It can be relatively easy for a club to replace a player. It’s a fair bit harder to replace a person.
For the Richmond Football Club, this year poses many challenges. Continuing their form from the back end of 2014 (excluding that absolute nightmare of an elimination final), maintaining a spot in the top eight, and ultimately winning their first final since 2001. I was in grade two in 2001. I’m now in my fourth year of uni. That’s a long time between drinks.
But an even bigger challenge for the Tigers (and more pertinently, their fans) will be coming to terms with life without two long-term servants of the club. They couldn’t have come from more contrasting backgrounds – one a private-school boy from Kew, and the other from the rough and tumble of the Diamond Valley. Many articles have been written and interviews conducted about the unlikely friendship between Daniel Jackson and Jake King. This is going to be about a different relationship – between the players and the fans.
Everyone loves a cult figure, and so everybody loved Kingy. His story is the stuff that football characters are made from. He was literally a back pocket plumber. He was nearly delisted several times, but hung on through sheer hard work. An eventual shift to the forward line confirmed his status as a fan favourite – nothing got the Richmond faithful more “up and about” (forgive the Triple M speak) than a Kingy goal. I loved him because of his size. He’d be the shortest player on the ground, and have absolutely no qualms about taking it up to the opposition ruckman. There was a glorious match where he took Alan Didak down for no apparent reason. Triple M’s endorsement of him as “the push-up King” (in reference to a video where he completed over 300 of them) wore thin after a while; but it most certainly added to his aura. And sculling a beer in the Richmond cheer squad during an otherwise routine game against GWS at the end of last year cemented his place in the Richmond folklore.
Dan Jackson is different. While Kingy was loved from the start, Jackson earned respect through his persistence. By his own admission, he was not the most skilful player around. But he became nearly the strongest, and definitely one of the most selfless. Tagging is a tough job, and not many are known for it. The average footy fan could probably name half the full-forwards in the AFL. They’d struggle to name three taggers. Being older (and bigger) than a relatively young midfield, Jackson did some of his best work blocking and protecting the (then) babies of the team in Trent Cotchin and Dustin Martin.
I was fiercely protective of Dan Jackson as a player. When I was young I didn’t have much of a concept of football players as people. I didn’t understand that some were only 18 and might struggle to match it with older players. Jackson was one of the first players I consciously realised was so young he was a boy. Commentators would bag him, and I’d be furious – didn’t they realise he was trying as hard as he could? He was only eight years older than me! I followed his career with interest, in and out of the seniors. He’d try his guts out, was incredibly brave, but (like most of the Richmond players at the time) would sometimes struggle to kick his way out of a paper bag.
Both players finished when their bodies did. It wasn’t a surprise when Jake King retired – he spent most of the 2014 season on the injury list, eternally 2-3 weeks away from playing. The final straw was an operation that fused his big toe together, a similar surgery that another dogged fighter punching above his weight in Lleyton Hewitt had undergone. But for Jake, this meant no more football. Ever. Many saw the time Kingy spent with little Nate, a boy with terminal cancer. But few heard that when Nate underwent an operation to amputate his leg, he asked the doctor if it could be sent to King so he could play again. That’s the impact Jake King, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who made headlines more for his friends than his feats, had on this little boy. And that’s the Kingy that Richmond fans will remember, regardless of how the media choose to portray him in the future.
Daniel Jackson’s retirement was more of a surprise. For a man who was suspended as often as he was, it’s somewhat fitting that the last thing I saw him doing on the football field was getting reported for striking in the VFL; a late-spoil-turned-whack-to-the-head on a Bulldog player. Showing how much time had passed since he made his debut, the umpire who reported him was a classmate of mine from primary school. That was in Round 22. Jackson was suspended for the glorious match that was the Round 23 win against Sydney; and most expected him to slot back into the seniors for the elimination final against Port Adelaide. But he pulled the pin. Unselfish to the end, he knew his body wasn’t right, especially for a must-win final.
So come Round 1 against the Blues, Dimma faces a hole to fill. Steve Morris has played “the Jake King role” during the preseason. Morro is tough as nails, and spent most of last year playing with a shoulder that could have dislocated at any moment. But he’s no Kingy. He’s not going to kick a goal towards the end of the second quarter of the 2013 elimination final against Carlton and stand stock still, facing the 80,000-strong Tiger army, fist raised towards the sky.
In time, Nick Vlastuin will probably take the Jackson role. Brett Deledio has called him “as hard as a cat’s head”, and he is. He’s a leader too, and probably has better skills than Jacko. He’ll put his body on the line, and all those other clichés too. But red hair aside, he’s not going to kick two miraculous goals from the boundary against the Bulldogs, with a mix of disbelief and pure joy on his face to drag us over the line in a match we should have won easily. And he won’t hang on to his spot in the team with such determination over the years that it will culminate in a surprise (but well-earned) best and fairest.
I hope they stick around the whole AFL business. Footy needs more people like Jake King and Dan Jackson.