It’s a new experience for the little kids in the Tiger colours sitting with mum and dad on the Hurstbridge line train. They’re on their way to the MCG to see Richmond in action in the finals for the first time in their lives.
My initiation was the First Semi-Final against Geelong in 1969. The ground was packed with over 100,000 spectators in bright sunshine. The presence of a marching band lent the occasion a certain grandeur. This was something special. The Tigers mauled their rivals by 118 points. I remember being amazed by the level of noise generated by a crowd of that size when it mainly consisted of the supporters from the competing clubs, markedly different to the present day when a large proportion of spectators are neutral AFL or MCC members. If this was finals football, I was hooked. My father worked as a driver for the Sun newspaper at the time and faithfully phoned through the team selections for each game of that series when the presses began to roll at eleven o’clock on the Thursday night before each match.
Of course the rampaging Tigers roared all the way to the premiership three weeks after the triumph over the Cats.
A couple of weeks ago I was thinking about the first weekend of finals and how it would be a welcome break for me to kick back and watch them on TV after three nights of shifting props on and off the stage at our biennial school production.
Hang on a minute. I realised that I’d actually be there at one of the games urging the Tigers on. Finals were formerly for other clubs and other tribes. Since our last flag back in 1980 we had graced the main stage just three times in a generation, for only one Grand Final. From being the most feared team in the competition we became a basket case and an object of ridicule, or worse, of pity.
But this year is different. I planned ahead for tickets. There was no way I could take time off work on the Monday morning following the final round to purchase the tickets in person. Nor could I go online when I was meant to be imparting precious pearls of wisdom to a classroom of 24 energetic kids. I wasn’t prepared to wait until I arrived home that night. Instead, I had my wife rehearse the procedure on the Ticketek website so there would be no slip-ups when the buying frenzy commenced at nine o’clock. Following a suggestion from a friend who follows a club which regularly plays finals football, she saved the barcode from our membership tickets onto the desktop so she could paste the details immediately during the application process. This way she wouldn’t be booted off the site if she took too long to transcribe the tiny digits directly from the cards.
I resisted the urge to sneak out of the classroom and phone my wife at around 9:30am. Instead, I remained in a state of tension until I walked through the door around five.
“How’d we go then?”
Very capable woman, my wife.
It’s just like the old days. Every day this week has brought snippets of news from Punt Road. I eagerly devoured every morsel of information. The state of Riewoldt’s knee, Newman’s looming date with destiny after 232 appearances without a final and the contrasting good fortune of Vlaustin, fortunate enough to be playing in one in his first year in the big time. Pictures of beaming supporters in yellow and black were featured in all the papers. Every commentator has an opinion on how the boys will fare when the heat is on.
I ask my son how he feels about his first experience of finals footy, given that he was only four years old when Richmond made the Preliminary Final under Danny Frawley in 2001.
That’s quite expansive for a 16-year-old boy in normal circumstances. But this is hardly normal. He’s toey, just like I am. Yesterday he was saying he could hardly wait for the bounce. I know he is particularly keen to vanquish Carlton today if only to silence a Bluebagger mate who has taunted him for years for staying loyal to a cellar-dwelling team.
It’s spring, the sky is blue with a few wispy cirrus clouds and the atmosphere inside the stadium is charged with electricity. There’s over 90,000 here with an overwhelming majority of them Richmond barrackers. Not even the Grand Final could surpass this.The Carlton banner pales into insignificance when compared to the dam wall of paper our heroes will run through and the Blues are booed onto the arena. This is Tiger territory and you interlopers don’t deserve to be here!
Richmond enters its forward fifty 19 times to Carlton’s six in the first term but we only lead by eight points at quarter time. It doesn’t matter, because everything goes our way in the second stanza. We boot three goals with the aid of fifty-metre penalties. Martin, Deledio and Jackson are brutalising their hapless opponents. We put four on the board in five minutes of slashing dominance. The noise is deafening. In the closing minutes of the term the Tigers share it around with dinky little passes to stifle a menacing Carlton foray before booting it long to the leading Cotchin. The siren sounds, Cotchy coolly slots it and the Tigers are up by a handy 26 points at half time.
