In a remarkable moment of incidental prescience, I actually first published that last sentence a year ago tomorrow, after it dawned on me that the Western Bulldogs’ qualification for the 2016 decider now meant that, of all AFL clubs, only Richmond had a longer Grand Final drought than Adelaide.
Since we last took the field for the Big Dance in 1998, every other club (save for the two that have been around for about five minutes, and even one of those has come close) has managed to book in a Grand Final berth, even if it did not end well. Every other club, that is, except Richmond.
Their drought stretches back somewhat longer.
In fact, just to put it in some sort of context: when we last played in a Grand Final, their Grand Final drought was roughly as long as ours is now.
Which is perhaps why, over four seasons now of writing this column (of which I hope to pen my last ever next week) there has been something of a recurring theme along the lines of: “Oh well, at least we’re not Richmond.”
I’d contend that being that close without ever making it for 20 years is a more brutal fate than 40 years of never being near the mark
A team long ridiculed for perpetually finishing ninth, only to finally make the eight – and lose to the team that finished ninth.
Earlier this year, in the midst of their “death from the jaws of life” trilogy – wherein they conspired to lose three games on the trot by less than a goal (the first side to manage such a feat since, yes, themselves five years earlier) – I noted that “for all of our multitudinous gripes as Adelaide supporters, we can at least thank our lucky stars that we do not support Richmond”.
When I first started writing these ponderous tomes in 2014, I made a jibe at the Tigers’ expense and ended up accepting an ill-advised wager with a Richmond fan who posted in the comments that we would finish the year below them on the ladder, which cost me (or InDaily, really) a six-pack of beer.
I have also compared the Tigers unfavourably to the South Australian Liberal Party – since they both tend to dispatch their leaders in fits of panic and neither has won anything of note for longer than anyone can remember. And I’ve mused that “their constant ability to torment their supporters is as unexplainable as the fact they still have so many supporters to torment”.
So it was probably always inevitable this would happen.
That when, after almost two decades, we finally fought our way back to the Grand Final stage, we would be sharing it with one of the few teams that could reasonably be considered a more sentimental favourite.
And, moreover, that one of the few teams we could reliably still ridicule for sport might well beat us to a flag.
First things first, though.
Because the very fact we are even playing on Grand Final day still feels to me like some kind of crazy dream from an age when I sported dreadlocks and fit into size 30 jeans, and when a phrase such as “I just liked your Tweet” made about as much sense as…well, Richmond playing in a Grand Final.
The last time we made it this far I was doing the rounds of my friends’ 21st birthday parties; this year I’m doing the rounds of 40ths.
And yet, after 19 years and all the heartbreaks and twists of fate, it has been a strangely untroubled path to the last Saturday in September.
In ’97, the road to the Big Dance was littered with potholes: we were lucky to escape the Cats 20 years ago, and astronomically so to upset the Bulldogs a week later. I have re-watched that final quarter against Footscray probably more times than any other in the years since, and I still can’t quite believe we pulled it off.
In fact, after the Swans in ’05 and the Bulldogs last year, our ’97 campaign was probably the unlikeliest path to a premiership I can recall.
And then in ’98, we were soundly beaten in our first final – a lapse that would have ended our season in later years – and still managed to make it all the way through.
It seemed so easy back then!
Which made it somehow more befuddling that in the years since, no matter the heights we managed to hit, we never again managed to win through to the decider.
And yet somehow this September (despite the ever-present butterflies) has been unusually comfortable.
We have now beaten two of our three fellow top-four sides, and beaten them with relative ease.
If we manage to better Richmond, we will have defeated our remaining top four challenger, which would surely dispel any doubts as to our pedigree.
But still, I remain relieved that we didn’t cross paths with nominally lesser sides: a finals fixture against Sydney – or, of course, Port – always filled me with greater dread than the Giants or even Paddy’s Cats.
I was nervous as hell in the lead-up to Friday night – the hype over the impact of the bye got to me, I guess, as did the weight of that history that perpetually haunts us. But from the first two goals – to Charlie and Eddie – within the first two minutes of play, coupled with Dangerfield’s fluffed chance to pull one back, it was clear we had this one.
Danger had already cost us one flag – there was no way we were going to let him cost us two in a row.
For long-suffering Crows supporters, it was an evening of enraptured catharsis. Geelong fell 48 points down before they broke the flurry of goals, but they never seriously challenged.
And, of course, we got to enjoy the symbolic ‘middle-finger’ moment wherein Rory Sloane inadvertently flattened his good mate Danger, as the “two bulls” collided at full throttle.
The best moment of the night though came – ironically – as Paddy kicked one of his two second-quarter goals before Geelong’s brief fightback was swiftly snuffed out, when an old lady in the crowd near me scoffed indignantly: “Shame on you!”
I could have kissed her!
And if there was one thing sweeter than watching our players finally celebrate a preliminary final win, it was getting to watch our former best and fairest watching them celebrate a preliminary final win.
It was glorious.
It was a moment for everyone who cheered them on 20 years ago. Except maybe Andrew Mackie.
But I like to think that, deep down, even Young Andrew Mackie was still silently cheering on his beloved Crows. As they ended his future career.
