March Champions

Footy’s back.

Hope springs eternal and magic’s in the air….roll out the cliches, it’s time to dream again.

The Preseason is what you make of it though.

Once it was a time for my dyed-in-the-wool St.Kilda heart to pine for the joy of new colts bolting to the fore, offering proof that this winter might be sprinkled with more sunny days of the soul than the last.

But once the premiership clock starting ticking, the blazing February sun had a slightly dark, menacing angle. Don’t let him pull up lame. Take it easy in that ruckus son, we need your bravery come September….

Preseason used to be fun but that was in a time when drafting players wasn’t the exact science it has become. Information relating to the new players on your list could only really be garnered by paying attention to the practice match season. You went to see the kid who was tearing up the track in the flesh, critique him with your mates and decide, based on the smallest of sample sizes whether he was going to be the answer to whatever ailed your team last season.

To be fair, not much could save the Saints from themselves in those pre-draft days. A lightly built kid with a mop of hair and a turn of speed was enough to get you excited. Mostly it was a collection of veterans who had been thanked for their services at other, more successful clubs, that signed on for some Moorabbin disco escapades. One more season has always been too hard for a footballer to resist without throwing a party vibe as well.

The season now starts directly after the Grand Final, has a slight lull for Christmas, and then begins in earnest. There is nothing left to discover in the intra club match phase in January, let alone the knockout cup against the rest of the league. If you don’t know anything about the new kids on the block when you arrive at the summer fling, you have actively resisted the deluge of information at your disposal.

Tempting as it might be to declare the magic of footy dead, killed by the dissection of minutiae, the constant and ceaseless attempt by clubs to find the new, new ‘edge’ over the competition; the thill will not die. I cannot wait for the AFL guide to drop. A ridiculous tome, that is addictive. Filled with so much information that it doesn’t exhaust itself for the entirety of the season. I can know as late as September what height that rookie ruckman from Fremantle is, as well as his initial club, draft history and junior career.

All it means is that there are no real surprises anymore. The hope of preseason is now based upon structures and game plans. Sure the thrill of a newbie taking the big boys on warms the heart as thoroughly as it ever has but as I watched the Saints take on the full ground switch with lightning intent, I was both impressed and concerned. Can this be sustainable? Is the inherent risk of stopping, propping and punching the footy forty metres sideways to an outlet running teammate worth the reward? Will it be too easy to work against for our opponents? Then the big one- Was this just a trial to see if we can play this uptempo style efficiently when needed?

I think it’s safe to say we’re all much more versed in the gameplan of our club than we ever thought we could be. Hope is now dependant on how you play not who you play. The evolution was seamless- I worry about our structure more than Kosi’s form……

Meanwhile Hawthorn played Roughie in defence all night and the commentators wax lyrically about his chances of being an All Australian Centre-half-back if the Hawks take the structure into the season. While he did look handy down back you sense that Brian Lake’s procurement might make that an emergency measure don’t you?

My dirty secret is hereby revealed then. I’m watching far too much of this. So much so, that having not got my fix of live footy from watching my beloved on the flat screen from Adelaide, I needed a live fix and tagged along with my Richmond mates to the Friday fixture.

I really enjoy the view from the inside of someone else’s club. It is always fascinating to hear the ‘truth’ about other teams. During the last season of the Dean Laidley era at North I had the classic- ‘Mate he has to go,’ conversation with a mate. I was wary of the certainty he had and quietly pointed out that the Roos had made the finals the last few seasons and looked to be developing a handy core. My Shinboner friend just shook his head and declared- ‘Laidley’s just treading water, we need to take the next step.’

Turned out he was right. The side took a backward step and then moved forward under a Scott brother. I hadn’t seen the problem but the faithful knew. It generally applies more so to players. You might rate an opposition gun but until you talk to a member of the faithful you don’t know the whole story. I clearly remember being impressed by Tim Boyle when he was up-and-about for Hawthorn and saying as much to a Hawker, only to get the response- ‘ You can have him, lacks discipline and doesn’t look like he wants to be there.’ It was a harsh assessment but it proved to be at least partly accurate.

It’s hard to hide in the spotlight. Tim Boyle is now a fantastic writer on the subject of football and perhaps his career reflects the journey a significant amount of footballers take. Frustration with injury and form taking the joy out of the game. I saw the flash of Tim’s talent, my mate had seen the fizzle of his lack of consistency. It was injuries that culled him but I hadn’t known the battle he was raging when he impressed me- that’s the difference in watching from distance.

I tagged along with my Tiger mates to feel the buzz of new beginnings in person; a new season filled with renewed hope. I was actually slightly envious of their opportunity. Here was a young and talented list with a solid couple of seasons behind them. This feels like the tipping point season for the Tiggers. A collection of young stars with the magical fifty-odd game learning curve behind them. This is a season where they should make the eight and tip their toes in finals footy. Give the young guns a taste of finals and they’ll want more. The journey to a premiership run follows the route the Tigers are on….

That’s where the roads travelled depart. Any fan of Richmond reading that previous paragraph will be shaking their head in a knowingly rueful manner. While most other supporters see the silver lining, the Tiges have felt the dark clouds too often to believe that this might be the time they part. The false dawn has been upon them since 1982. This is the never-ending night of the Tiger soul.

It is almost impossible to understand how a side can, in this era of equalisation, miss the finals for twelve years.

