Premiership Port – a loving toast

Brisbane – a belated preamble

The bottle has finally been opened…

 

The bottle is as it always has been. A premiership memento.  A reminder of long ago success and a testament of repeated failure.  It has mocked Richmond for 37-years, all those five year plans and new coaches and players.  Despite its age, its life has never been lived.

 

The bottle, 1980 Premiership Port, has lain inert since being filled.  Yet it has always had a silent intent, from an Oak Park lounge room to a lounge room in Brisbane.  It has always had a presence, a yearning to be set free.

 

But the bottle was constrained by performance.  Though the contents may be grand, the name it carried was no longer.

 

For 37-years, the bottle has been nurtured, loved and looked after.  It has been fawned over, held lovingly, fantasised about and become the object of grand plans.  It required a grand performance, for the bottle to live its intended life.

 

How much potential in a bottle?  It is time to find out.

 

Melbourne – grand final day

 

There is always anxiety as a neutral supporter.  Few people going into a grand final are truly neutral.  We become invested, regardless of the absence of our teams.  It is no secret who I was supporting.  As soon as Richmond qualified, I was with them.  There were many reasons.

 

Adelaide defeated North Melbourne in the 1998 grand final.  I hate that memory.  My grandparents, Rita and Pa, followed Richmond.  And always, there was that bottle of Premiership Port.  That bottle embedded itself into the weekend.

 

The build-up to the grand final began with the Footy Almanac grand final lunch, a wonderful afternoon in the grand old Royal Melbourne hotel.  As the afternoon wound on, Gareth Andrews and Matthew Clarke took the stage to talk about grand finals, delistings and two of the best coaches in football history, Allan Jeans and Tommy Hafey.

 

John Harms revved up the crowd with renditions of the three-quarter time address by channelling Ronnie Wearmouth and playing several infamous audio recordings.  The afternoon moved into the evening at a house in West Brunswick where the game was discussed and analysed.

 

Me, Russ and Paul went to the function.  My cousin, Pat, met us after it was over.  Later, we retreated to Paul’s house.  Only Pat followed Richmond.  He sat with his hand wrapped around a beer and his body clad in a Richmond jumper.  Pat said Richmond were no certainties.  I felt the same.

 

Russ said he was going for Adelaide, because he’d been stirred up by a few Richmond fans throughout the year.  Paul settled on Richmond.

 

With the 2016 grand final fairy-tale still fresh in the football landscape, the worry was what price another fairy-tale?  Football, I felt, is never that sentimental.

 

It was Russ who mentioned the bottle.

 

‘I’d like a taste of that Premiership Port,’ he said.

 

‘It’s all riding on Richmond,’ I said.  ‘If they win it’s getting opened.’

 

Pat, who lives in Sydney, wanted in on the tasting.  ‘If Richmond win, I’ll fly up to Brisbane when you open it,’ he said.  I’d love to have a drink and toast the Tigers.’

 

Russ wouldn’t be in Brisbane until 2018.  He asked if I could keep a glass for him.  I shrugged.

 

Saturday morning, grand final anticipation was a slow burn.  I had a big lunch before Russ picked me up at 12pm.  The train was full, yet it was a silent trip.  Richmond and Adelaide fans were forced to mingle.  No one offered a sledge or a sideways glance.

 

We got off at Richmond Station.  The masses were silent.  Richmond fans seemed muted by fear of failure.  On the concourse at the MCG, Luke Ball wandered along nearby.  John Longmire posed for photos.  Fans jammed the entrance to gate seven.  The wait to get in was long as every patron was scanned front and back and bags checked.

 

After scanning my ticket, I felt mentally exhausted.  My seat was in level four, section Q26, row Y, number 18.  The seat was about ten rows from the back, in the stratosphere.  I didn’t care.  I was amongst Richmond fans.

 

I was listless when the scoreboard informed us that there was no change to the selected sides.  When Uncle Bill saluted the crowd with the welcome to country, I doubled the black scarf (with two red bands at each end) and wrapped it tighter around my neck.

 

The crowd was streaming in as the motorcade snaked around the MCG.  I sat, stony faced, completely unprepared for the grand final.  I hoped the players were feeling better than I was.  Based on family loyalty, I wasn’t neutral.  There was investment in Richmond, as much as if North Melbourne was playing.

