The light is sharper and the grounds are dryer. The heat is incongruous with the game. The players train in shorts and boots; training jumpers are quickly discarded. Trays of energy drinks line the boundary. Club websites put up video highlights of players in super super slow motion; spurting their drinks into mouths agape. Sweat drips from brows. The videos show thunderous tackles. An ambivalent moment; fans can either be pleased with the tackle or disappointed that their own player has been caught so easily. Whatever.
Summer is no time for the casual fan; it’s only die hard enthusiasts who are hanging about at the grounds. Trainings happen during work hours. Those who watch are either unemployed, underemployed, students or on holidays. Watching training. And training becomes something off limits as the season approaches; clubs want to protect their ‘intellectual property’ – i.e. their tactics, their systems, their strategies.
At one training, I see a player stop and talk with a young man who has slow and slurred speech. The brief conversation is a gesture; a recognition of a young fan’s enthusiasm for the team. The player knows it is a business, professional, but, for us fans – want to believe that it is make believe. Workers from nearby offices come and sit on the mounds of the old Arden Street ground. The president is in thongs, shorts and t-shirt.
Being absent for the forthcoming season, I tried to visit a number of grounds and training venues. Arden St, Western Oval, Junction Oval, Brunswick St.Oval, Punt Road of course, the Old Vic Park, Gosch’s Paddock (generally for the public). I did some running training at the West Pac Centre oval with Campbell Maffett’s running group Love the Run. I wanted to taste footy. I visited the excellent Richmond Football Club Museum, curated by Mr. Roland Weeks. I gave my $5 donation and felt ridiculous. I dropped by the MCG shop and picked up some retro footy cards, but, didn’t make it to the MCC library or the Museum proper. I regret it. I imagined it required concentration; a few hours for a visit.
The grounds were in varying state of repair; but only Vic Park brought back any real memories of my own attendance at the footy. The Western Oval was being altered so that it could be properly secured and so that people would indeed have to pay to attend the practice match against the Tiges. Punt Road was well and truly closed to the public. I was unlucky and didn’t manage to watch the team train. I wouldn’t have minded a photo with Bachar Houli, Shane Edwards or Nathan Foley, just for the hell of it. Their sessions were either closed, held elsewhere or, I had something else on. No matter. I would have put the photo by laptop; the photo could have been my talisman for the upcoming season.
I rang the club regarding the Korin Gamaadji Institute and was met with a cold response: ‘all the information you need is on the website’. Defence was the default setting. I am writing a paper on ‘sport and discrimination’ and using material from the AFL and Richmond in particular. I’ll get my information from other sources, methought. Shane Edwards has a video on the Club’s website about his experience in learning about his Aboriginal identity. It is something that he has grown into throughout his footy career. Footy has fostered his Aboriginal identity; but once, several years ago, he was mistakenly regarded as not being Aboriginal.
Before popping into Mr.Weeks’s RFC museum, a man in the corridor said to me, ‘there is nothing for the public here’, while talking on his mobile phone. Oh really? A peculiar interaction. I got out of his personal space and waited. Matt Dea (or, I think it was) walked past and said, howareyamate in one syllable and with a half-smile. Polite. Inside, Nick Vlastuin and ‘some other bloke’ were talking with Mr.Weeks. I waited some more. When I finally did enter, Mr.Weeks shared his experiences as a collector and fan and curator. And then, I felt I had to go. I thanked him and left. When I left, Bev (I would later learn she was Bev Brock) was interviewing Roland about his work as a volunteer.
I went up to the Melbourne Sports Book Shop in Brunswick. My father laughed upon seeing that I had paid 20 bucks for Mischa Merz’s excellent book on her training as an amateur boxer. He has no time for boxing and I doubt he has heard of the book. I also paid 10 for Jack Dyer’s book, on the hard men of footy. Both probably could have been bought cheaper online, but, I was in a hurry and I wanted to support a local bookshop owner rather than Amazon.
I went to the ramshackle but charming Fitzroy Football Club in Mordialloc (http://fitzroyfc.com.au/) and bought a replica old-school Fitzroy jumper. The curator said, ‘wear it with pride’. I told him could probably wear it 300 days out of the next year, given that I’d be living in The Netherlands. I have never supported Fitzroy, but, I love that jumper; well-crafted and snug. I put it on and think of the greatness of the Richmond Football Club and that horror-show when the Tiges smashed the Lions at the MCG in their last Melbourne game.
I met Dugald and Chris and we watched the football (Australia v Kuwait) at the pub on Flinders St. It was an odd meeting; between knowing and not knowing the other. The word in Indonesian is ‘kopdar’, an abbreviation of ‘kopi darat’, ‘coffee on land’. The term is used when people who previously have only known each other online, meet up, face to face, ‘in the flesh’, the old term. I found both Dugald and Chris intimidating in their modesty. Both bigger and older; again I felt an interloper. And I also felt, here are three guys, having a quiet and subdued night out; both three guys who probably enjoy listening more than talking.
I did my footy-traipsing around Melbourne in too much of a hurry. For one reason or another, I bought a three-game Richmond membership. I said to Chris and Dugald, ‘I want to see if it changes my experience with the club’. But, I don’t expect anything back from the Club. I do hope the players don’t flaunt their privileged positions off the field; I hope they don’t get caught up in drugs and betting which influence the game. I hope the club is transparent regarding misdemeanours.
Time for me to come clean: I used to support Essendon up until 2002. I cried during the 1983 GF as the Hawks smashed the Dons. I cried the following year, this time with happiness, as Leon Baker and Timmy started in the last quarter. The 1993 preliminary final against the Crows was an absolute joy. And so was the game against the Eagles, I think in round 16. Strangely I never warmed to Hird. I liked Hardwick. I liked Mark Mercuri and Joe Misiti. Derek Kickett was one of my favourites. But then, after living in Indonesia for a couple of years, I came back to live in Richmond and I ditched Essendon in 2002, because I couldn’t stand their postulating, their grandstanding.
Give me a decade without finals, rather than deception and hubris regarding possible drug use. I hope my club is honest with its fans, listens to its fans, plays for its fans. With each passing year, I realise that I admire the Club, because of the hope it creates amongst its fans. And moreover, I have seen that the culture of the fans has changed over this past 10 or so years. The fans have showed that they’re better than what their worst reputation can be. There is no more spitting at coaches after a bad loss, and, poor players are less frequently berated too offensively (fans always reserve the right to be disappointed). The fans are patient with the players; and the players too need to earn the respect of the Tiger army.
The Club believes in itself and invites us supporters to believe in it, too. I hope for gutsy wins, honourable defeats and less slow-mo and less-razzamatazz.
There is a grey area between thoroughness, detail and obsessiveness. Perhaps writing about footy in January and visiting old grounds lies on the wrong side of adult behaviour. Being a fan can so easily lead to being scorned and ridiculed. Supporters wear their own suffering as a badge of honour, as indication of their unwavering dedication. I’m trying to take this with a grain of salt. I’m hoping only for steady progress from the team. Give us players who wear the jumper with genuine pride. Let’s be supporters in the ways we’re capable of – lest our club end up in a museum.