Moving to Melbourne, it’s a question you will undoubtedly encounter a lot as you begin to make sense of the grid system. By the time you have gotten your head around the fact that Brunswick street is in Fitzroy, Sydney road is in Brunswick and Fitzroy street is in St Kilda, you would be well versed in the fact that the city is marching to the beat of it’s own drum. You would have also noticed a language you are probably not that familiar with. I’m not referring to the much-famed multiculturalism, but rather the language of the Sherrin. If you don’t speak it fluently, you better be a quick learner.
On my third day in town after I hopscotched down from Brisbane, I picked up a job at a fairly well known cafe called Mario’s in Fitzroy. It had been there long before any so called gentrification of the area, and famed mainly due to the fact that it represented a beat up American diner. It’s also the place that Ryan Gosling was spotted in a pair of ray-bans slipping under the radar last year. All of this was lost on me at the time of course, and I just thought that the place was outdated and badly in need of a refurb. One morning a woman who was probably a touch past the half-century of her innings came in for breakfast. As she made eye contact with her friend who was already in the cafe it was clear that they had business to discuss. Polite greetings became animated discussion, which had caught the ears of half the customers in the front section. My section. Slightly spooked I looked over at the Barista, and he said at a hush “Collingwood lost on the weekend. You got a team yet?” I explained to him that I wasn’t that fussed over the whole thing, but had decided to follow the Tigers. “The Tigers?” he asked exasperatedly “don’t you know you’re in Collingwood territory?”
I quickly realised I was being recruited, and offhandedly changed the conversation. Supporters spread the gospel, and new patrons of the city are the most vulnerable to the preaching. Once you pick a side, there is no crossing the floor. Reg Wright, who voted against his party 150 times in his political career would have no place in a football club.
Admittedly I had no good reason to get around the Tigers. All I knew is that they hadn’t had much success lately but were hopeful of finally getting their act together. This in combination with the fact that they have a pretty good guernsey and the best song in the league was enough to get my vote. 18 months ago, the idea of a Richmond resurgence was no more than a romantic pipe dream. A team that has continually squandered opportunities, recruited poorly, and had built a modern legacy as a basket case more than a powerhouse.
Richmond this season has for the first time in 13 years secured a passage to the AFL finals. But the long suffering faithful, who have been beaten down and had their hearts crushed so many times are taking nothing for granted. The years of anguish have bred some of the most humbly cautious supporters you are ever likely to meet. No-one wants to be responsible for jinxing the rise. Like a scorned lover who has been burnt too many times, the general attitude is to just take it as it comes.
Much of this ethos can be attributed to the development of Richmond as a suburb, as much as a football club. Traditionally Richmond has always been a working class suburb, and the centre of the manufacturing industry of the city. As Paul Kelly sung on ‘leaps and bounds’, “I’m high on the hill looking over the bridge, to the MCG. And way up on High, the clock on the silo says eleven degrees.” The ‘clock on the silo’ of course is a reference to the unmistakable Nylex Clock. These roots, are almost non-existent to the modern carnation of the suburb but attitudes change slower than buildings do.
To give you some background if you are unfamiliar, in the 15 years since the top 8 has been in place Richmond has finished 9th an alarming six times. Much to the sick pleasure of supporters of every other Melbourne side. It has been said that only a masochist could be a long-term Richmond supporter. After their close round 1 victory this season against Carlton, there was a meme floating around which played up to this fact. As there are 18 teams in the competition, and Richmond was the narrowest victor, despite winning it’s only game of the season – they were still ninth.
I was at the G’ that night, and after the game I walked through the Carlton gardens to meet some friends on Gertrude street. The gardens are pretty empty at that time of night, but there was at least one bloke around and he must have recognised my scarf. He stumbled up, and looked me in the eyes as if he had known me for years. “They did it!”, he slurred. “It was like Jack Dyer has risen from the grave.” I looked back at this clearly homeless old man, and couldn’t believe that given his situation that he stilled cared what was happening with the footy. Not only that, but he had made the effort to presumably listen to the game. We chatted for a bit, before we ran out of conversation on our shared interest and I slid on.
