A dead man cannot win a game of football. A dead man cannot save a club.
A Collingwood fan told of the news. On Twitter, @jimmythedragon sent a message:
thinking of you tonight. If ever the Tiger needs to burn bright, it’s tonight. We shared the great man with you. #respect
Late last Monday night I was alone and driving through the stilled city and thinking of Tom Hafey, of the person I imagined him to be, and thinking of church bells on Richmond Hill and flags at half mast, and thinking how this city already seemed lonelier. Tommy had died. An era was over.
I thought also how his death might galvanise a club. It might be the catalyst for a club to find something within itself – a resolve and fortitude – that’s been absent all season, and for too many years. I thought his death might mean something. It could be a turning point.
Three weeks ago, after the Hawthorn loss, I wrote about trust. “Trust and belief seem to have broken at our club, so quickly and readily after the dream of last season. Trust between players. Trust between coaches. Trust between fans. Trust within the club. Trust in football. Trust in something we hold dear.”
Saturday’s defeat left Richmond supporters raw with loss and disillusionment. Ideas of trust and belief, loyalty and patriotism, were questioned among fans. Most called for changes. Some called for heads to roll. Many called for unity, to stand firm behind the club and its chosen path.
What’s gone unsaid is that trust begins at the top. When Caroline Wilson confirmed Richmond boss Brendon Gale gave an hour-long presentation for Andrew Demetriou’s vacant position, this trust was loosened. My disappointments aren’t about Brendon, but for Richmond fans with blind faith and loyalty to him, who stand unquestioningly behind him.
Brendon Gale was a courageous Richmond player, and is recognised as a successful and popular CEO of the club, and I believe him to be a fair-minded and astute manager, and I would not deny him his private ambitions. But what does his pitch for the top AFL job say about his duty to Richmond? For us outsiders, it can be read only as duplicity.
He is Richmond, until a better offer presents. Rightly or wrongly, it is a signal that percolates down. And in a time of crisis, his wavering of trust resonates beyond its circumstances. If his heart is tempted by another offer, why should ours remain true?
The sky was crying.
Three weeks ago, on a Friday, I knotted a tie and caught a train to Richmond and with a broken umbrella walked to Punt Road for a luncheon held by the Tommy Hafey Club. Along the way I met a man getting wet and shared with him my brolly. We introduced ourselves. His name was Gary Arnold, and he once played for Richmond. Thirteen games in the 1963-64 seasons. Five wins, seven goals.
He played in the second-last VFL match ever held at Punt Road Oval.
The day before the lunch, news was that Tommy Hafey was back in hospital after complications following surgery to remove a brain tumour in early March.
“Tommy’s not too flash,” said the straight-talking Mike Perry (53 games in the yellow-and-black, including the 1967 Grand Final coached by Hafey, and now president of the Richmond Former Players’ and Officials’ Association). He said he had visited Tommy in hospital and his message was simple. “Make sure we all get behind the players, the coach and the club.”
I was invited to Richmond’s business network club by Sonya, a committee member, a passionate Richmond woman, and someone keen to contribute to the betterment of our club. Sitting beside her, at a table with her friends, it’s inspiring to see how an organisation can bring people together, and help look out for its own.
As she said in an email this week: “When the Committee gets together again (next function is July 11), I’ll be motivated to make the Tommy Hafey Club grow and fly now that he’s gone – uphold Tommy’s values and support the past players and history of the club. All I can do.”
For anyone Richmond, it was a wonderful luncheon. The day’s theme was Jack Titus and his eponymous medal as the club’s best-and-fairest runner-up. Football journalist Jon Ralph was MC, and guests included current players Chris Newman, Dustin Martin (“Got some more skulls tattooed on my arms”, “I just love being out there with the boys”), and Colac-boy Nathan Foley.
Warm nostalgia filled the room when past Jack Titus medal recipients Craig Smith (1986), Michael Mitchell (1988) and Trent Nichols (1990) joined the stage, sharing stories variously about KB, the General, the Flea, TJ, Matty Knights, U19s coach Doug Searle, and “tough times at Richmond”.
Sandy Bay recruit Trent Nichols, who played at four league clubs and was traded from Tigerland to West Coast (“We were so well-funded over there the players used to call it Hollywood”), had only fond memories of his Punt Road days. “I think without a doubt this place is unbelievable,” he said. “This place would just rock.”
Rightly or wrongly, in times like this, our football club is all about the “four walls”. Those on the inside create a siege mentality. It keeps barrackers at arm’s reach. It separates those within the club from disparate outside voices. It constructs a dichotomy; “us” versus “them”.
Last year I wrote a weekly blog about what it means to be a Richmond supporter that for much of the season was published on the club’s website. It was a wonderful opportunity that gave much pleasure, mostly from fans who shared their stories that in turn I shared with others. It was an exercise in community. It was about building trust. I was open and honest in who I was and what I was trying to do. Most of all, I wanted to help and contribute to something that for so long has given me so much pleasure.
