The sky was crying. Late on a Wednesday night, ascending the platform six ramp at Richmond Station, to wait for the 11.12pm to Pakenham, I received a text. It was from Craig, who I’d walked from the pub with, talking about football and Richmond and past premiership years – 67, 69, 73, 74 – that in the damp night air rung like magical numbers.
Neon lights glowed on city buildings, heavy clouds hung low, I listened to the sound of wet car tyres on Punt Road and the text message said
Richo inducted to Hall of Fame and all I could think: “good on him”.
If already he wasn’t part of this city’s folklore, he was now. If already he weren’t down in the history books, he is now. Richo had arrived. He had been anointed. And tonight, the whole damned city was his.
I had seen Richo on stage last winter at the Corner Hotel, in the bowels of old Struggletown, and he was a revelation. A pin-up of Presentation Night #2, hosted by Francis Leach, and paired with You Am I frontman Tim Rogers – a sinewy rock’n’roll shinboner; all elbows and knees; the Dean Laidley type – he had the crowd on a string. He was candid, honest, entertaining, and amusing in his storytelling.
The other Wednesday it was Presentation Night #3, the creation of impresario Andy Kelly, a Woodsman at heart, again bringing together two strands of culture that Melbourne does best: football and live music.
On stage were Cameron Ling (“the mayor of Geelong, the king of Corio”) and Paul Dempsey, a tormented Sainter known better as the lead singer of Something for Kate. Results were no less beguiling.
What’s at first obvious is that it’s improbable to dislike Cameron Ling. The slicked red hair, the pink skin, his open demeanour, and that wide, affable smile – the irrepressible grin of a winner – are disarming. He grew up in Geelong. Barracked for Geelong. Won three premierships at Geelong. His last kick in AFL football was a goal, as captain of the 2011 premiers, Geelong. He has local hero written all over him.
“My dream as a boy was to see a Geelong premiership,” he says. “I couldn’t have thought with the lottery of the draft that I’d be staying at home, and playing in those premierships. I consider myself very, very lucky.”
Talk on the night began with the 2009 flag against Leach and Dempsey’s beloved Saints – Tom Hawkins hitting the post, the Matty Scarlett toe-poke – and for Ling, the panic beforehand and “huge relief” afterwards. “Anything short of winning the premiership was a real failure for that group,” he says. “It was my least enjoyable year. I remember the Grand Final after-party, everyone was celebrating but if you looked around the room there were 22 guys asleep in their chairs.”
Discussion diverged to Gary Ablett Snr and Barry Stoneham, and pre-match change room routines, and Mark ‘Bomber’ Thompson (“He never yelled or screamed… I heard Damien Hardwick gave a real spray the other Saturday night”), and his first game of league football, at Football Park, when a Port supporter leaned over the fence as he warmed-up and yelled: “Oi Ling, I’m gunna fucken kill ya!”
He talked of footballers he most admired – Ben Cousins (“hardest runner, hardest worker”), Michael Voss and Nathan Buckley (“strong, hard bodies who win their own ball”), Scott Pendlebury (“so good at what he does”) – and fans like me could have pulled up a pew and listened all night.
There was talk about his coaching aspirations (Francis Leach quipped: “you’ll be the first redhead to go grey”); the relative intellect of former teammates (on Stevie J: “not a lot goes through that head”), and Brownlow night when Warrnambool-boy Jonathan Brown called him, affectionately and on-camera, a “big pink pig”. As Ling explains: “Any time I sweated up I looked like a big pink pig.”
As with Richo last year, self-deprecating humour serves a footballer well.
But the night’s biggest laugh came at the expense of Brad Ottens, nowadays a furniture-maker, and a story relayed by former Richmond coach, Danny ‘Spud’ Frawley. As Lingy tells it, Otto was in a police lock-up after a big night on the turps, and had the constable call his coach at three in the morning to pick him up. Frawley arrived at the police cell some time later, to find Ottens sitting with hands over his face. He looked up, dumbfounded, and with a look of incredulity, said: “Spud, what’d they get you for!”
Only at Richmond.
As with all things football, the temptation is to compare: to put this player up against that; this team versus that team; how the game was played in this era compared to that era. My inclination is to measure Presentation Night #3 against its earlier incarnation. But this is unfair and unnecessary. And I can only imagine how the inaugural version – musical-poet Paul Kelly up on stage with football-poet Bob Murphy – must have been.
