Brendon Gale had been in his role as Richmond chief executive for six months, and already he found himself on trial.
The club with which he had enjoyed an 11-year, 244-game career as a player had just come off a season in which it had finished second from bottom. The Tigers hadn’t played finals for nearly a decade, and for the first time in nearly as long had recorded fewer members than the season before.
Gale sat in front of the panel on Channel Nine’s Footy Classified, just a handful of days out from the 2010 AFL season’s opening bounce, and faced the music. After a solid grilling about the state and stability of Ben Cousins — it was 2010, after all — talk moved on to the news of the day, and a leaked document that had the footy world talking.
“Are you embarrassed by it?” asked Garry Lyon, genuinely.
Gale’s crime? Ambition. And his answer? Absolutely not.
History now looks back at Gale’s 10-year battle plan, titled Winning Together, as one of the most inspired and inspiring managerial moves in the AFL’s modern history. At the time, it was little more than a joke.
Three finals appearances by 2014? A complete eradication of the club’s debt, which at that point exceeded $1 million? At least 75,000 members, more than twice the 35,960 the club began 2010 with? Pure fantasy. Pie-in-the-sky thinking from an executive looking to win some fans over and get some good PR before round one.
But that wasn’t even the best of it, the kicker was saved until the end. A club that had not tasted success in 30 years, a period Gale himself called a “collective failure”, wanted three more premierships by 2020.
Three. In 10 years. Numbers reserved only for era-defining and game-changing teams, clubs operating at an elite standard from top to bottom, the juggernauts of Australia’s juggernaut winter sport.
For the Tigers to achieve what Gale set out, it would have to become one of the best teams in the game’s history.
So that’s what they did.
2017: The breakthrough
That this mission was emphatically accomplished on the Gabba, at night, in mid-October is somehow still not the most unlikely part of the story.
As recently as 2016, when a 13th-place finish ended a run of three straight finals appearances and departures, that trio of flags looked as far away as ever. The pressure on coach Damien Hardwick had become suffocating, and the overriding opinion was a complete Richmond reboot was required.
Hardwick’s defiance and confidence, once misconstrued for stubbornness and arrogance, was not misplaced. Much has been written about a change of attitude within the coach, which started early in 2017 and quickly trickled through the rest of the club.
The new Richmond was more relaxed, less worried about what others thought of it. Like their coach, the Tigers began to care about one another in a way they had never fully embraced before. Players were given freedom to express themselves, even while on-field roles became more clearly defined.
Dustin Martin fully became Dusty as we know him that year, and Trent Cotchin went from good player to titanic leader. Alex Rance’s standards remained sky-high but he at last had a system in place to help him, while Jack Riewoldt surveyed his forward line and watched his army of smalls swarm and submerge any loose ball or opponent in sight.
From the outside, it happened almost silently and came entirely without warning. But in those unforgettable few months in the winter and spring of 2017, when 30 years of pain gave way to a generational yellow and black eruption, it was hard not be swept along.
It was a captivating story, but it was not entirely unique. After all, just 12 months earlier the Western Bulldogs had enjoyed their own drought-busting breakthrough and had disappeared back to September holidays as quickly as they had arrived.
That was the fear for Richmond, that this glorious moment in time was to be just that — a moment.
2018: A setback
Throughout this whole dynasty — and we can now safely call it a dynasty with no need for disclaimers — Richmond has never been as good as it was in 2018.
The Tigers were borderline untouchable for that entire season, as sure a premiership bet as you could find right up to the season’s penultimate week. Freed from the pressure of the premiership drought, this was Richmond with the shackles off and mainlining confidence.
It was at this point that the first rumblings of a Tiger era emerged. If nobody can stop them this year, then who could in the future? What exactly is it we are witnessing here?
Then Mason Cox happened. In a game that remains as surreal now as it did on the night, Richmond fell apart amid a first-half Collingwood ambush and could not recover.
In the blink of an eye, the 2018 Tigers were no more, a footnote on someone else’s premiership story. Amid the wreckage on that night at the MCG was the Richmond dynasty, seemingly over before it really began.
As it turns out, they were still just getting started.
2019: Sweet validation
A swift rebound was needed, so Richmond turned into Dennis Rodman — the first thing the Tigers did after falling short in 2018 was bring in one of the best key forwards and most damaging players in the league.
But there was more to Richmond’s 2019 than just Tom Lynch’s arrival. The Tigers were both hungrier and smarter, and carefully plotted their entire season with the Collingwood prelim in the back of their mind and one goal in sight — to be at optimal condition at the most important part of the season.
