Illustration: Mick Connolly.
"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more" – Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch in the 1976 classic, Network.
Richmond supporters have been, at different stages, mad as hell and mad as hatters. They've suffered indignities that no other tribe, not even martyred Saints or downtrodden Dogs, can match.
Under Damien Hardwick, the Tigers made steady progress by remaining measured. The people in charge, such as Hardwick, chief executive Brendon Gale and the football department brass, were resolute in their rationality. Neither type of "mad" – insanity or anger – has been evident at Punt Road for some time.
The Gale-Hardwick regime has been marked by steady, rather than spectacular, progress. The off-field game plan since 2009 was logical: clean out the dead wood and the oldies. Go to the draft. Fill a few holes with some cheap cast-offs or bargain recruits, Sydney-style (though not Sydney-quality). Stick with Hardwick, beef up a malnourished football department, tap some Sydney fund managers and rich supporters for money before hitting up the masses. Wipe off the debt.
Not everything has been perfect – the club overdosed on second-rate recycled "talent" – but, in corporate terms, the growth graph was enough to satisfy the shareholders. If Richmond was a stock, it would have given them nice returns since 2010.
This rationality is fine, and has served the club well. Geelong has a similarly composed temperament. When Mark Thompson and Gary Ablett left, the Cats – aside from some initial angst about Bomber's defection – quietly replaced them en route to the 2011 flag.
But there comes a time in a club's development, when there must be more than rational acceptance, when the playing group decides it is fed up with losing, that it can't accept this crap any more, that excuses won't wash. This moment came for Geelong in 2007, after five rounds, when the players themselves took responsibility for their gross under-achievement, bared some inconvenient truths and began demanding more of each other – and winning.
They haven't stopped.
Richmond had a less dramatic version of that "we're not going to take it any more" moment in the middle of this Hyde and Jekyll season. At 3-10, the club was preparing for a high draft pick. Wisely, Hardwick did not pull up stumps and play stringbean Liam McBean – maybe he'd looked at the fixture and noted that it was entering a friendlier phase.
The players took ownership of their fate, from what this column gathers, to a degree that hadn't happened before. In that steady rise from 2010, Richmond's players have been directed, not directing. But by the middle of 2014, enough players had enough experience to assert themselves.
The game plan wasn't changed, but the focus was simplified. In these complicated times, players can be overloaded with information. Jack Riewoldt had opined that the Tigers had borrowed too much from Hardwick's alma mater, Hawthorn. Jack, alas, wasn't talking about their kicking skills.
The coaches pared it back to fundamentals: win the contested ball, move it more quickly, and – not least – defend all over the ground, not just in the defensive 50-metre arc. There was a premium on winning the ball back. Up to this point, Richmond had been not only poorly performed, but awful to watch. It had fiddled with a stagnant, indecisive brand, in which you could see the thought bubble forming over the player's head as he hesitated (prior to turnover). Tommy Hafey would have been aghast.
Personnel, obviously, was an enormous reason for the turnaround. Alex Rance and Ivan Maric had been absent in the early disasters, while Brett Deledio's Achilles injury had seen him sidelined or shut down. Anthony Miles came from nowhere to become a ball-winner who would release Dustin Martin and sometimes Deledio to play forward. Brandon Ellis found consistency. When Ty Vickery whacked Dean Cox and was suspended, Ben Griffiths – who remains out of contract – stepped in and surprised at centre half-forward.
What Rance and Maric provided, aside from defensive rebound (Rance) and grunt in the stoppages (big Ivan), was no less important: leadership. Trent Cotchin, meanwhile, was developing confidence as captain, learning how to communicate more effectively with teammates.
If they win on Sunday, as expected, the Tigers will have won their eighth game on the trot. Normally, this is the formline of a team destined for the top four. Nothing about Richmond's year is normal, however. This year, the Hyde period means they must rely on improbabilities to make the eight – such as beating Sydney at ANZ Stadium next weekend.
While we are compelled and fascinated by the cliffhanger ending – can they make it? – the truth is that it hardly matters whether the Tigers finish eighth, or in that traditional ninth. What they've managed, particularly over the last two matches against Essendon and Adelaide, is to learn how to win. Club insiders reckon that, even though they won 15 games in 2013, the team of last year did not show the kind of steel that saw the Tigers wrest back the momentum from the Dons and Crows.
Last year, the Tigers caught Hawthorn and stunned a few sides with their audacity, but when the spotlight shone brightest – such as in the elimination final against Carlton – they melted. While the Tigers of 2014 mightn't play finals, they've won games lately that last year's less seasoned side would have botched.
The Jekyll end to a split season shouldn't obscure the weaknesses in the playing list, nor make the administration complacent. The club won't detour much from its plan to invest primarily in the draft, rather than pursuing free agency and trades. Richmond recognises, however, that it will probably need to land an A-grader from another club at some stage in the future.
At 3-10, when afflicted teams often begin putting players in for surgery – or outright folding the tent – the Tigers took the right path. To suggest that the recovery will be for nought if they don't make the eight is nonsense. Crowds, which had dropped off, will return; members who were ready to incinerate their cards, will renew. The AFL, which wasn't about to fixture many Friday nights for the Tigers, will give them a fair share.
We cannot confidently predict what will next happen to the Tigers. Which period is the real anomaly – the first 13 games, or the last 7-8? Neither, though I suspect the former is further from "the real Richmond".
Making the eight doesn't matter as much as learning how to lead, to take ownership and how to win. And winning only follows when the players are fed up with failure.