I’ve heard it said already that we will feel bad having to wreck the Tigers’ party to claim our third flag; that it’s the football equivalent of shooting Bambi.
But frankly, that’s bollocks.
Personally, I can live quite happily with cruelling their September hopes.
And if there’s a Bambi in this scenario, it’s not bloody Richmond – it’s us.
And not merely because of the monumental shitstorm this club has trudged through to get us to that one day in September, genuine tragedies that make the Tigers’ routine boardroom scuffles look like the petulant politicking they actually are.
Really, the only hardship Richmond has had to suffer since their last Grand Final appearance is the fact they are not very good at football.
Everyone talks about the fact they haven’t been in a preliminary final since 2001, but few point out that they actually lost said preliminary final by 68 points. Having lost a qualifying final two weeks earlier by 70 points.
They were briefly premiership favourites for a week after the first round of the following year, when they smashed Collingwood in the season opener. I suspect that week is the only time they have been premiership favourites since the early-80s; and they finished the year 14th of 16 teams.
Much has been made of their three successive elimination final defeats in recent years, but the fact is those defeats were neither here nor there because they weren’t going to figure prominently in the September action regardless.
That’s why they were only playing in elimination finals.
And the main reason they haven’t played in a Grand Final in all that time is because they haven’t been very good.
By contrast, we’ve rarely been far off the mark.
We’ve narrowly missed the major round a few times, but have also managed to lose three elimination finals, four semi-finals and four preliminary finals – many of them in sickeningly heartbreaking fashion – since our last premiership.
In at least seven of those, I genuinely believed we were a fair shot at a Grand Final.
And I’d contend that being that close without ever making it for 20 years is a more brutal fate than 40 years of never being near the mark.
Which is probably why I’ve all of a sudden become overtly superstitious this week; I chastised my kids for opening an umbrella indoors on Sunday. And I’m ensuring my ‘lucky’ 2001-issue supporters’ scarf is ready for Saturday’s game, because I was living in Melbourne the year I bought it, and as such got to enjoy our impressive 5-1 record in Victoria that season, as opposed to a fairly lamentable 6-6 at home.
One of those wins, incidentally, was among my more cherished victories over Richmond – prevailing by 28-points at the MCG after coming from behind to kick nine goals straight to one in the third term.
In fact, Richmond has traditionally been one of my favourite teams to play, not least because of a (still) club-record 139-point drubbing in ’93 and a 137-point demolition en route to our ’97 flag.
But there were also some solid wins over the Tiges in the Gary Ayres era: a 75-point rout in 2004 despite the Crows going in winless after four rounds; a narrow victory after a teetering arm-wrestle in 2000 that marked Nigel Smart’s 200th with one of the games of the season.
Aptly enough, yesterday the Gary Ayres-coached Port Melbourne snatched the VFL Grand Final over Richmond’s reserves side, with the Tigers missing the chance to win the game with a goal after the siren.
That’s gotta be a good omen.
Not to mention Marty Mattner’s Sturt seeing off Chad Cornes’ Port by a point.
Ah yes, poor old Port. That’s two sudden-death finals they’ve lost this month by a collective three points, in case anyone’s lost track.
But of course there are worse things than losing close finals, as they may recall when considering the events of ten years ago this week.
But unfortunately we’re a little too preoccupied right now to adequately mark that significant milestone, a decade of ‘119’ references.
Which is almost a shame. Almost.
But there’s something else too.
Because I came to football pretty late in the piece, as a supporter I never quite felt I deserved the back to back flags.
I was like the Aaron Keating of football supporters – I just kind of turned up at the right time.
Sure, I celebrated the success.
But I didn’t have to suffer for it.
I didn’t endure the will-we-won’t-we intrigue of whether we could even put together a team, or sit through the invariable one-sided away losses of the early years. I simply, one day, shelved my long-standing lofty aversion to the game, just in time to celebrate successive premierships. At which point I was ensconced.
I’ve suffered now though. For 19 years, I’ve hardly missed a match, determined to ensure that when the next flag came along, I’d earned the right to celebrate it.
And now, at last, the two teams with the longest grand final droughts in the AFL are playing in the grand final.
I may live to regret saying this, but I’m not even annoyed the Match Review Panel predictably opted to let Trent Cotchin play this week, under two little-known-but-often-applied AFL rules: the ‘Good Bloke’ loophole and the ‘You can’t miss Grand Final Day for That’ clause.
But I’d rather beat them at their best.
Although he would’ve been fine in any case, given it’s understood Richmond’s lawyers had prepared a rock solid case for appeal.
But now the Tiger Train is overloaded, and we stand in its path.
If it were as easy as saying ‘may the better team win’, all would be well, since we are objectively the better team. We finished higher, outstrip them in most relevant facets of the game, and haven’t lost to them since 2014, with our last win a 76-point shellacking at home.
But, sadly, it isn’t that easy.
It is, as ever, down to the vagaries of form and chance.
Not a single player from either team has ever played in a match of this magnitude, and if we pull it off, there will be little more to say than this:
For now, though, we can say this much for certain, finally – it will be grand.
One to go. We can do this.
Touch of the Fumbles is InDaily’s weekly Monday AFL column. Yes, it’s shamelessly biased. Even up the score in the comments section below.
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