I’m sick of witch-hunts. I’m sick of the mob and people judging, and condemning and saying “surely…” without knowing all the facts, as if they are Senator McCarthy, which I guess makes me nauseous about Gerard Whateley. I’m sick of the haters. I’m sick of the AFL most of all. The Commission. All they care about is The Brand. All they care about is the media. All the media want to do is sell papers. All the haters do is read them. It’s a horrible three-pronged perfect storm that dispenses with perspective, truth and morality, finding a new victim every year. It makes me sick of football.
So, a happy story.
My Old Man the Tiger.
My father learned how to speak English at the Punt Road oval.
During the War his family spent four years on the run through Transylvania, into the heart of Hungary then, finally Germany, before being put on a boat to Australia. In the orphanage they were teaching him how to speak ‘proper English’, which only made him sound more like a Wog, so each Saturday he would sneak away to stand in the outer at Richmond games and learn how to speak Australian.
I told Tommy Hafey this story at a dinner once.
“True?” he asked.
“Where is he?” Tommy looked around, all smiles.
But I had moved to the bush the day I was old enough. My footy club was another world away. Nothing much, though, stopped Tommy. He grabbed the nearest bit of paper he could find, a beer coaster, and wrote my Dad a letter.
“Dear John, your son has just told me the story of your love for Richmond. Thank you for it, and barracking for the Tigers. Your friend, Tommy.”
I thought it was funny that Hafey would equate watching Richmond with a love. But he was right. My Old Man loved them. He couldn’t play himself. He’d busted a hip in the war, but was there every game. A gentle soul, he never imposed anything on me. Would simply disappear on a Saturday. But the day I was old enough to ask to go, he said “Oh, BOY!” and rubbed his hands together as if he was as young as I was.
I spent that day in the outer at Princes Park, flicking beer can caps at Royce Hart and Alex Jesaulenko.
My earliest memories are of a wiry old Sheedy, Keane and Woods.
Things were never good at home. My sister and I didn’t get along with the step-mum. So it goes. But for three hours of the week, win, lose or draw, my father and I shared something. We were invincible.
“Who are your favourites?” he asked.
“Jimmy Jess!” I told him.
“Because he’s Jimmy Jess!”
“Because he’s an underdog!”
“Francis Bourke. He’s tough. A living legend!”
Forwards were for wimps, I reckoned.
The old man loved KB because he was something different. Brilliant. Exciting. Not violent, like many of them were. He hated Whitten and Matthews for their thuggery. I wanted to ask him what he thought of Balme, then, but never got around to it.
In the summer, to ease the tension, he’d bundle my sister and I into his little Suzuki and roam. Anywhere, everywhere, with nothing. On the way back we’d put our last 50c in the tank and tailgate the biggest truck we could find home, getting a free ride on its slipstream.
That’s how I discovered the bush. But still the talk between him and me was of Richmond.
When the step-mum and us got too much and we bundled in with my mother, footy became an every second week thing with my dad, so, at age 12 I started going on my own. There was Roach, Lee, Rioli, who was not as good as Raines but twice as spectacular. There was Mick Malthouse doing his shoulder before the ’82 Grand Final. It was brilliant, but not the same. It didn’t stop me, though, I was a loner. And I think my dad was at heart, too.
Soon I was going by myself every weekend.
By 15 I was playing seniors and reserves for a now defunct team in a now defunct suburban league. Everything was woollen jumpers, mud, tatts and knuckles. The VFL was exciting, but not a patch on truckies, crims and boilermakers.
In juniors football there were pecking orders. Everybody had their chests out. In the knuckles league everything was simpler. It was us versus everybody. I went less and less to see my father’s beloved Tigers.
My Dad ended up having two more kids. But, like their mother, they had no love of the game. They never asked. He never took them. Without someone to share it with, I think he, too, gradually stopped going.
Then I made the Fitzroy Under 19s squad, and, even though I twice didn’t make the cut, found myself barracking for them.
Because they had the MIGHTY, underrated Roos!
Because they had tough, mean Pert.
Because I lived in Fitzroy (the only player on the Juniors Squad to do so).
But more so, because, over a decade, they had all shapes and sizes.
Little Matty Dundas. Big Ironmonger. Zanotti! Doc Wheildon! My favourite, James Mason. Jimmy Wynd, the cowboy-booted, Valiant-driving Tim Pekin. Stroppy Malloy.
Because they had characters.
Mostly, though, because my love of the underdog overrode my instinct to loyalty. My father had barracked for Richmond. I had loved the battler. Richmond were still Ruthless back then, big. Fitzroy were old school. Odd bods and barbies. Without a home. Fitzroy needed me.
