HOW I LEARNED TO LOVE THE TIGERS AND FOOTBALL AT NORTH HOBART OVAL

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I wasn’t born into a footballing family. But the older I grew, the more I realised how one game was the beginning of my affection for life.

Childhood memories often hold funny and bizarre recollections that are vague in parts. But there are few things that stand out from this cloudy day at North Hobart in early 1998. From the Murray to the Derwent – I was a nine-year-old kid raised on rivers moving from Riverina town of Albury, to Olde Hobart Town a couple of years prior. And there was a lot to learn about the culture of an Aussie Rules match in Tassie.

With three siblings and two parents all supporting different teams, the closest persuasion to barracking for the beloved Richmond I had was from my uncle John breathing anything ‘Tigerish’ down my neck from a young age any chance he had. Mum went for the Magpies because country club Grong Grong Matong wore the black and white stripes where she grew up in Narrandera. Dad would go for the Saints because of the religious affinities that were attached to the name.

My three sisters all ‘barracked’ for clubs like Carlton, Essendon and Sydney (later to switch between others like Port Adelaide because their players “were hot”). Loosely the family would follow the game, but not near the obsessive state that I would find myself cutting out scores, studying the goalkickers, the ladder and putting these definitive numbers on my bedroom walls.

Dad and I had a bet where the winner between the Saints and the Tigers would get bragging rights, and the loser would loser would do the dishes that night at home. None of this really prepared me for my own game to see though. I didn’t know what to expect at a real football match that wasn’t on the box on a Saturday.

“The whole experience with the small carnival-like paper ticket, to which I regret not having kept, this was just the beginning. To be able to sit in the allocated line marking on the wooden bench in the Roy Cazaly stand: I hadn’t experienced a game or event like this before.”

Before this day I had only known how my heroes were on a screen if I was lucky enough to spend the weekend watching the TV and the Tigers were scheduled on one afternoon.  I couldn’t envision any players in the flesh being able to match the feats of the highlights I’d see on TV so reading the newspaper’s sport section was as religious as I’d ever get to my footy consumption.

For a pre-season game – why couldn’t this just be the real thing I wondered –  the excitement and nerves from the night before got to me. I was sleepless – and not for the first time in my life. The car ride to the game with dad, the park somewhere near Ryde Street and the click of the turnstile had me in another world at North Hobart Oval.

The whole experience with the small carnival-like paper ticket, to which I regret not having kept, this was just the beginning. To be able to sit in the allocated line marking on the wooden bench in the Roy Cazaly stand: I hadn’t experienced a game or event like this before.

This was much different seeing the big boys play instead of my older cousin Josh running around in a Blues guernsey in the Auskick in the Ovens and Murray league a few years ago. The skills were immaculate, albeit a bit rusty because it was the preseason. The match was much faster, and the players were bigger and stronger. Not only that, but there were thousands more people watching the game. I couldn’t understand what it was like to watch a whole match from just one angle in my seat for two and a half hours until after the day.

And with the excitement of the match and the bounce, a new but rising Justin Plapp was the star that day for me with a speccy over the back of a St.Kilda opponent. A Tasmanian playing on home soil I could find myself liking other than the young dummy-spitting Richo I would later go on to love and treasure watching.

The field North Hobart was filled with Tasmanian heroes which included a future club chief, Brendan Gale and his brother Michael as ruckmen, adding to a young Matthew Richardson, Trent Nichols, and non-Tasmanians including the beginnings of the Kellaway brothers, Gaspar, Joel Bowden, Wayne Campbell, Matthew Knights, Nick Daffy and Matthew Rogers. Also, Paul Broderick, Mark Merenda, Jason Torney, Ben Harrison, Mark Chaffey, Greg Tivendale, Brad Ottens, Ben Holland, the list goes on.

“The last match I would get to play on that turf would be the inaugural Reclink Community Cup in June 2016 for the media team ‘Ramonas’ against the ‘Van Dieman Dogs’ where I would be honoured to wear the no.1 guernsey in a win.”

Little is known about who was out there that day aside from my memory, but these players were the makings of a team that in three years would go on to remarkably be Richmond’s most successful side of the past 35 years in a losing 2001 preliminary final. This was my glimpse of Jeff Gieschen being unleashed against legendary coach Stan Alves.

All that against the St Kilda players who were still out to make amends from the grand final loss two summers ago. This was no ordinary practice game to me with the likes of Robert Harvey, Stewart Loewe, Nathan Burke, Spider Everitt, Jason Heatley, and more all in the Saints list that year. And this was well after the likes of Plugger strutting in the goal square and long before the likes of Fraser ‘G-Train’ Gehrig roaming the paddock.

Boy was I lucky. At half time, I got my own pie and coke from the canteen by the concrete slab of a terrace on the northern hill. Little did I know I would later indulge in finer local beverages at the coming of age after a local game in the Old Scholars Football Association – pinching myself that I got to play on that turf on any occasion at the home of Tasmanian football.

Forget the luxuries for a moment; there was a game to watch. The third quarter and the all-important ‘premiership quarter’ of the pre-season match was underway. The Saints held on and the crowd at North Hobart Oval became restless hoping for the next big thing in Tasmanian football to kick a bag at either end of the ground.

The beating drums of the Tigers supporters who brought in their percussion instruments rang loud across the ground. Dressed up like a real tiger, and countless amounts of yellow and black merchandise, the tribal beating was nothing short of inspiring at the time. It didn’t matter where you sat, you could hear it from the next suburb. The atmosphere was up and about until midway through the final quarter. The Tigers lost.

I would have to go home and do the dishes like I promised in my bet with dad. Perhaps he somehow knew that was always going to be the result as the Tigers had been hopeless for many years before that. Not much has changed. There was no kick-to-kick for me that day. Not only did I not have my own football back then, but a young deflated Tiger fan didn’t want to be a part of replicating anything he had just seen on the field from a Richmond team that ended up losing 2.12-84 to 10.6-66.

As much heartache as I endured that day after seeing the Tigers I would go on to idolize from there on, it would replicate 15 years later playing in the local Old Scholars Football Association by missing out on grand final teams. To being a part of a squad in a losing side in dying junk time moments on grand final sirens. The last match I would get to play on that turf would be the inaugural Reclink Community Cup in June 2016 for the media team ‘Ramonas’ against the ‘Van Dieman Dogs’ where I would be honoured to wear the no.1 guernsey in a win.

Football is often about winning and losing. Every game in fact. But that day taught me something I wouldn’t have known until a few years ago: that was the beginning of my love of football. That game was the reason why I, as a kid who had just moved to Tasmania, learned that North Hobart was the home of football in the state, and to cherish every moment out on any field.

As my former coach once said: “North Hobart Oval is the home of Tasmanian football and it always will be.”