Browsing articles in "Football – AFL"
Oct 12, 2017

Tears For The Tigers

I remember the first time I felt it. It was late July and the Tigers were playing the Suns on the Gold Coast. For the Richmond of old, this was a danger game. Vivid in my memory were the two home games we had relocated to Cairns for cash. We lost them both. Friends still taunt me about the time Karmichael Hunt kicked a long goal to sink the Tigers in Far North Queensland. I didn’t need reminding. But this iteration of Tigers felt different. As they chased and harassed and didn’t give in, they seemed imbued with a spirit I had never seen.

Bugler's 20-year-old Richmond Tigers football jumper

The season to that point seemed a metaphor for the 37 years I have barracked for the Tigers. Getting thumped by Adelaide and St Kilda were low points. Perhaps not as low as the late 80s when my love of football took off. My first memories of the Tigers were of finishing in the bottom three and of a ‘Save Our Skins’ sticker I had, replete with a cartoon Tiger covered in blood as seen through the scopes of a gun. The losses felt like a reminder that the Tigers were still a long way from the top.

In 1995 I turned 15 years old and the Tigers finished 3rd. Despite the media focusing on Carlton, I was convinced this was it. I took a train to Melbourne and with my brother Daniel, watched Geelong destroy my hopes in the Preliminary Final at a wet, cold and windy Waverley. In 2001 we made another Prelim and the Lions taught us a lesson at the Gabbatoir on their way to their first flag of a three-peat. So when the Tigers won their first few games this year, I wasn’t convinced. I had been burned before and I was an adult now. I knew there were no fairy tales from Tigerland, only false dawns.

My cynicism was proved correct as we faltered with three consecutive losses by less than a goal. But I wasn’t particularly upset. I was inured to this. Six ninth-placed finishes since the top 8 began in 1994 tend to harden a person. When Carlton finished ninth and were gifted a finals spot due to Essendon’s transgressions, of course it was Richmond who had to play them in the Elimination Final. And of course we lost. The predictable ridicule only further ingrained the sense that I shouldn’t retain hope for Richmond.

Nosebleed view as the Tigers win the 2017 AFL Premiership

Ultimately this is a love story. I fell for the Tigers when Jeff Hogg patrolled our forward line. David Honybun was another childhood favourite. My teenage crushes were Matthew Richardson, Joel Bowden, Matthew Knights and the Gale brothers. Despite the teasing, I was a member and a regular attendee of the MCG when Greg Tivendale, Aaron Fiora, David Bourke and Matthew Rogers donned the yellow and black. I was lovestruck and there wasn’t a damn thing Jarrad Oakley-Nicholls could do about it. But as I matured and became an adult, I was forced to tell myself that my Tiger love was in fact a puppy love. I let my membership lapse. I moved away.

The years passed and I thought I had grown up. But as I watched Jason Castagna and Daniel Rioli ramp up the pressure on the hapless Suns before nailing 3 goals each, I felt something stir. At first I denied it. My cerebral cortex took over and I went about my life. But the next week against the Hawks, there it was again. Even as we lost to the Cats at Kardinia Park, I couldn’t help but feel this was an aberration. We went to Perth and beat Fremantle by over 100 points. Jacob Townsend kicked 6. There was no denying this feeling but I said not a word. We iced our home-and-away season with a win over St Kilda and there we were in 3rd place.

I have converted a reluctant Mrs Bugler to the Tigers. We sat in our lounge room and watched the Tigers play the Cats in the Qualifying Final. I could see it on the field – these Tigers weren’t burdened by history. This was a new breed. When Dustin Martin palmed off Tom Stewart on the half-back flank and bounced his way up the wing I knew I was watching something I had never seen before. I could feel it. In an act of catharsis that can barely be described, the Tiger Army roared out the weight of emotion they had carried for a generation. I sat in a lounge room thousands of kilometres away and did the same. At this point, every Tiger on field and off could feel it.

