As a lifelong Tiger fan I’ve had very little to complain about over the past four years. But prior to that? It was almost nothing but complaints! However, in 2017 a 37-year premiership drought was famously broken with a resounding 48 point win over Adelaide. It was unbelievable to the point of being surreal at the time. Strangely, little has changed since for me.
I was born in 1983, roughly six months after Richmond’s last grand final appearance (until 2017). Which they lost. They had won the flag a couple of years earlier in 1980 with a powerhouse side. Surely nobody at the time expected to wait nearly four decades to see the Tigers lift the premiership cup again.
By the time I was old enough to understand footy my father had brainwashed me into following the Tigers. His brothers, sister and parents were all Richmond faithful, often membership holders and always devout followers of the yellow and black. In hindsight I never had a chance of being anything other than a Richmond fan and my mother never had a chance of getting me on board with her beloved Saints.
Sadly for me, by this stage Richmond had completely self-destructed and was a basket case both on and off the field. A sprinkling of good players was enough to keep the spark of hope alive, but the club was in dire straits. By the end of the 80’s they were begging for change with hat in hand and barely survived. The Save Our Skins campaign prevented the club from disappearing but performances on the field remained underwhelming.
Most seasons they seemed to contend for either the wooden spoon or ninth place, never truly threatening to reach greatness. The coaches box continued to operate with a revolving door, one coach making way for the next every few years.
Richmond shocked the football world in 1995 by making the finals for the first time in 13 years. After losing the qualifying final to North Melbourne the Tigers overcame a five goal deficit to defeat the Bombers in an epic semi final. The gritty win was enough to give hope to Tiger fans, even after Richmond was thrashed by Geelong in the preliminary final the week after.
Sadly, 1996 showed the previous year to be an aberration. The Tigers just missed the finals and slumped back to mediocrity and became the butt of a running joke for years to come for regularly finishing 9th.
The next flash of hope came in 2001. The Tigers had a great season and finished fourth, securing the double chance as they had in 1995. The only highlight of the final series was a tight win over the Blues, bookmarked by comprehensive defeats at the hands of Essendon and eventual premier Brisbane.
Despite the finals disappointments, there was reason to be hopeful in 2002. But yet again, the performances of the previous year could not be built on or repeated and the Tigers slipped out of relevance once again, seemingly finding new ways to fail.
By this time I had completed high school and had entered the workforce. I had spent almost all my school life almost reluctantly admitting to being a Richmond fan, being mocked for it because the club was such a hotbed of failure. I remember other kids finding out I was a Tiger fan and replying with a scoff and a comment like “why don’t you follow a good team instead?”
There were bright sparks and moments of hope along the way, but mostly it was disappointment. Watching players like Matty Richardson at his peak was always exciting, but the scoreboards continued to favour opponents and the coaches continued to be shown the door, replaced by yet another new coach with yet another five year plan.
The years rolled by. More ninth place finishes, or lower. More rebuilds. More thrashings at the hands of powerhouse teams like Geelong. More of the same mediocrity and disappointment.
But then 2013 arrived and the Tigers made it into the finals for the first time in 11 years, finishing fifth on the back of a strong season. Perhaps this was the year we gave things a shake? What should have been a comfortable three-quarter-time lead over Carlton was quickly extinguished in the last quarter, becoming a twenty point loss and the Tigers were done for the year.
The same thing happened in 2014. And 2015. One-and-done, Richmond bundled out of the finals in the first week. The repeated finals appearances were almost as frustrating as finishing ninth. Why couldn’t we win a final? What were we missing? Why was that one extra step so damn hard and elusive?
So in 2016 Richmond and its faithful Tiger Army had cause for optimism. Three straight finals appearances, surely it was only onwards and upwards from here?
But no, the wheels fell off early in ‘16 and the Tigers limped to 16th, finishing the season by being smashed by over 100 points at the hands of the Swans. It seemed three years of finals was all Richmond could manage and it had returned to its traditional place near the bottom of the ladder.
So as 2017 began there was little cause for hope for this Tiger fan. The club had seemingly taken a big step back the year before and it felt like the mountain to be climbed was bigger than ever.
Ever the optimist, I recalled the three years of finals appearances (so starved for success were we at Punt Road that simply making the finals seemed to be the most we could dream of) and wondered if we might not bounce back and finish in the top 8. We had drafted some good players, so who knew?
Even then, the biggest I dared to dream was to win a final. Just one. Oh, for Christ’s sake, could we just win one final? It was the next step forward for the club and had it happened but been followed by a season-ending thrashing the week after, I wouldn’t have minded. At the time, sneaking into the eight and just winning one game was the ultimate dream for this Tiger fan.
As it turned out, the Tigers had more in store than most fans would have bargained for. The season began in style with five straight wins. Things were looking good.
Next up was Adelaide in Adelaide, at the time the only other undefeated side. By seasons end the Crows would sit atop the ladder, the clear and deserved favourite for the flag.