But the exercise ultimately was soured by disappointments, all which came from my dealings with “the club” and in particular with Simon Matthews, its general manager of media and stakeholder relations. Maybe I’ve lived a charmed life, but rarely before have I encountered someone so brusque and overbearing. At every turn, he put my nose out of joint.
Matthews is a football bureaucrat. He’s part of an industry gotten fat from corporate dollars. He faces none of the intense public scrutiny borne by players and coaches. He came to Punt Road from Essendon. His brother is GM of the GWS Giants. He’s part of the boys club culture that David Koch, chairman of Port Adelaide Football Club, remarked upon after his first season in the AFL system.
Simon Matthews is well-renumerated for his work at the Richmond Football Club. My contributions were voluntary.
Of all the missteps between us, two stand out. One came after I introduced myself to a players’ partner at a game, and asked whether I could sit beside her at a game and write about it from her perspective. She seemed receptive to the idea. She gave me her business card. I said I’d be in contact.
Two days later, on a Monday morning, I received a terse phone call from Matthews, admonishing me for approaching this woman and accusing me of putting her in an uncomfortable and awkward position. He said she had felt “ambushed”. He said if ever I wanted access to anyone at the club I need put it in writing.
This partner was not a club employee and, anyway, all previous emailed requests for club access (say, for contact details of long-serving members, or for past players) were routinely ignored.
Regardless, I wrote a 609-word request asking for access. The reply was five words: “XXXX is unavailable for interview”.
I was happy to let the matter rest – our second child was imminent – although out of courtesy I emailed this players’ partner apologising if I’d caused her any distress, and assuring her it wasn’t my intention.
Her reply was immediate: “I want to apologise for what the RFC has said to you. As I never once said that I did not want to be interviewed by you, they said it would be best if I did not. I am quite annoyed that they have tried to put this on me as I never said that you put me in an uncomfortable or awkward position. As I said to you I would have been more than happy to do it for you aslong as it was OK with [XXXX]. So please know that none of this has come from me.”
Months later I asked Simon Matthews why he lied to me. I said there was no need. If the club didn’t want me sitting at a game with one of the so-called WAG’s then all it had to do was say so. He didn’t need to berate me. All I was trying to do was be inclusive, to spread goodwill.
Then several weeks later, returning from Sydney and the game at the SCG, I knew I could no longer offer my services to the club. It was all prompted by a whiteboard.
In a video episode of ‘Inside Tigerland’, Matthew Richardson was filmed in an office with a whiteboard on a wall behind him. The board charted the weekly routine of the club’s website. On Fridays, under “Dimma’s presser” was written “Dugald’s flog”. I learned last season the word ‘flog’ was a derogatory term, much used in football. One letter – blog becoming flog – caused much hurt.
All last season, I spent many hours and days – and my own resources – compiling unpaid words about the players and supporters of our club. I was trying to create something that would enhance its social capital. I wanted to try and help the club in the best way I knew how. And yet within the club’s “four walls”, among the security of its paid employees, here is what they really thought.
It was tactless and unfair, but also revelatory.
I told a friend – a tiler by trade, a Hawthorn member – and his immediate response was if the club thought this about me, imagine what they privately thought about those in the cheer squad, or other passionate fans. It was disrespectful to me, but more pointedly, it was disrespectful to all fans I had written about; all who were willing to share their Richmond stories.
I write this as a salutary warning; for the club, and to any who might also knock on its door, wanting to contribute. A fish rots from the head. I could never again be a member of a club that condones this sort of message; that’s not open and truthful, kind-hearted to its own.
In a week of Tommy Hafey eulogies, and our public humiliation before a swollen crowd at the MCG, all eyes were on Richmond. This was to be our week of celebration, and recognition of honest and hardworking values that once made our club from a hard-luck suburb an organisation to be feared and admired. We were proud to be Richmond. Our associations with the club meant something.
Of all the words written about Hafey last week, stories by Matt Zurbo in The Footy Almanac and Rhett Bartlett in The New Daily ring the truest. Both illustrate the character of the man, his loyalty and generosity.
Tributes penned by Greg Baum place his legacy beautifully into the tapestry of this city. On Saturday, in a single sentence, he recalled a story that’s the pith of why so many of us have loved football types like Hafey. “Bob Rose once told of arriving at Victoria Park during the reserves match on his first day down from Nyah West, seeing the terraces packed with people despite the soaking rain, and thinking that he would always owe it to them to be dedicated.”
In Sunday’s paper, Tim Lane quoted from Elliot Cartledge’s ‘The Hafey Years’, recounting an era that “..echoes parts of a long-gone Melbourne, whereby champion sportsmen owned milk bars or pubs or worked nine-to-five in offices or in a trade. The city lived for football and stopped for football.
“And with four flags in eight seasons, soaring crowds, headline after headline and a host of football names, the Tigers – for a moment in time – ruled the land.”
