A day with the Tigers

 

by John Green

There are many types of Tiger in the football jungle.

They may be found in places as diverse as Coburg, Werribee, Mitcham, Morwell, Colac-Coragulac, Woori Yallock, Kyneton and Foster. Or Glenelg, if you want to continue your safari outside Victoria.

Today I’m watching the Tigers in the afternoon and fronting up again to watch them on telly in the evening.

 

Shelley Reserve in Heidelberg Heights is within walking distance of where I live. It’s the home of Northern Football League club North H

eidelberg, the Bulldogs. Today they meet the Tigers, Heidelberg, in the local derby.

Whereas the Bulldogs are not travelling well at the moment, Heidelberg is one of the powerhouses of the competition. The home team find itself winless after eight rounds and marooned at the foot of the table. In their last outing they suffered a 121-point defeat to West Preston Lakeside.

Heidelberg won four consecutive flags from 2006-09, going down in an upset to West Preston in last season’s decider. Their captain-coach, Blair Harvey, used to play for the boys from Shelley Reserve before transferring to Warringal Park. After a shaky start to the season, and a fighting 31-point win over Eltham, the Tigers are back in familiar territory with four wins and fifth place on the ladder.

So what’s local footy got that the AFL lacks? Plenty.  And I’m not talking about the Lower Plenty Football Club.

 

The number of tradesmens’ utes in the car park. The manner in which the reserves players vociferously encourage the seniors as the topliners jog past them between the curtain raiser and the main event. Personal connections. I coached a couple of the Heidelberg reserves players when they attended the local school I taught at eleven years ago. I worked with the mother of one of the senior players at the same establishment. The pervasive aroma of liniment at the commencement of the game. The smell of beer and hot chips in front of the social rooms. The slap of flesh on flesh in the physical clashes. All sorts of physiques on the field. The coach’s quarter time and three quarter time addresses to the players where the language of the locker rooms intrudes into the worlds of young children on the sidelines.

 

The surface is less reliable and the ball is not delivered as precisely as it is at AFL level. Hence there are more contests, more smothers and the participants don’t kick it as far.

A first-gamer for Heidelberg, a tiny rover by the name of Jimmy, marks and boots his first goal in senior company with the raucous support of the reserves players near the coaching box. PK, a Bulldog veteran who must be close to 40, takes the time to return the greeting of a small boy as he walks along the boundary line trying to get his breath back after coming off for a spell.

 

Just like it is in the big league, local footy throws the fortunes of the haves and have nots into sharp relief. The clubs with the most money at their disposal tend to have the most success. Having more cash in the till means you can afford a better class of player, like former AFL ones. Heidelberg has Jess Sinclair, Josh Houlihan and Justin Murphy in the ranks, as well as Anthony Franchina, who doesn’t appear today. North Heidelberg has Shane Harvey, brother of Kangaroo skipper, Brent, but he is also absent. The Bulldogs’ last Division One  premiership, in 1994, included Collingwood premiership hero Jamie Turner and the formidable Jamie Shaw, who played a couple of games for Fitzroy before becoming a goal kicking machine for Preston in the old VFA. Robert Powell, who later went on to play for Richmond and St. Kilda, was also part of the winning side. The ex-league players tend to take the right options and generally find their targets.

 

North Heidelberg registers the first two goals of the match, but the game soon becomes a procession of yellow and black majors. The Bulldogs suffer another heavy defeat, this time to the tune of 131 points. There are no histrionics on the part of their supporters. They know their boys face an uphill battle to survive in the first division. There is no mercy rule in this game. It can never be a case of being bowled out cheaply and going home early. The Bulldogs keep trying. Coach Leigh Gray, one of the premiership stars of 1994, draws on his cigarette high in the coaches box and continues to bark instructions and encouragement right up until the final moments of the match. A scuffle breaks out right in front of the box with just minutes to go. Gray is silent as his interchange players become involved in a bout of vigorous pushing and name-calling. It’s all over in seconds. The siren sounds and the combatants shake hands with each other as if nothing had happened.

 

Jake King is a North Heidelberg boy and proud of it. Tonight he’s in Brisbane with the Richmond Tigers as they attempt to bounce back from consecutive losses on the road.

I pick up some pizzas from La Katina at the West Heidelberg Mall and have dinner with the family before settling down in front of Foxtel for the evening’s entertainment.

 

It’s well documented that the team had to travel home from Sydney by bus on the previous weekend when ash from the Chilean volcano drifted around the South Atlantic and Southern Oceans to disrupt air traffic over eastern Australia. Apart from the fact no booze was allowed, the journey became a sort of Mad Monday on wheels, with the purchase of Snuggies to keep warm and a plastic golf set to provide some amusement.

 

If the Tigers lose tonight, they are right back in the pack with the bottom four and run the risk of sliding back into the realm of the strugglers.

It looks likely, too, as the Lions jump the visitors and slot the first four goals of the match. The Tigers claw their way back and climb to a 16-point lead before half time before the Lions get a couple back  in time on.

 

A couple of things go Richmond’s way. Prominent Lions in Bewick and Clark go down with injuries. It also happens to Todd Banfield in the final quarter. Cotchin dominates the midfield and Houli shines as a loose man in defence. Maguire performs a reasonable job on Riewoldt, who is forced to hunt the ball further afield. But the Lions are unable to counter Ty Vickery. He boots four goals but should have had at least six. The absence of Daniel Merrett has stretched their resources too far. Alex Rance has completely countered Jonathan Brown and Newman has quietened Luke Power, so effective in the first meeting with Richmond earlier this year.

 

With everything seemingly falling into place, it comes as a shock when Brisbane closes to within four points at the nine-minute mark of the final term. Things are getting testy in the Green lounge room. I slide down the couch with my head in my hands. My 14-year-old son declares that he hates the Brisbane Lions and he hates Jonathan Brown. He storms out into the backyard and clambers up onto the trampoline, performing aggressive wrestling moves on the teddy. Together with my 17-year-old daughter, who remains with me on the couch, I express my indignation at the incompetence of the umpires and vigorously appeal for a decision to go the way of the Tigers. Our next door neighbours, who are also part of the tribe, behave in the same manner on their side of the double brick wall which separates our respective abodes.

 

Then Edwards and Nahas lay a couple of fearsome tackles and regain control of the ball. Vickery drills a pressure goal. It is the first in a run of five that breaks the game open for the Tigers. Martin adds his fourth and fifth with aggressive running and full-blooded punts from the 50-metre line. Check his birth certificate. The kid can’t be 19; no teenager could do what he does. My son returns to the room and gives his best Borat imitation, saying “very nice”. He exchanges jubilant high fives with his sister. My wife makes an appearance and doesn’t need to ask how Richmond is going tonight.

We relax as the clock ticks over into time on. The game is safe and peace and goodwill return to the household.

 

It’s clear that the journey by road from Sydney worked to the Tigers’ advantage. Team bonding or something. Why, even Brett Deledio confirms this in a post match interview!

I can envision the announcement from the team manager deep in the bowels of the Gabba.

“Righto boys, change of plans. Stock up on the soft drink and Twisties. I hope you brought your Snuggies with you. We’re hitting the road and should be back in Melbourne in around 24 hours.”

Comments

  1. Martin Reeves says

    Sounds like an enjoyable day John. You would be enjoying the improvement at Punt Road this year, like most other supporters.

    The match v Melbourne will be great to watch. I’d love to beat them, but think they might be four goals better than us if they play well.

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