The year is 2009. Obama is sworn into his first term. The iPhone 3G is available to the Australian public. Kanye West allegedly makes Taylor Swift famous.
Heath Grundy, a then 22-year-old forward for the Sydney Swans, is moved into defence in an attempt to reinvigorate his career. This unprecedented switch is reported on the club’s website: ‘Grundy steps back to go forward‘. The cleverness of the headline will be its undoing.
This will be the most copied AFL headline for the next eight years.
My first exposure was to a variant of the headline in 2014. Carlton’s Sam Rowe was ominously swapped to the backline, a Hail Mary usually signalling the end of a career. Instead, Rowe becomes a mainstay in defence and the subject of an article at Fairfax Media, ‘Sam Rowe takes a step forward in Blues’ back line’.
The headline tickled. The multiple meanings of ‘forward’ and ‘back’ offered a few possibilities, but all was soon forgotten. It returned to my life six months later, when Robbie Tarrant’s defensive switch provoked two symmetrical headlines on the same day (‘Tarrant moves back to go forward’ and ‘Fit Tarrant moving forward as a backman’). The headline had my curiosity, now it had my attention.
I began logging its occurrences on the Notes app on my phone. Three years and ten articles later, I thought I had compiled the largest repository of ‘back to go forward’ articles known to man. A quick Google search helped me find three more. Yes, there are thirteen articles with quippy headlines about key forwards moving to defence.
The oldest mention is the Grundy article in 2009, with steady adoption in subsequent years. Inexplicably, there has been a recent explosion in its use, employed a staggering six times this year.
What could explain the current jump? Are all our failed forwards suddenly migrating to the backline? Surely this positional merry-go-round has occurred since the beginning of the game. More plausibly, it may have something to do with the massive amount of content churned for a voracious readership. Sheer volume may account for some serendipitous repetition.
Targeting particular journalists is a dead end. When stories are filed, headlines are typically written by the editor, not the journalist. Trying to trace editors at specific media outlets doesn’t work either. There are often multiple editors employed at an outfit. Without insider knowledge, the author of a specific headline is virtually untraceable. There are no fingerprints. This is a perfect crime.
It gets much, much worse.
The thirteen instances of ‘back to go forward‘ repeat just one possible headline. But there are multiple meanings of ‘forward’ and ‘back’, inferring progression, reflection and position. Mathematically, this suggests seventeen different headlines. A player looks [forward] to playing in the [backline]. A defender takes steps [forward] while looking [back] on his time in the [forward-line]. You could go on and on. I suggest you don’t.
There will be more headlines to come, but my time with this subject has come to an end. I retire a world expert on this specific pun-based AFL headline. That will be enough. Sometimes you welcome the tug of the bungee cord separating journalism from irretrievable madness.
Ken Sakata is a writer on Onballers who covers AFL and pop-culture. He’s had bylines at VICE Sports and The Roar. He is based in Melbourne, Australia. Follow him on Twitter at @sakatarama.