with my uncle and cousin. Dad took me to a few away games as well, we got out to Cronulla, to Leichhardt."

Connor: "Growing up in the area, in the Hills, it was a very Parramatta dominated area, and following the family as well. My earliest, certainly fondest memories are probably of the 2009 season, that incredible run and everyone at school running around doing the Hayne Plane."

Al: "My father and his family are Parra supporters, so once you are born, you just become a Parra supporter, exactly like Jack was, as soon as he was born he became a Parra supporter, it is in your blood. Dad took me to Cumberland Oval a few times, I remember going to the SCG to see them play the Roosters, but the strongest memories were when we made the Grand Finals. We never went to the Grand Finals, we had a tradition where we had the whole family over to our place for a BBQ, dad's mates would come and the kids would play backyard footy until the game came on the telly. I remember if Parramatta won, dad and his mates would head off to the Albion Hotel and we wouldn't see them till the next day. They were good times."

Bronwyn: "I grew up in the Hills District, but my dad was an Eels fan. He emigrated from Scotland when he was 13 and kicked around in a few places in South Australia before the family ended up in Parramatta and from there he was an Eels fan. They started in same year he was born, 1947, so I think he thought it was meant to be. We were all Eels fans in our house. So for as long as I can remember it was always a Parramatta house.

"My earliest memory was probably, I mean I was very young at the time, but it was probably that 1986 Grand Final. Growing up in Winston Hills, people decorated their houses, there was bunting on the streets and the shops, Parramatta and Church Street Mall, and everyone seemed to be an Eels fan."


The victory in 1986 was a surprising end of an era for the Eels, who had entered the competition in 1947. They first made a Grand Final in 1976, which they lost, before losing the decider again the following year. Their first premiership success came in 1981, after which they won again in 1982 and 1983. They were beaten by the Bulldogs in the 1984 decider, before coming back to beat them on that cloudy September day in 1986.

Jack: "I remember dad telling me about the glory days of the '80s, how he enjoyed having it over teams like Manly. Obviously, Ray Price was a pretty big influence in his life. I remember him telling me that the core playing group was so tight and such a well put together group, with Sterlo and Brett Kenny, they were just unreal. Even today, he compares some of the current players to those of the '80s, like saying Gutho shows glimpses of what Kenny could do.

"When I was about eleven, dad gave me a DVD set of all the old games in '80s, the seasons, the finals. I used to put them on and watch them and it was good as a kid who grew up not used to seeing Parra win, to see such a dominant playing group back in the day."

Connor: "What reminds me of the teams of the '80s, is when I hear comparisons between Peter Sterling and Mitchell Moses. One trying to pick up the legacy of the other, after not really having a halfback as good as Sterling since those days. I worked in a sports store and they used to play the greatest games on the in-store television and the Eels would pop up every now and then. It was a completely different game back then, better in some ways and worse in others. "

Al: "Grand Final day at our house again, taking on the Bulldogs, and it was Ray Price and Michael Cronin's last game. Ray Price is still my hero and it was good to see him go out a winner. We never thought it would be our last, even if it wasn't the next year or the year after, we thought we would be up there again, but we weren't, it was just the end of it. We still had Brett Kenny, we still had Peter Sterling, Steve Ella, Paul Taylor, Mark Laurie. I don't know what happened there, other teams just caught up and went past us.

Bronwyn: "For me the strongest memory was always my dad talking about Ray Price and how incredible Ray Price was. We used to always go to games together and there was the statue of Ray Price out the front of the stadium holding up the '86 Winfield Cup and that was a core memory for me. I remember watching the '86 Grand Final on TV and I remember my dad being really sad about Ray Price and Michael Cronin retiring and kind of getting a feeling then that it was the end of an era. Dad was genuinely upset, talking about how there would never be another player like Ray Price, I have snippets of memories of that as a kid."


In 2001 Parramatta finished the season as minor premiers, having won 20 of their 26 games, drawing two and losing four. They scored a massive 839 points that year, the most ever in a single season by any team in history. They smashed the Warriors in the first week of the finals, 54-12, before taking care of the Broncos in the preliminary final to progress to the Grand Final where they would face the Newcastle Knights, led by Andrew 'Joey' Johns.

Jack: "I wasn't born, and I don't think dad speaks about this one as much as he does about the others, I think it still hurts him until this day. From what I hear about it we were clear favourites to win and just choked on the day."

