My Old Man the Tiger

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!”


“Stephen Mount.”


“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.


  1. One of the first things I ask someone I’ve just met and getting to know is what’s your home town. It’s an obvious entry I guess, but it helps get the egg tempera down on the canvas.

    Of those who came to the Fatal Shore in their early years, I add, what was the main difference you found in growing up in Oz compared to where you’d taken your first steps. The answer is invariably the space & the freedom. I guess your Old Man found that too. And you.

    It’s often been said that our indigenous code is the glue that binds us together. Burning with fire is what you get when you make Punt Road your spiritual home. Your Old Man chose wisely.

    BTW, I was at that Rich v Fitzroy match too. With our in-laws to be, who were died in the wool Roys. The son-in-law came across, being young and a realist, he knew where his path lay. The Olds stayed true to the Colours and followed them up to Brissy. The kids split up, as is the way, but I till keep in touch with the Ex through taking the grandkids to The Footy. It’s a funny old world the forks in the road, eh?

  2. Like the line about creating yourself and then seeing your parents influence. I’m seeing that at the moment. Just wish I had a bit more of the financial wherewithal. Still, sitting out in the small beach break looking back at national park was pretty nice.

  3. cowshedend says

    Thank you so much Matt, a truly wonderful personal tale,one i feel honoured to have shared.
    It is stories such as this, which makes this site so amazingly unique

  4. Peter Schumacher says

    This was a really interesting read as are so many on this site. I too feel the influence of my parents, my upbringing, as the years roll on. In some ways this is comforting I guess but in others it causes me slight internal conflict. For example I am given to explosive bursts of temper when something goes wrong on the computer, usually my fault, but anyway my parents were gentle people who never lost it. I never heard them swear either. The truth is that they were both fantastic role models whom I would seek to emulate. One thing I will say though, life the way I see it is much more pressured, much more complicated, or to say the same thing differently much less black and white than seemed to be the case in their day.

  5. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great Read Matt The Role of Sport can never be emphasised enough in Family Dynamics on a Personal level my Mum and Dad came out to Ac Uni FC when I played and Dad became Time keeper a role he continues today in his 80s I totally agree with comments above and cowshedend describes it Perfectly Thanks Matt

  6. Andrew Starkie says

    Great Zurbs. the power of footy.

  7. Wonderful Matt. Best thing on this site for months (and its a tough league as you know). So bittersweet. Explains so much about both you and your Dad. You don’t need to write a bio – you just did. Thanks for sharing.
    And I really love the way that you and your Dad both keep getting up off the canvas, dusting yourselves off and saying “I’ll do it better next time”.
    The stuff of life.

  8. Matt

    Simply brilliant, about the best I have read from you, and there’s been some crackers.

    A story about footy and family; just what we all need at the moment.

    I hope you have that night at the pub

    Fantastic read.


  9. Love the rhythm of your peices Matt. You have an extraordinary gift for pacing your narratives at just the right tempo.

    A lovely story mate, but hey, couldn’t have left this until at least tomorrow? I mean, just when a hater like me was revelling in the meatiest part of this sorry saga, you have to spoli things for me by bringing me to my senses.

  10. I am trying to think if I have ever read a better story on this website.
    Thanks Matt.

  11. Neil Anderson says

    Wonderful piece of writing Matt. Football as we remember and hope continues in this age of commercialism. What a contrast to the garbage we’ve been reading about in the papers lately.
    I was particularly moved by the way footy was a bonding agent between you and your dad over forty years. Unfortunately it didn’t work for me with my blind faith in the Bulldogs over the same period. My father gave up on the Dogs in 1955…the year after their premiership.

  12. Ken Talbot says

    Heart warming story regarding the special bond between father and son. As you know Matty, I lost my dad last year and cherish every moment we shared, including the 1966 StKilda premiership. Enjoy your day with your old man watching Richmonds return to finals footy. I didn’t know your dad lived only 30 minutes down the road from us here in Kangaroo Flat. Might catch up with you one day mate.

  13. Superb stuff feller.
    You wear your heart on your sleeves so much I’m amazed they aren’t a permanent shade of red…

  14. Andrew baum says

    Amazing story turbo!! Footy has a unique way of uniting friendships and this was a fantastic example of that!!

  15. Martin Reeves says

    What a great read. Go Tiges.

  16. Basso Divor says

    Lovely piece Zurbs, definitely one of your best. You impart so much of yourself into your writing that I feel I know you. As others have commented, footy does bind families together. I can’t wait to buy a copy of your footy history book.

  17. Matt Zurbo says

    Thanks everyone!

    Ken, that would be a meeting of legends, you, the Saint, and my old man the Tiger. Lets make it happen.

    (for those who read it, Ken’s son was named in my Non-AFL Team of the Centery)

  18. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Wonderful story Matt. It goes to the heart of why we love the game and why we hurt when fans are ignored for the sake of the brand. I hope your dad gets to see the Tigers roar in September.

  19. Rob McLelland says

    Love your work Old Dog.
    As a man who became involved in Aussie Rules via his sons, the generational bond created by footy strikes a real chord with me.
    And it really reminds me how much I miss spending time with my Dad, watching his grandsons play bush footy, rugged up, sipping a coldy …

  20. Jamie Mason says

    Wonderful writing … GO TIGES

  21. Enjoy that beer with your Dad , Matt

    eat em alive Tigers

  22. Shane Kennedy says

    I was hoping there would be a tale like this on Father’s Day. Thank you.

    Here’s hoping the Tiges have a real crack next week. Win, lose or draw. let’s hope they put on a show for you and your old man.

    Good luck and cheers!

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