“Barracking for the Bulldogs has always demanded a certain unique perspective,” says Roger Franklin in Sons of the ’Scray, an essay about place and identity, and a football club in Melbourne’s west. “A good clubman will look into a room packed with manure and know, just know, that there must be a lovely pony in there somewhere.”
Early Saturday morning I caught a train to the west. A Sudanese woman sat opposite – barefoot, hair braided – as we passed railway yards, grain silos at North Melbourne; the broad shoulders of cranes at the docks. We crossed the Maribyrnong, we left the city behind.
I was off to see a game at Whitten Oval – the first-round match between new stand-alone VFL teams Richmond and Footscray – and under bright skies it felt like a return to something cherished that’s long since gone. Football was back at the old Western Oval. The Tiges were playing. I had to be there.
“There used to be a pub there,” said a man in red-white-and-blue, at the newly-developed West Footscray Station, with the excitement that comes before a game, and returning to a place redolent with fond memories. Talk is of past games, the length of quarters, goals kicked. “He was a big man,” says one. “He could run like the wind.”
A brass band greets barrackers at the stadium. A tour coach arrives, offloading Bulldog supporters. For away fans, it’s a gold coin entry donation. Gates are open for all to walk onto the ground. Food vans – gelato, pizza, smoked Kransky sausages – are parked in a pocket. A crowd gathers, dressed in colours of identity, pleased to be here. It feels as festive as a school fete.
If I could ignore the game between these two clubs on Saturday afternoon – indoors and televised – I would. But in good times and bad, til death do us part. Consolations must be found in loss, to give it meaning. We hit the front with three-and-a-bit to go. Jack lifted our spirits. Our souls soared. Then in a heartbeat, all was lost and for now the season looks long and filled with shadows.
Brandon Ellis panicked at the death, clutching at falling knives. There is gallows humour in being a Richmond supporter. We have our unique perspective also.
A last-gasp misplaced tackle on Dan Giansiracusa – the game’s oldest player, its wiliest, and now its match-winner – did not of itself lose the game. If only Troy Chaplin hadn’t turned-over the ball in the game’s third minute. If only Bob Murphy didn’t shimmy around our Reece on the wing in the second quarter. If only Ryan Griffen didn’t beat us in a two-on-one in the goal square. If only Dave Astbury’s errant handball to Chris Newman in the last 20 seconds of the first half found its target. If only Trent kicked straighter. If only their prodigal teenager, Jack Macrae, had been opposed when marking clear in front. If only the ball wasn’t cleared from our forward 50 so easily and swept down the other end so effortlessly. If only Shaun Grigg didn’t kick inside to Nathan Gordon, and if only our debutante had stood firmer in the tackle. If only Bachar hit one of our targets on the last play of the third quarter. If only the third quarter ran longer. If only we could have the last quarter all over again, especially the last three minutes.
It was death by a thousand cuts, none of which makes defeat easier.
But watching a replay late Saturday night, it was the welfare of Nick Vlaustin that concerned me more than the loss. On returning home from Footscray on Saturday afternoon, the game was underway and our gun teenager had been subbed-out as a result of a head knock in a marking contest in the first quarter. The telecast showed a replay. It looked brutal.
What I didn’t know until late Saturday night is that Vlaustin stayed on the field after the knock. A club has a duty-of-care to its players; it failed in its obligations.
Having incurred a head injury in amateur football – playing centre-half-forward for Sydney University, head over the ball, bang, cleaned up by a malicious opponent, six weeks on the sidelines for me – I know about concussion. I know of the sensation of losing consciousness. I know of the shock. I know of the nausea. I know of the recurring headaches. I know how it knocks you about.
I know also that one knock to the head causes swelling in the brain, a physiological response to protect the organ. And I know that a subsequent knock – while the brain is trying to cushion itself from further harm – can cause irreparable injury. That is, a second blow can cause permanent brain damage.
Watching the replay well after the game had gone and the result known, every time Nick Vlaustin went near the ball my heart was in my mouth. What was he doing out there? He shouldn’t have been on the field. He shouldn’t have been in harm’s way. The AFL has a contingency for such a scenario. Our club’s medical and coaching staff should have known of the dangers.
I had gone to the old Western Oval for reasons of nostalgia. I had gone also to support Richmond’s fledgling VFL team, to watch a game of footy in the suburbs, and to meet on the terraces with two men – John and Craig – each of whom write blogs about football and its place in Melbourne culture that in these past two seasons I’ve come admire and enjoy. Both live and work in the west. Both are Tigers.
At season’s beginning I again found myself at theholybootsfootballemporium.com and lost in one of John’s blog posts. It was his musing on Punt Road Oval, filled with his inquiry and archival photos and personal anecdotes, and family snaps of him as a child with Barry Rawlings. At the end of the post is the reason why his stories about football seem so much richer than all the white noise offered by much of the corporate football media industry. It is a photograph of a brick. He souvenired it when the Cricketer’s Stand at Punt Road was demolished. It is a memento of place and identity and shared history, and I think it’s wonderful.
