Four years ago on a warm September afternoon at the MCG I was lucky enough to join my uncle John for the 2013 elimination final between Richmond and Carlton. John is a Tigers life member – a former coach and dual premiership player and so we were given the full treatment on the day. After the pre-match function I was seated in the stands next to John. On the other side of him was Tom Hafey (John’s premiership coach) and next to Tom sat club legend and games record holder Kevin Bartlett. Talk about Richmond royalty, I couldn’t believe I was there. John introduced me to Tommy, I remember being struck by his friendly eyes and big warm smile on his iconic face. Kevin was tense all day and as it turned out rightly so as Carlton, who didn’t even make the top 8 that year, ran over the top of us. Two years later I found myself at another elimination final in seats I got online up the back of ground level at the Punt Road end of the MCG. This time I sat with my composer buddy and Tiger tragic Stuart Greenbaum as we endured another shattering loss at the hand of North Melbourne after they had played the system in the final round of the season resting half their team.
These finals losses, as well as a thumping from Port Adelaide in 2014, scarred the club and its supporters. 2016 was predictably a debacle of a year really. Knives were drawn, change was both implemented and stared down in a kind of measured and mature way not seen at Punt Road for decades. The coach was backed in, went to America for some PD and came back changed. Our captain changed his approach too, famously opening up to his teammates about his fears and insecurities. There were times this year when I thought this newfound emotional honesty had gone too far. After the mid season weeks of close losses I wanted the team to be more machine like, less emotional, less vulnerable. As the year went on and the wins piled up I realised that I was wrong. This was a team confronting past failures and fears head on. The newfound acceptance of vulnerability had made the club stronger than I could imagine.
My teenage nephew has been a Tiger all his life, he didn’t have a choice really. He is part of a generation of younger supporters co-opted into barracking for Richmond by fanatical family members. I’m sure we’ve all felt slightly guilty about this at times. Some of the heartbreak and shattered dreams you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy. Until this year Richmond had never won a final in his lifetime. With my brother we all went to the qualifying final this year against Geelong. None of us were fully confident but we knew that this game was our chance to change our destiny, to change history. The primal roar from an almost unimaginably big Tiger crowd was forged through years of disappointment. We’d all shared the same journey and we’d had enough. The curse had to end today. I barracked so hard that I lost my voice for five days afterwards. On the back of our mercurial champ from Castlemaine the team rode the wave of support to a famous victory. Jubilant, we sang the song in full voice arm in arm. Strangers hugged and people cried. After finishing the previous season in 13th place we were on our way to a preliminary final.
Now we have taken the next step and won our way to a grand final. This is a milestone for everybody involved with the club, but particularly the senior management. I had a neutral supporter on Twitter telling me he had a ‘ninthmond’ feeling about the prelim and that the fans at the MCG would get ugly if we lost. I knew this wasn’t true. This club and its supporters have changed. There is so much love and pride for the players that even if we had lost to the Giants the team would have been warmly applauded and cheered off the ground. This is a paradigm shift in behaviour and thank god. The days of ‘ninthmond’ are over, obliterated in the euphoria of our first finals win in the modern era.
But in truth the club cast off this legacy much earlier than that. The origins of the change can be traced to the second half of last year with the club in crisis. The Richmond of old would have imploded under the pressure of that year. We would have sacked the coach, a new board would have been installed, player contracts ended. We would have been back to square one. None of that happened. This was the change that made 2017 for the Richmond Football Club. Our President and CEO stared down a fierce and well resourced board challenge. They backed in the coach and made important changes to the football department (the addition of Football Manager Neil Balme has been a godsend). In short, they kept the faith. It was this resistance and defiance that changed our club. They deserve as much credit as the players.
Now we find ourselves in an unlikely grand final with the best performing team of players and coaches we’ve had in years. It’s a week to savour, a reward for all the years of frustration and heartache. But whatever the result next Saturday this is a new Richmond Football Club. And you get the feeling it’s just the beginning.