I have a crisis of confidence. I cannot sleep. It is 4.01am and I went to the game yesterday, and we won, but I could not get excited about this. Sure, it was nice to sing the song, and the walk to the train station felt lighter, but I left the ground feeling tired; feeling an emptiness. It might have been melancholia.
I watched most of the game from the Ponsford end with my partner’s aunt and cousin. They are family. I think their belief and commitment runs deeper than mine. They travel to the games from Ballarat, they go to the club’s membership cocktail parties, they have a dog they call ‘Richo’.
In the first quarter yesterday, the ball at one stage was kicked aimlessly forward, into clear space on a flank occupied by a flock of pigeons, and I watched those pigeons scatter, take flight, and it felt comical. What was I doing here? What is it all about? Does any of it make sense?
In the third quarter, talking about our team and our players and our club, ‘auntie’ Donnie confided that something about Richmond this year was NQR. Not quite right.
I missed the game’s first two goals. “Tyrone’s kicked two,” said a mother on the train, to her intellectually disabled son. I spent most of the first quarter standing in the outer, among the smell of beer and bourbon, listening to ridicule directed toward our players, measuring a sadness, or disappointment, or frustration. Then Jack took a beaut pack mark at the top of the square down our end, and the Punt Road crowd erupted.
“Makes it all worthwhile”
The other week, two Richmond Football Club membership cards arrived in my letter box. Another fan, based in South Australia, offered also to post his over. Both had come from supporters who for various reasons had considered my need greater than theirs. I thank them for their generosity, for their benevolence.
One of these benefactors requested anonymity.
Hers was a three-game Gold membership she had bought for her teenage son. “He hasn’t been to a game for about eight years,” she wrote. “He got sick of watching defeats as a little tacker then completely lost interest. My second son struggles to go along with me unless I can guarantee him a win – this, obviously, is difficult. We wait and we wait…”
The other membership was sent by Rod Miller, 52, who doesn’t mind if I share part of his story. “Went to Tommy’s game last week but my health is not great, so that’s it for me,” he wrote. “I struggle a bit with depression and anxiety, so panic a bit in big crowds. Ironic, as I’ve seen five Tiger premierships at a packed MCG!”
I’ve contacted Rod and he has an open offer to join me at the football, and I told him about times in my life when I’ve endured acute anxiety and depression and panic, so he has an understanding companion. He said he has sent a photograph to TTBB’s co-creator, Chris Rees, of his great uncle, Ray Martin, with Jack Dyer and Percy Bentley. As they say, Chris has sent it straight to the Virtual Duffel Coat.
“Ray won two B&Fs, in 1934 and 1935, and his prize was a suit,” writes Rod. “I wonder if you could write a small piece on Ray, he’s a forgotten champion at Richmond and was a champion ballroom dancer also.” [Rod, it’ll be an off-season project].
I have stories from Sean Nestor, and ‘Thommo’ in Nairobi, that I need to share; but not this week, not right now.
Then after yesterday’s game, beside a bronze statue of cricketing all-rounder Keith Miller outside Gate 5, I met with Paul Allen (whom I know better as YELLOW & BLACK with the Twitter handle @Punt_Rd_End) and his son Jack, on crutches and his ankle in a cast from a football injury. Paul had offered me tickets to the 3121 membership section. What I didn’t realise, is he wanted to hand me his own pair of Gold member passes.
Here was an act of complete trust. I’d never met Paul before, and he knows nothing about me. But here he was – a Tiger man in his classic wool knit Richmond guernsey (envy writ across my face) – trusting me with his tickets to the football for next week.
Football; it is about trust and loyalty, passion and friendships, and maybe it’s also about generosity and big-heartedness.
I’ve decided to use Paul’s premium tickets to take our eldest son – a four-and-a-half-year-old – to his first game of football. It feels a rite-of-passage. It feels like a seminal moment in my parenting; taking our little boy to the football. I think about it, and think I might cry.
Father and son, off to the football. Thank you, Paul.