 

My desperation for a Richmond victory tempered my enthusiasm. Investment was a heavy burden.  A win, for my grandparents, for Pat and the bottle became all-consuming.  Waiting silently in Brisbane, the bottle needed opening.

 

In front of me, there was a major seat mix-up.  Six people who should’ve been sitting in row V discovered they should’ve been in row W.  After the confused assemble apologised and moved, four people in row X sheepishly admitted they should’ve been sitting in row Y.

 

The young fella next to me smiled and shook his head.  ‘Jesus, how hard is it?’

 

I shrugged.  It was grand final day.  Perhaps the Richmond fans were too nervous to remember how to read.

 

Quashing thoughts about going back to the concourse, I watched light rain fall as the scoreboard said 45 minutes to the opening bounce.  Sitting unmoved as those around me moved off for beers, during the Killers short set, I absently tapped to the beat and watched the minutes and seconds tick down.

 

Many people in the crowd looked familiar but I saw no one I knew.  I thought of people I went to school with, Richmond fans like Dave, Craig and Kyle.  Typically, the MCC reserve was the last to fill.

 

Like a superstitious man looking for omens, I racked my thoughts.  The last time Richmond won the premiership in 1980, I brushed aside family loyalty and pinned my hopes on Collingwood.  Two years later, when Richmond played Carlton in the grand final, I threw my support behind the Tigers.

 

The support of the neutral fan is a moveable feast.  And this was Adelaide.  I hate Adelaide because of the 1998 grand final.  Back in 1998, as I left my seat at the MCG after the grand final, an old woman with expansive grey hair flashed her scarf at me and told me to fuck off.

 

Other Adelaide fans pointed gleefully upwards at the scoreboard.  Painful memories that can never be erased.  That day I vowed never to lower myself to opposition fans like that.

 

Adam, a North fan, sent a text.  Show no mercy.

 

When the umpires entered the arena, their azure was the blue of a kookaburras wings.  I thought they looked splendid in their clash uniform.  Richmond ran into the MCG to an expectant ovation.  When their theme song finally blasted around the MCG the fans sang subdued.

 

Adelaide was booed onto the MCG.  In terms of support, it sounded about a 65-35 split.  There were vast bays of red and black bisected by neat arrangements of blue and red and yellow.

 

The national anthem provided an opportunity to stand and sing.  Then Bon Scott screeched to the bleaches, it’s a long way to the top, and when the ball hit the turf to start the game, my anxiety rose.  I couldn’t get the bottle out of my mind.

 

Adelaide was slick, better in close.  Richmond kicked long to a contest and were swarmed at the fall of the ball.  Jack Riewoldt had three early shots at goal and missed.  Richmond struggled to find targets.  Goals came in bunches.  At quarter time, Adelaide led by 11-points, but two of their goals came from Richmond mistakes and another to Sloan as a roving jag from a pack.

 

Worry set in.  Standing silent amid the noise, I didn’t want to see Richmond lose.  Worry was unnecessary.  In the second quarter, Richmond set the clamps.  More efficient with the ball, more pressure, more desperation.  They kicked long from defence, won more contested ball and began to find space.  Four goals to nothing set up their second half.

 

The roar of those four goals threatened to bust my eardrums.  The throbbing caused a headache.  Adelaide, with just five points, had played an awful quarter.  Their forward line was ineffective.  Their tall forwards couldn’t get into the game.  Moments before the third term began, I thought they couldn’t play another bad quarter like that.

 

The second half

 

Midway through the third, Richmond led by four goals.  I wanted one more goals to open up the fear.  One more goal to open up the bottle.  Walker broke Richmond’s consecutive run of seven goals.  His exuberance and fist-pumped demand to teammates was short-lived.  Richmond countered immediately.  They went into the last change with a 34-point lead.

 

The margin still seemed tight.  My concern in those maddening minutes centred on the cliché, only Richmond could blow a lead this big in a grand final.

 

The opening goal of the final quarter went Richmond’s way.  It sealed the match, but I felt it was never over.  Two Adelaide goals brought the margin back to 33-points and I could no longer sit still. I needed a break.

