Stairs are for climbing

Text message received April 14th 2:48pm-
“4 Richmond fans just explained to a Dogs fan, whilst the Tigers lead by 49, that this match is far from over. We’re a pessimistic bunch!”

Winning convincingly is always a pleasant relief. The shape of the modern game is based upon the constant state of flux that momentum brings along on the journey. A big lead, once obtained used to be something that could be nursed along but the new era of perpetual motion machine footy put pay to that. Teams that take their foot off the gas pedal are punished within minutes of attempting to change down the momentum. Leads vanish so quickly now. Where five goals was once a tipping point, it is now a vulnerable margin. The old metrics, which I grew up adhering to, was that five goal leads were a warning sign- you were losing touch with your opponents. It meant you needed the next goal.

Once the lead hit forty the game was over. Seven goals was the point of no return. No matter when it occurred, if your side got forty points clear you sensed the game was in your keeping. If you fell that far behind you knew that pride was all that stood between you and a ten goal-plus losing margin.

I still bear the scars of the day I sat at Waverley between two Hawks supporting mates and watched that logic desert me. The Saints were forty points clear at halftime and I can clearly remember the sensation of feeling that the game was over. Yet, the second half had barely taken shape when my mood changed. The Hawks were running above the turf and my lads were wading in a swamp. The game turned by degrees, the momentum didn’t come in a controlled rush of aggression but rather a slow and torturous slipping. The Saints were clinging on but the rope was being sheered off from above. We went off the cliff but fell only after dangling for most of the second half.

The rest of that season was filled with the dread of knowing you would relive the failure. The third quarter of every game we played began with our opponents coming as hard as they could at us. Throwing themselves at our weakened psychological state until they overwhelmed us. No matter the lead held at half time, you knew it would be tested. Sides had an extra gear as they smashed their will against the chink in our armour.

Suddenly, for the first time I lost faith in the forty point buffer. I had always been aware of its fallibility, the legend of the 1970 Grand Final stalks the football landscape to this day, but I had never seen enough proof to shake my conviction. When it happens so devastatingly it takes away perspective.

All of that said….I completely understand why my good mate sent me that text message. He was both amused by the sentiment of his fellow travellers on the Tiggytrain and at once completely with them. Richmond were dominant. Straight from the opening bounce the Cotchin magic was on show. Dustin Martin was immense, Houli brilliant and Jack up and about. The Doggies looked second rate all game, mainly due to the immense pressure the Tiges put on them.

There is an odd sensation that never leaves you though. As your side skips away with the game you are never satisfied with the margin. You find yourself horned by the dilemma- why is this not enough of a lead to let me relax and enjoy the win? The Bulldogs locked the game down to start the second half and after several near misses, got the first goal of the half. Richmond supporters, haunted by the opening round fade out against Carlton, felt for the still fresh scar. Sure they won but they left the result in the lap of the Gods. The Dogs opening the scoring in the second half tolled a bell that I have heard all too well. The doubts arrive, the nerves jangle….and then the Tigers began to rampage, kicking goal after goal and ending the contest.

St.Kilda had a much easier assignment. The Giants don’t yet strike fear, they are more a promise. Playing them is a chance to visit a future time when the Giants will roam the earth (don’t think sub-editors aren’t already salivating over the possibilities.) Going into the match the fear I held was that a loss would be embarrassing. It is a secondary fear, one that dare not speak its conviction but having lost to them in the pre-season, there was a spark of nerves. Yet, once the quarter time siren sounded with the Giants facing duck eggs on the scoreboard the fear retired for the night. St.Kilda eased to victory, kept the structure, pushed the intensity and moved the footy fluently. They filled the quota and ticked the boxes. Watching the game was really that mundane, the equivalent of the player interview; stock standard, cliche rich answers, delivered with a solemn face-
“The boys did well. It was real team effort today.”

