AFL Grand Final – Adelaide v Richmond: To Gerard

 

Round 5, 2002. Richmond v Hawthorn, MCG. My uncle Gerard took me to my first ever game. I remember all the new senses that have become part of my football experience: the smell of hot chips, beer and cigarettes, the taste of jam donuts and scorching hot chocolate out of our thermos and the sight of the Tigers getting whipped. Formative stuff for a six-year old.

 

Gerard and I have been going to the footy for 15 years. He has raised me through tears and tantrums to teach me to deal with defeat. We’ve seen the worst of the Tigers in the modern era: the mid-season crashing and burning, the dead-cat bounce late season wins, the night when fans spat on Danny Frawley, the infamous 2009 season opener against Carlton when our season was over at three quarter time, the day we lost to lowly Melbourne just after Tommy Hafey died.

 

All throughout, I’ve been an emotional liability to Gerard’s hardened perspective. He has been the manifestation of Kipling’s line about treating success and failure as temporary states over the burnout Frawley era, the straight-up embezzlement of the Wallace era and the long, hard climb of Hardwick made longer and harder by doubts, pitfalls and Focus on Footy.

 

When Damien Hardwick became senior coach in 2010, the Tigers had transcended just how dire things could get for a team in the modern era. People were straight-faced demanding that poor old Richmond be granted concessions (and this with Gold Coast starting out and the Giants set to come in). However, the Tigers confounded the naysayers with a four-game winning streak mid-season that peaked when we beat the top-eight-bound Dockers by 19 points. As Gerard and I left, we jokingly talked up our flag chances. I promised that one day we would go to a Grand Final together, “even if I’m wheeling you up by that point!”

 

Now as a grown man, I sit in the highest heights of the Olympic Stand with Gerard’s daughter and my oldest friend Jess and her boyfriend Henry. Gerard is not here. He’s on a business trip to South Africa and has sold me his ticket to what was supposed to be our first Grand Final together. As a hat-tip to the locals, the awesome pre-game entertainment band the Killers play the Oil’s ‘Forgotten Years’ and for nearly 80,000 Tiger fans the line about “the hardest years, the wildest years, the desperate and divided years” is one final reminder of what it has taken to get us here.

 

All week, people have been advising me to “soak it all in” on Grand Final day, but it’s hard to feel like you’re not missing out on something. I just count down the minutes but I’m still taken by surprise when the ball goes down.

 

The Tigers start slowly but their strength is their faith in an exceptionally good game plan. This Richmond team has maybe four A-listers in Dustin Martin, Trent Cotchin, Alex Rance and Jack Riewoldt but the underlying muscle of a disciplined, high-pressure team has taken us from 13th to a Grand Final. Once Richmond settles into the groove, the high-scoring, freewheeling Crows are taken apart.

 

Seven of the 22 have been there from the beginning for Hardwick: the captain, the co-vice captains, the best player, two vastly improved defenders in Dylan Grimes and David Astbury and the ever-reliable Shane Edwards. Hardwick has found a strength in all his players, many of whom were dismissed as battlers or talented but flawed.

Grimes and Astbury were regarded as injury-prone, too old-school and limited even last year but they are a key part in keeping the most multi-pronged forward line in the comp to just eight goals. Recruited from Essendon in 2011, Bachar Houli has left all question marks over his skill and poise behind and played the game of his life when it mattered most. Throw in Kane Lambert, Shaun Grigg, Jack Graham, Nathan Broad… Facebook comedy page the Carlton Draft were cynical but accurate when they lauded the Tigers’ “forgettable but still top notch” players.

 

I wish upon everyone an hour in their lives as glorious, crowded and communal as what Jess, Henry and I felt from the start of the third quarter. The match was over once Kane Lambert got on the end of some definitive slick disposal under pressure to kick our seventh consecutive goal and put us 28 points clear. To be able to revel in an entire quarter and have my entire life wash over me like a picture book… I hope I never forget it.

 

Three minutes into the last, Jack Riewoldt perfectly judges a kick to the hot spot to take a classic poster boy forward mark to put us 40 points clear.
I’m eight, sobbing into Gerard’s jacket as
my old Roy boy father celebrates the Lions’ third straight flag.

 

A crushing Jacob Townsend tackle turns the ball over to Riewoldt, who came to the club when the Tigers were to ball skills what bouncers were to angry drunks, flings a perfect handball forward to release Lambert who sets up another to Dion Prestia.
I’m nine, watching in horror as our new Lord and finals-guaranteeing saviour Nathan Brown is carted off with an horrific broken leg.

