Sport AFL Nathan Burke: It’s the fans’ pressure players must overcome

Nathan Burke: It’s the fans’ pressure players must overcome

AFL Finals 2017 Richmond fans
There's the pressure: Richmond fans in full flight. Photo: Getty
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A grand final football jumper weighs about five times more than any other.

When you put it on, you are not only carrying the expectations of your team but the hopes and dreams of every person who has ever supported your club.

In the case of Richmond and Greater Western Sydney supporters, that number reaches into the hundreds of thousands.

The build up will be enormous and reminds me of when the Saints broke their 26-year drought and made it into the 1997 Grand Final.

We St Kilda players knew the vast majority of the football world was riding along with us. Certainly we had the Victorian football public in our corner.

All week we had supporters of rival teams telling us how much they hoped we would beat those evil Adelaide Crows.

They implored us to win and not let Victoria down by allowing Adelaide to win its first flag.

I wonder if Richmond is getting similar support this week?

In hindsight, the added weight of representing our state didn’t really play a role when you consider who else we were playing for.

The feelings of rival supporters paled into insignificance when we looked into the eyes of our supporters.

Saints Jamie Shanahan, Stewart Loewe and Nathan Burke in a reflective moment after the 1997 grand final loss to Adelaide. Photo: Getty 

It is almost impossible to describe the emotions of the fans. It is an odd mix of immense excitement coupled with immense trepidation.

They are not sure whether to dream of the elation that comes with winning or to stay calm for fear that the fall may be too great if their team happens to lose.

A grand final appearance is not just a special game of football, for many it can be a life-changing event.

When people tell you they could die happy if you win, the pressure certainly builds.

As players you get to build strong relationships with the peripheral people at football clubs.

These can include the trainers and volunteers who typically have been around the club for a long time – often pre-dating the playing group.

It also includes the key supporters, such as the cheer squad members, and those who come to training rain, hail or shine.

I’m not talking about the ones who work at the club to earn a living. I’m talking about the ones who dedicate their lives to being a part of the club.

For some, their football club is their identity. It is the place where they find like-minded people and where they have a sense of belonging.

They can dress up, paint their face, yell, scream and be completely one eyed without repercussions or judgment.

It is taking into account the feelings of these loyal people where the added pressure on players starts to build.

Winning could well be the greatest moment of many of their lives.

If you lose it could be the worst day of their lives.

I know that I wanted to win more for our head trainer, the late great Ken Whiffin more than I did for myself.

Ken had worked at the Saints since the early 1960s and I badly wanted to give him another memory like 1966.

I knew that alone would be a moment I and the team would treasure forever.

It is likely that dominant teams of their era, like Hawthorn or Brisbane in the early 2000s, may start to drift a little from the pressure from the fans.

In those cases the players are probably more interested in creating a dynasty by winning three in a row.

After all, when you win two in a row I think the fans have had a good enough run and understand that players get tired and lists need to be renewed.

We’ve had some classic grand finals in the past 20 years, but they can often end up lopsided affairs. Usually this is because at some point in the game the reality of losing will start to weigh on the players being beaten.

When that mentality kicks in, their enthusiasm for the contest disappears. It is here, when the repercussions of losing start to hit home. Not just for you, but your club community.

Western Sydney and snow-bound Canberra residents are backing the Giants. Photo: Getty

Richmond and GWS could not represent a more different group of fans.

The yellow and black have the weight of the Tiger Army on their shoulders. They remain in full sight after a drought-breaking flag in 2017, but the disappointment of failing to go back to back last year.

For the Giants, it is the expectation of bringing home the club’s first flag after being set up for success in a geographic area far from the AFL heartland.

They also represent a growing support base in Canberra.

Whichever team can cope with those expectations will be the one that doesn’t live with the sadness of their fans.

Nathan Burke is a former St Kilda captain who played 323 AFL games for the Saints, winning three Trevor Barker Awards as best-and-fairest player.

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