The Saints picked up their first points of the season and I took satisfaction not in the points but more in the progress. I deal with individual efforts now, the context of a win has shifted. David Armitage is looking sharper. After years being on cusp he appears to have found something. Steven is coming on brilliantly and McEvoy is the kind of big man we could have used five years ago. A ruck division pieced together using Stephen King and Michael Gardiner served us well but the Grant Thomas-era pathological hatred of ruckmen left us hopelessly thin at a position that is vital. To have a young ruckman is to know the future is promising. Big Ivan is proof of that concept. Maric has answered a very big need for Richmond, the difference between being adequate in the ruck contests and dominating them is as wide a margin as there is in modern football. Clearances are the new currency. Get the ball clear of the congestion and into the hands of your midfield. Control the football.

My expectations are beginning to diverge from my Tiger mates because of their success. Richmond are being talked about, their three wins signposting the progress they’ve made. Each week brings with it more proof that they are on the right path. The win over St.Kilda was lauded as a solid achievement, this weeks victory therefore came with a new perspective- The Doggies were a side Richmond should beat. Once you begin to be talked about as a side that is expected to win, the pressure to do so starts to bite.

Despite the Bulldogs poor showing last season suffering in comparison to St.Kilda’s solid twelve-win campaign, the similarities between us are obvious- Our time has passed. We once fought epic Prelims but now that era has had time called upon it. We both use the words of hope not expectation. The Saints and Doggies are in rebuild, the heroes are gone or going and the premiership window is up a couple of flights of stairs.

The Tigers are on the landing. The hard climb to get there over, the next flight of stairs leads to that premiership window. It’s close but this last staircase is the hardest. The Dogs didn’t get all the way up it. We fell down it most of the Noughts and when we finally got to the window the view faced two brilliant supernovas. The window never opened, our way blocked by two teams too good to be denied. Richmond don’t have the view yet and they might not get there. Football doesn’t promise anything but it does implore you to keep taking the next step. The problem Richmond fans now face is the crushing pressure of expectation. If they keep winning that expectation rises. The injustice of watching your side taking flight is that it is hard to enjoy while trying to deal with the enormous burden of your expectation.

Once you sniff success you want it so badly. Just keep climbing the stairs Tigers, just remember not to bother looking back. That just leads you back to folk like me who watch games hoping to see some promise from the kids.


  1. Great read Tom,

    Ah the fateful hawthorn game in 1999 – I’ve never got over it. 44 points up at half time and I too was worried, Given that we lead 70 to 7, five minutes into the 2nd quarter and didn’t score another goal for the half.

    I had a half time ritual in those days of going out to the waverley carpark and moving my car from the ‘outer’ car park to the subsequently unmanned members carpark – to facilitate a quick getaway immediately after the game. On this particular day I seriously thought of just exiting the car park entirely and driving home – at half time – I KNEW something bad was about to go down. This game is very significant for another reason. It occurred one week after the Saints beat Geelong at Geelong. No mean feat in any era but on this occasion St.Kilda trailed by 4 goals at 3 quarter time and were kicking AGAINST the wind in the last….yet they got up….Miraculous !!

    Which makes the loss to Hawthorn even harder to Fathom….which was followed by a similar (well only a half as bad) capitulation against Collingwood the following week.

    You talk about 7 goals being the point of no return, well I can tell you that for the next 9 years (YES ! NINE YEARS!!!), 4 goals became the point of no return for the saints. i.e. Once they fell 24 points behind in a game – irrespective of which quarter – they NEVER won. This is despite them being a formidable opponent for 6 of those 9 years (and for even the ensuing 3 years)

    There were games in which they staged major comebacks to hit the front – even from 6 goals down on occasions – but they NEVER won….until one evening in the middle of 2008 at the Gold Coast when the saints played North Melbourne. It was the week after Ross Lyon dropped Dal Santo and Milne to set a standard in commitment. We came back to win from a 6-goal deficit near half time.

    Just to prove it was no fluke, the team repeated the dose against Hawthorn at Etihad the following week – a stirring win from a 6 goal halftime deficit.

    But Alas, I don’t think I’ve seen the likes of those 2 performances since. 4 goals once again, appears to be the point of no return for St.Kilda

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