Richmond fans are sometimes said to be fickle. Photo: John Donegan
At the bottom of the 10th innings of game six of the 1986 World Series, a seven-decade-long curse looked set to be broken. But somehow, the Boston Red Sox found a way to stuff things up. In the press box, the eminent baseball writer of his generation sensed the impending doom. "No shorthand can convey the vast, encircling, supplicating sounds of that night, or the sense of encroaching danger on the field," Roger Angell later wrote.
Angell would have had a field day with the Richmond Football Club. Completely oblivious to our code, he could have nonetheless sat through 15 minutes of the recent North Melbourne-Richmond game and recognised a star-crossed club. A mere minute of the Tigers' debacle on the Gold Coast last year would have also sufficed.
Even more fitting would be that highly charged, completely ridiculous elimination final last September. Footy crowds are rarely like that these days. It was, to steal Martin Amis' description of a Manchester United crowd, "a wraparound millipede of rage and yearning, with the body heat of 180,000 torched armpits, with its ear-hurting roars, and that incensed whistling, like a billion babies joined in one desperate scream".
Of course, as it is preordained with Richmond, everything went the way of the pear. An hour later, my local bottle shop was full of solitary figures in yellow and black scarves, blundering through the aisles like lambs in a shopping centre - chalk white, wrung out, avoiding eye contact, shaking their heads. The Tiger Trudge.
It's probably pointless, but you can take a superficial stab at the archetypal Tiger. They're aged between 40 and 55. They had a fleeting, childhood taste of league domination. Their heroes played with broken legs, churned out hundreds of thousands of push-ups and turned defenders inside out on grand final day. They then copped a generation of sluggards whose appetite for the contest was less than voracious. They endured the player war with Collingwood, the rebuilds, the false dawns, the ninth spots, the Tuesdays with Terry, the calamitous drafting. Many of them now have little kids in tow. The Tiger tots have a bounce in their step that is at odds with both jumper and parent. They haven't yet seen the darkness. They haven't mastered the Tiger Trudge.
Indeed, heavy is the tread of Richmond's 60,000 or so members. You can see them on the trains from the south east and in and around the Rising Sun Hotel. Before games, they are gobby, boozy and in good spirits. It takes a hangman's wit, after all, to sit through that for three decades. But when the ball bounces, their eyes, their shoulders and their careworn faces betray them.
They barrack differently. Everything feels exaggerated and out of whack at a Richmond game. A four- or five-goal run-on feels particularly propitious. A momentary on-field lapse in concentration and the supporters start thinking 10 scenarios ahead. You can feel the gulp of tens of thousands of Adam's apples. When the capitulation comes, it feels like the sky's about to fall in. Their faces a deep shade of teak, they let fly with expletives, invective and projectiles. They shove their hands in their coat pockets and begin that walk home. The Tiger Trudge.
The players follow suit. Donning their hoodies and clutching their takeaway coffees, they arrive for training and have the snout of a microphone thrust in their face. "What would you say to your fans?" the TV reporter asks. The players trudge on. The really unlucky ones are chased through the neighbouring suburb and train station, like one of those industry rogues on A Current Affair.
Richmond fans are sometimes said to be fickle. Even Wikipedia has the temerity to note: "Richmond has an enormous support than can lie dormant during times of poor performance but is vociferous and very noticeable during periods of success." But there is surely no more loyal supporter base. Indeed, supporters of Hawthorn, Geelong, Collingwood and most of the interstate clubs know, deep down, that we would have pulled the pin if we had been subjected to that. As Paul Keating would say, we have been hit on the arse by a rainbow. It will never mean as much to us.
Richmond fans sing, they front up and they put on a brave face. But their glasses are three-quarters empty. At half-time in the North Melbourne game, a good friend and long-suffering Tiger trudged off to the TAB to back the Kangaroos. His team was six goals the better and playing like millionaires, yet he could barely summon a smile. North promptly finished off their season in half a quarter. My friend won a small fortune and ne’er a more miserable looking man has ever handed over a winning ticket.
Half the problem, of course, is that bloody theme song. It's too good. It promises too much. It's the only song that opposition supporters tap their feet to. Jack Malcolmson, the cabaret singer-cum junior footy coach who penned it, added "Yellow and Black!" as something of an afterthought. But these days, it is a crescendo. It is also a purge. However momentarily, it expunges three decades of Ablett maulings, Save Our Skins campaigns, microwaved memberships and "I Was There When We Were Shit" T-shirts.
I still remember the streets of inner-city Melbourne the night Collingwood won the 1990 grand final. To a kid, it seemed apocalyptic. Hoddle Street was utter pandemonium. Should Richmond win one, you could multiply that tenfold. It may well cause planetary realignment. That said, not everyone will be rooting for them. They're no one's second team. They're too loud, too lippy and too much of a potential powerhouse to garner pity. But their fans deserve better. They have been put through too much. When the day finally comes, our fair town will never be the same again.