The might of the Richmond Tiger last reigned supreme in September 1980. The Tiger juggernaut was at the supreme height of its arrogance. Nothing could stand against it and, in its own view, nothing deserved to, for the Tiger ruled the big league. At least so I’m told, for I was born in October 1980 and mine has been a very different Tiger to that which ruled the land before my curse settled upon it.
The family joke has been that everything was going quite alright for the Richmond Football Club before I came along. Shortly thereafter there was one lost Grand Final, an embarrassing lost player war with Collingwood, a near fatal cash shortage, and thirty-odd years of misery. Most of what I experienced was the thirty-odd years of misery, and it has shaped the way that I view football and my team.
By the time I had turned 10 I had already experienced the Save Our Skins campaign. This was established to raise a million dollars before the end of October that year to avoid the club folding entirely. I remember seeing the ads on TV with the big Tiger in the sites of a rifle and not being filled with the greatest of confidence. The ad did successfully motivate adults to part with their money to keep the club going, but it did not necessarily project the best image of itself to its future members.
This is all very nice to think of now with the benefit of hindsight and some years of development behind me, but at the time, for the boy that I was in my formative years, simply being a Tiger was a curse.
“Did you see how many Ablett kicked against you guys this time?”
“How many did Dunstall kick? 17?!?!?!”
It wasn’t fun. Nevertheless I was a Tiger, we had the best song, and since me and my curse were responsible for the dreadful results anyway, I ploughed on.
Come 1995 and the curse was lifted. This year brought to me and many other Richmond supporters born in the ‘80s what would be our greatest football memory. Not only did we make the finals with a team that played tough, uncompromising footy, but we actually won one. I recall sitting up in the top of the Olympic stand with my brother watching the nightmare of the first half unfold. Essendon were all over us, and 88,308 people knew that the Tigers just couldn’t go with them. It seemed to be Matthew Knights alone that kept his side in the game, with two incredible runs down the wing for goals, plus a hanger to boot. He would play for another 7 years and play 279 games, but that Semi-Final performance on the big stage in September will remain his crowning achievement.
At half time my brother and I were all talk about Knights and how he was keeping us in it, but we never expected to come back from 30 points down and win. Maybe it was the crunching bump on Gary O’Donnell from Scott Turner that got us going, perhaps it was their injuries, I can’t really recall because it was almost 18 years ago and I was not yet 15.
Whatever it was that changed things for the better, I do recall jumping up and down like a mad thing when the final siren went and we had won. They must have played that beautiful song 15 times and I bellowed it out with the memory of those schoolyard teasings fuelling my voice. The curse had seemingly been lifted, but of course the next week we got comprehensively beaten by Ablett in the Preliminary Final and we weren’t to make the finals for another 6 years.
I don’t recall a heck of a lot of the years between 1995 and 2001 other than we seemed to finish ninth a lot. Once again being a Richmond supporter became a thing to inspire jocularity amongst ones classmates. I instead poured myself into the Australian cricket team that seemed to be achieving some wonderful things including winning a great many of the matches in which they participated, which was of particular interest to this teenager who had not had a great deal of experience in the ways of the victor.
This period was, however, when I developed my great affection and what would these days be called a man-crush on the irrepressible, amazingly able but disable at the same time inspirer or gasps of awe and gushes of delighted laughter that came in the towering form of Matthew Richardson. He is to this day my footballing hero and I take great delight in hearing my 2 year old daughter refer to my 4 year old son Richard and Richo-man.
Richo did a lot of amazing things on the field, but his biggest achievement was keeping thousands upon thousands of Tiger supporters churning through those turnstiles when the side was utter crap and there was no other reason to go. We did make the finals in 2001, and thankfully Richo was part of that finals campaign because he had missed out due to injury in 1995. The side would go on to make the Preliminary Final but would comprehensively lose to Brisbane.
Unfortunately, that 2001 result would inspire my renewed passion for my side and I set myself up for the greatest disappointment of a decade imaginable. Not one finals appearance. The 2001 coach, Danny Frawley, would soon find himself out of a job and replaced by Terry Wallace, whom I saw as a supercoach who would come and fix our woes. He said all the right things and had the coaching history behind him, but my curse was too strong and he lasted not quite his 5 year plan.
The year was 2009 and the coach had gone and the search was on for a new one for 2010. By this stage, I had spent many a year enjoying my football the only way I could, by watching the good teams play and making a sport of its own of picking the hell out of my own side. My brother and I would take turns at finding the most creative way to verbally deconstruct a Richmond player’s skillset so that his flaws had become a reason to laugh, a bringer of enjoyment. Jordan “Ankle Pass” MacMahon could inspire hours of happiness.
There was a self-preservation instinct involved in this that had been born of so many years of underachievement. To do anything other than laugh at our misfortune was to cry. The point here is, that we, or more likely I, was not in an emotional state to accept the possibility of a change of luck for my side. As far as I was concerned, the curse was present and there was nothing that could lift it, certainly not a young coach who had played for Essendon.
I have given Damien Hardwick a hard time in his three and a half years in the coaching job at Richmond. I have criticised everything he has said and every decision that he has made. I did not like his recruitment policies, or his match day coaching and his team selection was yet more fuel for my rage. I have not been a pleasant person when it comes to conversations about my team, as I have found it very difficult to reconcile a successful Richmond with my understanding of the club.
From my experience, we have gone from basket-case to embarrassment and back again with minimal glimpses of hope along the way. To open oneself up once again to hope would surely court danger … but I find myself changing. The club under Damien Hardwick has not had a meteoric rise like some other clubs, but has made slow but ever increasing gains year upon year. The stockpile of talent playing in the best 22 players is undeniable and the results are quite simply starting to speak for themselves.
Perhaps it is time for this Tiger to open his jaded heart up for the possibility of success. Perhaps it is time for this Tiger to accept that there is no curse, and that the success of a club is built on the backs of strong, dependable, capable men. Perhaps it is time for this Tiger to accept that Damien Hardwick, and his buddy Brendan Gale are two such men, and that I am about to enjoy some success.