A dozen years. Melbourne has risen and fallen in that timeframe. The Doggies have had two, possibly three cracks at it. My beloved Saints were a rabble in ’01, got some big guns in the draft and went the distance twice in that same era.

The Tigers have endlessly promised and forever fell just short. Year after year they fail. Season after season supporters have had their hearts broken by increments. The accumulative effect was what I got a front row seat to on a summery Friday eve.

Richmond played Melbourne and won. It was pe-season footy, sloppy disposal, bad decision making, poor execution; mixed with flashes of magic. Jack produced most of the magic all on his own. Cotchin looked sharp, Martin was a presence, Houli looked assured. From where I sat it looked fine. From the seat to my right it looked catastrophic. The Tiges were too slow, lacked penetration and couldn’t break lines. I laughed it off and told my mate it was just the cobwebs being punched out.

Then the North game started and immediately my yellow and black-eyed companion was gesticulating wildly about how they had got slower. Now admittedly the Roos did look quicksilver….but they had been in the sheds for a fair amount of time. Of course they were the fast starters. They were also solid finishes. With the game on the line in the last minutes the Roos got on top and finished with the win.

It simply stood to reason that they had had a break and the Tigers were backing up but I had Richmond supporters either side of me lamenting the inability of their side, once again, to hold a lead late. It felt overly dramatic, an over-reaction to what was playing out in front of us. I wanted to respect my mates conviction but I found myself dumbfounded by the pessimism…which is difficult to comprehend for a lifelong Saints supporter!

Week two on the preseason hit and giggle unfolded differently to me because if altered perception. The Saints played solid footy to beat the Swans with last quarter burst. It meant little to me more than a hit -out that means we are one more, four-quarter-slab, closer to being match-fit for round one.

Yet I sat through the Tigers win over Essendon yesterday evening riding every mis-kick, hoping the yellow and black got over the line.

I don’t know what it all means. Am I gaining an affection to the Tiggers? Or have my eyes been open to the weight of expectation that seems to bury them every opening round as Carlton gleefully pop the hyperbole?

The fact that my team is on the other side of the mountain might be part of the reason. My expectations are sufficiently lowered, we had a great run but we came up short. It hurt to come so close but our time has passed. This should be the time of the Tiger but the dawn is far from being confirmed. The irony is we are both looking for the same outcome for differing reasons- We both want to make the eight.

You just never really know a team until you’ve walked a mile in their heartache. I want the Tiger army to see daylight for the first time in too long. I can’t say I feel their pain though, every club has its own special version of torment.

 

Comments

  1. Neil Anderson says:

    A very insightful thoughtful piece Tom. One of the best things about joining the knacker fraternity has been to realize there are a lot of fans out there that think the same things I do. Rather than keep my ideas on footy to myself because they are a bit intense for the non-believers in my life, I can let rip on the knackery.
    You could put me in the place of your Tiger mate and your story about the different ways of viewing the pre-season matches would be the same.
    As a Bulldog supporter, I’ve been knocked about over the years as much as the Tiger supporters, for slightly different reasons. We have had two grand-final appearances since 1925 but quite a few finals and pre-lims since 1985. The Tigers have just the one final in the last twelve years? It’s no wonder as dedicated but pessimistic supporters we analyze these pre-season games more than say Hawthorn supporters. The ones who are told by the ‘experts’ immediately after yet another grand-final appearance, that yes…they lost this one but will definitely start flag favourites next year!
    I don’t think I can agree with your idea that the Saints have had a fairly good run lately including a couple of cracks at the GF so you’re not as ‘desperate’ as your Tiger mate. I carefully check out the recruiting as my way of judging if we’re heading in the right direction. This year the Dogs recruited about six or seven mid-fielders and no key-position players so the old pessimism kicks in again.
    Despite the commentators getting excited about one of our few tall forwards taking a mark thirty metres out, I know damn well that he’ll miss the goal …and I’m usually right. Those commentators need a lesson in hard-arsed Bulldog pessimism!
    Better stop raving and go and celebtate the Dog’s first win since last July.
    Really enjoyed your article.

  2. Great work Tom. I have a good mate who comes from a Collingwood family yet decided to barrack for Richmond. He has probably been to nearly every Richmond game in Victoria since the early 90’s as well as regulary going interstate to watch the Tigers. I hope they do well this year and make the finals to give him some joy. As long as they don’t beat Collingwood!

  3. Andrew Starkie says:

    I turned on the radio last night to hear Dwayne Russell say: ‘Surely the Tigers will play finals’. I thought here we go again, must be March. It could’ve been any year in the past 30. I turned off.

  4. Kent Winzer says:

    I can really identify with your Richmond mate. He’s probably seen the bulk of the matches in Melbourne since his teens in the mid-90s, and travelled interstate to see his beloved Tigers play. And, over the years, all he gets is heartbreak.

    The question is, what is it that brings them back year after year? How do you front up, being so pessimistic, that you now EXPECT failure?

    It’s hope. You watch other teams in the finals, and think: Imagine when we get there! The feeling after any win is awesome, you feel like you’re unbreakable. Imagine winning a flag, how much would that feeling be enhanced?

    Sadly, I don’t expect the Tigers to make the finals this year. But that doesn’t make the heartbreak any easier.

    And, there’s good reason I can identify with your Richmond mate, as I am he.

    PS: The Tigers did look slow that night.

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