Illustration: Mick Connolly
''And what rough beast, its hour come round at last; Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?''
W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming.
IF YOU live anywhere east of Monash University, or happen to stumble into a Richmond pub over the next few days, the odds are high that you'll see one of them slouching towards the bar.
AFL Round 10 2012:St.Kilda V Richmond
Jack Riewoldt outmarks Jason Blake. Photo: Pat Scala
He - they are mainly male - might be wearing an undersized jumper with a yellow sash or a shiny yellow and black jacket. Contrary to popular myth, the older species no longer has the famed 1980 jumper, and AFL research suggests that he will be stabbing his fingers on an iPhone. Richmond fans rank fifth among the AFL's tribes for using iPhone applications.
He looks as though he became lost after celebrating Friday night, missed the last train to Cranbourne, or was too drunk to drive to Rowville - which the club has discovered are two of the four postcodes in which the feral Tiger is most abundant (Narre Warren and Glen Waverley are the other heartlands, research shows). Don't be frightened by him. He's a happy soul, right now. If he displays aggression, quickly voice ''Oh we're from Tigerland'' and you'll have an unwanted friend for the night.
He has two kids, one of whom follows the Tigers, who will pick up more support among the pre-adolescents now. Richmond rates eighth in the AFL's Auskick registrations - a modest ranking that reflects two realities. The first is that kids love winners, the second is that Richmond hasn't been one for 30 years. Success, coupled with the 2012 crop of charismatic players (Jack, the Mullet, Dusty and Cotchy), will ensure that the children of the Rowville rusted-ons won't be tempted by Buddy and Cyril, Collingwood's tattooed midfield or Essendon's Hird of wholesome hard-nuts.
It would be wrong to say this beast is ''back'' because he didn't ever go away; he stuck with them, though there were times when he stopped going every week, became angry or despondent and their crowds dwindled (notably in the late '80s and early '90s). It didn't take much to get him aroused - a good win over an interstate team at the 'G, Richo kicking 4.7. Heck, even those ephemeral ninth placings kept him hopeful.
The Tiger army is one of the game's great mysteries and characters. Collingwood, Essendon and Carlton have won 15-16 premierships and have never been terrible for more than a decade. The ''big three'' of Melbourne were fairly constant in winning games and (Collingwood 1958-1990 excepted) flags over the past 100 years. Not so Richmond, which had much of its success concentrated from the mid-60s until the early '80s, the seminal period that yielded five premierships and a host of champions. It forged a fierce culture that, as ex-Richmond chief executive and Melbourne boss Cameron Schwab put it, later changed from ''eat 'em alive'' to ''eat your own''.
Richmond's membership will hit 50,000 this week, placing it fourth. It ranks fourth among the 18 clubs for web traffic, and eighth on Facebook - whatever that means. Before this round, it was third for 2012 average attendances, with virtually the same number (47,802) as Carlton (2nd, 47,979) and Essendon (4th, 47,711). A Channel Seven insider recently told the Tigers he hoped that they would beat St Kilda, simply because of the ratings it would reap.
Why do so many follow Richmond? Following the Tigers' intoxicating win over the Saints - it was hard for anyone who wasn't a Sainter not be swept up in the roar emotion - I asked a former colleague why he'd sworn fealty to the yellow and black. ''I lived in Noble Park. It was a Richmond area,'' he said. ''But that was a Swans zone,'' I replied.
''Uhm, yeah, the Morwoods were from there, that's right,'' he recalled, as the Foster's fog lifted. ''But everyone at school was Richmond.''
Richmond was historically blessed to move to the MCG at the precise moment when the Melbourne Football Club fell into a hole following the exits of Norm Smith and Ron Barassi.
Melbourne had owned the ground in the '50s and '60s. Whichever club ''owns'' the MCG arguably has primacy in Victoria - Collingwood of today a case in point. The Tigers would have sovereignty from 1966 until the early '80s, their success creating a G-force strong enough to withstand sustained failure.
But the Richmond appeal was deeper than just success and that theme song. The Tigers, as Tim Watson once explained (he followed them as a child), were the outlaws.
The club Godfather, Graeme Richmond, called their motto ''kill or be killed.'' That 1970s and early '80s team was the competition's Hell's Angels, willing to play outside the rules. ''Ned Kelly would follow Richmond,'' was how a friend explained it. For impressionable youth, the notion that a team could be both successful and rebellious was hard to beat; it's the same sympathy for the devil that had some teens choosing the Rolling Stones over the Beatles.
Too often, administrations ran scared of the Tiger hordes. Coaches would be sacked, boards undermined, in order to pacify them. Even the recruitment of Ben Cousins, as president Gary March admitted then, was partly influenced by the fans' desire to see Cousins, who fitted the outlaw bill, in their colours.
The combination of extreme success followed by decades of extreme failure made for a justifiably angry supporter base - a situation expertly exploited over the years by sports radio hosts. Lately, however, the club has become more professional and the anger seemed to have ebbed; increasingly, there's been a light-hearted edge to the yellow and black cult, helped by lovable Richo and (yellow and) black humour.
The game is a form of entertainment. Richmond, whatever its failing, never fails on that score - witness Jake King. More than anything, what maintains interest in the Tigers is the fact that they're always interesting.