Of Richmond’s on-field loss on Saturday, Sean Ross’s weekly blog is a must-read. Here is the voice of the exasperated fan. His is the visceral emotion, the silent betrayal, all of us felt on Saturday night. It is also a personal expose on an emptiness a generation of Richmond fans must feel. For those of Ross’s age, there have been no golden years at Richmond, no grand finals, no true champions, no lingering success. For his generation, the story of Richmond is a story mostly in failure.
First memories often are the truest, and my first awareness of Tommy Hafey was in the late 1970s as Collingwood coach; a stoic figure of manliness, all torso, in his tight t-shirt with its trio of shoulder stripes in the chill of the three-quarter time huddle, among players in black and white dressing gowns emblazoned with the word ‘YAKKA’. To a boy, he seemed an embodiment of strength and masculinity. He looked a leader of men; a hero.
Thinking about Tom Hafey now, he was a footballing identity in our city who for many was a household name, and probably will be for years to come. His death was front page news. Jack Dyer, Lou Richards, Bob Davis, Tom Hafey, Ron Barassai – time will one day catch them all, these footballing men who have inspired so many others with their feats, with their examples of how life could be lived.
Unlike Sean Ross’s generation of Richmond fans, I have the 1980 premiership and 1982 grand final to cherish. I attended both games, not yet a teenager, with hand-made floggers and a boyish enthusiasm for my club and its team. I have Francis Bourke, Jim Jess, Kevin Bartlett and Michael Roach to remember.
A generation before mine has the glory days – the Hafey years – that cast still a distant shadow. After so many years of mediocrity, four premierships came, and a lineage that saw 20 of his former players go on to become coaches, three of whom won premierships elsewhere.
The aura of Hafey is in the numbers. For all in the crowd at last year’s elimination final, think about this. In 1977, after Hafey switched from Richmond to Collingwood after learning of disloyalty in the Punt Road boardroom, the Round 4 game between these two clubs drew a crowd of 91,936. They came for the love and respect of Hafey. Collingwood won by 26 points, and from a wooden spoon would play in a drawn grand final. No wonder his players were ‘Hafey’s heroes’.
On a Friday night last year, in round two, sitting alongside Troy Chaplin’s parents, I unwittingly found myself seated in front of Beverley March, wife of then club president, Gary. She was generous company – good natured – and introduced me to her companions for the night. One was Brendan Gale’s wife, the other was Maureen Hafey. I was struck by an abiding sense of respect. When introduced to Maureen, my immediate response was to comment that I was seated before Melbourne royalty.
In a society that at least pretends to be egalitarian, to offer a fair go to all, Tom and Maureen seemed the sort of people who rightly could be put on a pedestal. Not that they’d want to be. In days before the corporatisation of football, before television turned it into a mass entertainment and flooded it with money – before all the middle-men and their vested interests – there were people like
Hafey on modest wages with modest expectations who were servants to the game. They acted with dignity. They respected their standing in society. They had no need for aggrandisement.
On that Friday night last year, I did what any civil person does. I introduced my two companions for the night – Gary and Kathy Chaplin – to the three women sitting behind me. It struck me as odd. The parents of the club’s star new recruit from Port Adelaide had never met the wives of the club’s CEO and president. A divide stood between them.
Looking about the section reserved for the WAG’s and the players’ parents, there seemed no unity of companionship. No shared sense of purpose, like you might get among parents on the sideline of a junior football game.
Maybe I am overly social among strangers. My thought at the time was that a strong club and a happy club would engender a strong sense of belonging among this group. There would be camaraderie. There would be inclusion. If a player and his immediate social circle are happy off the field, they’re more likely to be happier on the field.
Football is a brutal business. All the goodwill created by the club last season is now a distant memory. Fans feel disillusioned, cheated. Talk this week by some of the players and the club hierarchy of still playing finals football feels only like an insult to our intelligence. It feels like denial. We knew after the Footscray game, something was wrong. Heavy losses to Collingwood and Hawthorn did nothing to change this perception.
Our coach after last weeks’ game looked like a man on the edge of a breakdown. Never before have I seen him look so despondent. He looked like someone who had come to realise that something he had built and believed in – something he had trusted – was no longer true.
I only hope Dimma can work through it. I worry his insular viewpoint – the “four walls” – cannot help him in a time of crisis. I wonder how he can find it within himself to turn this around.
I think this week about loyalty and patriotism, and dissenting views, and frank criticism, and think each of us need find our own path through this collective disappointment. I think of Sonya and the role she plays in the Tommy Hafey Club, and her resolve to double her efforts to try and make the club the best place she can. I think also of 24-year-old Sean Nestor, from near Berwick, who sent me a heartfelt letter he wrote (I will publish it next week) about the despair he feels about his club. I think of all the Richmond fans I’ve met this past 18 months, and wonder how they’ve responded to this adversity.
I think all I can do is show my colours.
I will go to the next open training session in Punt Road, to show the players I care. And this Saturday morning I’ll catch a bus from Canberra to the GWS game with the Capital Tigers, to report on a supporter group who show they care.
It is all I can do. It’s a thing about Richmond; it gets into your marrow.
Tiger tiger burning (far from) bright.