Last year I went to the footy to watch Richmond only 3 times. There were a number of factors that contributed to this: The distance from home, the horrible parking, my lack of a Myki card, the need to spend time at home after yet another Summer of Saturdays away from the wife and kids while dressed in white and standing out in the sun were all major players in keeping me away from the MCG. The chief reason however is that I just wasn't enjoying watching how the Tigers were playing, particularly in the first half of the season. Stagnant, hesitant, confused and lacking in a motivation to take the game on - and that wasn't just Ty Vickery.
On the three occasions that I did make the trip in, two of them had VFL games at Punt Road on before the main show so, along with my brother Greg, who is the Statler to my Waldorf, I went to watch the "Magoos" before taking my seat up in the heights of the MCG - as close to the members as you can get.
The big talk so far this season, other than Essendon's continuing saga and the inexplicable notion of Ryan Crowley, has been in improving the "match day experience". From my recent trips to the MCG, I could easily improve the match day experience. Get rid of the overly loud advertisements during the breaks in play, stop the ground announcer and the wear a red shirt and wave a particular flag now and win a chance to go into a draw to win something promotions and let us be.
At Punt Road Oval however, not only are you closer to the action, but all you can hear are the sounds of the players clashing bodies, the cheers from the crowd and the terrific sound of a booted foot meeting with a newish Sherrin Football. You can smell the grass and soil beneath the player’s feet, and you get a good sense of the progress the young up and comers are making. It's also a contest, rather than a training drill. This team is trying to win as is the one opposing them.
I chatted to my brother as the game went on, and we didn't have to strain to follow the conversation. We helped inform another gent at the game that player X was playing well and pointed out who was who when the play was too far for his bespectacled eyes. It had a feeling of local footy to it, community based and real.
I walked out to the middle of the ground during the 3/4 break to get a greater sense of what the coach was saying to the players. Greg was delighted to note that he was taller than at least one of the Richmond players and as we had time before the big game we stayed for the rest of the match but alas we didn't have time for a kick on the oval after the final siren.
I can easily see how this sport, watched from this distance in these conditions became so popular. It was an excellent experience and one I will repeat.
We walked to the mighty MCG, walked up the flights of stairs to get the best seats we could and sat down. How very different. We were so far up I felt as though I should be controlling the players via a video game controller, but I must admit to liking a clear view of the entire ground. As usual, I managed to find and sit near a pin head who had a limited understanding (none) of the rules of the sport but was determined to educate those around him as to why the umpire had made a crucial, glaring mistake.
The sport is so different too. The ball gets trapped in the forward 50 of one team, and the 36 players on the field greedily crowd around trying to get their hands on the ball. The players appear to be wary of risk, and must follow the system rather than exhibit the natural skills and flair that got them noticed by recruiters in the first place. Basically, I feel the game is over coached.
My daughter once asked me as we sat in the Olympic Stand if we could go play “over there” as she pointed to the Richmond forward 50 which stood empty and lonely. “No” I said, ‘we can’t play there. That’s where the big boys are playing.” “But no one is using it!” she countered. I imagined how funny it would be to have the cameras pan away from the 36 players at one end to find a father and daughter having kick to kick on the expansive, unused spaces of the MCG.
So I felt a disconnection to the game at AFL level due my distance from the contest and the manner of the contest itself. The first one is easy to fix, I could go sit or stand closer to the ground and get that feeling of local traditional football wash over me. The second is out of my hands. I do not have the power to get the game played as it was, and I don’t think it ever will. Of the two games I saw on the one day, I look back more fondly at my time at Punt Road Oval than my time at the MCG.
I’ve heard many times that we need to give the game a chance to evolve, and while I understand what people mean by this I‘m not sure that I completely agree. The game evolved into the current form thanks to the coaches and time spent on tactics and systems. There is no guarantee that the game, when played at the highest level, will ever resemble the game I grew up watching and loving. It’s still a good game, and the contest can be riveting, but it’s very different to what I remember. Thanks goodness that the VFL is offering a hybrid of the old and the new.