The highly-fancied Giants held no fear for me in the Preliminary Final. Only twice in my life had I seen the Tigers advance to this point, but this felt different. Much different. I recall talking to another Tiger tragic in 2008 and we were both enamoured by Trent Cotchin. The intervening years have done nothing to temper my feelings. The evidence was on display at the MCG as the Tiger captain attacked the ball, the man and contests at warp speed. More than that, his team-mates followed him one and all. The Giants were mere fodder dressed up as high draft picks.

Celebrations as the Tigers win the 2017 AFL Premiership

I tell myself that I am a mature adult, but in Grand Final week I was regularly in tears. Just thinking about my love was enough to stimulate emotion. If I had to speak of them, I had to concentrate on ensuring my voice didn’t choke. Recalling a lifetime of Tiger memories inevitably set me off. And I knew I wasn’t alone. I’ve spent many hours in the arms of fellow Tiger tragics over the last month and we could all feel it. We told each other that we were just happy to be in the Grand Final. I said to many people, all I wanted to be able to do was cheer my team instead of having to pick my least-hated. But it still felt different.

My Tigers rode that feeling all the way through to the dais. Nobody could deny them. Even the Crows could feel it. My brother called me at half-time. He was at the game with his son, another Tiger tragic. We spoke of the Crows sitting in their rooms ruminating on that feeling. The emotional cauldron of the MCG had crystallised into a singular feeling and the Crows were up against it. More than that, they had to go back out and face it.

My favourite times on the football field were when it was late in the game and you knew you had mentally beaten your opponent. You looked into the eyes of your team-mates and you could see your feeling reciprocated. With 15min to play in the Grand Final it was evident on the MCG. My beloved Tigers spent that 15min feeling immortal and I’m sure they didn’t want the game to end. I watched CEO Brendon Gale in tears hugging his brother Michael and his mother. Both men were Tigers I had fallen in love with as a child. I watched Matthew Richardson crying on the boundary. My love for Richo has never dimmed nor faltered. Coach Damien Hardwick set the tone of 2017 by pouring his heart out to his players. This method speaks to me on an entirely different plane and I love him for it. Hardwick sat in the coaches’ box and looked so proud of his players.

Zar and Wes - the next generation of Tigers

I remain surprised at the depth of feeling I have for the Richmond Football Club winning the 2017 AFL Premiership. I have been repeatedly moved to tears before, during and after. The Age‘s Caroline Wilson said that people congratulated her and she accepted those congratulations without question. I too was congratulated for nothing more than supporting the Tigers. The number of calls and messages this humble fan fielded certainly surprised me. But then I thought of this feeling and I understood why people were so pleased for me.

The win was a beautiful reminder of the wonders of sport. For sheer unadulterated joy, I have never felt anything like it. Another Richmond fan, media commentator Waleed Aly, compared the premiership to his marriage and the birth of his kids. I had some role in my wedding and the birth of my kids. I made life decisions based around them, planned for them, and ultimately they occurred. Mrs Bugler and the mini-Buglers mean much, much more to me than the Tiger flag, but I had some control as to how they were included in my life. The Tigers came from the wilderness. I had no impact and no control of their destiny. All I could do was sit in my lounge room, thousands of kilometres away, and ride the wave of feeling as it grew larger and exploded with joy on the MCG.

Carn’ the Tigers.

Apr 22, 2016

Footy and Politics in the Red Centre

Behind the scenes, it was an eventful off-season for the Central Australian Football League (CAFL). The fixture was released in early March with only one noteworthy change – a new team, Plenty Highway, will replace MacDonnell Districts in Division One. This might seem insignificant but the absence of MacDonnell Districts is but one indication of some earnest politicking in a complicated region.

The dry river bed of the ephemeral Todd River, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

Sid Anderson is an important man in Central Australia by any measure. He is a life member of the CAFL and a former captain and former coach of the Papunya Football Club. He recently retired as President of MacDonnell Regional Council, but continues to serve as a Councillor of the Luritja Pintubi Ward. He has served on the board of Central Land Council, Papunya Community Council and Ngurratjuta/Pmara Ntjarra Aboriginal Corporation. Undoubtedly, Anderson is a leader in the community.