Two minutes into the second half Aaron Edwards boots his second and we’re 32 points up. The tribe is about to hit the road to the harbour city for a date with a weakened Sydney Swans next Saturday night and who knows what might happen?
Then the Blues add the next five goals and cut our lead to a single point. Just like Carlton’s fightbacks in Rounds 1 and 21 I don’t see it coming. Can lightning strike three times in one place? Little pockets of Blues supporters come to life. Judd had played like an invalid in the first half after spending three weeks on the sidelines but ignites Carlton’s fortunes with a series of incisive moves through the midfield. Duigan, after being ignored by Malthouse all year, adopts a new identity as a dangerous goal scoring forward. Why does it have to be today?
Mitch Robinson violates a rule I have never heard of when he punches the ball over the line as the third man up in a ball up in our goalsquare early in the last quarter. Maric converts from the resultant free and the Tigers lead by nine points. Pull the trigger. Now. But luck deserts us. Robinson kicks blindly and the ball ends up in the arms of Waite. Carlton can’t miss. We fail to win the clearances and are repeatedly beaten in one-on-one contests in defence. We are being outrun. Vickery earns a free kick within easy range of goal, Edwards seizes the ball and is instantly collared. The umpire calls advantage, although there was none, the Blues sweep it away and Judd guides it through to put the Blues up by 10 points.
We’re finished and the unthinkable is about to happen.
Our agony is compounded by the closing goal of the match. The ball spills free from a contest, Garlett takes possession and sets off at top pace with half the field open before him. Carlton supporters are on the feet and celebrating every step of the way. Garlett pauses in the square to taunt Steven Morris, his pursuer, before slamming it through and leaving me slumped in my seat in despair. Thousands of Richmond fans are trudging up the steps towards the exits. They are vigorously farewelled by navy blue antagonists. I can’t look at my son. When the siren sounds we stand to our feet without a word. Without so much as a glance behind us we make our own walk of shame to the station.
The train is deathly quiet on the way home, filled as it is with the despondent Tiger faithful.
And what about the first timers? What have we done to them? My boy is angry. He is convinced that Carlton will get its just deserts when it meets the Swans next weekend.
It’s time for some sage advice to salvage something from the carnage. Things don’t always turn out like you hope or plan for. On the scale of when things go wrong, losing a game of footy doesn’t compare with a death in the family, serious illness or losing your home to the bank. Footy is essentially a game to be enjoyed. All true, but it doesn’t make us feel any better.
My mind is filled with morbid thoughts. We always wanted to make the finals. It’s as if the footy gods have played a cruel trick on us. Be careful what you wish for. I had warned my son that there was a price to be paid for participating in September action. There is always the possibility of crushing disappointment if things go wrong on the big stage. I’ve seen the heartbreak of supporters whose teams lose tight games in finals. Indeed, there have been times in recent years where I’ve witnessed the disappointments suffered by the fans of better credentialed clubs with undisguised glee. Maybe it’s better not to make the finals at all than to endure what has happened today. Now I long for the familiar comfort of following a team that no-one expects to win. Maybe the whole season has been rendered meaningless. Just like my life.
My wife is bemused by our reaction to the afternoon’s events. She thought it was a magnificent spectacle and that we should be glad to have gotten so far. But we’re in no mood to listen to the voice of reason.
I just need a few days to get over this one. It’s hard to maintain a sense of proportion when you have an emotional commitment to your team and there was such a build-up, such a sense of anticipation with this one. And when you lead by five goals…
In time I might find it within myself to feel positive about the gains Richmond has made this year. Maybe I’ll relent and buy the highlights DVD which will surely be released in time for Christmas. I might even acknowledge the brave performance of the Judd-led Blues to come from so far behind to win the game.
In time, but not just yet.