My name is Rory Doran, I am a 31 year old golf professional from County Down in Northern Ireland, I live in Melbourne, and I love AFL. Or should I say, more importantly, I love The Richmond Football Club.
“You support Richmond?!? Of all the teams you could’ve picked… you chose Richmond?”
This is a question (or possibly just a statement) that I have been faced with a lot since I arrived in Melbourne just over 4 and a half years ago. In fact, 4 years and 7 months ago I had never even heard of The Richmond Football Club. I was teaching a young Gaelic footballer how to stop slicing his tee shots on a cold and dreary September Irish morning when I delivered him the news that I was moving to Melbourne to work at the beautiful Kingston Heath Golf Club in the coming weeks. His eyes lit up and he delivered these words, so passionately as if he was moving there with me, “You’ve got to get into AFL! You’ve got to go for Richmond!”.
This young man’s name was Ben O’Reilly (doesn’t sound very Irish, does he?!?) and at the time his brother, Jamie O’Reilly was an overseas recruit at the Richmond Tigers. Once he made this statement I duly agreed to ‘barrack’ (a word I had never heard used in this context) for Richmond, provided that he would hurry up and hit a few more balls before the next sleet shower passed overhead. I didn’t think about Aussie Rules Football again, or Richmond FC, until I landed in Melbourne a month or so later.
From then on I honestly can’t remember life without AFL. I arrived the week after the 2011 Grand Final and was living with a bunch of guys who lived and breathed ‘footy’ – which was how I now needed to refer to it. It took me a little while to refer to the game that my beloved Manchester United played so well in my youth as ‘soccer’ or ‘the round ball game’.
One of my housemates, Lucas Mannix (who I had never met before), was a mad Richmond fan and he took it upon himself to educate me on Australia’s national game. Lucas pretty much had me glued to the then-new 24/7 Foxtel Footy channel watching re-runs, learning the rules, who the best players were, who the worst players were, which teams you loved beating, and which teams Richmond were always expected to beat easily but never quite managed to! He also informed me that the number ‘9’ had become deeply entrenched in Richmond’s recent history and that this was definitely not a good thing.
Nearly 6 months of this indoctrination continued and the 2012 footy season was on our doorstep. I’ll never forget wearing the Richmond guernsey and the famous yellow & black scarf for the first time, getting onto the jam-packed train to Richmond station and alighting to make the pilgrimage towards the floodlit MCG on a Thursday evening in March.
The opening siren hadn’t even sounded and I was already hooked. The sense of euphoria and nervous expectation of upwards of 80,000 people was so real you could nearly see it in the air. I was amazed, especially after how passionately my AFL ‘tutors’ had described the rivalries within the game, how the fans of both teams were sitting side-by-side. This was in stark contrast to any experience I had previously of sporting crowds of this magnitude, namely the English Premier League games I had watched at Old Trafford where fans of each team had to be not only separated but also let out of the ground at separate times to avoid conflict. This measured passion, and mutual respect for fellow AFL fans, was so clearly visible for an outsider like me going to watch my first ever game. It was so refreshing to see that there was no hate, no politics, no bravado… Just thousands and thousands of people there with a common interest- to watch a spectacle that they had so clearly missed for the 6 months of the off-season!
The other observations that I made that really resonated with me were how many young families were in attendance, and how many females were there avidly supporting their respective sides. I honestly couldn’t believe what I had found- an incredible team sport that rarely serves up a dull moment, surrounded by this fanatical yet jovial, family-orientated, intimidation-free atmosphere. Better yet- the consumption of delicious ‘pots’ (another fantastic Australian invention in my opinion!) at quarter-time, half-time, 3-quarter time, full-time was not only acceptable but fully encouraged and was not necessarily relative to the performance of your team.
The rituals of the game are iconic. The decision to go to the bar 2 minutes before half time to avoid the line (maybe that’s just me?!?), the meat pie with the tomato sauce unloaded on top, the ridiculous line for the men’s room, the “he’s been doing to all day” jeers from the crowd, the AFL tragic sitting a few seats over from you cheering for neither team but for certain players to lift their game so he can accumulate a good SuperCoach rating. And finally- the song. I honestly thought my old housemates were joking the first time they played me the “Ohhh we’re from Tigerland…” opening line. But after 3 or 4 plays I absolutely loved it, and when I actually heard it sung with gusto for the 1st time at the MCG after a big win I just got it.
My life as a Richmond fan has not been a dull one. I am addicted to watching the game live, which is lucky because AFL has to be one of the most accessible and affordable professional team sports to spectate in the world. I’ve been to over 60 games at the MCG in the last 4 years (not all Richmond games unfortunately as many of these have been late in September), and I’m planning to up the ante further in 2016.
I have travelled to Perth to watch Richmond lose to Fremantle with the last kick of the game, I’ve jumped on an overnight bus to Adelaide straight after work to watch the Good Ol’ Tiges the following day capitulate in the first quarter against Port Adelaide in an elimination final in 2014. I’ve camped outside the MCG with one of my old housemates the night before the Grand Final to make sure he got the seats he wanted to watch his beloved Swans play on that last Saturday in September. I just love it.
I have bought into the game in a big way since I arrived here from the Emerald Isle, and I feel that this investment has been one of the best that I have ever made. The surprise in some of my Aussie friends’ eyes when they hear this Irish fellow, who still sounds like he has just got off he boat, hold a conversation on which player would be more damaging out on the wing rather than persisting through the corridor is nearly worth it on it’s own. But it is more that I have genuinely made some really strong friendships with people I have met through attending games or even just sharing passion for the game. You’re never stuck for conversation if you take an interest in this amazing game.
Following AFL has given me a huge sense of belonging in Melbourne and this is something I intend to keep going, and it is something I would strongly recommend to people from all over the world who are moving to this incredible country. I would advise newcomers to chose a side of their own which isn’t based on how successful they are, but chose a team they feel they can have a connection with. If you like the song, the colour of the jersey, the team’s nickname just go for it and don’t look back. Whether you finish top or bottom of the ladder I promise you won’t regret it.
My Aussie friends often ask me how long I will stay in Australia for and I usually reply with “I’ll at least wait until Richmond wins the flag”. Fingers crossed I’m not in for a life sentence…
Written by Rory Doran for AFL Europe.