Then last week I found myself immersed in a two-part history of football at the Western Oval, compiled by Craig on his popular The Footy Maths Institute (see footymaths.blogspot.com.au). As these things do, it lead to a 37-minute Youtube clip of the last quarter of a 1978 game between Footscray and St Kilda in which the home team kicked 12 goals to tally-up a then record score of 33. 15. (213), to St Kilda’s 16. 10. (106). Commentated by Geoff Leek and Peter Booth, it’s compelling archival footage.
Then as is my way, I was diverted by a Youtube clip of Peter Landy on Channel 7’s Big League, crossing to Scot Palmer for his ‘Palmer’s Punchlines’ segment. It was from the early 80s, and had Herald and Weekly Times sub-editors in the background wearing cardigans and pouring the kettle for a cuppa. Here was pre-digital football, before all the big money and the preoccupation with marketing and spin, and it seemed honest and raw and real.
Old wooden seats at Whitten Oval, painted blue and red with white numbers, speak of this bygone era. Canary Island date palms at the ground’s Barkly Street end add to the day’s aura of festivity.
I start the game on a bitumen terrace down the railway end, and our Ed Barlow kicks the game’s first goal, and the weekend begins nicely. Barlow played 26 games with the Sydney Swans, then eight with the Western Bulldogs, and was recruited to Tigerland from Old Scotch last year. He’s a 26-year-old tall utility, and wearing the team’s yellow strip with a black sash, he looks a footballer.
Footscray kick the next two goals, then we kick two, and a man walking along the terrace hands me a sticker. It reads: “We are Footscray – fly the flag”. I ask whether he’s from the supporter lobby group, Footscray Not Western Bulldogs, and he says no. His name is Bill Andrew and he was born in Hobart, where he lives still and runs a café at Salamanca Place. “I tried to barrack for Collingwood, but it didn’t stick,” he says of his football allegiance. “I guess I went for the underdogs.”
Now he’s in Melbourne for the weekend for the footy, and to hand out his stickers. “We’ve lost our identity when we lost our name,” he says. “We’ve extended our nickname but it’s made no difference with membership. There was a mystique about Footscray.”
The Richmond Football Club, I’ve come to realise, is burdened by its history. Reading about Footscray last week – about its abattoirs and glue-factories, and how the Great Depression scoured the west of its jobs and hope – there is a truism that when you’ve got little, you’ve got not much to lose. When the Tricolours – the Bulldogs name was not officially adopted until 1938 – beat Essendon in a special game played on 4 October 1924, pitting the premiers of the VFA and VFL against each other for a first time, it heralded the arrival of Footscray, North Melbourne and Hawthorn into a new 12-team league.
After that historic game, a local newspaper said “no Footscray player would ever again need to buy shoes, as they were carried everywhere shoulder high.”
Visiting Whitten Oval on Saturday, I see this famous pennant in a hallway. In the 90 years since, the club has won only one piece of silverware; the 1954 Grand Final, when a team comprising a market gardener, plumbers, a couple of carpenters, storemen and a butcher, were twice as good as Melbourne. They won 15. 12 (102), to 7. 9. (51).
Those with the heaviest pockets build the highest fences. They fear outsiders. They guard jealously what they have.
Like all Tiger supporters from my generation, I’ve known of glory days. I was a child at the 1980 and 1982 grand finals. I was raised on a diet of Francis Bourke and Kevin Bartlett and Michael Roach. I was aware of a greater legacy, of names like Royce Hart and Jack Dyer, and of golden years that filled my club’s trophy cabinet with premierships. There was a culture of hard-nosed success. Failure wasn’t considered.
But these past 30 years have offered a counter narrative, and it’s shaken belief and confidence for most supporters. We have had something – or we’ve heard the stories of when we had something – and now it’s long gone, and truly none of us can tell if ever we’ll get it back.
Trent Cotchin on Saturday afternoon was like Atlas, the primordial Titan who in Greek mythology held up the celestial sphere. He has the weight of our club on his shoulders. Already, he looks stooped. I worry it’s a burden too great. He was at the bottom of packs, he kept running and contesting, he who kept willing the play. For how much longer can he do this, if few others are to follow?
All things being equal – as they are in the controlled environment of Etihad Stadium – on Saturday afternoon there were some rays of light.
Halfway through the second quarter, the Channel 7 broadcast displayed a graphic that looked like a box of donuts. Jack’s stats; a column of zeros. Nothing could be more damning – and humiliating – for a professional footballer. His first touch came with 40 seconds to go in the half. It looked to be a handball, although none could really be sure.
To Jack’s credit, and our blessed relief, he turned the game’s course in the second half. A goal assist to Tyrone, a fearless leap for a one-handed mark, and he was in the contest and up on confidence. Gordon’s deftly crumbed running goal soon after had the blood pumping. Football is a game played in the head, but it’s a game also of the heart. What is football without passion? When Jack shows that desire, it can lift a stadium. It can carry our hearts. It almost won us the game.