Outside the club, some were concerned as Richmond fumbled its way through the middle part of the year. Lynch took some time to settle in, some injuries played their part, but the overwhelming sense was that the Tigers were holding something back. Probably because they were.
A quirk of the fixture allowed them to throw everything at the last two months of the season, safe in the knowledge they would not have to leave their MCG home base for near enough to the entire time. One by one, they picked off the challengers with a ruthless efficiency.
At half-time of a preliminary final against Geelong, the spectre of Cox loomed once more. But this time, facing a deficit and the prospect of an untimely exit, Richmond rallied and overcame. Once through to a grand final against a wide-eyed GWS, the result was a formality.
Two premierships then in three years, another Norm Smith Medal for Dusty. The 2019 flag erased the immediate pain of the 2018 preliminary final but it could not completely compensate for the missed opportunity.
Brendon Gale promised three, and if these Tigers wanted to be able to stake their claim as the team of this generation, no fewer would be sufficient.
There’s little more that can be said about season 2020 and Richmond’s momentous achievement. Since the football was restarted in June, AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan repeatedly said he believed a premiership this year would be one of the great achievements in the game’s history.
The randomness and unfamiliarity of the season seemed to increase the potential of an unlikely premier, as if weirdness would naturally beget weirdness. That it would be Richmond — again — speaks to what the club has built, and a resilience that can withstand even self-sabotage.
Richmond did not make it easy for itself this year. Indiscretions from players, both on the field and especially off it, tallied up much too quickly and would have derailed a less self-confident club.
The fires that built up around the team seemed, in a perverse way, to eventually fuel it. If in 2017 the Tigers first learned to ignore the hate, in 2020 they learned how to embrace it.
It made for an even more resilient Richmond, one that could lose heavily to Brisbane in the first week of finals and be forced to the wire by Port Adelaide in a prelim, and still prevail.
That resilience was a feature once more on grand final day, when Geelong pushed the Tigers to the brink in the first half only for Richmond to flip the script entirely.
The Tigers didn’t so much claw themselves back into that game as they did hack and slash Geelong into submission. It was a mighty effort, one worthy of the reward it produced.
There was something about that performance that just made this Tiger era seem more tangible. There is an inevitability to this Richmond team, a helplessness that the opposition surely can’t help but feel as Dusty and Richmond toy with them before finally and coldly snuffing them out.
This win was both the product and cherry on top of the last four years for the Richmond football club. And it was simply magnificent.
The yellow and black dynasty
With this Richmond team’s spot in the upper echelon of our game’s history now secured, the next great debate will be as to its place within that elite group.
In the AFL era, Brisbane and Hawthorn both won three consecutive grand finals and played in four straight grand finals, while Geelong played in four in five years, winning three of them.
This side of the millennium, that’s the benchmark. In the Lions’ and Hawks’ favour is the glorious symmetry of the three-peat, and Geelong has an extra year of longevity to its name.
But Richmond now has a perfect record in grand finals, something none of the other three teams can boast. And whether it’s fully apparent in this moment or not, McLachlan is right when he says the 2020 premiership just has something extra attached to it — not an asterisk, but an exclamation point.
They’re also not done. There’s absolutely no reason to suggest the Tigers will be any lesser team in 2021, no imminent loss of star players or fears of age creeping up and taking over. Three could become four, shifting the conversation entirely.
For now, it remains a pub debate, something to mull over in the summer when the cricket gets boring and when anticipation for 2021, in whatever form that takes, begins in earnest.
But before then, one last look back at Gale’s rallying cry. In it, he namechecks Geelong specifically, the very team that the Tigers needed to conquer to gain membership to the exclusive club.
“We all know of the success of Geelong over the last three years. Was that a fluke? Of course it wasn’t,” Gale said.
“The backbone of Geelong’s success was put together in a room like this, with a group like this, with a plan like ours, at the start of this decade.
“The Cats planned for their success, they brought in good people, who worked together. They acted and made decisions in accordance with a strong set of values. They believed in themselves and their plan.
“They stuck to their plan and remained loyal to each other when the really tough questions were being asked of them.”
Everything Brendon Gale said of Geelong that day in 2010 is true of the Tigers in 2020.
Their story should be an inspiration to every club in the AFL, that meaningful change and sustained success is possible if the ingredients are right and patience is allowed.
They laughed at Richmond once. Now they tremble in its wake.