On my way to Gertrude Street, strangers were coming out of the woodwork to throw high fives and even hug me on the sight of yellow & black. This repressed micro community, was very clearly up and about. In a city that tries its best to be nonchalant about most facets of day-today life, the game that was first played between two prominent high schools in the city evaporates any facade of indifference.
To put the mania into perspective I was chatting one afternoon with friends of mine from New Zealand who have no major interest in sport and have only been in Melbourne for about 12 months. Having not grown up with the game at all, they were struggling to comprehend the cultural significance of the sport on a day-to-day level. Clearly New Zealand, is a country where one sport grips the nation and has such monopoly on the hearts and minds that it can affect elections and the general happiness of the people. With this in mind, they said they felt that the pandemonium for AFL in Melbourne was greater than it was for Rugby Union in the shaky isles. This got me thinking. If Victoria, which is roughly the same size of England, was it its own country – how much would this one sport dictate politically and economically in foreign policy without having to worry about appeasing the other states and territories?
The jargon isn’t confined to the ground either, as a “kick of the footy” is a standard unit of measurement in day-to-day conversation. Like all good Australian slang it has a very loose application, as a kick of the footy could be anywhere from 50 meters away to a couple of kilometre walk up the street. Unless of course there is more detail given, and you’re front and centre, roving the pack or kicking a checkside snap. In that instance your talking about a very specific kick and you had want to hit your target.
There are many cultural benefits to the obsession that help broaden the brushstroke of the city’s evolving self-portrait. One topic of which that is not often spoken about is of integration in Australia. Some of the most influential players in the game’s history have surnames such as Silvani, Jesaulenko, Barassi and Koutoufides. Even the current CEO is a former player with the last name Demetriou. Any foreign person will tell you that the fastest mode of integration is to do as the locals do. While this is clearly not an issue today, there is no doubt that in a world without the Internet the fastest way to make a few new mates was to stroll down to the local footy club – strap on a pair of boots and keep your head over the ball. The heartland of all sporting codes is not at the packed out stadiums in the heart of the cities, but at the shade-poor local grounds that rely upon the countless hours of unpaid work from those committed to the cause.
Indigenous Australians also make up about 9% of the current AFL lists, which is fascinating when you take into account that Aborigines only make up about 2.5% of the greater Australian population. It’s even more remarkable when you consider the amount of talent that is lost to poor pathways in remote aboriginal communities. Liam Jurrah is one of the most saddening examples.
Perhaps the greatest cultural benefit is that it permeates all walks of life. It’s the real leveller. In other cities around the world, it is almost passe to have anything but a fleeting interest in any given sport. Yet in the sporting capital of the world, there is really only one game that captures the imagination. From tradies to suits, housewives to politicians, grandmas to new born babies who are signed up with memberships before they are born. Immigrants to true blues, musicians and latte sipping hipsters, they all love footy; and it really does bring whole suburbs and communities together.
Arching back to the plight of the Tigers. I almost feel guilty, or non-deserving of the burgeoning success of the club. As my journey on the bandwagon has only encompassed the exit from the trough, and not the decades prior of drinking from it. Admittedly no-one could have predicted the incline happening so quickly, especially not those closest to the club who have been wised by continually watching the wheels fall off year after year, just as they dared to dream. You wont find too many stargazers in the Richmond supporters’ section, just steely-eyed realists. The reality is for the first time in a long time just as ambitious as the dream. In two short weeks, thirteen years of heartache will be over. Whatever happens in September, its been a monumental year for the boys from Punt road.
I’m not sure how fluent I am yet, when chatting with native speakers. But I do know that phrases such as contested footy, with the flight of the ball, and a good nudge have become more commonly used into my lexicon than they ever have been before. I know the values of winning your own footy rather than profiting off the good in and under work of the grafters in the side, but more than anything I now have a definitive answer when I’m asked that familiar question. “Yeah mate, I do. I go for the Richmond Tigers.”