'Boo, hiss! Poor form pushing gambling on Twitter, anywhere. A family club? Apparently not' , was my recent reply to a tweet from the Richmond Football Club.
Another follower replied to my reply.
'You seem to have a lot of anger towards the club lately'. And in this brief exchange, there’s an essay about all the ambiguities of supporter loyalty.
Two days before this season’s first game, our CEO, Brendon Gale, said in a press release:
“We are excited about the partnership with Sportbet.com.au [sic], which is another important announcement as we continue to build, on and off the field.”
Never mind that in an orchestrated media announcement – on the eve of the opening game, when all were looking elsewhere – the club would misspell the name of a business it had entered into a two-year deal with. Our football club chose money over responsible citizenry. It sold its membership to a betting agency. It has become complicit in gambling. It has traded in all its history and honour – its great community goodwill – for the quick fix of a bet.
Buggered if I’m going to be silent on this.
The Tigers were terrific on Friday night; they were dreadful. Matty Dea stood under a high ball and took a courageous mark, and spontaneous handclapping rung out around our end of the ground; he spilled a mark near the top of the square and the Swans goaled. Alex Rance was at his imperious best on Friday night, blanketing his opponent and running off him when the game was there to be won; Buddy Franklin kicked four goals and was the match-winner. There are so many ways to look at a football club; there are so many ways to look at a game of football.
Seventeen minutes into the second quarter, when Brett Deledio kicked a running goal, grown men in the stands hugged each other. A belief that’s been missing all season was back. At this darkest hour, on the eve of winter’s equinox, our team at last was here to warm our hearts. There was beauty in the spectacle.
“Smash ’em, Richmond!”
Richmond would kick only one more goal for the game, and this night’s and season’s despair was complete. The glow-in-the-dark boots worn by Jack and Cotch were of no succour. Still we could not see the light. It didn’t matter that Shaun Hampson kicked his first goal in yellow and black and was mobbed by his team mates; voices in outer still derided his efforts. All that was gained was again lost. The final statistic condemned us: another loss.
“Stem the flow, Tigers!”
“Stand up, Richmond!”
“Do something, Tigers!”
About a month ago, in a blog post titled A lament for Richmond (& how the club broke my heart), I offered considered criticism of the club I hold dear. It may have been misconstrued as anger. It wasn’t. Mostly, it was disappointment; generally about how I thought I’d been treated by Simon Matthews, the club’s general manager of media and stakeholder relations, and specifically about seeing my name on a whiteboard within the club, alongside the word “flog”.
I thank all TTBB readers who posted comments about that story, and who contacted me directly, and “Daffy” who posted about it on the Punt Road End fan forum under the title Shameful treatment of a devoted fan. I also thank the mediator of Punt Road End, Rosy23, for following-up on the issue and managing the debate. Again, in this thread there’s a lively discussion about ideas of loyalty.
In this piece, I wrote about the death of Tommy Hafey, and trust and belief, and about Benny Gale’s tilt for the AFL top job. I wasn’t disappointed in him pitching for the job – most of us have personal ambition, a virtuous trait in football as in life – but was disappointed for all those Richmond fans who hold unconditional trust in his leadership.
In “the Chief” there is an aura of strength and stability, of strong guidance, of a steady hand. In the Chief there is belief and hope. He’s a big man. All of us look up to him.
What had his interview for the top AFL job said about his duty to Richmond, I asked.
“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?”
Last week, Brendon Gale was in the news again. At issue was a trip to the Soccer World Cup in Brazil, arranged for by Chrysler whose subsidiary, Jeep, are a major club sponsor. In an article by Greg Denham in The Australian newspaper, Simon Matthews said he had no problem with Gale’s trip or its timing.
“He left on Wednesday and he’s away for a week,” he said. “Brendon’s gone with our major partner, they are a big part of our business, and he’s gone with our blessing.”
Last week I tapped the words “maritime law” and “abandon ship” into Google. So much about football is about perception. The most damning accusation to be levelled at a player is that he is not trying. Or more truthfully, that he looks not to be trying. How a player appears on the field – the way he mans a mark, attacks a contest, runs off the ball – is everything, just as how a club and its leaders might look off the field.
Last week I set an alarm and got up in the mid of night and in a cold living room in Melbourne watched the Socceroos play the Netherlands in Porto Alegre in Brazil, and marvelled at Tim Cahill’s left boot, and thought of Brendon Gale and wondered if he were there.
I think his going to Brazil was ill-advised. Those within the club will, of course, say it was about business networking, which in part is true. But as with all these things, how much was work, and how much was personal pleasure? With Australia 3-2 down late in the second half, my head swirled with the fever of the occasion and the hour of the night, and SBS commentator Craig Foster asked: “How much do you love football?”
The point is this: all of us, if offered, would have jumped at the opportunity of an all-expenses trip to Brazil to watch two games of the World Cup. It’s a no-brainer. But all of us aren’t the head of an organisation with a $44.8 million turnover last year that now faces a crisis. The Richmond Football Club is in trouble, no matter all the calming words. Its on-field woes have the very real possibility of tilting off-field stability.
There is no harm in acknowledging this.
