The season’s narrative shifted last Sunday. After six games filled mostly with disappointment and resignations, in the scrim of cold rain at last there was hope. This is what the business of football is about. Our everyday is suspended for two-and-a-half hours each weekend during the football season, during which our trust and dreams are carried by others.
Alex Rance and Brett Deledio, we thank you. For your contributions last Sunday, and we hope it’s the beginning of a run of games that brings collective fulfilment to all who’re Tigers.
On Sunday afternoon, I had expected a narrative of despair. I chose not to attend the game. I had challenged my team to win (a pact really, only with myself), saying if they did I would walk from Punt Road to Kardinia park in a pair of Richmond socks bought recently from the Tigerland Superstore. They cost $18, are a half-size too small, and for me were a purchase charged with symbolism. The shop assistant, she looked underwhelmed.
But then the game arrives and I cannot stand still, so under heavy clouds I ride through Richmond because I know in my heart I want to be at the game. Football makes us like children. I stand outside the MCG in the rain as the game begins. I listen to the crowd inside. I see people I know. I take photographs of seagulls. I find a keyhole where I can look down the ground’s spine. And then I turn my bicycle for Brunton Avenue, for the ride home in the rain.
A game’s narrative can be deceptive. On the television, late in the second quarter, Richmond are yet to kick a goal and are down by 30-odd points when I pick up the telecast, and it looks as if all my imaginings were to come true. Then late on Sunday night I watched the replay, and it’s obvious we weren’t nearly as bad as the score-line suggested. Football needs context. For most of the first half, we held our own, but they took most of their chances.
And then Jack did what Jack does best; he ignited the spark. And then Brett Deledio (oh how we’ve missed him, and oh how dashing he looked in those long sleeves) did what he does best; he started the fire. Two goals in two minutes, and how us Richmond fans love a little passion, a little emotion, a little feeling in our footy.
Anything seems possible when the Tigers are up-and-running. Hope spreads among the crowd; it’s shared like wildfire.
In these recent dark hours, these past few days I’ve felt the Tiger love, and all I can do is reciprocate. Last Friday, a keen supporter of TTBB had me as her guest to a Tommy Hafey Club luncheon at Punt Road, which was a treat in so many ways. I’ve never been to the Maurice Rioli Room before. Dustin Martin was interviewed on stage. Former players offered fond and candid insights into their days at Richmond. I met Joel Bowden. I felt a connection with my club.
I will write a report on the luncheon, and the fundraising activities of the Tommy Hafey Club, shortly. It was an occasion made all the more poignant with the ailing health of Tommy; with lingering thoughts another generation is soon to pass, and with it go all its dreams and memories.
On Monday I was in contact with the Capital Tigers supporter group who are running a bus from Canberra to Sydney on Saturday 24 May for the game against GWS. Darren Crick is the man to see, for a seat. One of the highlights of my season last year was catching a bus with the Gippsland Richmond Supporter Group, from Morwell to the MCG. I wrote a story about it. Before the Round 10 game I will get to Canberra, then catch the bus with the Capital Tigers. A story awaits. If you live in the district, why not join in?
I met Darren briefly last year at a Sydney Richmond Tigers supporter group function, before the game against Sydney. He said it’d been a quiet trip up; he’d forgotten the DVD of the 1980 Grand Final. What would be your favourite Richmond game to relive on a road trip?
The Sydney Tigers are hosting a pre-game function at the GWS game, starting 11.30am at the Horden Room, at the Olympic Park Showgrounds. Tickets are $35, which includes food and entertainment. Nick Daffy is the special guest. Their function last year was a beauty – and a full house! See their website to book tickets. I hope to wangle my way into the room; for the purposes of investigative journalism, to document all the ways us Tigers express our attachment to our team and to our club.
Alex Rance thrilled us all on Sunday afternoon, with his passion, mongrel, deep overlaps, and run off the ball. We all knew he was a good player – fearless, daring, quick, creative – but somehow in this past month we had forgotten he was that good. We saw Alex Rance on Sunday through new eyes, and gained a new appreciation of what he can do and what he adds to this team. My lingering memory of the game was his concession of a free kick on the Members’ wing, for a full-frontal assault on Joel Selwood. This act would likely not be included in ‘Dimma’s Dissection’ on the club’s website, but for me it was an act that could well mark the season’s turning point.
It was a one-man show of defiance, of retribution.
Alex Rance decided he was no longer to be bullied and pushed-about by Geelong. We are no longer their whipping boys. He was willing to give away a free-kick and I for one was happy for him to do so. There was venom in what he did. It was a statement of intent. It was a considered gesture that I think showed leadership and pride in who he is and what he does. Missing for so long because of an off-field mishap, Rance played like someone seeking forgiveness from his teammates, his club, and us supporters. His absence was sorely missed during our time of crisis.
