Culture

Why Richmond Tigers Are This Year’s Good News Story

All aboard the Tiger train.

AFL

Remember when the Bulldogs won the AFL Premiership? We were all so much younger then. Or at least that’s what it feels like. In reality, it’s been less than a year — just 11 months since we all cried at Bevo handing Bob Murphy his medal.

It’s been a rough trot since. Trump won the election, the Bourke Street attack brought terror to the streets of Melbourne, a trillion-tonne iceberg gave us a shocking display of climate change in action, and the government sanctioned a civil rights war over marriage equality. There have been so many terrible things this year that whoever started the site 2017.sucks gave up in January.

In the hellscape that is 2017 we’re all in desperate need, once again, of another plucky hero. This weekend, the AFL finals begin and guess what: Richmond are the good news story we need.

You don’t have to be a life-long footy fan like me to appreciate it. This is the kind of David and Goliath story Aussies love. The battlers have fought back, and there’s a very real chance they could take out some stronger, older, wealthier jerks on their way to the top.

Oh yeah, this was never going to be an impartial article.

We’re From Tigerland

To be a Richmond fan is an exercise in loyalty, faith, and endurance. We last won a premiership in 1980. We last won a final in 2001. If you added one more goal to each of our scores this season, we would have finished top of the ladder, and I would have another ten years on my life expectancy. I am one of the ‘lost generation’ of Richmond fans who — mostly through family allegiance and dogged determination — have stuck by their team for often little reward. But for all the heartbreak they bring, for so many Richmond fans, the club is who we are.

We are Richmond. We share a name and a suburb with the heroin heartland of inner-city Melbourne. With the housing commissions and the topless pub and the sticky-floored rock venues. With the Vietnamese community who sought refuge in the 1970s. As supporters we’re widely taunted as being a bunch of bogans and ferals, but Richmond are also the team with the first Muslim AFL player, the team who co-host the marquee Dreamtime game, and a team who frequently stand up for the vulnerable.

We’re hard on our luck but we never give up.

We have the star player with neck tattoos (a show of pride in his Maori heritage) which act as a perfect metaphor for both Dustin Martin and for our team. We’re rough on the outside, all heart on the inside. Richmond friends online sound the alarm whenever Dusty is pictured with our captain Trent Cotchin’s kids. At the ground, young voices scream his name with delight when he runs on to warm up. When he holds out one arm to brush off an opponent mid-play (his signature move), the adults rejoice as well.

We are the team with the best song in the league, but one that doesn’t get played enough. When we win, we sing it loudly and with joy. We’re from Tiger — YELLOW AND BLACK — we’re from Tigerland.

We’re proud of who we are. We stick together. We look after each other. We’re hard on our luck, but we never give up. “If we’re behind then never mind, we’ll fight and fight and win.”

The Rise Of Richmond

The day of our first match this season — the opening game against traditional rivals Carlton — the front page of The Age posed a question. Could this be the year Richmond win the premiership? I squealed with excitement but also wanted to throw up.

We won our first five matches and things seemed too good to be true. We were set up for the game of the round against Adelaide — the top two teams battling it out. In Adelaide it was cast as the ultimate battle for supremacy. In Melbourne people just wanted to know if Richmond could actually stand up to the pressure.

Despite being up by four points at quarter time, in the end we were humiliated by 76 points.

But in Round 15 we went back to Adelaide Oval and came from behind to beat Port Adelaide. Suddenly we were a team that could beat those above us on the ladder. Finally we are considered to be real contenders.

It’s a close competition this year, they keep saying. The best we’ve ever seen, they call. “Richmondy” is now a verb that’s made its way from podcasts and folklore to the mainstream press. We saw a run of heartbreaking narrow losses after our hopes were built so high, but we knew we were still in contention. This was heralded as the year that any team in the top eight could win the flag, so why not us?

We’d worked for it too. After a disastrous year in 2016, Richmond’s President Peggy O’Neal reaffirmed her place after a challenge to the board was defeated, and called for an inquiry into frankly what the fuck was going on. From this came a group of fresh assistants to support the coach. A past champion of the club was brought on as general manager of football. The captain and coach started to show their vulnerabilities and became stronger people and leaders for it, winning the players’ admiration along the way.

More resilient than ever, the team now plays for fun and for each other.

We’ll Fight And Fight And Win

Richmond finished the home and away season in third place, the highest we’ve finished since 1995. Finishing in the top four gives us a double chance — if we lose in week one, we still play in week two. For a team that’s been knocked out in the first week three of the past four years, this is a chance we know we need.

Of the top four teams, Richmond is most certainly the underdog and our opposition supporters — from Adelaide, Geelong and Greater Western Sydney (GWS) — represent the classes that Richmond people have been battling their whole lives.

The Adelaide Crows exemplify everything I hate about my hometown. They are seen as upper-middle class chardonnay sippers who don’t play well with others. They are high fences and loud opinions. They deride their cross-town rivals for being brutish members of the working class.

Their NSW contemporaries of Simon Cowell-like invention, GWS, are the cashed-up team that fight dirty. They’re seen as the kind of people who, in real-life, might beat the hell out of someone in a drunken fight but get off easy because their dads can afford the best lawyers.

Geelong is an old team buoyed by the kind of old money that owns Portsea and Sorrento. They’re the people that turn their noses to the nouveau riche because they want the game played on their own terms. In their eyes, their house is a more exclusive one, more worthy; they paid for this right, they earned it.

But suddenly the fortune favours us. We finished third and sure, the top two teams are guaranteed a game on their home ground, but we still get a home final. From a historically working-class area, we have been playing at this inner-city playground for generations and suddenly it is valuable real estate.

Our star full-back — who was bullied and battered by Geelong’s Harry Taylor in round 21, who still blames himself for that defeat — was named the captain of the All-Australian team, beating Geelong’s much-fancied captain Joel Selwood to the honour.

Brownlow-medal favourite Dustin Martin turned down over $2 million to stay at Tigerland last month. He wants to stay with the coach and captain who see beyond the tattoos to the shy, vulnerable kid who loves his footy.

We’re young, we’re inexperienced, but so were the Bulldogs last year. And it turns out, having played a bunch of finals before actually counts for nothing. There are graphs that prove this. GRAPHS.

I’m Ready To Believe

2017 has been a wild bloody ride, but for me it’s the year my little team that could stood up to our bullies. Instead of having our hands on our hips, our chests are puffed out, our arms outstretched. We’re smaller than those who taunt us, but we’ve realised we’re faster and that, on a good day, we can out-run and out-play anyone. Sitting at the Punt Road end of the MCG, the joy is infectious.

We all need to know that the little guy can win; that it doesn’t matter where you’re from or where you went to school.

Footy is far from perfect, but it’s a great distraction from the outside world — a reason to come together, an outlet for our anger and frustration, and a reason to grin so wide your face hurts. We all need to know that the little guy can win; that it doesn’t matter where you’re from or where you went to school; that when you’re the best, you’re the best.

In this garbage fire of a year we need to know there’s light at the end of this tunnel, and guess what, it’s my team who are holding the torch. Who knows how far we’ll go, but we’ve got here the hard way so we deserve to enjoy every moment no matter what happens.

I’m ready to believe, maybe you should be too.

All aboard the Tiger Train.

Feature image: Richmond FC/Instagram.

Kylie Maslen is a writer from Adelaide. She tweets (very often about footy) at @kyliemaslen or you can see her work at kyliemaslen.com