Steve Morris was, again, fearless in the clinches. Orren Stephenson battled manfully in the ruck, breaking even with his All-Australian counterpart (and again showing how far a big heart can carry you). Dylan Grimes was elegant in defence, with his sweetly-timed fist. Ben Griffiths has proved the season’s revelation. We all knew he could kick a country mile, and had a graceful leap, and now he’s put the two together. His belief is back. He’s been our most consistent focal point up forward. His long-range goal in the last quarter was a beauty.
It concerns me that again we relied on the brawn of Matt Thomas for much of our grunt work. It was good having Jacko back, but it was Thomas who mostly put his hand up and head over the ball. Last year he won the Magarey Medal in the SANFL, was delisted by Port Adelaide, and until a few months ago was on our rookie list. Good luck to him. But what does it say about our list that these past three games we’ve so much depended on his strong-willed body work?
It concerned me also that when Brandon Ellis was dumped unnecessarily hard over the boundary line by Jake Stringer midway through the second quarter, no Richmond player remonstrated. Here was an opportunity for gamesmanship. The Bulldogs led 47 to 22, had a run-on, and here was a Doggy showing his muscle. Ellis had a right to be aggrieved with a tackle that continued once the ball was out of play. It was a chance to square them up, show we’re not to be bullied, and support one of our youngest players. More importantly, it was a chance to halt momentum.
Push and shove and wrestle, and let Jake Stringer know about it. In the umpire’s mind, perhaps we had the high moral ground. Did his tackle go too far? Here was a perfect excuse to try and out a pause on play. Instead, the game continued, they kicked another two unanswered goals; it was a match-winning lead.
Where was Jake King when we needed an enforcer? His arms shadowed in fresh tattoos, he looks a shadow of his former self.
After quarter-time it was one-way traffic at the Western Oval. Guttural chants of “Foots-cray” rang around the EJ Whitten Stand. Their players were too big and too strong and too fast. We fumbled. Dropped marks in the forward half, and at times looked second-rate. It could be a long season for this new venture.
“Hit a target, then belt someone, ya peanut,” yelled a spectator to Brad Helbig, after his turnover in the forward pocket. Jake Batchelor got reported. The team lost by nearly 20 goals.
I made my way to the players’ bench to read the body language near the final siren. We were outplayed all day. We got smashed. “Finish this off boys,” called an assistant coach. There seemed a lot of strutting, a lot of false bravado.
After the game a middle-aged woman joined me at the fence and I asked if she was the mother of a player. Turns out she was an acquaintance of Aaron Davey – out injured – who she knew through friends who had spent time in the Kimberley. She was a Dees supporter. I asked her appraisal of the game. “If this is what the seconds are like,” she said, “you can only hope the firsts don’t get injured.”
Walking down the railway ramp, I strike a conversation with a seventy-something Bulldogs supporter decked out in her club colours. She’s off to the game. I wish her good luck, but not too much luck. We agree her team needs the win more than mine. “West Coast, first round, thirty degree heat, we didn’t stand a chance,” she says. “They handpick it, the AFL. We don’t put bums on seats.”
Richmond Football Club had an operating budget of $44.8 million last season, the Western Bulldogs ran on $34 million. Our club has more than twice as many members. Nearly six months ago, we beat them by 60 points under the roof. On Saturday afternoon, we lost by two points.
In all my time visiting Punt Road these past two seasons, never have I felt as welcome as I was at Whitten Oval on Saturday morning. Partly, it’s because of the design of the stadiums. Whitten Oval’s redevelopment invites people into an open foyer, from which they can freely access the playing arena, a large reception area, a bar, a shop, and numerous other facilities. It invites curiosity. It feels open to all.
At Punt Road, the most obvious entry-point is into the Superstore. There’s a mouse-hole entrance – manned usually by security – to the social rooms. And there’s a separate entrance to the club offices. It feels like the architecture of exclusion. There is no space where visitors feel as though they can freely walk-in and assemble.
At three-quarter time in the VFL, our boys getting a roasting in the fierce sun, the pack gathered around the Footscray huddle. Tiger supporters had dwindled. Well-meaning Richmond staff cordoned off the players with a yellow chain. Footscray had no such encumbrance.
For better or worse, on Sunday morning, it was this barrier – real and imagined – that for me came to epitomise the difference between these two clubs. Theirs was deliberately open to its community, to its faithful, where those who came could mingle and feel a sense of inclusion. They could smell the sweat of their players, and listen to the rousing voice of the coach. They could be a part of something, and participate in a great football ritual.
Our mentality was to put a chain between the players and us fans. We had come to barrack. What we encountered was a fence of fear.
Prove me wrong, Richmond. Rebut this criticism. I love my team and would do almost anything to see it succeed and play regular finals football. I want our players to reach their full potential. Turn my appraisal against me – and Collingwood – this Friday night. And if you do, your feet will never touch the ground. I’ll be the first in line to lift and carry you through the streets of Richmond, high on our shoulders.
Tiger tiger burning bright