Naming the tune

To play Melbourne is to stare into the abyss. The Dees are broken. Ordinarily, when a side is down and out there is always hope for the future. A kernel of promise in the young draftees germinates the hopes and dreams of future bounty. You can take the pain of being a supporter because you see brighter times beckoning, yet the Dees’ faithful sit in the empty ‘G with dead-eyed defeat.

Melbourne are dormant. A bulb long forgotten. The chances of growth from here are still a long way distant. Their pain is real for Richmond folk. It shares a scary resemblance to where the Tigers were a very short while ago. Within the crumbling edifice of Plough’s five year plan, there was a fallow field of seeds that didn’t take root. The legend of the ’04 draft does not need to be revisited, except to say that Richard Tambling’s back still has the hairy monster upon it. There wasn’t anything he could do about not being Buddy but the weight of the expectation that he too would be a champion dragged him under. He was never a poor footballer, indeed he is still in the league. Pace to burn and on a good day, skills with the smoothness of velvet. Tambling has simply never been able to settle into the AFL rhythm. Martin Flanagan has always fancied what Nathan Buckley once told him- “Footy’s like a tune that the indigenous players never forget. The rest of us struggle to remember it at times.”

Tambo heard the tune but couldn’t relate it to the Tigers game plan. He knew what he could do, yet the weight of the expectation forced him to try doing it all at once. When that inevitably failed, he did nothing at all. The dejection of the naturally gifted is nothing short of absolute.

Following in Tambling’s faltering footsteps the very next draft, came Jarred Oakley-Nicholls. I have a personal history with JON. I watched him play down at Coburg. Nothing highlights deficiency more than a stint in the VFL. He was playing at the same time Jack Riewoldt was coming through and the distance between them was stark. Jack was born to be a showman on the big stage. His celebrations and histrionics as he kicked bags in the Magoes were a signpost to his greatness. He knew what he wanted and went out onto the Coburg mud and got it. Even as a callow youth, he looked too good for that level.

Oakley-Nicholls simply looked lost and too far from home. His decision making was painfully slow and his hesitation drew waves of groans across the terraces. You could see him fighting to come to grips with the team’s playing structures. Every fibre of his footballing being told him to hold onto the footy, barrel down the wing and hoof shots at goal. Fly for every ball and jink and sidestep through traffic. It was all his instincts told him to do. Having not seen him as a junior, I felt I knew his style anyway. He was rangy, gangly limbs and rubbery movements. He had a turn of pace that got him clear and the talent to kick goals on the run. His introduction to the next level came with the unwanted reality that you don’t get space or time for that style at the elite level. What you get is a system of play designed to eliminate risk. His game was dedicated to taking on lines and breaking through. He heard the tune but it played a a faster tempo. I saw him trudging from the changerooms one evening and made eye contact. He wasn’t there, his eyes belonged to a little boy lost. I suddenly felt the endless sadness of a dying dream.

Some blokes aren’t meant to be AFL footballers. That is not necessarily an indictment. It certainly feels that way to state it but you have to find your place in life by trial and error. Sometimes it’s alright to admit you are close to perfection without having the ability to achieve it. The majority of players in the big time are members of Jack Dyer’s good ordinary footballers club. Elite players form an exclusive upper echelon, yet we assume all draftees are in that elite upon entering the league. They are more likely to be taggers and negators. Blokes who take the third best forward and blokes who flitter in and out of the seniors based on injury and form slumps. They are footballers that know, that with hard work and perseverance they can eke out a career. Not everyone is Ablett. There will always be a need for Jason Blake. To be in touch with footballing mortality and understand a team wins through dedicated foot soldiers committing to a team ethos, is the heart of the contest. Everyone can try to be the hero, only a few are.

Melbourne have a team of battlers. Their ‘elite’ are either unfulfilled or underdone. In the starkest of contrasts, Richmond’s investment in their elite talent over the past three years is coming into its own. Now that Cotchin, Martin and Delidio are seasoned the side has hope. That absence of hope leaves the future beyond bleak for the Grand Old Flag.

It was instructive that Aaron Davey found some form on an otherwise bleak Sunday. Once an unstoppably talented footballer, his star has waned so completely as to be in eclipse. He once commanded centre stage, an elite player in the making. He now plays with the unmistakable hesitancy of a footballer who has lost the tune. He picked it up for a few bars against the Tiges. Regardless of allegiance, it made your heart sing to see it. You knew it was an echo, a ghostly image of the younger man they called Flash but you wanted it to be his resurrection….

Footballers’ careers wax and wane but age will weary all in turn. To see Nick Riewoldt play with the dominating abandon of his prime has been a joy in an otherwise bleak season. He is on track for a sixth Barker Medal (St.Kilda’s B&F) but his efforts are the rearguard of a proud champion. His time has passed, another generation of Saints go to football Valhalla without the cup. It is fate that awaits all but the chosen. If everyone were winners there would be no contest.

There is no point in the struggle where it becomes easy, it just reveals itself to be conquerable. Once a team knows what it takes to get there they can make the journey again but you only get a handful of chances to reach the peak. Richmond are halfway up. Melbourne haven’t started the climb. St.Kilda got to the summit but found the flag already planted. This is not their mountain. They will have to go and climb another. Richmond have the long climb ahead but they can see what they used to be in the vision of Melbourne. Now is not the time to look down.


  1. mickey randall says

    Lovely philosophical read Tom. Tambling has struggled at the Crows and might be one of those who is too good for the local SANFL (although I don’t think he dominates) but not good enough for the AFL. He is in the twilight zone between the two. South Australian country boy Brett Chalmers was another who seemed to occupy this cursed place.

    Really enjoyed some of the imagery too!

  2. As a Tigers fan, Sunday’s match against the Demons was tough to watch. The area I was sitting were mainly Richmond fans, but the groans represented a group disheartened to see a famous club just going through the motions. How could they miss so many targets? Where is the spirit? Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?

    Our team won by 34 points, and we departed with an empty feeling. Job done, but not terribly satisfying.

  3. Who would have thought Jarrad Oakley-Nicholls would be mentioned twice in the same week on

    His name comes up with less eloquence in the WAFL report… played ok for East Perth on the weekend. In fact in the WAFL he’s a good ordinary player.

    I hate it when the Royals fans call him JON… such a lame nickname.

    Nice story.

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