Gerald Tanner, who died on January 10th aged 100, was Richmond’s oldest living footballer, having played one game for the Club in 1941 due to the cancellation of country football during World War II.

Tanner was the third known Richmond senior player to have reached the century (Henry Archibald Richardson 1902-04 VFA; 101 years), and (Keith Rae, 1946; 104 years).

One of his sons, Xavier, carried on his League tradition and played in North Melbourne’s 1977 premiership side and later for Melbourne.

Gerald Tanner’s single game for Richmond was Round 15 1941 vs Essendon at Punt Road, lining up on the wing as a replacement for champion Leo Merrett who had the flu.

In an interview with Richmond Historian Rhett Bartlett in September 2019, Tanner remembered on the morning of the match, he was actually scheduled to represent the Tigers’ Reserves side at Windy Hill, but received a phone call from club secretary Maurie Fleming advising him of the change of plans.

“I was only a 19yr old kid. I think my mother was expecting me to come home with my head under my arm. She was s**t frightened I was going to get injured.”

“When I played my first game, Charlie Callander (Richmond Trainer) used to strap up your ankles. He had a special little room and I went in there and he was putting the bandage on my legs he said you know you’re playing today and you’re not even a bit nervous.”

Tanner received his 3 pounds match payment in a small envelope after training the following week.

Although a noted country footballer, he grew up in Melbourne and worked for 43 years with the Victorian Railways based in Essendon, then relocating to Wodonga, back to Essendon, then finally to Cobram.

It was whilst there playing in the Murray League, that Richmond got word of his talent.

Tanner had starred for Cobram several times against Nathalia (who had full-forward Frank Bourke, father of Francis Bourke, in the side), and on June 14 1940 against Numurkah was noted in the press for his “high marking against the clever Numurkah centre-man G. Bourke.”

But the season ended abruptly two weeks later when a special meeting of the Murray Football League voted to close the season because of World War II and the large number of players who had been recruited to serve.

The Richmond Minute Books reveal the following month, the before-mentioned Numurkah centreman George Bourke (no relation to the Frank), wrote to the Tigers recommending “J (sic) Tanner of Cobram” as a potential Tiger recruit.

Tanner was essentially a footballer without a team, and The Tigers committee took action, and invited the 11.5 stone, left-footer down to practice matches in April 1941.

In one pre-season match at half-forward he kicked 2 goals despite tearing a muscle in his leg.

His natural left-foot kicks were a huge asset against opponents more used to playing on right-footers.

The Age wrote that his “displays on the half-forward flank have been outstanding,” in the pre-season matches. The Weekly Times noted that Jack Dyer and Jack Titus were most impressed by his “quick capable football.”

Tanner said in the 2019 interview that Dyer “hardly ever spoke to me, except on the footy field where he’d blow s*it out of me, so to speak. That was the way he coached.”

“I’d say this about Dyer, he wouldn’t let you come off the field for training unless you were bloody exhausted. He’d just keep at you and at you, making sure you were bloody fit.”

“I remember Dyer blowing his s**t out of Bill Morris, pardon the expression, because he wasn’t a fella who threw his weight around, he was nice and gentle. And Dyer wanted him to throw his weight around and he didn’t play the game that way.”

As for the veteran Titus, Tanner recalled he was the main player who took him under his wing during his time at Tigerland.

But on training night, it was cut-throat, with many country players, and young recruits vying for a spot on the final list.

“When you’re on the training field there used to be some players there who wouldn’t kick it to you, because they were trying to be picked for the game. They wouldn’t deliberately kick it to you!”  

Because of shift work at the Victorian Railways, Tanner was available only for selection every second week.  After his 1 game for Richmond, he was transferred up to Wodonga for work.

“Maurie Fleming (Richmond secretary) used to ring up and write to me to say keep yourself fit we want you to come back,” Tanner remembered.   

“But I didn’t go back. Except in 1946 I changed my mind, so they got me transferred to Melbourne.”  

The club archives do indeed show that he played practice games in early 1946, and received a permit back to Richmond on April 24th“But I hated living there, so I rang up Maurie Fleming and told him I wasn’t coming, and he wasn’t very happy.”

Tanner had one more match against a League team when he played for the Ovens and Murray team against Essendon at Korowa in 1949.

A deeply religious Catholic, Tanner would serve as the secretary of the Wodonga parish for 30 years.

But his family felt the tragedy of World War II firsthand when his brother Xavier Aloysius died of scrub typhus in New Guinea in November 1943. He was 23.

Growing up, the two had attended Richmond games at Punt Road, arriving early and sitting a few feet from the fence at the Brunton Avenue end.

“I wasn’t home (when news of his death arrived). I had to get holidays to come home to see the rest of the family. It certainly affected everybody. You’d cry a few nights thinking about him. At times a great healer.”

But Tanner himself was unable to enlist in the Air Force, as Victorian Railways work fell under the “Reserved Occupation” rule, preventing essential workers from enlisting.

Gripping rosary beads during our interview, Tanner still remembered that ruling was such a relief to his grieving mother.

Tanner’s death was announced in a notice published in The Age.