In round six they gave the Tigers a reality check, who fell away after quarter time to be comprehensively beaten by twelve goals. More losses followed, some heartbreakingly close. But by the mid-season bye Richmond had regrouped and were looking good for some finals footy.
As the season progressed the wins continued to outnumber the losses and the losses all seemed to be “good” losses. They were lessons and reality checks that all occurred at the right time. Lowly St Kilda punished the Tigers for a slow start and a lack of urgency and effort, eventually winning by a big margin. Geelong continued their long run of victories against the yellow and black, a timely sample of what finals footy had in store.
Around mid-year finals seemed almost guaranteed. Then a top four finish began to look likely. As the wins piled up, the chance that Richmond might go deep into September began to be somewhat believable.
The league overall in 2017 wasn’t like it had been in years past. Many previous seasons had seen three or four teams sitting clear at the top of the ladder, all of them a class above the rest of the competition. The likes of Hawthorn, Geelong, West Coast and Sydney were often battling each other for glory. Nobody else stood a realistic chance.
But 2017 was different. There wasn’t multiple dominant teams; there was really only one. Beside Adelaide, everybody else seemed beatable, even the rest of the top four. Geelong wasn’t as strong as previous years and neither were the Swans. GWS was young, inexperienced and unproven. Richmond was probably still “the Tigers old”, sure to fall apart at the seams once the business end of the season was underway. And the Western Bulldogs had proven the previous year that anyone could win it all if they timed their run just right.
But despite this, I never allowed myself to believe Richmond would win the premiership. Maybe they would win a final or two, but that would be it. This was Richmond, the club that had delivered almost nothing but disappointment my entire life. This season was going to be the best chance teams like the Tigers would have in years, but surely they would stumble. It’s the Richmond way after all, isn’t it?
So when the finals began, this Tiger fan braced himself for what was surely inevitable. Geelong was the qualifying final opponent, a side Richmond had not recorded a W against for years. No doubt the Cats would win and the Tigers would fritter away their double chance the following week.
The night of the Tigers v Cats was also my wedding night. One guest jokingly chastised me, “why would you book your wedding for the night the Tigers are in the finals?”
My reply was simple and honest. “In my defence, I never expected that Richmond would even be in the finals!” It was the truth. When we planned our wedding for early September it had never occurred to me that it might clash with finals footy. Because even if it did, who cares? Richmond wouldn’t be playing!
As it turned out there was quite a few Richmond and Geelong fans at my wedding. Throughout the reception I saw them perched over their phones, watching either the scores or the broadcast. One particular guest gave me regular updates, growing increasingly enthusiastic as the night progressed. At one stage he appeared beside me, the fourth quarter still underway. He beamed from ear to ear. “We’re home!”
By contrast, the Geelong fans didn’t seem to be having a great night (and I was OK with that).
Later (with permission from my darling wife, of course) I watched the highlights of Richmond’s first finals win for 16 years. I could hardly believe my eyes. We’d won! And done it in style. When Cotchin gathered the loose ball in traffic, blind turned through the pack and kicked it off his left for a big fourth quarter goal I was as gobsmacked as anyone. Richmond overrunning teams in the last quarter to win finals games? What was happening? Surely such a freak occurrence must signal the impending apocalypse?
For the next two weeks my wife and I were on our honeymoon. Richmond had the week off after the triumph over the Cats so they didn’t play again until a few days before we were to return home.
Admittedly, I don’t remember the details. Not sure if I missed the game because we were asleep (international time differences, you know how it goes) or because we’d simply been out and about doing things, but at some stage it dawned on me. Oh shit, better check the footy scores.
I reached for my phone bracing for disappointment. Over three decades of following Richmond had trained me not to get my hopes up. Surely GWS had ended Richmond’s finals dreams.
But no, the Tigers of 2017 had proven me wrong yet again. Not only had they slayed the Giants, they were into the Grand Final. Richmond were playing the last weekend in September for the first time since 1982. For the first time in my lifetime.
The Crows were the opponent so as we arrived back in Australia I prepared for the worst. Surely, surely Richmond wouldn’t win a grand final. The concept was unfathomable. Especially against an Adelaide side that had conquered all in their path all season and cruised into the grand final with two comfortable finals wins.
It was a nervous week that ended with a Saturday morning spent telling myself Richmond would lose and to not be too upset. I was prepared for the worst when the game started and it seemed I had done the right thing by myself when the Crows kicked two quick goals early. I wondered if it might be a long afternoon at that stage.
But to the Tigers credit they settled and worked their way into the match. Some big marks from Riewoldt weren’t capitalised on but Caddy had Richmond’s first major a short time later.
The manic tackling pressure that had been a feature of the Tigers all season and had worn down the Cats and Giants in the two previous games began to show itself. As the second quarter rolled on the Tigers seized the momentum and began to hunt the Crows. Soon enough the Tigers had the lead on the scoreboard and they would never look back.
Suddenly the Crows, so dominant all season and so confident leading into the decider, were under siege. Their early lead was gone and Richmond attacked relentlessly, running away to a 48 point win and the club’s eleventh VFL/AFL premiership.