 

I found the toilet and sucked in a few deep breaths.  My fingers ached from constant wringing.  Climbing back to my seat, two minutes had gone by and the margin hadn’t changed.  As the minutes ticked by, Richmond fans began expecting to win the big moments.

 

Adelaide didn’t have another good quarter.  They had two more bad quarters.  Bachar Houli was best on ground but Dusty Martin was flashy and gutsy and barrelled in.

 

With ten minutes left, I soaked it up.  My voice was hoarse from cheering.  Pure joy wafted over me as the anxiety fled my body.  I felt silly at my investment, that I can never watch any game of football as a neutral supporter.  And the bottle loomed like a beacon in Brisbane.

 

In the end it was all too easy.  I sang Richmond’s song, pumping the air to yellow and black.  It couldn’t be revenge for 1998, but it was satisfaction.  Primitively, I thought the Adelaide fans now know how I felt back then.

 

I gazed over rows of seats to the Adelaide bays.  Few of their supporters had left.  I respected that.  Many sat through the presentations, choosing to leave as the premiership cup was held aloft by Damien Hardwick and Trent Cotchin and the vanquished finally trudged to the rooms.

 

Scanning the faces nearby, I saw the unbridled joy.  I nodded to a few people.  I had not uttered a word to anyone throughout the entire game.

 

It was chaos afterwards, outside the ground and in the Duke of Wellington pub, formerly owned by Brian ‘The Whale’ Roberts.  Richmond fans sang the song.  The game was replayed on the big screens.  The beers were good.  I stayed too long with my cousins, Pat and Penny.

 

On Sunday morning, suffering from sympathy for the losers, I watched AFL Game Day and remembered the devastation I felt in 1998.  Knowing thousands of Adelaide fans felt the same, I was pleased I never looked sideways at any of them at the MCG.  Their suffering was personal.  It didn’t need to be invaded like mine had been.

 

Breakfast was in an Essendon café.  Tables were pushed together as family members arrived from across the city.  It was a small reunion.  Pam, Leonie, Jill, Peter, Penny, Pat, Loretta, Rod, Anna, Cooper, Tammy, Paul and Megan.  People from both sides of the family.  People from school.  Breakfast was great.

 

I showed Pam photos of the bottle of Premiership Port, purchased long ago by her father.  I thanked her for telling Bill I should have it.  The photo went around the table.

 

Pat and I talked about Richmond’s win with Penny and Peter.  It was described as a fairy-tale.  There are no fairy-tales in football.  It’s all hard work and preparation.  The media and fans create the fairy-tale.  The players create their legend and legacy.

 

It was 37-years ago when Richmond’s legend and legacy was marketed as Premiership Port.  After getting home, I gathered the bottle and held it.  Opening it seemed surreal.  In my hands, it felt like it should never be opened.  I put it down and turned my back on it.  The bottle can’t mock Richmond anymore.

 

It deserves its life.  Leaving it unopened would make a mockery of the vow I made a decade ago.

 

A mate contacted me and said a Richmond fan wanted to buy it.  I said $5000, but I’d rather drink it.  It’s not what the bottle is worth, it’s the potential in the bottle.

 

People contacted me, asking for a taste.  Pat said they need to get in line.  My sister, Juliette, said I need to drink it with my father, Bill and the rest of the family.  Bill agreed.

 

The opening

The port was beautiful, despite the years…

 

On October 21, in the kitchen at my parents’ house, my father Bill ripped the paper seal from the bottle.  The lid was unscrewed.  The cork had shrunk.  Bits of it ended up in the bottle.  I poured the port through a tealeaf strainer, preparing it as instructed by Paul Dahlenburg of Bailey’s of Glenrowan.  It was decanted, the bottle rinsed and refilled.  Four small glasses were filled.

 

We chinked glasses and toasted Rita and Pa, and Richmond for making it possible.  The Premiership Port was tangy, tarty and dry.  It smelled wonderful.  It warmed our bodies.  It was beautiful.

 

When Richmond won the 2017 grand final, they saluted their fans, living and dead.  As I sipped 1980 Premiership Port with my family, we did the same…

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…

Comments

  1. Peter Warrington says:

    geez i am thirsty

    nice story, Matt.

    i was cheering for the Crows in 98 FWIW but that old sheila sounds hardcore!

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