Connor: "I was just a baby, so I don't really have any memories of that year. I do have a signed Eels jersey from 2001 framed. I remember being told that we were the team to beat and obviously Johns decided to spoil the party."

Al: "Grand Final Day at mum and dads again, just the tradition. That one was really disappointing, because in the lead up to that match, [coach] Brian Smith took the team down the coast to escape the media, and I just think that was a bad plan, he should have stayed in Sydney and lapped it all up. It was just horrible; the Knights just came out and blew us apart. We had a great team, there was really no excuse, we were pretty much unbeatable that year, but they just blitzed it."

Bronwyn: "I went to the 2001 Grand Final, it was heartbreaking. Obviously my dad being an Eels tragic forever, but I remember about halfway through that season he came to me and he said 'this is the best Parramatta team I have ever seen; we are going to the Grand Final'.

"I was thrilled to go, super excited and obviously we were raging hot favourites and I remember my dad spent a fortune on tickets and he said 'I've got tickets on halfway' and the Olympic Stadium had just opened, and we got there and we were three rows from the back, we were literally in the sky.

"Joey Johns just came out, and I've never seen a greater half of football in my life. And the thing that made it doubly hard was that I loved Joey, what with the Blues, and he was genuinely the best player I had ever seen. I had cheered for Joey for so long and here he was breaking my heart in front of my eyes, albeit from a long distance. It was a long, silent, sombre bus ride home that day."


In 2009 Parramatta started the season poorly, winning just four of their first ten games, and looked destined to miss the playoffs. They made a late charge to scrape into eighth position, thanks largely to the inspirational brilliance of Jarryd Hayne, who would go onto win the Dally M Medal for best player that year. The prize for finishing eighth under the system used at the time was a first-up clash with the minor premiers, St George Illawarra. The Eels upset the Dragons at Kogarah, before thumping the Titans the following week. They then met their old nemesis the Bulldogs in the preliminary final and in front of a record non-Grand Final crowd of 74,549, won their way through to the decider against Melbourne Storm.

Jack: "I was actually at the Grand Final that year with dad. I remember that year grew my love for footy even more, just seeing Jarryd Hayne's unreal season. I was probably a bit too young to soak it all up, like I'm doing now, not realising what a big occasion it was. I remember bits and pieces of the game, but it didn't really hit me that we had lost the Grand Final."

Connor: "Even years later it hurts. Melbourne are such a hated team for Parra fans, what with the salary cap cheating that year. We felt like we were robbed."

Al: "We were definitely underdogs that year, they were the favourites, we came from nowhere and just made the eight and what a ride, all on the back of Jarryd Hayne. We were beaten by St George in the last round and had to go back the following week to play them in the final and we beat them. They kept the score from the last round up on the scoreboard, the Eels rocked up and saw it, and Hayne had an absolute blinder.

"I took Jack out to the Grand Final that year, it was a disappointing result, but a great experience. It was not only his first live Grand Final, but my first live one as well. It was unreal, everyone was happy before the game, you're cheering your team, you're booing the opposition, it's quite stressful. You're happy for your team to make it, but when you don't win, it leaves you empty."

Brownyn: "In 2001 they just dominated, they were so good all year and then 2009 was the antithesis of that, they were horrible to begin with and then they just went on this magical run with Jarryd Hayne. That ride of those last few rounds was incredible.

"We went on that 'meant to be' run, with Jarryd Hayne just doing Jarryd Hayne things. We played the Bulldogs in that preliminary final, that felt like a Grand Final, it was as big as a Grand Final, it meant more because it was that Sydney rivalry. That was as close to a feeling of winning a Grand Final as I've had as an Eels fan. We won that game and it just felt like it was meant to be.

"Then the Storm just absolutely crushed our souls, they were the perfect villains."

Most painful memories

Parramatta own more wooden spoons for running last than any other team currently in the competition, with 14. Since 1986 they have claimed three, in 2012, 2013 and 2018. In 2016 they were found to have breached the salary cap and were fined $1 million and stripped of the 12 competition points they had accrued up to that point in the season.

Jack: "After the 2009 season, we became members, for the next six years. But, it wasn't until 2017 that we even played finals football again. We had a lot of good times going to those games, but you cop it from your mates, when your team is struggling like that."