I never told my father. The Tigers were the one thing we still shared, even after I went bush.
“Hi Son!” he’d say down the line. “See how good Matty Richardson is doing? What do you think of Northey?”
“I like Lambert,” I’d tell him. “In and under. Underrated.”
I played a final in the bush the day Fitzroy played their last game in Melbourne. Drove, at times, at 160kph, still in my footy gear, to see their last quarter, and cried. It was terrible. The game I loved no longer had room for battlers.
My old man only came to one of my games in 31 years of bush and city footy across three states. He was as happy as Larry. Still the same gentle soul.
“Oh, boy, that game was fantastic!” he said to the President as we walked off.
I’d played a shocker, my worst in years. The President knew it and said nothing to him.
“Geez, that was fantastic!” my dad insisted.
When I visited the old man in his dinky home in the western suburbs, I noticed his lounge no longer had a telly.
“The wife doesn’t like it,” he told me. “I only miss the footy.”
The way he said that seemed hard. The worst. His hip was too knackered now to get to most games. It must have stung, not being able to support the thing that brought him through the doors and rolled out the carpet to Australia.
“How about them Tigers?” he’d say, but not go into details about Bowden, or Knights, or Gale, or the unheralded players I liked like Poole or Young, or talk about how much the club was now struggling.
Eventually, the ranges I lived in got too small. After a stint up in the FNQ tropics, I moved to the bush in Tassie, and love everything about it. The old man finally left his wife and moved to Castlemaine, in central Victoria, when he rents a well lit little bungalow out back of a nice garden, to see if he can, in his mid 70s re-invent himself as an artist.
There are so many easier paths he could have taken. But he started again, from scratch, with nothing. Has chosen to follow his heart, his passion, without any money, at an age where everybody is worried about comfort. So we’re loners? So what? Damn, I admire and worship him!
I went to visit about a month ago. I was on the mainland interviewing famous footballers for my Oral History of AFL/VFL book.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“Good, but the more I do, the more I realise how big a task it is.”
I didn’t want to give him too may details. The book is sending me broke, using up all my woodcutting money, my savings. But the stories I’m getting are fantastic.
“Have you spoken to any Tigers?” he enquired.
“Not many,” I confessed. “Not yet. But I spent the night at Andy Goodwin’s place in rural Victoria. He’s a bloody corker of a bloke, so is his family! Big hearted, just like on the oval. And Bones McGhie-“
“You spoke to Robbie McGhie?! Oh boy!”
“I’ve spoken with Premiership coaches and Brownlow winners, but Bones, Andy and Greg Burns from St.Kilda have been the absolute best of them!”
“I noticed you don’t have a telly in here, either,” I told him.
“No,” he sighed. “I’m out of the habit, I guess. And have to concentrate on my art. I only miss the footy.”
Later, he walked me to the station.
“I still love the Tigers,” he said. “My plan was to watch their games at the local pub.”
“I watched one game. It was fantastic! Boy!”
“I just can’t afford it. The beer or soft drink. I don’t want to just bludge off the publican.”
Again, with his gentle nature.
It’s funny. When you’re a teenager, even in your twenties, you think you created yourself. The older you get, the more you see your parents’ influence. How they made you. How their genes made you.
I have my mother’s fire. And other traits.
But my father, without ever once demanding, somehow showed me a love of so many of the loves of my life. Football, of which, 40 years on, I am still playing, writing about and living. Drawing, of which I drew a footy book. A love of the bush, where I have lived and worked my entire adult life. A need to roam.
And now, I find out he has always harboured a need to put passion before comfort or money. We are both busy following dreams that take us away from dollars and going to the AFL football.
“Come watch the Tigers with me when they play finals,” he told me, as we reached the train station.
It threw me. He has never asked anything of me my whole life.
“Tickets might be hard,” I said.
“No, at the pub. You and me,” he replied.
I looked at him. 77 and burning with fire. He has refused any and every offer of help with money for rent or canvasses. Will. Not. Accept. A. Cent. His gentleness hides the most steely pride. A pride I felt swell in me.
“Sure, I’ll juggle woodcutting with interviews and be over again, but you have to let me shout you a few beers.”
He agreed and was stoked, as I knew he would be. Beers aren’t money.
There have been entire years I haven’t seen the old man. So it goes. He still thinks I barrack for Richmond. It doesn’t matter. I barrack for him, and us. In a few weeks, win, lose or draw, we are going to share something worth more than all that money can buy, something better, more uniting, than we’ve shared in three decades. You have no idea how excited I am for it!
Thank you football. Thank you Richmond.