Richmond Tigers fans celebrate on Swan Street after the AFL grand final (Image: AAP/David Crosling)

A man and woman are embracing on Swan Street, outside of what used to be Dimmys and is now a “state-of-the-art” Coles. They’re in their late 20s; cloaked in expensive coats, topped with matching Richmond scarves. The marching crowd of thousands stalls, and he holds her chin and rubs her arm, before they slowly kiss. The movie moment is cut short. A shirtless guy, mid-50s, stumbles up to them crushing a can of Jim Beam and confidently points to a Dustin Martin tattoo on his gut. He screams “up the fucken Tiges!” and the couple throw him high fives as he passes.

Sport is often talked about as the great equalizer, but it’s always surreal to actually see it in action. This probably wasn’t the scene in the MCG on Saturday — where the majority of grand final tickets still go to corporate types who go for the free Crownies — but it was true for Swan Street.

There are young families, old die-hards, men in suits and others in guernseys christened by black Sharpies. They’re spilling out of the dive bars and reno’d gastropubs and cheap sushi joints and Instagrammable restaurants that charge $4 for still water — most with a beer in hand despite cops’ orders. The Herald Sun asked a dad with kids, aged 13 and 15, what he was doing after Richmond’s historic 89-point win over the league’s youngest club, the GWS Giants. “I’m not entirely sure where we will end up,” he said, “but I just want to sing”.

“Ohhhhhhhh… We’re… from… TIGERLAND”. The Richmond theme song blasts from balconies and echoes back from the earth. This is the heart of Tigerland — the main stretch of a divided suburb that lies in the shadow of the MCG. It’s not northside, not south (at least in Melbourne’s cultural terms). It’s historically poor but now mostly rich. Swan Street is now home to an organic food store, an ethical butcher and a boutique bottle shop; there was a poke store for the second it was in fashion. The next main strip is all empty retail, and the one beyond that is Vietnamese takeaways and commission flats. Eight years ago I lived around the latter, in a sharehouse with a wonky door and needles in the gutter. The drug debates are ongoing, but the housing has changed: this year I looked at a new one-bedroom apartment with one window and a lounge you couldn’t fit a couch in. The rent was roughly the same as our old three-bedroom house.

Tigerland is also the name the Richmond Tigers’ offices and training ground, and it’s here, to me at least, that the suburb feels unified. All are welcome at Punt Road Oval.

Coach Damien Hardwick often talks about a “Richmond style of footy” and “being a Richmond man”; it’s a shorthand for toughness, determination and, increasingly, tenderness. Historically, Jack Dyer, nicknamed “Captain Blood”, was the ultimate Richmond man. Today, and specifically this week, that man might be Marlion Pickett: the 27-year-old father of four who played his first ever game in the grand final. Pickett served time in his younger years for burglary; an Indigenous kid from WA who overcame significant odds to thrive on the big stage.

That kind of hunger and character is clear across the list: the old stalwarts like Jack Riewoldt, Trent Cotchin and Shane Edwards who led the club through a decade of darkness; Bachar Houli, a role model in faith and football who routinely plays through Ramadan and was up early the morning after the grand final to coach the Unity Cup; Brandon Ellis, who grew up in Carlton commission flats and now plays footy to support his family; Sydney Stack, who other clubs snubbed for behavioural issues and is now a rising Indigenous star of the game.

These men aren’t all from Richmond and they don’t all live here now, but they are “Richmond men” and the fans are bound by their stories. It’s surely dissonant to outsiders: that this working class underdog is now one of the richest and revered clubs in the game; that a “Richmond man” could be relatable or inspiring while on a six- or seven-figure salary. But it’s hard to be cynical about something that binds people like this; something that provokes strangers to hug and sing on a street that used to feel like home.

On Sunday afternoon, I stumble down Swan Street to grab a burger. The street is clean again. The barber is done handing out free Dusty haircuts. I spend $19 on a burger and chips and silently pop my bottle cap in the jar supporting the local women’s shelter.

A guy near Richmond station checking out bootleg 2019 premiership merch asks for a lighter. He’s been searching for ages. “No one smokes anymore! They’re pushing us out — all the smokers.” He’s only half joking. Some old tragics nearby are still in the same clothes from last night; young women are in activewear with old Richmond scarfs slung on top. I cop the odd nod and smile as they pass. I’ll be here all year, but I’ll see them again next September.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey