As Richmond players made their way triumphant from the MCG on Friday night, fans clapping their hands red, there was a sign that simply said, “we heart richmond”.
The humble, hand-painted sign represents a bigger story – a story about a group of people that love their club. It is a love that for nearly 40 years has been an ill-fated romance so deeply knit into the Richmond psyche that it has inspired a cottage industry of elegiac football tales.
Many of these can be found on the football blog ‘tiger tiger burning bright’, a play on the William Blake poem, The Tyger. The creator of the site, Dugald Jellie, is also the man holding the “we heart richmond” sign and the impetus behind the broader project of “a love letter to our boys”, which saw signs come from all over the world – Dubai, Kenya and London – from all ages, and from women and children.
“The reason for the signs, the idea, was a psychological thing – to take away the pressure from the players,” says Jellie. “It was something to show the players who we are – the faces and voices in the crowd. They must look up and not be able to distinguish anybody. So make a sign, do something hand-made and with care – not corporate – and hold it up.”
The project also helped Jellie deal with the anxiety and pressure he felt before Friday night’s game, one that would be familiar to most football fans, particularly those who follow Richmond.
“My lunch tasted like cardboard that day, it was a physiological response to anxiety that someone has referred to as Tiger Tummy,” says Jellie. “I had to do menial tasks on Friday. I organised my whole day around not doing anything cerebral.”
Out at a pub on Saturday night, Jellie bumped into a fellow traveller wearing a Richmond scarf and they traded tales over a glass of Punt Road sparkling. “This guy was talking about how he took Friday off work and spent it walking his dog – and there would be thousands of Richmond supporters who felt exactly the same way.”
There must have been 60-odd thousand of them who converged on the MCG on Friday night, all with a knot of anxiety in their stomach. Those in the Richmond rooms carrying the expectations of tens of thousands also would also have felt it to varying degrees. In a column last week, Chris Judd wrote of the players having “a virtual tug of war in their own heads that exhausts them even before the first siren has sounded”.
“Again, the idea behind the signs was to say to the players, let us carry some of the burden of your anxiety, transfer it to us and just go play for yourselves and each other,” says Jellie.
And for a large part of Friday night carry that burden they did. “For three quarters, there was just the utmost tension.”
While Richmond’s defensive pressure had been just as immense, it was not reflected on the scoreboard. At half-time the Tigers had 3.7 to their name and it felt like an opportunity wasted – particularly when Geelong levelled the scores midway through the third quarter. But with less than a minute remaining in the term, and with the Tigers just seven points up, Dustin Martin fended off Geelong’s Tom Stewart and took off down the Southern Stand wing. This was Martin in his natural state, and with the game on the line, consumed in a perfect circumstance. His kick found Jack Riewoldt, who wheeled onto his right to find an unmarked Dion Prestia who goaled from less than 15-metres out to put the Tigers 13 points up with a quarter to play.
Like all those in yellow and black, Jellie was still anxious at three-quarter-time, but Martin’s moment had created a sense of destiny. “All the Richmond people at the ground shared a quiet optimism that this was the moment,” says Jellie.
But being Richmond, they could never be quite sure. For more than a decade Richmond versus Geelong had been nothing but a heart looking for different ways to break. “The longer we go not beating them, the sooner we have to win. It was almost perfect that we didn’t beat them at Geelong, we had to beat them when it mattered most.”
The last quarter was a celebration. Given his high profile recommitment to the club, Martin’s second fend off of Tom Stewart before a long bomb to Sean Grigg in the goal square was catnip to dewy-eyed Richmond romanticists. It is said that change comes very slowly, but then happens all at once. Martin’s burst was the all-at-once part. Led Zeppelin said “if it keeps on raining, levee’s going to break” and the adrenal rush that usually comes at the end of the game broke 10 minutes into the final quarter for Tiger fans.
“The whole of the day and night was just a wonderful emotional experience. From gut-wrenching tension and uncertainty and fear, and then a release of joy and total freedom. A release of all the burden and pressure.”
Walking from the ground, Jellie describes the feeling as subdued. “We had 15 minutes to absorb all the adrenalin and walk quietly from the ground full of contentment.” Or it might just be that Richmond people don’t know how to feel right now. Suffering is a part of their identity – blowing high draft picks, finishing ninth and losing a game to the Gold Coast… in Cairns… after the siren… off the boot of a rugby league convert.
There is a generation of Richmond supporters born in the early 1980s that cannot remember their club as being relevant this time of year – before Friday night the Tigers had won just two finals in 35 years. They’ve not known success.
But now Jellie believes Richmond has found it. “That alchemy of whatever we do will turn to gold now and it’s glorious.”
In a little under two weeks Richmond will return to the MCG to play either Greater Western Sydney or the West Coast Eagles. “The MCG is our spiritual home and all our supporters should be able to get tickets,” says Jellie, describing it as a celebration of Richmond – a celebration of loyalty, faith and endurance. And right now, all the signs point to the Tigers’ first grand final since 1982.