When my eldest sister was born, she could hardly breathe. Unknown to my parents at the time, in a hospital ward in Shropshire, England, in the winter of 1965, she came into this world tangled in her umbilical cord. It wrapped around her neck. In those vital moments of life, she gasped for oxygen and none came to her brain.
My eldest sister lives still with our elderly father, has a part-time job in a supermarket cleaning and stacking shopping baskets, and she’s a whizz at finding the nine-letter word, or remembering numberplates and birth dates, and you couldn’t know of someone more loyal to family. But she has trouble balancing, a poor diet, cannot manage her finances, needs assistance with personal grooming, has a limited social circle, and can hardly look after herself.
Truly, many times I’ve no idea what goes through her head. I worry about her. I’m protective of her. I cannot understand her. She barracks for North Melbourne.
Last season, I received an email from a Richmond fan that stripped me bare.
Sent by Philip Jupp, from his smart phone, he wrote:
I have followed each blog you write and appreciate the love you have for our great football club. That piece this week in regards to Nick’s [Vlastuin] first goal and the gratitude to Chris Knights [knee injury] makes me proud to support the yellow and black. My whole heart goes out to Knighter after the last couple of seasons riddled with injuries, to just get back to near his best and then succumb to another season ending injury brings a tear to my eye. My 12-year-old boy, while mentally as sharp as an axe, is wheelchair bound and suffers from cerebral palsy. For years I was in denial regarding Jayden’s condition, even in the early years selfishly despising him for his condition AS IF IT WERE HIS FAULT. Then one day about six years ago he had somehow grabbed my RFC scarf, tangled it in his electric wheelchair and sped around the house to get my attention and take me to the lounge room where RICHMOND was playing. He pointed and cheered hysterically as the replay of a goal Brett Deledio had kicked was being replayed. From this moment on we have been members and go to every Melbourne-based game there is. The Richmond football club united my son and myself in a way I will be eternally grateful, and I owe them so much.
I just wanted to share this love for the RFC to another person that I know shares it to the same intensity.
Regards, Phil Jupp
Phil’s openness and honesty, his selflessness – grieved by the knee injury to Chris Knights, when he’s faced with a lifetime of caring for his son – made me gasp with gratitude. There is wonder in this world, there is bravery.
He wasn’t to know of my sister, and her cerebral palsy. He wasn’t to know how having a sister with a disability has profoundly shaped my life and those too, of my parents and other siblings. He wasn’t to know how immediate the issue of disabilities – mindful always of the welfare of another, how society treats them, how they might be unfairly disadvantaged – has always been for me.
Ever since I’ve been conscious to the emotions of others, I’ve been conscious to my sister’s condition. I needed to contact Phil. I needed to tell him this. I needed to look him up. I needed to meet Jayden at the football.
My eldest sister has barracked for North Melbourne since the drawn 1977 Grand Final – the first to be broadcast live on television – which we watched at my grandparents’ house, beside Barongarook Creek on an edge of Colac. Each year, her devotion to the Kangaroos grows only stronger, becomes more committed.
She wanted me to join her to the football on Sunday night, when my heart was hardly in it. She wanted the company. Our father has bought her a reserved seat membership for the past eight years, and she goes to every Melbourne game she can, and family days at Arden Street, where she adds to her autograph collection.
She always goes alone. She sits by herself. And if her team wins, it’s a pleasure that thrills her for a week.
So she asks me to go and I cannot deny her, and on Sunday night I buy a ticket and try to sweet talk stadium officials into letting me sit in one of the many empty seats around her. They say no. My face knots in tears.
For a half a game of football, I stand in the concourse above her, on the wing in aisle 36, before a chorus of royal blue and white, with a cold wind on my back from the railway yards, with my sister below and dressed in all her regalia, and as she always has been: alone. Nobody else in the stadium knows her story. Nobody else in the stadium knows how much I love her. Nobody else knows what it would mean for both of us to sit at the football together – for her to show me a part of her life that means so much to her.
She has the Kangaroos; she has hope, she has a routine, she has everything.
But rules have no room of sentimentality, and I text her and say I’m standing with her up the back, and she should enjoy her seat and come and see me at quarter time. She texts back: “Dugs. Here’s a good race relations tip put Bachor Houli on Majak Daw!!!!!”
I met Phillip Jupp and his son Jayden at the football several times last year, to say hello but also to let them know I wanted to write a story about them. We had a loose arrangement that I’d catch a train and drive home with them after the Elimination Final last year. I wanted to write a story about the joy of leaving the football after a win. I wanted to write about happiness etched on Jayden’s face. I wanted to write about a father and his son, returning home from a game together, floating on victory, their lives removed temporarily from everyday realities.
But Richmond lost, and a dream was over, and all us fans wanted for was solace, alone, to lick wounds. Phillip and Jayden went their way; I went mine. At the time, there was only misery in that loss. Only despair.
I met Jayden first at the Adelaide game last year. He has the sweetest laugh, the sweetest smile. He was parked in a wheelchair bay, alongside his father, and Wayne Bradshaw, 48, from Wonga Park, who explained: “I broke my back 20 years ago and I’ve been coming to the footy ever since. I could never see life after Richo. I’m an old Tiger, I know how my team can break my heart.”
I watched part of the game with them. Deledio lined up for a set shot and Phil asked: “Is he going to kick it, Jay?” Jayden’s big smile of approval had ‘yes’ written all over it. Lids kicked the goal and it was high-fives all around.
“When we’re watching at home its white chocolate after a goal,” says Phil. “A piece of white chocolate. He loves white chocolate.”
