Sport AFL AFL Finals 2017: Tigers fans one game away from erasing 35 years of pain

AFL Finals 2017: Tigers fans one game away from erasing 35 years of pain

AFL Finals 2017 Richmond fans
There's the pressure: Richmond fans in full flight. Photo: Getty
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If Shakespeare had a footy team, it would be Richmond.

The Tigers are high drama, a tragicomedy that’s been playing for the best part of 40 years.

And it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen the Tigers stumble –they remain pure box office.

That much will become clear on Saturday afternoon when Richmond welcomes Greater Western Sydney to the MCG in a preliminary final that will see about 90,000 rabid Tigers fans try and roar their team onto victory.

It will be, as advertised, the most one-sided crowd the AFL has ever seen – or heard.

While other sides have supporters, the Tigers have an army – a crazy legion of men and women, boys and girls, who bleed yellow and black.

It’s been 35 years since Richmond were in the grand final, but this year, they’re just one win away.

They haven’t been this deep in a season since 2001 – and this year, the supporters are armed with hunger and hope, that most intoxicating of September cocktails, in equal measures.

Tony Jewell, who coached Richmond to their last premiership in 1980, said that passion goes way back to ‘Captain Blood’, premiership captain and coach Jack Dyer.

Later men like Kevin Bartlett, Royce Hart and Francis Bourke, under coach Tom Hafey, heralded a golden age for the club.

“It all came from the Jack Dyer era,” Jewell told The New Daily.

“My first game was at the old Punt Road Oval and it was just full of locals – they all lived around that area.

“That’s all part of the Richmond supporter culture – the screaming of ‘yellow and black’.

“I think it’s quadrupled now, because of the lack of success.

“It’s just good to see the Tiger army all getting together and enjoying it together.

“They’re a good-natured crowd.”

Good-natured yes, but vociferous in their support.

Jewell saw the other side of the mania, after a tough loss in 1996.

“I can remember walking off the ground with (coach) Robert Walls – I was chairman of selectors,” he said.

AFL Finals 2017 Richmond
Robert Walls chats with former Tiger Paul Broderick. Photo: Getty

“We got beaten, and the crowd just to our left at the MCG they were all just staring at the coaches’ box.

“As we walked up the race some bloke’s stuck his head out and was screaming at us so much he spat his dentures out and they spun and hit the top of the wire race.

“He was screaming with so much anger these two bloody clackers came spinning out.

“I couldn’t believe it – Robert couldn’t believe it either.”

Most footy fans have at least one zany Richmond supporter story.

Talkback radio meltdowns are common among the Tiger faithful, with one disgusted supporter’s threat to microwave his membership card becoming famous – and often imitated.

After particularly heartbreaking defeats, which Richmond are expert at, entire radio programs can sound like sessions with a psychiatrist as hosts try and calm frothing-at-the-mouth fans so angry with their football club they declare enough is enough.

They’ve got enough stress in their life, they often say, and that footy – meant to be a release – only adds to it.

But the beauty of these Tigers is that they keep coming back.

Without a finals win since 2001, and just two since 1982, Richmond still had 72,669 members this year – a tally beaten by only two clubs: heavyweights Collingwood and the perennially successful Hawthorn.

Danny Frawley coached the Tigers to that 2001 finals win – a year in which they made the preliminary final.

But in the middle of that season, after a run of losses, one Tigers supporter was unhappy with his approach and took it upon himself to drop a truckload of chicken manure outside the entrance to Punt Road.

Frawley took it home and put it on his roses.

He said Richmond supporters are the loudest in the AFL.

AFL Finals 2017 Richmond
Danny Frawley celebrates a 2001 win with Tigers players. Photo: Getty

“They’re very passionate,” Frawley told The New Daily.

“When they’re up and about they act as a real spur.

“They make more noise than any other support – especially that Punt Road end – they’re like a 19th man.”

Richmond’s last trip to the preliminary final weekend ended in a 68-point mauling from eventual premiers Brisbane.

Frawley saw first-hand the hope and despair that characterised the Richmond experience for so long.

“There were eight buses that went from Melbourne up to Brisbane for that prelim – I went on each of them,” he said.

“I’ve never seen more excited supporters, for having sat in a bus for more than a day.

“You think, ‘gee, these guys really do deserve some success’.

“After, they trudged back into the bus and saw me – probably the last person they wanted to see.

“They gave me a bit of a mouthful – it was all in good jest and humour, but you could see they were pretty disappointed.”

It’s been a long hibernation for Richmond – pockmarked with calamitous moments.

There were the lost years of the 80s and 90s – when the club made a sport of coach-sacking, and the new millennium hasn’t heralded much joy either.

But since 2010 they have been a steady ship – most un-Richmond like.

CEO Brendan Gale has been steadfast behind coach Damien Hardwick, whose tenure began with nine straight losses.

Even after the disaster of 2016, when the club missed the finals and took a big backwards step, Gale stood firm despite a rebel group – dubbed ‘Focus on Footy’ – stamping their feet.

AFL Finals 2017 Richmond
Tigers coach Damien Hardwick and star player Dustin Martin share a hug. Photo: Getty

Like the Tigers sing, Gale was strong and bold. And in 2017, he has been vindicated.

Frawley thinks Hardwick and the club can exorcise its September demons this year.

“I think they’ve got a far better chance than we [2001 team] had on paper,” he said.

“Damien would be really excited because he’s got them into a position to play in a grand final.

“He can smell it, but he can’t taste it.

“They’re going to be a bit anxious, but they’ve had a lot of good tests this year.

“Their best is good enough to win.”

There’s a moment in Survivor’s smash hit Eye of the Tiger, when singer Dave Bickler roars: “Don’t lose your grip on the dreams of the past”.

When it was released, in May 1982, Victorians might have thought it was written about Richmond.

The Tigers were riding high on top of the VFL ladder under new coach Francis Bourke, and looked for all the world like adding to their tally of 10 premierships – five of which came in a 13-year period from 1967 to 1980.

But after beating Carlton in a semi-final, Richmond weren’t up to it in the big one, getting rolled by 18 points.

The Tigers haven’t been back to the big dance since, but their supporters never lost their grip on the dreams of the past.

They’re so alive now, it’s scary.

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