A Painful Debut

On Thursday night, the new AFL season begins.  Many fans are having trouble containing their anticipation.  Sure, I’ll be at the MCG to see the “traditional” opening game between Richmond and Carlton, but the overt passion that I should be displaying will be masked by an aura of stoic resignation.

Forty years of barracking for Richmond does this to you.  I’ve seen every form of failure befall the club.  To dull the pain, I have built a safety net to prevent the inevitable freefall from the heights of unbridled optimism to the jagged rocks of defeat.

It wasn’t always this way.

On 7 October 1972, I attended the Grand Final between these same two clubs.  I was eight years old, it was my first VFL game and my first visit to the MCG.  I could barely contain my excitement.  My beloved Tigers were hot favourites to win the Flag and I was going to be there!

My memories of the day are brief but vivid.  Waiting for the gates to open, standing in the biggest queue I’d ever seen, my school mate, Nick and I resorted at one point to sitting down on the grass and playing chess on a magnetic board to pass the time.

Once inside, the arena seemed to stretch out for ever.  The gathering crowd in the Members gave me my first taste of barracking as they voiced support for Melbourne Reserves, who, as I recall, lost the curtain-raiser to Hawthorn.

Rounds of delicious sandwiches were produced through the day by Nick’s dad from seemingly bottomless bags.  Poring over the Football Record, I saw for the first time, a complete list of every Grand Final result and was transfixed.  So began my early obsession with footy statistics.

At last, after what seemed an eternity, the big game began.  For me, colour was the immediate impact.  I’d only ever seen VFL footy on the grainy monochrome of the Saturday night replays.  Suddenly there were the Richmond players, their yellow sashes shining in bright relief against the black of their guernseys and the sombre dark navy of their opponents, all against a vibrant green background.

And there, right in front of me, was my one and only genuine sporting hero – Royce Hart.  Unlike many of the game’s greats, Hart wasn’t a standout physical specimen.  Average build, modest demeanour, silvery brown hair – straight and long in the fashion of the time.  But, as Paul Kelly wrote of Bradman, “fortune used to hide in the palm of his hand”…or rather, in that raking left foot.

The magic of the scene had me hooked.  In my childish innocence, I was convinced that nothing other than a brilliant win could occur in such a setting.

Sadly, my naïve dreams were obliterated by Carlton’s extraordinary display of attacking football.  In the second quarter, as the relentless Blues piled on 10 goals and effectively sealed the game, I first heard the thunderous, brutal sound of a massive MCG crowd with its blood lust up, sensing a kill.  Each goal was greeted by an ever louder roar that pierced my body as sharply as any knife. The dispassionate analysis of Carlton’s dominance from the wise old heads around me seemed just as merciless.  By half time, I had tears in my eyes and a realisation of the world’s cruelty that hadn’t existed an hour earlier.

Despite this traumatic introduction, footy’s allure continued to seduce me.  In time, I experienced the drug-like highs of wonderful wins that kept me coming back, craving a repeat dose, sustaining the childlike excitement that still accompanied the lead-up to each game.

However, I have never been able to approach a footy match since then without a flashback to that fateful day in 1972 when the game’s capriciousness was so forcefully revealed to me.  A measure of protective apprehension always tempers the excitement I feel.  On occasions like this Thursday night, when Richmond will be clear underdogs, I’ll be laying it on thick, engaging in trench humour about our boys going “over the top” to commence another futile season.

But if you look closely, you’ll see an extra spring in my step as I walk to the ground – a small remnant of the child’s ability to dream, that forty years of harsh lessons haven’t fully doused.  And if the Tigers happen to score an upset win, don’t begrudge me my moment of joy.  It will only slightly compensate for that dreadful day when an impressionable eight year old learned the hard way that in sport, as in life, fairytales rarely come true.

About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!

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