Karl Hampton is a former Northern Territory Minister for Sport. He served in the NT parliament as Member for Stuart from 2006 to 2012. He serves as Chairperson of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) and as a board member of Imparja Television. Hampton is also on the committee of the Redtails Central Australian Football Club and his son Curtly plays for Adelaide in the AFL. There can be no question of Hampton’s influence on politics and football in the Central Australian community.

Seemingly at odds with his life membership of the CAFL, Anderson has been a driving force in trying to establish a ‘breakaway’ competition, the Wilurarra Tjutaku Football League (WTFL). Hampton has worked with Anderson to get the WTFL operating for the 2016 season. The plan involves teams from remote communities such as Papunya, Yuendumu, Areyonga, Laramba, Nyirripi, Mt Allan, Kintore, Mt Liebig, Ikuntji and Ltyentye Apurte playing in a community-based competition instead of the Alice Springs-based CAFL. Both men have called on the Northern Territory Football League and the CAFL to support them in their endeavours.

There is no suggestion Anderson and Hampton were doing anything but trying to act in what they believe is the communities’ best interests. Both men are concerned by the alcohol and anti-social behaviour young men from remote communities are exposed to when they stay in Alice Springs. By keeping these young men away from Alice Springs, they hope it will lead to healthier men and stronger communities. Although a noble goal, the WTFL proposal ignores and underestimates some significant issues while introducing a whole raft of supplementary problems.

Although broad descriptions with some unsavoury undertones, ‘alcohol’ and the attendant ‘anti-social’ behaviour are relatively problematic in Alice Springs. Indeed, statistics paint a horrifying picture in which the rates of drunkenness, domestic violence, assault, and damage to property far exceed the national average. Nevertheless, the remote communities are not somehow immune to these same problems. The suggestion that avoiding Alice Springs  will somehow insulate against social problems is demonstrably false.

Many people from remote communities spend a significant proportion of their lives in Alice Springs, football or no. Some work or go to school in town. Others visit family members or access service providers such as the Alice Springs Hospital or Central Australian Aboriginal Congress. While some young men who reside in Alice Springs are keen to play football for their home community, the difficulty in traveling hundreds of kilometres out of town may mean they are unable to play for their preferred team. The WTFL proposal seems to assume 22 players will be available and in their home community for each game.

Federal Demons train in preparation for a game in the Central Australian Football League

Long-distance travel is an unfortunate fact of life for people from remote communities. Hours spent in hot cars on the red, dusty, un-sealed roads of Central Australia are commonplace. On the surface, having a home game every second week is appealing when you live in Papunya. But this ignores the players who reside in Alice Springs. More pertinently it also ignores those communities who are in a geographically different direction. All of Papunya, Mt Liebig, and Haasts Bluff are near to each other, approximately 200-250km west of town, but these are the exception rather than the rule. Santa Theresa/Ltyentye Apurte is about 80km south-east of Alice Springs and footballers would have to travel through Alice Springs to play almost every other team in the WTFL significantly increasing their driving. Similarly, although Yuendumu is about 150km north of Papunya as the crow flies, the Tanami road runs back toward Alice Springs making this the most efficient route.

An unanswered question regarding the WTFL is would players support it, or would they jump ship from their communities for the chance to play on a bigger stage. Footballers of all abilities enjoy playing on immaculate grounds. The red dirt football games create a beautiful and iconic Australian image, but players would much prefer to be jogging out onto the MCG. The main ground in Alice Springs, Traeger Park, is of a high enough standard to host an AFL game each year. Growing grass is easy with plenty of sunlight and a consistent water supply. It is easy to imagine a car-load of footballers travelling along the road from Ntaria looking wistfully at the green expanses of Traeger Park or Albrecht Oval before continuing their long drive to the red dirt oval of Papunya or Yuendumu.