Last season, for instance, of all AFL clubs, only Collingwood pulled more barrackers through the turnstiles than Richmond, and it didn’t sell one if its home games to the tropics. Already this season, the crowd’s voted with its feet. Two weeks ago, for instance, the home crowd at the MCG against Fremantle was about half of what it was for the corresponding fixture on an unseasonably cold day last year. The more we lose, the worse it’ll get.
Both on and off the field, this season’s poor form has dire ramifications for next year, and maybe years beyond. It is not unreasonable to say there will be job losses, and belt tightening, and new ways will need to be found for doing things.
If a crisis is a time of immense difficulty or danger, then this feels a crisis for our club and us fans. And now in this time of crisis we hear that our CEO went to Rio, and it looks a folly. If the trip was about brand partnership with Jeep, then surely Brendon Gale’s most prudent course of action would be to stay home, remaining behind the wheel.
If Jeep wants commercial leverage from the Richmond Football Club, the club need uphold its end of the bargain. It needs to draw crowds. It needs to ensure prime-time exposure. It needs traffic to its website. It needs to pull an audience to be sold to its sponsors. In short, it needs to win games of football.
When Brendon Gale presented to the AFL board for its top job, it was a matter of self-interest. When Brendon Gale boarded the pointy-end of a plane for Brazil it was, in part, a matter of self-interest. As Caroline Wilson, an ardent Richmond person is wont to say, it “wasn’t a good look”.
If this is a misguided interpretation, consider an alternative scenario. Brendon Gale is approached by the AFL to pitch for its top job and he respectfully declines, citing his ongoing role at Richmond. And Brendon Gale accepts a sponsored trip to Brazil but later pulls out, citing urgent matters at hand, namely that he cannot vacate his office due to pressing and unforeseen problems on the home front.
Footy, it’s a game of perceptions.
I stood in the outer on Friday night with Michael Green and others. No, not that Michael Green. This Michael Green is a freelance investigative journalist, and a Richmond man, who looks a likely half-back flanker. Our crowd was in full voice, and good humour, and wasn’t afraid to speak its mind.
“Ya sold your soul, Buddy! Ya sold your soul!”
At game’s end, I left my night’s companions – a Tiger and a Swan – to jump the MCC fence and scuttle around to see the players leave the ground. Richmond were in no mood for lingering. There is little to celebrate when you’re at the bottom of the ladder and expected so much more. Even our home games must for now seem so foreign to the players.
Swans players, conversely, were in no hurry to leave the rapturous adulation of their crowd. The aesthetics of the game mean nothing when you win. Their crowd and its colours looked so joyous, so cheerful, so happy with the night. It is as it should be: their team had just won its ninth consecutive game.
Imagine that? Nine games in a row. It’s been 34 years since Richmond last won nine games in a row. That’s a generation of support. And how it feels as if it could be another 34 years until we do it again.
Early last year I wrote and sent a letter to Brendon Gale.
“My name is Dugald Jellie and I am an ardent Richmond supporter. I am also a writer. I was a journalist at The Age newspaper, before moving to Sydney in 1997 for a job as a features writer for the Sydney Morning Herald. I have played football, mostly for country teams, and once ran into Greg Dear’s elbow at a game in Lakes Entrance while playing centre-half-forward for the Snowy Rovers. For this I received a free-kick.”
I don’t think he read it.
After last year’s heartbreaking loss to Carlton in the Elimination Final, I had a long telephone conversation with Brendon Gale. I found him inquisitive and fair-minded man; knowledgeable, open and considered.
What I know about Brendon Gale is all on the public record. He’s a family man, a graduate from Marist College in Burnie, was a champion Richmond footballer (244 games, 209 goals), studied law at Monash, was on the Board of the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, and before taking the top job at Richmond was CEO of the AFL Players’ Association.
His faith is Catholic and his political leaning – gleaned from Martin Flanagan’s book Richo – is to the left. Every way I look at Brendon Gale, I like the man. He is that heady mix – the thinking-man footballer – that so excites respect and admiration among the crowd.
Our phone conversation was about my perceived grievances. What was unsaid is that both of us knew he was always going to back one of his senior managers – any of his employees – over a complaint from a fan who writes a blog. But he listened, he heard me out. A simple conversation, he placated resentments.
Textbook dispute resolution.
At conversation’s end, Gale confided in trade talks with a Richmond player. He said it was off-the-record. He trusted me, and knew that he could.
When once asked for advice for students at his former secondary college, Gale offered two tips. “Don’t limit your potential and be a doer not a knocker.”
Does my written criticism of the club, and of his recent absence in Brazil, fall into the category of ‘doer’ or ‘knocker’? Are my concerns – my voiced disapproval – of our club pushing the product of a betting agency, those of a ‘doer’ or a ‘knocker’?
Brendon Gale is 10 centimetres taller than I but I know I can look him in the eye. I am passionate about Richmond, I am loyal to Richmond, I want the best for Richmond, as so many of us do.
But this loyalty does not preclude me from dissent. Loyalty cannot silence the crowd from fair-minded criticism. And if the club is blind or deaf to those who disagree with some of its ideas, then surely it will never truly grow and prosper as an organisation. Three wins and 10 losses is the bottom line, as it stands, for this season. The house of cards has fallen. Our disappointments cannot be denied. The time is nigh for Richmond to consider new ways of doing business; to consider new ways of being a football club.
Tiger tiger burning (loyal and) bright.