General Footy Writing: How a Tiger got his stripes (part 1)

By Sam Steele

It was not until 1970 when I was six years old that I even discovered the existence of Australian football.

Unlike so many Australian families in which footy allegiance, like religion, is rock solid and and never to be questioned, or those in which rivalries flourish, in my family the game was never discussed.

My parents are both academics, educators and authors.  They value learning, books, music and other intellectual pursuits.  Some of the more genteel sports such as cricket and tennis hold a marginal interest for them, but my abiding childhood memory of their attitude to football is that it was dismissed as an uncivilised pastime played by ignorant oafs.  Footballers as a rule were rough, stupid, muddy and attracted loud and boorish crowds.  End of subject.

I’m sure the intensity of my passion for our game is a direct consequence of growing up in this family in which footy was an irrelevance.  Such a hostile environment was like barren ground to a weed and my fascination with football grew rapidly precisely because it was frowned on.  It became my little rebellion, an obsession fuelled by a guilty pleasure that lasts to this day.

Of course it was my social network at school that corrupted me.  Alongside kids’ TV programs, footy was the dominant subject during recess and lunchtime and I quickly realised that knowing about footy was going to be vital to gaining acceptance among my peers.  Although most of the 12 VFL teams were supported by my schoolmates, Melbourne was the team of choice for many of my new buddies in Prep. So for the sake of my social standing, I resolved that Melbourne would become my team.

The crucial demonstration of my newly acquired faith was to display the colours, in the form of a footy jumper.  This of course required parental involvement, so with both trepidation and determination, I broached the subject with Mum.  Remarkably, she agreed to make the purchase from the local sports store.

The big day arrived and I hurried home from school in eager anticipation of finding a smart red and blue guernsey.  Imagine my surprise when I found, laid out on the bed, a black jumper with a bold yellow sash!

Strangely, I recall no sense of disappointment about this.  Mum explained diplomatically that the sports store had no Melbourne jumpers in stock.  But she knew how keen I was to have a jumper quickly and had therefore picked one she liked the look of!  On such spur-of-the-moment decisions are lives shaped!

Leaving aside any opinion about Mum’s sense of design and colour co-ordination, I guess she was right in her judgement about my motivations.    I had no more sense of the respective history, traditions, culture and prospects of Melbourne and Richmond footy clubs than she did.  The acquisition of a jumper, any jumper, was of paramount importance to me, purely for social respectability.

But despite the superficial origins of my interest in football, once the seed was sown, I quickly found the game to be a treasure trove of fascinating facts and figures, names and terminology.  Football became the first subject that I read about in newspapers.  The opportunity to watch the Saturday night replay on TV was rare in my household, but when it was granted it was a privilege to be treasured.  World of Sport on a Sunday morning was out of the question and there were no Sunday papers.  So it was often not until Monday morning that I would apprehensively turn to the sports pages of The Age (naturally) to find out how the Tigers had gone on the weekend.

The ladder was football’s holy of holies and the principal determinant of a team’s worth among six-year-olds.  No one barracked for North Melbourne – they always came last.  Geelong, Footscray and Fitzroy, weird names of places we eastern suburbs kids had never heard of, weren’t much better.  My new team of choice, the Tigers, finished sixth in 1970.  To me, that was quite good.  The final four seemed exalted, almost unattainable (I hadn’t reached that point in my education to know that Richmond were the reigning premiers and their performance in 1970 had been a relative disappointment).

All of my early knowledge of the game was absorbed through schoolyard banter, footy cards, newspapers and TV.  The actual experience of going to a game was still some time off.  My best friend at that time, Nick, was a Hawthorn supporter but his Dad was an MCC member.  I am told by Mum and Dad that Nick’s family asked if I’d like to go to the Grand Final in 1970 using their spare ladies’ ticket.  Apparently I declined, saying I’d be scared of the crowd.  Perhaps this was a good call.  It was the biggest crowd in VFL history and they must have made a hell of a noise as Carlton, led by “L’il ‘opkins” stormed home to victory over Collingwood after being 44 points down at half-time.

But what a game to miss!  Even my folks remarked on the incredible nature of the comeback!

Over the next 38 years, I have more than made up for my childhood fear of the noise of the crowd.  But before this, I would need to go through the next phase of my footy education – the adoption of a footy hero.  And it just so happened that my newly adopted team had just the star to grab my attention.

About Sam Steele

Stainless (aka Sam Steele) started following Richmond in 1970 when he was 6. This occurred when his mother, under instructions to buy him a Melbourne jumper, found they were out of stock and purchased a Richmond one instead. Despite the decades of heartache and turmoil this fateful decision has brought on Stainless, he is grateful to his mum as he has at least seen his side win a couple of Premierships. After 30 September 2017, his mum is now officially his favourite person.

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