The time has come for him to put his head down and play hard and committed football. He again won our respect on Sunday. But this is not yet the end of the deal.
Brett Deledio looked as slippery as an eel on Sunday. Notwithstanding his indiscretion (an errant elbow, which he should rightfully be shameful about), his silky runs on a heavy ground, his long kicking, his running goal, were a delight to behold. I’ve often thought our club need bottle his DNA. Of all Richmond players, for so long he’s been the most gifted, the most athletic, the most pleasing to watch. He makes the game look easy, which is the hardest thing to do. We are lucky to have him. We need to hold him dear.
Sam Lloyd has the knack, and if he can keep apace of the game, there are goals aplenty waiting for him, and a wonderful story he can share for years to come around the campfire. Playing Geelong at the MCG is a long way from playing Tocumwal or Moama at Hardinge Street Oval, and long may he hold onto this opportunity. Goals, Sam, keep finding those goals!
Matty McDonough, during the pre-season, was like a fresh and new wind. He is light-footed, and sprightly, and seems not afraid to take the game on. We need his spring. Never mind he makes the odd mistake; he is learning the game, and he looks full of endeavour. All we can ask is that our players strive and try as hard as they can, and he looked to be doing this on Sunday.
Reece Conca was our everywhere-man on Sunday, hacking the ball forward from scrimmages, lifting it lightly from the ground and sending it into attack, setting up plays from deep in defence. I love that he and his brother now play for the club. I love reading recent dispatches from the VFL team that list Luke Conca among the contributors. I went to watch Luke play for the Surrey Park Panthers in the Eastern Football League last year, and am thrilled for him he has this opportunity to be part of a big Melbourne football club. There is an old Italian motto rarely used that rings true: two Conca’s are better than one. The Richmond Football Club knows all about this.
Dave Astbury again stood tall in defence and is having a stellar campaign. The Dave Astbury Appreciation Society (#daas, on Twitter) is in full swing. At the start of this season, I sent out a tweet asking for Dave Astbury stories or photographs from fans. I want to write an essay about Dave, because I want him to know how us fans appreciate what he has made of himself. I want to know also if our group appreciation can help make him a better footballer, make him a better leader among men.
Please feel free to email me any correspondence to weave into my #daas story. Details of our fund-raising ‘Tiger’ t-shirts will soon be announced. All proceeds will go to (a) reimbursing the start-up and running costs of TTBB; (b) on a fact-finding trip to Dave Astbury’s home oval at Tatyoon; and hopefully even (c) on a bus ticket to the West Coast game, which coincidentally falls on my birthday, that I’d like to celebrate afterwards with a large margherita at Conca’s Pizzeria in Perth.
Plaudits to Damien Hardwick for switching the sub so early. Nathan Gordon had had only one possession to half-time, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Sometimes, the game runs around you and you simply cannot find the ball. Gordon was having one of those afternoons. But to his credit, he kept harassing and laid tackles that didn’t go unnoticed.
And Shane Edwards had a half-a-game out of the box. Could we not keep him in the forward pocket permanently? He springs about like a constant threat, he lays lunging tackles, he knows how to sniff out a goal. He has also one of the great attributes of a good forward: he’s hard to pin down, hard to put a match-up on.
Joel Selwood in the last quarter was streaming blood from a gash in his forehead (Alex Rance, anyone?) and all watching the game on television – if not at the ground – were faced with a moral dilemma. What would you do? Would you alert the umpire to his open wound, having him spelled to the sideline?
My initial thought was to scream at the television. Selwood is bleeding! Get him off! Head wound! Health and safety issue! Stop the game! Blood rule, blood rule! Bye-bye, Joel!
I couldn’t understand why Brett Deledio wouldn’t quietly let any of the field umpires know that his opposite number had an open gash and spurting blood would most likely mean his fetching long-sleeved top would need a cold cycle wash. When Selwood kicked a goal that looked to put the game out of our reach, I quietly seethed. Have our players not been schooled in the art of gamesmanship? Wasn’t Dimma one of the finest practitioners of it, in his day?
Slow the game down when it’s running against you, speed it up when you have a run-on – and banish Joel Selwood from the ground when he’s a mobile billboard for the Blood Bank.