With the fixture released, it appears the CAFL will proceed largely as it did last year. The five town teams will play on Saturdays in Premier League while the ten community teams in Division One and Division Two will play on Sundays. The obvious exception to the participating community teams is MacDonnell Districts who are based around Papunya, Anderson’s home community. All CAFL games will be played in Alice Springs on Traeger Park, Albrecht Oval and Jim McConville Oval.

Practicalities aside, at its heart the development of the Wilurarra Tjutaku Football League is a play for power and influence. Anderson and Hampton want to see community people take control of their lives and recreation. Meanwhile, the established CAFL are loath to lose players and the accordant funding which would see their influence, control and power diminished. Changing demographics have already had an impact on the dominant and powerful town teams in recent years. Established footballing interests would not like to see this continue.

A quirk of Central Australian footy is that town teams are allowed to play a few registered community players in their Saturday games. The players can then play the next day for their community. Both of last year’s grand finalists, Federal and Wests, recruited heavily from remote communities to bolster their teams. Wests were a powerhouse in the early 2000s, winning five premierships. What followed were some lean years and dwindling numbers. David Wongway was one of Wests’ best in a losing grand final team, but he also rolled out for Ltyentye Apurte in Division One during the 2015 season. Similarly, Papunya’s Marcus McDonald was in Federal’s premiership side but spent his winter Sundays playing for his community team MacDonnell Districts.

Kicking a goal for the Federal Demons in a big win over Pioneer

Central Australia is a complicated region with Alice Springs at its heart. The complexity of social problems is unparalleled in modern Australia and football is but a reflection of this. Politics, power, money, race, and football – Hampton and Anderson have stirred up a hornet’s nest. Meanwhile, the CAFL have worked quietly behind the scenes refusing to comment publicly on the WTFL proposal. This weekend, under the big blue Centralian sky, attention will return to the field as young men from all over the region forget their woes and play football again.

Dec 17, 2014

A Friendly Game Of Sport?

Increasingly, professional sporting bodies are agonising over the size of crowds. After over a decade of chasing the money associated with television rights, attention has returned to a simpler popularity measurement. This has led to commentators waxing lyrical about the relative merits of watching a particular sport on television as opposed to live. It has also meant a great deal of analysis about the “spectator experience”. But, as is their wont, most associated with a sport tend to focus more on the merits of their particular game and less on the social aspect of sport.

A batsman cutting a ball for the boundary

During the 1970s and 80s, cricket was enormously popular. World Series Cricket became a phenomenon thanks to the new and exciting limited-over version. Much is made of the brand of cricket being played, but little is said about the social circumstances of the time.

For those who were fortunate to own a coloured television, screens were small, reception was poor in areas, and the broadcast offered little extra for the viewer. It was relatively inexpensive to attend games and punters were allowed to bring their own food and drink. This made for a cheap, enjoyable and social afternoon and evening at a game of cricket.

Fast-forward 30 years and the social circumstances have changed dramatically. Televisions are relatively cheap and the quality of the image and sound has improved astronomically. Similarly, the broadcast contains numerous facts, replays, analysis that could overwhelm an occasional viewer.

 A cricketer resplendently stands at the non-striker's end

Stadia the country over have become more draconian in their enforcement of regulations and restrictions. It is almost as though the sport-going public should feel privileged to be allowed in to watch a game of cricket live.

Put simply, it is much more enjoyable to pack a picnic and an esky and go to a friend’s house. You can watch the game in high definition on television and not have to put up with overly officious security at the few stadia allowed to host international cricket games in Australia. Consequently, it is increasingly the Australian way to host a BBQ in the backyard in summer with the cricket on a big screen rather than attend the game.

What is true of our summer sport is not so true of our winter sport. The average crowd at the footy in 1987 was just over 21,000. In 2010 this number had grown to 38,423. No doubt AFL honchos would conclude that their “product” is superior to cricket’s. But while it is enjoyable to sit on a grassed hill in summer and watch sport, watching footy in the cold, wet mud of winter is less so. The dramatic improvements in facilities for fans benefited the winter game in a way it did not for cricket.