I kick myself still for missing this night; for not being where the party was at.
Richo’s stories are not Lingy’s stories, and vice-versa, but each are equally engaging in their own way. What can be said with authority is that Richo has more contemporary musical tastes than those of his Channel 7 commentary box cohort. The latter brought along some vinyl for the night – a song he would play in the car on his way to games. ‘The Sound of Silence’.
How can anyone dislike Simon and Garfunkel?
The counterpoint to the evening was Paul Dempsey, a Black Rock boy, a Saints man, an earnest fellow, reserved in manner and temperament. Whereas Tim Rogers had used the evening as a wondrous confessional – about his love of football culture, his mental illness while growing-up in suburban Adelaide, his passion for life – his friend Dempsey projected as guarded and clipped.
All the hurt of St Kilda’s grand final near-misses looked to weigh heavily on his shoulders. He appeared anguished.
Then again, standing behind the microphone, he delivered two of the night’s highlights. His second song was a version of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ (“In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream…”) and in this filled and darkened room my heart skips a beat. I love Bruce. Always have, always will, and although maybe something from Nebraska could have bettered this, in these opening chords there’s a promise of escape and Dempsey duly delivers.
And at night’s end he sings a cover of The Angels’ ‘Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again’. News of the day had been the untimely death of the bands’ former lead singer, ‘Doc’ Neeson. Here was instant respect; for Paul Dempsey, and how he commemorated the death of his compatriot. The crowd hollered for more. We rose as one. None of us truly wanted to leave.
I spent that night mostly nursing beers and standing alongside Craig, a decent, learned and fair-minded man, whom I’d met at the Western Oval and took an instant liking to. He barracks for Richmond. He is tall and lean and has ginger hair, and looks as if he’d fit nicely on a wing. And he runs a football-themed blog (Footy Maths Institute, although rebranded as Futebal Instituicao for the World Cup) and is fine company on Twitter (see @Footy_Maths).
Having returned to Melbourne several years ago, after so long away, here is a type I want to meet, talk into the night with, share stories with, go to a game of football with, and on a Wednesday night stand at the back of a pub on Swan Street in Richmond and watch three blokes on stools and at a high table talk about football and life what it all might mean.
If I am to get out only once or twice a year, I am happy if it is to Presentation Night. Long may the format prosper; long may it become a cultural institution of this city.
The World Cup is underway and Francis Leach is in Rio, and our benighted Richmond has dug itself only deeper into a hole, and our CEO is away in Brazil – having a sojourn in the sunshine – so we look elsewhere for consolations and little mercies. In 90 minutes of football played in a faraway land and telecast early on Saturday morning, I found more happiness and pride than in any 90 minutes of watching Richmond play this season, and this saddens my heart and leaves me bereft.
But still, there is beauty in our code of football.
Catching a train to the game on Saturday, crossing the Yarra and rounding the bend into Richmond Station, I read a piece on the Presentation Night webpage that brought forth tears. Written by Toby Martin, from the band Youth Group, he tells a story at the end about his father, and Collingwood and Carlton, and a chance encounter with Nathan Buckley at a 7-11, that makes me want to hug strangers. It’s a story about compassion, and how football brings us together, and reflects on who we are.
There is hurt at Richmond this winter. It is because we care, because it means something to us, because we choose to make it part of our life. If this hurt is not acknowledged, it is meaningless. If it is meaningless, there is no point to this game of ours. If we have no game, who do we become?
Our game, our club, our team, our colours, they’re our very identity.
Standing among strangers behind the goals on Saturday afternoon, in the thinned-out crowd, I try to distil the meaning of the day in a few lines:
When the crowd rise behind the goals at the Punt Road end,
when the banners and flags and floggers fly in the air,
when all our colours are held aloft,
when the chants begin,
when voices cry out,
that’s when I love to be at the football.
C’mon the Tigers!
Not so long ago on this Wednesday night, alone at Richmond Station, feeling high on life, I remembered what Richo had said last winter; about arriving in this city as a Devonport schoolboy, off the ferry with his car and a freshly-minted Melways, and driving straight to Punt Road to see what he could make of himself.
He made us all look his way. He made us take note. He found for himself a belonging. That’s why all of us, we love Richo.
Tiger tiger burning (increasingly less) bright