Like the Bulldogs the year before, it was an underdog triumph that neutral fans loved. A drought-breaking victory for a long-suffering club and its fans.
The scenes of Brendon Gale crying and embracing Peggy O’Neal in the stands were a beautiful display of jubilation and relief. There was Matty Richardson being comforted by Tim Watson as he cried his own tears of joy and disbelief. Then later Richo was there again – a lifelong Tiger fan, a man who gave his whole career to the Tigers (as did Gale), one of Richmond’s favourite sons – handing over the premiership cup to coach Hardwick and captain Cotchin. It was as perfectly Richmond a moment as you could hope for.
For me it didn’t seem real. Even with a five goal lead at three quarter time and Richmond dominating play all over the ground, I still expected that Adelaide would make a charge, Richmond would falter and the worst would happen. We’d seen it happen before. Longtime Richmond fans knew better than to celebrate early.
But the Tigers prevailed with all the momentum and the impossible happened. Richmond had won the premiership. Hordes of Tiger fans swarmed Swan Street and 37 years of perennial failure had come to a glorious end.
Having seen the Bulldogs fall away after their 2016 premiership there was concern Richmond might prove to be a similar flash in the pan. But 2018 proved there was no premiership hangover at Punt Road. The Tigers finished top of the ladder, hot favourites to go back-to-back.
The only thing hotter was Collingwood in the preliminary final, who jumped the lethargic Tigers so comprehensively the game was decided by half time. It was a harsh end to the season, but it at least proved the Tigers weren’t a one-hit-wonder in 2017.
The hunger was clearly still there in 2019 as the Tigers looked to avenge the disappointing end to the season before. A top four finish set the scene for a dominant Grand Final display where the hapless Giants were put to the sword by a rampaging Richmond side that secured its second flag in three years with an 89 point win. Dusty Martin secured his second Norm Smith Medal but it was Marlion Pickett’s goal on debut in the third term that sticks in most people’s minds.
By this stage, the concept of Richmond being a powerful side should have been sitting comfortably with me, but it still seemed foreign. Two flags, a minor premiership and a preliminary final are all signs of a footy team at the peak of its powers.
But for me – perhaps due to the ingrained disappointments of years past – the Tigers still felt like underdogs. Playing regular finals footy was a novelty and actually winning premierships was as bizarre as it was thrilling. Even sitting amongst the celebrations at Punt Road Oval the next day it all felt a bit unreal. Was Richmond really premiers again? Wonders never cease!
I never saw the dominant Richmond sides of the 60’s and 70’s. All my life all I have known is the Richmond that formed following the implosion of 1983. The decades that followed were a dreary mix of mismanagement, incompetence and underachievement. Thirty years of thinking of the club as a failure is proving a hard habit to break.
Even now, with the Tigers having secured back to back flags at the end of a disrupted and uprooted 2020 season, my beloved Richmond still feels like the underdog to me. They’re not the powerful club everyone else is gunning for. In my heart they’re still the perennial loser striving for respect. Still trying to reach the top of the mountain. The idea that they’ve reached that summit is so strange in some way. Their success is still novel and exciting, to me at least.
But not for everyone. Before the 2020 Grand Final one of my mum’s friends told be she wanted Geelong to win. Not because she disliked Richmond and not because she liked Geelong. But just because she was “sick of Richmond.” Sick of the Tigers winning grand finals.
I never thought I’d see the day. Other footy fans being envious of my club. My whole life it had always been the opposite. I looked at fans of clubs like Hawthorn and Geelong and I was jealous. Jealous not only because those clubs were successful but because the thought of my team reaching those same heights was so alien. Before 2017 I couldn’t even imagine Richmond winning a flag. It was too unlikely even for my dreams.
I still regard the three-peat Lions and Hawks as the two best sides I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. They didn’t just win games and flags; they destroyed opponents along the way. I don’t think Richmond ever reached that level of ruthless dominance.
Eventually the run of success will end, that I know. No team stays at the top forever. No matter what season 2021 brings I am proud to be a Richmond man, more so than at any other time in my life. Not just because of the wins and the premierships but because of how the club turned itself around from a basket case to a premiership dynasty. Undoing nearly forty years of failures and restoring respectability is no easy task. The level of pride and confidence around the club and the Tiger Army is something I’ve never witnessed in my life. Richmond is a powerhouse again both on and off the field, the envy of the rest of the league. It’s a great time to be aboard the Tiggy Train and I hope our time in the sun can last at least a little longer.
At this stage of the 2021 season it looks like the party might be over. Injuries have mounted, opponents have lifted and the Tigers have simply never found particularly good form this year. I can accept that.
Nothing changes the fact that the last four years have been a blast. The revival of the club has been wonderfully unexpected and I’ve seen three more premierships than I ever thought I would. The run of success continues to mystify me not because of how it happened but simply because it happened at all. No complaints from me, just gratitude for having been able to witness the resurgence of Richmond.