I have a confession to make. I was an Essendon supporter until I was fourteen years old. My maternal grandfather captained Essendon to two premierships in the 1920s, so I was a ‘sworn’ Bomber. But then I went to the footy with my father, and I changed teams. Just like that! No-one does that in Melbourne.
The game was the 1967 Grand Final, and Richmond won. I was taken into the players’ rooms after the game (an extremely rare honour, even then), and I was introduced to the players. Most of them were just out of the showers, but those were curiously decorous times. The players, to a man I think, tolerated the social task of shaking a 14 year old’s hand as I was led through the room.
This incident, though slight to my reader, changed the world for me. The Richmond Tigers went on to win another four premierships over the next thirteen years. Did I look back over my shoulder to re-consider my decision? Never. I gloried in the Richmond way, the ruthless Tigers who gave no quarter, who trained harder and played with an assurance that they had no friends, just opponents.
Carlton was our natural enemy, later to be Collingwood, but they were all loathed, except for Footscray, who were everyone’s second, other team. That’s because they were never a threat.
My commitment never wavered, though there were times when I did not even follow the footy. Somewhere in those years footy seemed to be just another sport, and life demanded we turn our attention to more worldly matters. Life intervened.
And after 1980 there was less to be interested in. As the years rolled on, Richmond stopped being a power, and became something of a joke. Years and years of power struggles within the club drained momentum. Beloved figures from the past ran nasty, personal campaigns to wrest control back from whomever, maybe outsiders?
These were the years when the enemies of the club prospered. Even the Bombers, disdained so many years ago, won several flags with an ex- Tiger champion coaching them. Essendon’s 2000 season was probably the greatest season ever played, where they were virtually unbeaten, and unbeatable. And coached by Kevin Sheedy. The horror, the horror.
But I found an interest again. I suffered the slings and arrows of the Tigers’ outrageous fortune. I heard Collingwood touted as the club with the biggest membership, but I knew the Tigers were a sleeping giant.
Even Hawthorn, dressed in their truly shocking colours, came to shine. And shine, many times over. If Richmond gloried in its proletarian beginnings, the Hawks represented middle Melbourne. They even played at Waverley, bang in the middle of Middle Melbourne.
The new century brought no relief. Richmond gained a reputation for finishing ninth, just out of the final eight, stranded. The others jeered, but redemption was close, perhaps. There are many riffs able to be played on finishing ninth. Ask me, I’ve heard them all.
The Tigers have always been distinguished by their supporters. No matter how dire the season, or the game, there was always someone who could spout reasons why the latest performance was showing positive signs. Green shoots could be determined in the ashes of another unsuccessful season. And once a true-blue Tiger, you are doomed to share their fate.
Gradually, however, the new five year plan began to take shape – finally spelled out by club President Brendon Gale, it stated:
”By 2020, we aspire to have won our 13th premiership; consistently provide the most exciting and powerful match-day experience in the competition; once again have the strongest support base in the nation, and enjoy the strongest emotional connection with our members and fans”.
The 2017 season started auspiciously. Five wins, no losses. Then a run of four losses. Adelaide crushed us by 76 points – another blighted birthday for me, but who’s counting? I’ll cut this scintillating tale of redemption short; Richmond became a frenzied football machine, tackling and passing the ball, tall players and short suddenly as good as, and better than, their opponents. Richmond pressure, ninety percent chaos was suddenly the blueprint for success. Goals were expected rather than prayed for.
The finals were absolutely nerve-wracking. Geelong had had a particularly successful period when they had routinely sent us back to Richmond in the foetal position – not any more. Next to the Giants, seen as young but hugely talented; they were tossed aside the following Saturday. Which left only the Grand Final, against Adelaide.
Suffice to say, chaos reigned. Richmond by 48 points. The crowd was 90% behind the Tigers, Adelaide being foreigners for the day. So the hordes took to Richmond to celebrate. First stop to a back street in Richmond, where a giant mural of Dustin Martin had appeared, as if by divine inspiration. Photographed standing in front of Dusty, my daughter Lucy (a Tiger Tragic) and I then went to the All Nations pub, where the night was absolutely mad, but no-one was hurt. Except the staff, whose faces were a sight to see, as every forty seconds the Tigers’ theme song was sung, and they were exhorted to sing it, again, and again.
The streets were awash with delirious fans. Young men danced on the roofs of taxi cabs, Bridge Road was blocked by thousands. A drought of thirty seven years had broken. Caroline Wilson wrote an article in the following days explaining how, although only a game, Richmond’s win had elevated our spirits and reaffirmed our fervour for life. We weren’t to be pitied any more, because we had won a premiership.
Melbourne is seen as the serious city in Australia, where people take great issues seriously, and where political passions run on the slightly puritanical, progressive path. But a serious Melbournian can be distracted. Just ask them who they barrack for.