Top Tiger: Red Cliffs’ Chris Lee will play his 200th SFNL match against Robinvale Euston tomorrow. He will be joined at John James Oval by his biggest supporters, his wife Chloe and children Ivy, 2, and Miles, nine months. Photos: PAUL MENSCH
By MITCH RODD
CHRIS Lee understands better than most how to cherish the ultimate in sporting glory.
The Red Cliffs utility has spent more time than most on the end of heavy defeats across his 15 years as a senior Sunraysia Football and Netball League (SFNL) footballer. Those times made winning back-to-back premierships in 2014 and 2015 that much sweeter.
After turning 32 on Wednesday, the Tigers stalwart is hoping for the ultimate birthday present, a win against Robinvale Euston at John James Oval in his 200th match.
Both sides have had their share of milestones in recent weeks. Red Cliffs’ Beau Riordan played his 100th match in the club’s big win over Merbein, while Eagles’ key defender and club favourite Jakob Gareffa played his 200th game against Imperials last week.
After debuting in the Red Cliffs senior side at age 16 in 2003, Lee has played his entire career for the Tigers bar two years with the Bendigo Pioneers at TAC Cup level and a season with Woomelang Lascelles in the Mallee Football League with his brother Clayton in 2012.
“There have been a lot of good players at the club who have played 200 games so it’s pretty humbling to be put in the same group,” the 2006 club best and fairest winner said.
“The likes of Mick Faulkhead, Ash Pullman, Rob McGlashan, Brett Oldham… these guys are club legends.
“Because I’m not ending my career perhaps it doesn’t mean as much now as it will later on once I’ve hung up the boots. I remember being part of the milestone games of other players so I’m sure I’ll look back on it fondly.”
The Lee family originate from the small South Australian town of Kimba. Despite the tiny population, Kimba has produced top AFL talents in Geelong legend Corey Enright and twin defenders Darryl and Shane Wakelin.
After moving across to Sunraysia, Chris came through the Tigers ranks to pull on a senior jumper in 2003 while still completing VCE.
While the Tigers’ favourite admitted his debut was a blur, he remembers being on the end of a heavy defeat against Mildura.
“Jeff Brennan was the coach at the time and we had to head down to Apex Park early the next morning for a mass recovery,” he said.
Following his debut senior season, Lee spent two years in the Bendigo Pioneers TAC Cup system, playing alongside future AFL draftees in Colin Sylvia, Ben McGlynn and Andrew Walker.
“The first year in Pioneers I was still in school so I commuted down for the first year then moved down for the second,” he said,
“In my first year as a bottom ager I remember playing on the MCG in front of 70,000 people in a preliminary final. It was a curtain raiser for the Collingwood and Port Adelaide final.”
Upon returning to Red Cliffs, Lee won the club best and fairest in 2006, a season in which he was also captain at just 20-years-old.
“The cupboard was pretty bare at the time,” he said.
“It’s definitely a lot different to what it is around the club now. There were a lot of heavy losses in that time and that definitely makes you cherish the good times and makes you aware that when you’re in the window you have to take advantage because it might not happen again.”
The good times rolled around when the Tigers broke their 14-year premiership drought in 2014, going on to claim back-to-back titles.
“Premierships are what we play for,” he said. “To get one was great, to get two was awesome. To get a third would be even better.
“We’ve got a very young core group of players, a really driven coach and some great additions to the side. We have a number of guys racking up their 100th game who are under 23. That wasn’t the case 10 years ago when I was in their position but we have a really experienced group who are within that ideal age range.
“It’s what makes it exciting, to see these younger guys come through and turn themselves into good senior footballers. That wasn’t the case 10 years ago. Some of them are already dual premiership players.
“Hopefully they don’t take the opportunity they have for granted because not everyone gets that chance.”