There were purple goal umpiring flags at the game yesterday, and I’ve never before seen so much purple in the crowd. The game was played under lights and a leaden sky, although when Brisbane kicked their second goal in the third term to close the gap to two points, the sun broke through and bathed the Southern Stand in sharp light and I thought it the most dreadful of omens.
I was looking for beauty in the game – I wanted to be uplifted – but found little. There was a Brandon Ellis chip kick off the ground – an inside 50 entry – that teed-up a goal. Jack’s mark, as an exclamation to the first quarter. Matty Dea took an acrobatic two-grab mark. Alex Rance, again, was accomplished down back. Ivan Maric was manful around the ground. Tyrone kicked goals, and was sharp with his hands when handing one off to Jack. And I was pleased for Jake Batchelor to crib forward and kick his second goal in the AFL (this one a snap, in open play).
But it says something about the quality of the game, and our season of lost opportunities that the game’s highlight was a piece of play in which not much happened at all. Dusty (oh, how we love him) took possession of the ball deep in the members’ pocket, with an empty 50 metre arc before him. Here is the moment we cherish in elite footballers. It is an exercise in problem solving; a public spectacle before an adoring gaze.
In those few seconds he need size up the situation and consider what he can do, what he is capable of. We all know that with ball in hand it’s unlikely he can out-run his opponent. And judging from his actions, he knows this too. He has no option to kick it forward to a team mate, or in the path of a team mate, because none occupy the ground ahead.
What he has is the ball in hand and the goals far ahead, and an empty paddock.
He can turn back and try and set up a play with a team mate, or he can look at the goal square and go for it!
And here is why we love Dusty – he goes for it! He considers his best option, from deep in a pocket, is to land the ball near the goal square and curl it through. He thumps the ball on his boot. It arcs toward the goals. It bounces, and curls, and… the crowd in front stand with excitement, and all I can see is the movement of the goal umpire, his exaggerated mannerisms, his chest puffing out in the moment of decision-making, and it is the perfect drama and theatre at the football.
From all around me I thought it had gone through, and turn to Donnie and marvel at what Dusty can do. Then everyone sighs, and sits down, and smile and laugh, and share in the improbability of what happens. Looking at a replay on a TV monitor affixed above section M35 of the Ponsford Stand, the ball had curled toward the goal line, then abruptly bounced back, and bounced sideways, then this way and that, and then decided for a little rest on the plush MCG grass.
It was a moment of the sublime. It was quintessentially Richmond. And in our hearts, it is why we will always love them.
At half-time, I went looking for people to meet in the crowd. I wandered down to the Brisbane Lions cheer squad because I am curious, and because I knew old Fitzroy people would be there with stories to tell. It did not disappoint. I met Norma Burnie, 81, from Roxburgh Park, who’s been a Roy supporter since 1946, and was a long-time member of their Ladies Auxiliary. She still remembers the date – 4 July, 1996 – when the merger with Brisbane was announced. She was there at Fitzroy’s last game in Melbourne – against us, at the MCG – and watched their last game, away against Fremantle, with her brethren at the Albion Charles Hotel in the Royboy heartland.
She reels-off some of her favourite Fitzroy players over the years – Tony Ongarello, Harvey Merrigan, “the Serafini boys”, ‘Butch’ Gale – and their names sound now as if they could be matinee movie stars. We talk about the merger, and Martin Pike, and how many Fitzroy players moved up to Brisbane, and I am glad for her and her family that they are pleased with what happened.
“The other option was North Melbourne and we would have got nothing,” she says. “We still have our song, we have our colours, we have our Lions, and Brisbane lost all of that.”
Walking back up to my seat I stop and introduce myself to a woman sitting alone with a fluffy Tiger on her knees. Her name is Mary Sanders, and she tells me she barracks for Richmond because her father did. He was a Tasmanian, from the north of the isle, and was related to Brendon Gale. “When Brendon was born my dad wrote a letter to his mum and said I hope he barracks for Richmond.”
It’s amazing, the connections of the crowd, the stories you can find.
Play is about to resume and I need to find my seat and my little Tiger family. Mary turns to me as I say goodbye. “He used to follow Carlton when he grew up, you know.”
Tiger tiger burning bright