The crowd looks on at the MCG in a game between the Richmond Tigers and the Sydney Swans

In more recent years, the AFL has been shedding fans at games. The 2012-14 average crowds were as low as they have been for over 10 years leaving administrators with similar concerns to cricket’s. While the specifics are slightly different, the fundamental reason could be the same – the experience of attending live has become poorer than watching on television.

The homogeneity of stadia and teams makes attending a game of AFL the same Australia wide. It matters little who is playing or where, the live experience is the same. The experience is becoming boring. This is increasingly true when factoring in the games against meaningless franchises for which we have no passion. At least we can press mute when advertising comes on the television. And we can switch off or go chat to someone in a pub if the game becomes boring.

Perhaps the last straw for fans was the increasing “noise” at AFL games. For unfathomable reasons, every break in play is no longer a chance to chat to a friend. On-ground announcers, advertising, “popular” music, betting updates and similar absurdities bombard the casual fan making conversation almost impossible. So the fan is left with a choice – run the gauntlet of the homogenous stadium with punch-in-the-face advertising or sit at a friend’s house with some nice food and refreshments and watch the game in high definition?

The crowd looks on in the Murray Football League Grand Final between Moama and Mulwala

One sport that seems somewhat immune from the worries about attendances is horse racing. The sport is so reliant on gambling that crowds matter little. As long as more liberalised gambling opportunities increase profits, the VRC will pay little heed to crowds.

Even when large crowds do attend the races, people are not there for the sport. The large crowds at Flemington and Caulfield go for the social occasion, to put on their best attire and consume with friends. The horses add but a distraction. Nevertheless, crowds are falling at the races too. Since reaching nearly 130,000 in 2006, crowds at Flemington’s most popular carnival day, Victoria Derby, have fallen. This year, a shade over 90,000 attended. A dramatic drop.

Watching the horses race at Dunkeld can be a wonderful experience. Mt Sturgeon provides a stunning backdrop to the gorgeous racecourse. Fewer than 15 years ago it was possible to turn up to the Cup in early November with a picnic rug, food and refreshments. As it became increasingly popular, authorities became more draconian. Now people are carefully shuttled into class and price defined areas. There is little room left for a picnic. BYO is a thing of the past. Security is a constant. Prices have risen. Perhaps this quiet western district town provides a neat analogy for the events at racecourses in Victoria’s capital. Little wonder crowds are falling.

The horses are but a distraction for the crowds at Flemington Racecourse

There are good reasons for limiting the amount of booze people can drink at sporting events. Advocating a return to the lawless days at the cricket when play was regularly interrupted by drunken fools is not the point. Similarly, a return to the wet and wind of VFL Park in Waverley is clearly not desirable. But somewhere there is a happy medium. There must be a way in which punters are allowed to attend and be social while still enjoying the live sport. Administrators would be wise to find this happy medium before they play soul-less games at life-less concrete stadia as is occurring in the Sheffield Shield and at GWS Giants games.

It seems a lifetime ago, but just over 10 years ago I attended three sporting games. The first was a Sheffield Shield game between Victoria and New South Wales. The game was at Punt Road Oval and, with no Australian team playing, contained Steve and Mark Waugh, Glen McGrath, Shane Warne and Paul Reiffel. I paid a modest entry fee befitting my student status and sat on the hill with some friends chatting and watching the game. One Sunday, I saw a World XI take on Victoria at the Junction Oval. Entry was free and we stood on the outer side recalling our weekend’s activities. A friend organised a ticket to watch St Kilda and Fremantle at Princes Park. We sat where we wanted and discussed our sore bodies from our activities on the field the day prior. The three have much in common – they were convenient, low-key, and cheap. But what made them enjoyable and memorable is that I sat watching a game of high-level sport while chatting with friends.