On the origins of the ‘Conca cuddle’
Drugs in sport? Read about it elsewhere.
Some writers write words about football I read compulsively. One is Timothy Boyle. His considered stories for the Sunday Age are often about the psychology of footballers, written from the vantage of a former player. Boyle played 31 games for Hawthorn from 2005 to 2008, kicking 39 goals, but I don’t remember any of it. Maybe because I lived interstate during his career, but also because in his four seasons of football he played against every team except Richmond. Timothy Boyle, in so many ways, he’s an anomaly.
Last Sunday, he wrote a compelling piece about the team bond between players, quoting variously George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens and Chris Judd. Often, I read his stories with a pen, inking his words and thoughts of rinsed-clean clarity.
As with this: “Players are, by nature, invested in a reckless mentality and, in fact, without it they would be useless on the field.”
Boyle observes: “Professional clubs harbour youth, and develop talent, but a mass alignment of spirits can also dampen curiosities, and squeeze the peculiarities out of an individual.”
Reading these words I thought about a young Richmond player with an infectious enthusiasm and flair for expression. His name is Reece Conca. In early April, watching the Round 2 game against St Kilda with Troy Chaplin’s parents (lovely people; genuine and grounded as those from the country so often are), I wrote a report published on the Richmond Football Club website that digressed into an analysis of our man Conca.
“I love the way Reece attacks the ball. I love the way he uses it. I love the way he opens up play,” I wrote.
“But what I love most about Reece Conca is how he celebrates the success of others. Watch a replay of the game and mostly every time a Richmond player kicks a goal it’s Conca who’s first to greet them. And nothing is half-hearted about his show of appreciation. He hugs his team mate. He embraces them. It’s an intimacy that speaks of his self-confidence. Here’s a man not afraid to reveal his emotions, who wants to share in the happiness of others.
“Football does have logic, but it’s a game also of passion, confidence, and showmanship. It’s a psychological puzzle, how to get a group of disparate young men to band together in the pursuit of a common purpose. This is the enduring challenge. In Reece Conca there’s somebody who acknowledges the good work of others. His enthusiasm is infectious. It lifts those around. He makes them feel better about themselves. He brings a team together.
“I hope Reece Conca has a full season of sharing the love. I hope he never tires of giving hugs.”
What happens next is a little case study in the relationship between a football club and its crowd. An idea is hatched, it is refined, it is spread, it is repackaged, and it is embraced for the mutual benefit of all. From little things, big things grow – to be shared among a group whose unifying purpose is in the colours it wears and team it supports.
The following Sunday, Jake Batchelor, a good man who we hope to see more of on the football field, sent this tweet:
Lachlan Larsen, a Tiger fan in Adelaide, replied immediately (and with thanks):
Soon after, a man who uses the Twitter handle @weedo04, and who on his profile page describes himself as a “plumbing bogan living in packy addicted to the Richmond FC”, tweeted this:
And so the #concacuddle was coined. It was the creation of 28-year-old Glen Weidmann, a plumber who indeed lives in Pakenham, is relatively new to Twitter, is a proud devotee of the ‘Grog Squad’, once played in the Clayton FC reserves (“until footy got in the way of my social life”), and says often he tells his friends, “English is my second language.”
Yet in this simple alliteration he has given Richmond fans something that bonds us with pleasure. He has distilled an idea; then empowered it with a hash tag.
“I think the players get around it,” he says. “It’s something that’s fun, and good for the game, and something the fans support.”
All ideas need nurturing, and this one was tended by Lyn Burton, 58, from Dingley – although mostly otherwise found at the Punt Road social club, or the cheer squad’s banner making, or at training sessions, or at the game. Of all the people I’ve met this season, writing about Richmond, Lyn is a favourite. She sponsors Tyrone Vickery, she dresses-up for match days, and she welcomes allcomers with a smile.
I’ve asked her before for her photograph. I wanted to write a story about her and a few other Tiger women. We met at Punt Road and I said I wanted to put her on a pedestal. For the picture, we found only a milk crate.
Lyn liked the idea of the #concacuddle, so asked the Richmond cheer squad’s unofficial banner-maker, Melanie Castleman, to come up with a creation. Melanie duly obliged. Lyn then took the banner to training for Reece to sign. He obliged.
“I think that’s when he got embarrassed and stopped doing it for a couple of weeks,” she says. “All the other blokes were ribbing him. But I see he’s been doing it again lately.”
Another thing about Lyn and Reece is that they share the same birthday, 37 years apart. “I said I want a Conca cuddle for my birthday,” she says. She received a card instead, signed by Tyrone. A pair of Leos, and both extroverts in the crowd – it was never going to happen.
