Tigers of Old

by williamschack

My ex-girlfriend showed me this photo in 2010. The subject is Robert McGhie and the photo was taken by Rennie Ellis. For a person who loves sport and struggles – despite good intentions – to appreciate art, my acknowledgement of the quality of this photo was a good chance to make myself look sophisticated in her eyes. That was back when Collingwood looked like it was on the verge of a new era of dominance. During our time together, I exaggerated my interest in cultural things to try and impress her. She broke up with me over the phone so I am quite sure it did not work. Our relationship, much Collingwood’s era of success, was short lived.
My love of Ellis’ photography, however, was not feigned. You could argue it was his subjects that drew me in rather than his skill behind the lens – perhaps it is both – but his photos draw in the viewer in a way that other pieces of art don’t. There is no exclusion here. The photos are of everyone, for everyone.
Ellis’ work has recently been housed in the State Library of Victoria. There was an article in The Age recently which prompted me to revisit his work. Of all the photos, it is the two of McGhie that I find the most captivating. Football back then seemed much simpler and looking at photos like this make me long for that time. A time when all 6 games were played at the same time on a Saturday afternoon so to see your team play you had to attend. When Grand Final tickets could easily be purchased no matter the capacity. They would just sell-and-sell them and cram people in accordingly.

Elliot Cartledge’s Footy’s Glory Days depicts this era perfectly. It is a brilliant book that everyone should read – but I am sure its moments are viewed through rose-tinted glasses. Tim Lane says we could not understand what the atmosphere was like. For the most part, he is probably correct as most games are these days played in half-filled stadiums. But I am confident that a full MCG in which the people feel comfortable and tickets are allocated according to the team affiliations provides a better atmosphere. If it does not, I’ll take the comfort of a seat and knowing I won’t be crushed in a crowd over a slightly better atmosphere.

I was at the MCG last Saturday and the crowd noise was something to behold. The hairs on my arms and neck stood up as the crowd cheered after the national anthem. It’s not the same when it is not your team playing, but it was still a privilege to be there. Although, a large portion of the 1600 Giants fans who were in attendance were in our section and the section next to us.
It is somewhat refreshing that both teams in the game this week will have no one with Grand Final experience. In an era of supposed equalisation, the competition has been dominated by 3 teams since the end of the Brisbane era. With the Bulldogs winning last year and neither Geelong, Sydney or Hawthorn in the Grand Final this year, perhaps we are moving into a new era.

It is also somewhat upsetting that the opposition to Richmond this week has a romantic bent to it too. Last year, despite most people’s like for Sydney, it was easy to dismiss them given their recent success, and unashamedly cheer for the Dogs. This year, however, an Adelaide victory would also be a feel-good story.
I never thought I would say that. Adelaide is the club that was thrown together in a rush and a court action to stop Port Adelaide joining the league. There was no romance about them. They were the club who beat the Dogs’ in the 97 Preliminary Final and prevented the opportunity for at least one of the Saints and Dogs to win their second premiership. The next week the 1-premiership-in-124-years Saints were forced to watch the 7-year-old Crows celebrate their first of 2 premierships.

But this Adelaide team has some very likeable players. Eddie Betts is my second favourite non-Pies player, and who could not love Tex Walker and Rory Sloane.
Then there is the still shocking fact that their coach was killed during the 2015 season. I was in America on holiday with my father at the time and I will always remember when he said, “Phil Walsh is dead”. It was so sad to learn that it was due to a domestic fight with his troubled son. For the club to hold itself together as well as it did and to be playing in a Grand Final less than 2 years later is remarkable and no non-Tigers fan could begrudge them if they win.

But it would be such an enjoyable afternoon and evening to watch the Tiger army celebrate a premiership. For Richmond fans, the photo above probably represents the time when it was the league’s superpower. When it would play finals every year and a non-premiership season was viewed as a dismal failure. When I first saw this photo in 2010, it felt as though Collingwood was perhaps at the beginning of a new era of dominance. It did not turn out that way – and it might not for Richmond – but as the Tigers currently rampage through September, and the streets of Melbourne tremble at the thought of a yellow and black premiership, the Tigers are playing like the Tigers of Old. Whatever happens beyond this season does not matter right now. Its membership and crowd attendance figures are already astonishingly high given their lack of success. They are the most rabid and loyal fans in Victoria. Their cheer spurs on the players and drowns out their opposition. If they hold the premiership cup this Saturday, they will leave the rest of the nation in their wake.