For years she was Carlton’s face of the outer. Of a match day at Princes Park she was as conspicuous a presence as the Robert Heatley Stand in whose shadows she stood - complete with her dark Navy Blue cap and “Stephen Kernahan No.1 supporter” wind-cheater which she wore for as long as the game’s longest-serving captain ran out.
Barbara Carlson - endearingly known to the football world as “Barb” – doesn’t go to the football these days. The advancing years, coupled with recent health issues (she overcame a cancer scare through the 2020 lockdown) have seen to that, and she’s first to admit that the team’s recent showings have tested her true Blue loyalty.
But Barb, who turns 80 this Thursday (July 1), has already got her birthday wish, by way of her team’s gritty 10-point win over Adelaide at Marvel Stadium on Sunday. The result has pleased her no end.
“It’s got harder and harder to go as time’s gone on, but you know I still love Carlton, ” Barb said, in reflecting on happy days at Princes Park. “I loved to go to training and to the games and I always supported the boys at club functions.
“These days I listen to their games on radio and watch them on television. I really hope the players can turn it around, because the teams I saw play for Carlton were mighty, mighty teams . . . and they gave me a lot of good memories.”
As she sat in her armchair, her little dog Molly at her feet, Barb reflected on her long Carlton connection, which she said can be sourced to her childhood.
An only child, Barb was raised by her loving mother Florence Lorraine Harris - and it was through the Harris family that her love affair with Carlton was first forged.
“I was a little girl when I started going to the games. I used to go with my grandmother Hilda – Mum’s Mum,” Barb recalled.
“My grandmother was in a wheelchair, she lost her legs in a car accident, and I used to stand beside her. She was one-eyed Carlton.”
In 1949, Barb’s mother married Fred Fitzgibbon, who two years earlier had played his part on a wing in Carlton’s drought-breaking 1947 Grand Final victory over Essendon.
Fitzgibbon famously (or infamously depending on how you look at it) was rubbed out for four matches for striking Collingwood ruckman Len Hustler in a brutal 1945 Preliminary Final, having seen Hustler deck his Carlton teammate Vin Brown.
A week later, when all hell broke loose in “The Bloodbath” Grand Final with South Melbourne, Fitzgibbon, dressed in civilian clobber, entered the fray in a bid to biff South’s wingman Ted Whitfield – an act for which he copped a further four matches on the sidelines.
By her own admission, Barb had little to do with her stepfather, but her mother’s seismic presence endured - and match-day pilgrimages with her to the old Carlton ground are firmly etched in Barb’s memory.
“Mum would sit up in the Heatley Stand and I’d be down near the race where the players ran out. After the game Mum and I would walk out to the carpark and wait for David to leave the clubroom. She thought the world of David. He’s a fantastic man that man,” Barb said.
“When I got a bit older I started going to games on my own, which was when I met my friends Philip, Jenny and Lynne and Phil’s Mum Joyce. I used to watch the games with all of them together every week and I was there with them when they’d turn up for the Best and Fairest nights and the Pleasant Sunday morning functions.
“This was my life because Carlton was all I had. Carlton and my footy.”
Carlton’s 1995 Grand Final triumph, under the watch of Barb’s dear friend David Parkin, remains the highpoint of her lifelong association with the club – and it happened at a most traumatic time in her life.
“On the Thursday before the Grand Final my Mum was buried . . . and Carlton helped me through it,” Barb said.
In the years since, ‘Parko’ has remained an important presence for Barb. Another is Phil Ryan – an equally fanatical Blues enthusiast who still fronts up on match days in his club guernsey festooned with badges of his favourite Carlton players past and present.
“‘Parko’ never misses ringing me and he’s coming to my 80th birthday . . . so too is Phil,” Barb said.
“When my Mother died Phil’s Mum took me in and made me part of the family, because I lived in St Kilda, I couldn’t afford the rent and I couldn’t live on my own.”
Today, Barb considers Phil her Carlton envoy.
“Phil still flies the flag at Carlton games,” she said, “and while I don’t think I’ll go to the footy again, I just want to see the players win another Grand Final before I die.
“They’ve meant everything to me.”
This Saturday, Barb will blow out the 80 candles on her birthday cake at a nearby hotel, in the company of close friends from her local parish, her old mate Phil and the great “Parko”.