Andy Fuller is a man who writes scholarly words about sport, culture and his life in Indonesia – found at readingsideways.net – and who once played in the Glen Iris Gladiators U12s. I wrote about them early this week, and was later told that our Dan Jackson was also a junior Gladiator. All our football stories, they entwine as one.
Andy Fuller is a Tigers man whose parents run an art gallery in Richmond. Early this season, he emailed an extract from a book called ‘Soccer in Sun and Shadow’ by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, that I think is the most beautiful sports writing I’ve ever encountered. Latin American magical realism meets the football pitch.
The book’s first page begins with a lament: “The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty.”
And it ends with this moment of hope: “Luckily, on a field you can still see, even if only once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.”
Such ethereal writing, I duly forwarded it to another of my favourite sports writers, Greg Baum, who duly quoted it in passing in on one of his match reports. An idea, it passed as softly as the wind, from Andy in Indonesia, to readers of the sports pages of The Age, wherever they may be.
Richmond Football Club decided to embrace the idea of Reece Conca’s post-goal celebrations, and promote it. It could see an opportunity. During Round 13, against the Western Bulldogs, injured Dylan Grimes was said to have commandeered the club’s Twitter account for the duration of the match. He tapped-out tweets, such as this:
Two days later, and the #concacuddle had the imprimatur of those within the “four walls” of the club. This tweet was sent:
An idea created by a fan standing with his mates in the outer had been appropriated, and now sanctioned, and was to be spread with the euphoria of each ensuing win. “Nobody earns a thing from that crazy feeling that for a moment turns a man into a child playing with a balloon,” wrote Galeano, of the intense and immediate fulfilment that comes with a goal kicked, or victory attained. But a football club, it won’t stop trying.
The redoubtable Trout from Woodend made Lyn a new banner last week, in a civic hall in the back streets of Richmond, where the cheer squad gather to warp and weave the run-through banner, then sticky-tape it together. It was Reece Conca’s 50th game. Lyn flew up to Sydney to sit with the cheer squad at Skoda Stadium where, on the fence, she held aloft a sign that read: “50 GAMES HOW MANY # CONCA CUDDLES?”
It has become a topic of much joy – a discussion point – among many of us Tiger fans. This is some of what fans tweeted during the game on Sunday:
In last Sunday’s paper, Timothy Boyle wrote this: “My view is that football clubs are arranged in a military fashion, and the best clubs have a knack of investing their players with the thrill of doing their own policing.”
I hope all Richmond players, and the coaching staff, have embraced the #concacuddle. When Ivan Maric kicked a goal halfway through the second quarter on Sunday, it certainly looked as if he had. He was searching for Reece, waiting for his cuddle. We fans love this sort of stuff, this outward expression of unity, this bond within the group. Football fans want little more than for their team to play for each other – and in doing so, they play for us.
Before the Dreamtime game at the G against Essendon, I met Reece Conca’s parents, and with them watched their eldest son, Luke, run around in the centre for the Surrey Park Panthers in Box Hill. They had booked airline tickets from Perth, to fly the length of the country to watch Reece play that night – but he was out injured.
What I learned that afternoon is that passion is in Reece’s bloodlines. His father, Loui, was born in Abruzzi, and his mother, Gina, comes from Calabria. Italians, I have found, are not usually shy in expressing themselves. In their gestures is a whole other language. Both parents are rightly proud of both their boys’ football achievements, and miss dearly not having them closer at hand.
Two other things about Reece perhaps help explain the ‘Conca cuddle’. One is that he spent a year studying psychology before his football career took off. For a young man, he knows maybe more than most about human behaviour. The other is that he has a twin sister, Cassandra. In the formative years of their lives – the first nine months – these two had scant room to move. The ‘Conca cuddle’, it was a necessity of life.
This season, it’s been a wonderful thing for all Richmond fans to embrace. It is our little creation, our celebration. Other teams have their own crowd idiosyncrasies – every time Hawthorn’s Luke Breust kicks a ball, listen to the chorus – but none have anything as affectionate as our Conca man-hug.
Coach Damien Hardwick has asked fans on Saturday night to respect Essendon captain Jobe Watson, and not boo him when he touches the ball. His is an implicit message to moderate crowd behaviour, to set a tone and a standard. No mention was made of Bomber fans booing their own club; for a betrayal of trust and dereliction of duty, and for being unable to acknowledge their wrongdoing.
I hope our team wallop Essendon on Saturday night. I hope they run all over them. I hope they make them look like fools.
And as I wrote in April, I hope Reece Conca continues to share the love, and never tires of giving hugs. I hope the #concacuddle is never curtailed. And I hope that during his career he gets to give them on the last Saturday of September, to a line of swooning Richmond fans along the fence at the MCG. Lyn will be there, expecting a cuddle, and so will Glen, and so will I.
Tiger tiger, burning bright
or Twitter: @dugaldjellie