Connor: "Definitely all the wooden spoons we collected. Copping it from all your mates whose teams were a couple of spots above you on the ladder. Even if they weren't playing in the finals themselves, they still had the wooden spoon to have a shot at you about. It was just painful."

Al: "Getting all the wooden spoons, being stripped of the competition points for cheating the salary cap, I just thought how low can a club get? And the thing is, who did we spend the money on? Because we weren't winning competitions with the players we had."

Bronwyn: "The wooden spoons hurt, but there was a game against North Queensland where we were up by about three or four tries with ten minutes to go and they ran us down. The other thing is when you see all these great players playing for other clubs and you find out that they were a Parramatta junior. It has always been such a pain point that we have such a strong, big club, but we just can't seem to get there, we can't seem to get out of our own way, it's almost like self-inflicted pain.

"That's the most disappointing thing. I feel like circumstances haven't put us here, we've put ourselves in this position, with obviously all the infighting and off field stuff. If we just got out of our own way and got into the core of who it is that we are, we would be an absolute powerhouse. Then at the same time that's the same thing that is so endearing about them, you don't have that arrogance about you because you have been humbled so many times as a Parramatta fan, you have to have that humility about you."

This Grand Final

After four straight years of bombing out of the finals, winning only two of nine games, the Eels faced the very real prospect of having a premiership window that was about to slam shut. After a mixed 2022 season, they finished fourth on the ladder, and lost the first game of the finals to Penrith. They managed to bounce back to beat the Canberra Raiders and North Queensland Cowboys to earn their place the Grand Final.

Jack: "It's a rewarding kind of a feeling. You go through so many years of not even making the finals or being eliminated early, and it's the same old story. All the years of pain and the tears, you get an opportunity to put the 36-year drought behind you. To prove all the haters wrong, for so long Parramatta has been the laughing stock of the NRL, it would be so nice to get a Grand Final win against the clear favourites. None of my sporting teams have ever won, so it will be an unknown feeling, but it would be just amazing to see. You would lock that memory in for the rest of your life, to tell your kids in the future, it would mean a lot to Parramatta fans of all ages."

Connor: "It means a lot as a Parramatta fan. It brings joy, it brings bragging rights as well, for so long we have just copped it, we were on the back foot, never a leg to stand on, but now we can back up the talk. It will really be a highlight for our club, give us our time at the top. If we win, it will be something you can't describe, something I have never experienced before, something else, a speechless moment. The celebrations will be good and it will be remembered for years to come, not just in Parramatta. The parties will be great, an unforgettable feeling, words won't be able to describe it."

Al: "I'm really happy that we are in the Grand Final, that means a lot, just to get there, considering I didn't think we'd make the Top 8 after we were beaten by those lower teams, the Bulldogs, the Tigers. If we win it, I'm going to share that with my son, to enjoy it with him, that means a lot. It will mean a lot to my family and it will be a great relief. It will be great for my dad who is nearly 70, and my uncle who is in his late 70s, they will all be so happy. It might shut some of the critics up, they are forever bagging the Eels, people like Ray Hadley and Paul Kent, a win might shut them all up."

Bronwyn: "I love my sport, but Parramatta is in the core of who I am, obviously the family connection, it is where you grew up, it's much more tribal. You invest and you invest and you invest and finally this is the payoff. It's also so much of my friendship group, so much of our good times and things that we do are around the Parramatta Eels. To be able to experience good times together in the Grand Final week, to be able to share that with your family and friends, for something that is so completely and utterly outside of your control, but you invest so much into, to get some sort of a return on that is the ultimate. It's an opportunity to have some pride in the team you invest so much in, because you have copped it for so long being a Parra fan. We've been through some dark times, you know it doesn't happen every year, but when it does happens, you have to enjoy it.

"There are the all emotions about what it means to be a Parramatta fan, but I think it is just being able to say that we did it and we did it the right way, that is the ultimate, there is such satisfaction in that."

So the Panthers await, in front of a packed stadium at Homebush, on Sunday night. The Eels will run out to confront their foes, hoping to end that 36-year premiership drought. Who knows when the Eels will next have the opportunity, who knows if they will ever win one again?

And the final words from Connor; "Even if we just win this one, I would be happy, my life would be complete, at least I could say I saw one in my lifetime..."