Any flat-Earthers out there who doubt that corpses can slap their thighs and laugh like drunken hyenas should visit the graves of Jack Dyer, Graeme Richmond and other fabled enforcers from the Tiger pantheon before heading to the MCG on Saturday. Chances are, the founding hardmen would be highly amused at the prospect of the heirs to their ruthless lineage crowd-surfing to glory on a surge of popular goodwill. They’d probably feel more vindicated by the talkback outlier who called SEN radio a few weeks ago to register his dissenting sympathies.
“If Richmond was playing ISIS in the Grand Final,” the caller told SEN host Kevin Bartlett, once considered the Tigers’ greatest living player, “I’d barrack for ISIS.”
It was dubious humour, but understandable given the romantic licence spreading like a new strain of flu among the football punditry and (so they tell us) public.
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Nostalgia for things that never happened is nine-tenths of sports lore nowadays. Half the folk heroes and golden girls we’re presumed to love haven’t won anything of note, unless you regard Hamish McLachlan’s heart as a holy grail. None of the aviator-wearing valedictorians waving from sponsors’ cars on Grand Final day will have gone unremunerated for their long careers of self-sacrifice and service. Most had so-so seasons in teams that went backwards, consistent with the laws of diminishing returns but out of whack with the gravitas accorded their bodies of work, recited into posterity, and their hard-luck stories, selectively told. I’m pretty sure Olivier bowed out with fewer ovations. But every generation has to discover the Zippo lighter for itself, I guess.
Richmond’s place in this misty cavalcade is, obviously, warranted on the basis of its prolonged failure to win anything at all — hence the forecast scenes of citywide, hats-in-the-air, any-boss-who-sacks-a-worker-today-is-a-bum-style euphoria.
The MCC has been advising of an upsurge in unruly crowd behaviour in the Reserve for several weeks now and reminding members that they’re responsible for the conduct of their guests. The AFL, of course, has a longstanding policy of imploring crowds not to behave atrociously rather than prevailing on them to behave well. The happy upside is that, caught in this unholy crossfire of obscenities, the corporates and their once-a-year guests may find the Grand Final experience less congenial than expected, and make different arrangements in future.
That’s where the feel-good ends. The thing that seems to have been forgotten in all the giddy anticipation is just what a force of unrivalled repugnance a powerful and victorious Richmond Football Club actually is. Millennials probably want to know what this looks like.
Well, kids, it’s not pretty. We’re not gracious people at Tigerland, and we’re generally at our least gracious in victory. Geelong commuters who jammed radio switchboards after the qualifying final rout to complain about the mob behaviour of celebrating Richmond supporters probably think they know this already. They don’t know the tenth of it. GWS players may not have felt like Giants when they entered last week’s partisan maelstrom at the MCG. They may have felt more like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, emerging from their foxhole to find themselves surrounded by the armies of six states. We’re not lovable working-class battlers or well-bred Presbyterians with family values and missionary intentions. We’re no one’s second favourites. We’re a seething underclass, driven by generational failure, blasted hopes and suppressed feelings of superiority that we prefer not to dwell on.
Premierships are regarded as the only KPIs that matter in AFL football, but, in Richmond’s case, even that irrefutable calculus is subject to variation. Leapin’ Larry L, for instance, has always looked to a different bellwether: “We’ll know we’re back when everybody hates us,” he said.
The two figures most pivotal to Richmond mythology were a ruckman with a nickname appropriate to his football philosophy and a man whose real name was too fated to be invented by fable-spinners.
Captain Blood, christened Jack Dyer, played 312 games and broke 64 collarbones. If he were plying his martial trade in the Tom Hawkins era, there’s every chance those statistics may well read the other way around.
Graeme Richmond never made it as a player but he loved the club and stayed on to become its most uncompromising administrator and a brilliant procurer of talent, albeit using methods that would not survive the scrutiny of today’s integrity officers. Richmond the man gave Richmond the club a credo — better to be hated and feared than liked and admired — that remains current today.
Measuring your progress by the loathing you inspire may not be everyone’s idea of noble purpose, but it’s important to know. Anyone who thinks Collingwood or Carlton or Hawthorn are insufferable in victory should start planning for the nightmare contingency of a yellow-and-black premiership. The Pies of the post-Malthouse reconstruction reflect the skills and priorities of their two strongest personalities — they perform well in and for the media. Joffa and his ragged entourage still talk a feisty story but the fan soldiers waiting in the shadows are not the feral legions he remembers. The Blues of the post-Kernahan “We’re Carlton and fuck the rest” period are a weak pale ale to the full-strength boorishness of Big Jack Elliott and the Fosters years. It’s dispiriting just looking at them.
Hawthorn people are pious to their privileged core and it wouldn’t surprise if someone from their network of altruists, possibly a former state premier, has already offered unsought counsel to the Richmond board on how to optimise the commercial potential of its burgeoning brand, probably with a strategy based on brand integrity, club stability, family values, character, culture and other nonsensical figures of speech.
Say it to the fend-off, guys. We don’t need your advice. We have deep untapped reservoirs of wealth and arrogance at our disposal. We have armies queuing at the gates. A win on Saturday and our business model will be Standing Room Only. Our motto will be Leave The Kids at Home.
Be careful what you wish for. It might happen.