 

The Crows bomb forward hopefully, as they’ve been forced to do all day with a highly skilled midfield and forward line needing just a second to compose, and Toby Nankervis slowly stampedes across to mark in the square. From rejected by the runners-up to a flag with the 13th-placed Tigers. I’m 11 and Gerard is giving me the rounds of the kitchen for yelling at a group of Collingwood supporters after a humiliating MCG loss.

 

With ten minutes to go, a chip across half-back finds Trent Cotchin, Trent Cotchin who was a talented upstart, Trent Cotchin who refused to take the traditional number 17 when he became captain, Trent Cotchin who was invisible through three failed elimination finals, Trent Cotchin who embodied the fatal limitations of the early-Hardwick Tigers, Trent Cotchin who is maybe the best captain in the land and is now cheered as the roll call begins.
I’m 15, Richmond are still bottom four and Gerard, who knows better than I what defeat looks like before it happens, tells me that Hardwick looks like just another Wallace.

 

Riewoldt snaps to the top of the square and Dustin Martin, who has gone from brutish, talented and hampered by an external darkness to a Brownlow Medallist, Norm Smith Medallist, premiership player and the greatest Tiger since Kevin Bartlett, sweeps across the fall of the ball to snap the last goal.
I’m 16, having just listened to the Karmichael loss, and I’m lying in a dark room and admitting to myself I made the worst possible decision when I chose to support the Tigers.

The crowd has been singing the song again and again before the siren goes. Here’s to you, Gerard. I’m 18 and Gerard, Jess and I are tearing the walls out of Kelvin Moore’s pub after the Tigers won nine straight games to pull off an unthinkable finals berth. It was the greatest day of my life.  

 

The loudest roar of the day is saved for Richo, who presents the cup to Cotchin and Hardwick, gives them a big bear hug and now I’m crying for real, breath coming in staccato bursts as I remember Waleed Aly describing Richo as not a great player but “the game’s greatest character. In the realm where sport really matters, that is far more important.”
I’m six, hero worship borne in me for the first time as I watch Richo, the flawed and passionate genius and the only reason to watch this terrible bloody Richmond team.

 

As the cup hits the sunlight, Brendon Gale and Peggy O’Neal wipe their tears and reflect on a 2016 off-season in which they nearly lost it all, the Swan Street Tigers swarm like revolutionaries and a bunch of balloons floats up into the great blue sky over a Punt Rd Oval crammed with supporters welcoming the conquering heroes home in the light of day, I think of all the misery we’ve been through.

 

I’m now glad we have.

Richmond            16.12.108

Adelaide              8.12.60

Best – (Rich) Houli, Rance, Martin, Lambert, Prestia, Edwards.

          – (Adel) B. Crouch, Laird, Jacobs, M. Crouch, Sloane, Atkins.

Goals – (Rich) Graham 3, Riewoldt 2, Townsend 2, Martin 2, Caddy, Houli, Grigg, Lambert, Castagna, Prestia, Butler.

        (Adel) Sloane 2, Walker 2, Betts, Greenwood, B. Crouch, Cameron.

VOTES. 3. B. Houli 2. A. Rance 1. D. Martin

 

More 2017 Grand Final coverage here.

About Callum O'Connor

Here’s to feelin’ good all the time.

Comments

  1. Brilliant wrap Callum – love the flashbacks throughout the years. Hope your Uncle Gerard is coping well having missed out on that after so long.

  2. Nice one Callum. You’ve earned it. Now you know why Hawthorn fans are such entitled a____les.
    Reckon Uncle Gerard proved the Avenging Eagles dictum that absence makes the heart grow fonder (and gives the boys a 5 goal start) at finals time. He took one for the team. What will we do with GFF and TLSPRF now??? You’ve ruined the oldest and most reliable tropes in Almanac history. If the Saints win one I’m taking up writing about lawn bowls.

  3. Joe De Petro says:

    Wonderful memories, Callum. Loved it. Pretty sure I had the same reaction as you at each of those moments.

  4. Strong memories in there, Callum. The flashbacks are lovely. You uncle Gerard is a great man for taking you to the games as a kid and learning how to deal with the pain of a loss in footy. The suffering over the last 37 years has definitely made the win all the more special. To hear the theme song sung with such passion and so many times was surreal. Congrats on the big win!

  5. I really enjoyed this piece COC.

    “I wish upon everyone an hour in their lives as glorious, crowded and communal as what Jess, Henry and I felt from the start of the third quarter.” A mighty fine position to hold. And beautifully put.

  6. Really nice piece, Callum. Cheers for sharing it. Yet another link to the Roys (may they never be forgotten) from a Tigers supporter too; feels like we’re everywhere!

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