Standing alone at Etihad on Sunday night, among the North crowd, I warm to the occasion in the second quarter. Richmond kick goals. I see Trout on the TV monitor above. It’s my first viewing of Ivan this season, and this is reassuring. Dusty kicks around his body for a goal and pumps his fist and I pump my fist, too. Shane Edwards is like a pick-pocket up forward. And halfway through the second term I am proud of my team, and of Dusty, and think how so often they seem to play well when they’re off-Broadway – on a Sunday night, away, removed from the spotlight.
“C’mon North, pick up your game,” shrieks a woman nearby.
“Goldie, you’re getting towelled up, mate,” calls-out another.
“Stop whinging Aaron Black and GET THE FOOTY!”
I had hoped to meet Phillip and Jayden at the game on Sunday night, but it wasn’t to be. Besides, I had my sister’s company. At quarter time, I had permission to meet her at the fence, and asked a stranger to take our photo. We must have looked a spectacle. I know she would be happy having such a fuss made over her. Family is everything to her. It is all she has.
At half time, in a light-headed mood, I asked if she’d like to join me in a visit to the Richmond cheer squad. I wanted to show her another football family. I wanted her to see how others celebrate football and the team they barrack for.
I cannot speak for other cheer squads, but what I like most about Richmond’s gathering is that it’s open to all. It is a family that looks after each other, and looks out for each other. I’ve thought often that a team is as good only as its weakest player, just as a club is as good only in how it looks after those most in need. Here is a beauty of football. All of us are equal as barrackers; we are as one in our passion for the game and our team. So long as we do not overstep certain rules and social mores, each of us has a place at the football.
It is a broad church, an accepting church, and a church that shelters so many who otherwise have so little voice in our community. The cliché is true. It is more than a game.
For the second half, my sister and I are together at last. We find empty seats at the Coventry End, beside the Richmond cheer squad, and I raise my voice in approval, and my sister joins the orchestrated hand-clapping, and I remind her she need not barrack for my team. What I know about my eldest sister is that she’s easily swayed. She’s an easy target, easy to take advantage of. She wears her colours proudly, as she should. We knock knees. I tell her she needn’t feel afraid to shout out for North.
And this, in the second half, is her great good fortune.
All the play, all the celebration, all the joy and happiness, all the assured football is at their end. Nearby voices in the crowd tell of our sorrow.
“Where’s the microwave?”
“This is a MENTAL BREAKDOWN. It’s a BREAKDOWN.”
“What have they done to us?”
“I can’t see us coming back from here.”
“Bring the other team back.”
“C’mon Tigers, 34 years.”
“It’s a stupid game, anyway.”
Most of the commentary is good natured. There is shared resignation. We might have been up by six goals at half time, but none wearing yellow and black could sit easily with that. We are Richmond. We have history. We trade in heartbreak and disappointments. We can find the most careless of ways to lose a game.
In the last quarter, I find consolation trying to mark the ball behind the goals. I want a touch, a stat for the night. Others find consolation in gallows humour.
My big sister turns, and says: “This is not actually as feral as it is sitting around there in my seat.”
We walk into the night together, my sister clutching my arm, unsteady on her feet, her voice hoarse, and on the way to the train and on the way from the station, I ask her to sing me the North theme song, and she delights in this. It intrigues that its lyrics include the word “recreation”. In an age of corporate football, it seems so quaint, so pure. It reminds that football is at its heart a pastime, a game, a winter folly, a bit of fun.
But there is little fun for us Tigers at the moment.
On Sunday afternoon, Stan Alves on ABC Grandstand radio gave a half-season report card on all clubs, and Richmond was the only team he adjudged a D. Fail. Of all the teams in the competition, we were an exception, as it seems our destiny is to be. Only us Tigers could manage to turn a game of football like that.
At game’s end I made my way to the nearby players’ race because I wanted to see the raw drama of the vanquished leaving the arena. Football, in times like these, it’s a blood sport. I wanted to see the body language of hurt. For these players, there must be a confusion of emotions: anguish, disappointment, shame, fear, resignation. Nothing feels as heavy in a football club as does the weight of loss.
What I hadn’t written in my notebook in the second half, was the invective from the Richmond crowd directed toward one of our own, Tyrone Vickery. Here was my dilemma. What’s to be gained in documenting this scorn? But if I don’t write it down, am I disregarding a truth? In times of recurring defeat, being a barracker is a fraught business.
But a lingering scene from the night came from the player’s race. Most of the participants had left the field. Damien Hardwick walked down the concourse – a lonely figure – and up above an incensed fan gave him a lungful of advice. “VICKERY CAN’T PLAY! VICKERY CAN’T PLAY!”
His voice was filled with venom and anger and spite and hurt, and a desperation that comes when a house of cards falls. His rage was powerful. It was a passion. But it made me think of how this club of ours is in such strife, pulling itself apart, filled with discord, in denial, bereft of answers, and now turning on itself. It was raw, and this rawness was honest and true.
On the way home I sent a tweet on the train: “I have a pain in my heart and its name is Richmond #noknowncure”
When going home, I thought of Philip and Jayden, and wondered how they might be feeling, what their response is to our club falling-in on itself. Would they ever turn their backs on the club? Could they ever look the other way? I think their hearts must be aching this winter.
My big sister came to our place to stay on Sunday night. I set her up to watch the replay of the second half, then turned away and ate half-a-tub of ice cream. She kept shouting out that she could see us in the crowd. She smiled and laughed. I was happy for her.
Tiger tiger burning (not at all) bright