September Stories Part 8 - Richmond

Tonight 100,000 people will overflow the home of football as the two biggest clubs in the land battle it out in one of the most hotly anticipated preliminary finals in Australian Football history.

You can imagine it can’t you? The black and white up against the premiers, the champions, defending their title, the YELLOW AND BLACK! Who else cannot wait for the moment the Richmond players start running down the race? Drums are beating but you can’t really hear them over the crowd, who have come to life in unison as the bounce nears.

Out they come now, led by their premiership captain and Brownlow Medallist, Trent Cotchin who turns his back to high five every single player as they come out of their race. The roar has well and truly arrived now they burst through the banner onto the ground where they have claimed twenty-two consecutive victories, surpassing the legendary Melbourne side under Norm Smith of the 1950s’ long-standing seventeen game run. The ground is yellow and black – they own this city now.

You see it don’t you? Because this is Richmond. This is a team – a club – that is simply dominating football as though it has been doing it forever.

But could you picture this two years ago - to the day – when the “Focus on Footy” supporter group formally ended its attempted overthrow of the Richmond board? Remember them? Back when Richmond was more Richmondy than the Richmond we now know.

The “Focus on Footy” epitomised the club’s systemic and chronic culture problems and instability that has been ingrained in the football club for the thirty-five years prior. They claimed to represent a supporter base who was sick of the failures, sick of the heartache, the blunders, the disastrous coaches, the 9th placings and the humiliation. They wanted to leave the microwaves on the shelf, they wanted to be Richmond, not Richmondy.

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“Focus on Footy” was spawned in the aftermath of the Tigers falling to 13th place on the ladder after three unsuccessful finals campaigns left Damien Hardwick, Richmond’s third-longest serving coach without a finals victory and vulnerable, despite recently signing a two-year contract. “Focus on Footy” based their board coup on guaranteeing to personally pay out Hardwick’s contract and sacking him as senior coach claiming that they were “35 years into a five-year plan”. It’s almost haunting how the doors can slide and a destiny can change.

“Focus on Footy’s” frustrations were real, however, the solutions would have continued the cycle that have caused the very problems to begin with. Something had to change but it was not the coach. Brendan Gale and Peggy O’Neil stayed strong and bold rather than succumbing like the Tigers of old.

Suffice to say, despite recently congratulating themselves and claiming credit for Richmond’s success, “Focus on Footy” were laughed out of town, unlike Hardwick who well, came good. From September 21 2016 to March 23 2017 something intangible changed at Tigerland. The coach was still Hardwick but he was not the same coach. Cotch was still the captain but he actually became a leader of men; the best one in the comp at that. Sometime between September 21 2016 to March 23 2017, Richmond discovered their secret weapon – fun. While, they at not the first team in history to have brought the fun back to footy, they are the first ones who have mastered it.

In 2017, Hardwick’s ranting, raving, swearing and insults were replaced by jokes, laughter, togetherness, and sometimes tears. But above all he valued team, team and spirit. It was this spirit that carried them all the way to a top four finish while the wave Tiger emotion washing over the city of Melbourne and the fairytale factor did the rest. On that wonderful Grand Final day, when the anthem was played, one team tried to fake what the other already had, and stood as lone power rangers, as the other stood arm and arm, then smiled – that’s right smiled – for the official team photo.

That is what was overlooked by former St Kilda coach Grant Thomas who dubbed the Tigers as “possibly the worst group” ever to win a premiership. Football is about more than the names on a sheet of paper. However, should it really be more than smiling while living out your dream at the MCG?

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How fascinating has it been watching from afar the paths taken by last year’s two Grand Finalists. The Crows doubled down on the “stern-faced stare” approach, undertaking a controversial “mind” pre-season camp run by Collective Minds, based on the view the players needed to become mentally stronger. It is absolutely true that mindset is a massive factor in footy - just ask the Tigers, but the Crows went the completely wrong way about it, and it derailed their season before it begun.

Richmond were focusing on enjoying their footy, whereas Adelaide had their players subjected to, against the wishes, the highly insensitive exploration of traumatic events in their lives such as deaths, inappropriate exploitation of indigenous cultural items and the repeated playing of the Richmond theme song.

Unlike the fairytale pioneers of the Western Bulldogs, Richmond’s premiership propelled the club to greater heights of a record 100,000 members and a playing list that became even hungrier rather than satisfied. Their spirit remains their biggest asset and it has evolved even further. We saw that when every single player on the ground embraced Reece Conca when he went off on the stretcher in Round 15, a gesture that has since be adopted by other teams such as Essendon. We saw it with Dylan Grimes and Daniel Rioli mucking around with a phone just prior to running out before a big game. And of course, we saw it with Jack Higgins kicking crazy snags after delivering a half time address that nobody seems to be able to understand. But is funny nevertheless.

But hey, isn’t that why we play the game to begin with?

And you know what’s even more fun?

Winning premierships.

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