After the game, my only rationale is this. Players like Brett Deledio play the game to a different set of rules and a different code. For players like him, it’s all about the challenge, and the contest of testing your abilities against those of another man. He didn’t care that Selwood was bleeding. By his code, blood didn’t matter; he wanted to beat his adversary with all things being equal. He knows of the traditions of Francis Bourke, streaming blood from a gash above his eye and sent to the forward line to win a game of football at Arden Street, and how it’s been enshrined in football folklore.
A professional football club should be a meritocracy. When Chris Newman limped from the ground late in the game, my guess is that many Richmond supporters could see an upside. There is unwritten callousness in football. One man’s injury is another man’s opportunity. And so Chris Newman’s calf goes, and we are sorry for him, but a blessing is it forces the hand of team selectors.
Late last year, Fairfax journalist Emma Quayle, in an engaging multi-media series titled Five Seasons, followed the debut season of Richmond’s 18-year-old Nick Vlastuin. One of the ideas in her compelling story has stuck with me. “He [Vlastuin] wasn’t playing as well as he wished he was and he hadn’t forgotten what Brett Deledio had told him not long after he got to the club: if you get a spot in the team, don’t give it up easily, because somebody else will take it.”
There is crude social Darwinism in football; it is a dog-eat-dog world.
Our first third of the season has not gone to script. We lost to Gold Coast and the Bulldogs. We were walloped by Collingwood and Hawthorn. We have looked slow and stilted, hesitant and unsure. Our confidence has waned. A core of players are not contributing to the level they were last year, or the level we had come to expect of them.
Chris Newman was one of those players; Troy Chaplin another. Chappy was a keystone of our defence last year. This season, his game has been mired with errors. How can the coaching staff justify his inclusion when perhaps others for now might offer more for the greater cause of the team? Why not swing Ben Griffiths into his role, rewarding him for his solid game in the reserves? Set the younger man a challenge.
By relegating Chaplin to the VFL, it also sets him a challenge. I’ve never met Troy, but I have met his parents, and I know he has a young family, and I know he is a man of fine character. I would expect him to fight his way back into the team, and for this, all us fans would respect him. Overcoming adversity only endears us to players. It is the classic story of resurrection. That is why we hoped for the best for Tyrone Vickery on Sunday, and were pleased he made himself a target and kicked two goals.
I am still uncertain Shaun Hampson offers the team as much grunt around the ground as Orren Stephenson. A few weeks ago I saw Hampson standing over a contest and before the umpire had blown his whistle, he removed his mouthguard. It was a gesture of concession. Was I imagining it? I never want my Tigers to give up before the whistle is blown, before the ball crosses the boundary. As our song says: “we’ll fight and fight and win”.
Chris Rees’ Virtual Duffel Coat, found elsewhere on this site, was featured this week in an article in The Guardian about six missed traditions of Australian Rules football. The story can be read here. If you haven’t seen the duffel coat, please have a look, and share it among Richmond fans.
What he is creating is something that should be cherished by all who have an affiliation with Richmond. It is an artwork that blurs the boundaries between players and fans, and club employees/volunteers, and which knits together the continuum of Richmond players from all eras. Names like Stuart Maxfield and Tony Jewell are pinned to the duffel coat alongside property steward Giuseppe Mammone, former life member Alice Wills, celebrity fan Waleed Aly, and boot studder Ilmar ‘Drac’ Tilterns.
I love the inclusiveness of this project, the way it brings fans and players together, putting them on the same billing. I also love its deep nostalgia and sense of shared history. I hope Chris’s Virtual Duffel Coat becomes a cultural phenomenon, I hope it is embraced by the current custodians of our football club and shared among a wider audience. From little things, big things grow.
Sunday’s game must be a turning point. Under leaden skies, there was hope for this season’s future. As the cheer squad’s banner illustrated, our backs were to the wall, and our team came out fighting. As so many supporters articulate in online fan forums, and by gate attendance numbers, it’s not the losing that matters – but the way in which the losing happens.
There are scales of defeat, and on Sunday afternoon it was universally registered as ‘honourable’. Rarely on a Monday morning after a loss have I felt so buoyant.
But the hard fact remains: 2-5. Our team have little margin for error. The good ship needs to be righted. Grievances need be buried. All hands must pull as one. We must start winning games, and stringing them together as a daisy-chain, and as if this where always expected. The well-being of our fragile team and our fragile club depends on it. A football club, really, is only as strong as its playing list, and only as strong as its supporter base. In this, Hawthorn and Geelong and Collingwood are doubly-blessed.
We have been playing catch-up for the best part of 30 years.
Cometh the hour, let’s see who are the young men who will stand up; who are the men for a crisis; who are the men we’ll forever honour; who are the players who will “fight and fight and win”.
Do us proud, Tigers! Make us roar!
Tiger tiger burning bright