A TIGER IN THE DOG’S KENNEL

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Western suburbs born and bred, Werribee resident Chris Riches’ family had no choice but to accept that it was a tiger, and not a dog, that had captured his young imagination – and heart. Years later he got to share the jubilation with his family when their beloved Bulldogs finally brought home the flag in 2016. Now in 2017 it’s Chris’ Tigers that have that same opportunity.

Thirty-five years ago, in fact, 35 years ago yesterday, my Dad bought me a flag.

Not just any flag, mind you, and not just from anywhere either. It was – is – an old style VFL Richmond flag emblazoned with a rampant tiger logo, and purchased from a stall outside the MCG as we left near the end of the Grand Final.

The last Grand Final Richmond were in.

Dad and I had, a couple of weeks earlier, ventured out to Waverley to watch Richmond beat Carlton and win their way into that Grand Final.

I remember nothing of the game.

I do remember walking back out to the car with dad, happy as a seven-year-old could be, certain (as only a seven-year-old could be) that we’d rack up another flag in a fortnight’s time.

Image of Chris and Nathaniel holding the vintage Tigers flat

Chris and Nathanial with ‘that’ flag

We’d missed the one in 1980 as we were away on holiday, but given how good Richmond were, it was just a matter of time before we’d be winning another.

So on Grand Final day, my Bulldogs-supporting dad and I travelled to the MCG. It rained, I think we got wet. Then it dried out. We were out in the open, up high in the grandstand.

There was an expectation the Tigers would win. I certainly remember thinking in my seven year-old head that we should win. We’d beaten Carlton just a fortnight earlier after all.

Of course, that’s not how it turned out.

Maybe it was because the thought of Richmond losing hadn’t entered my head, but by the end of the game I was in tears.

So that’s why we ended up at one of the stalls outside the ground, my dad buying me a Richmond flag.

Even in tears it is one of my fondest childhood memories of my dad. As we left, trudging across the footbridge, he gave me a hug and said: “Don’t worry, they’ll be back next year.”

I believed him of course. What seven-year-old doesn’t believe their dad when he speaks with such authority?

Of course they weren’t back the next year. Or the year after.

It didn’t stop me going to the football, but the next final I went to was a Bulldogs one. In fact, I was more likely to go with dad to the Western Oval to watch excellent Bulldogs teams play excellent football.

After all, my mob were a rabble. They were still my mob, that never changed. But they were a rabble.

And that flag, it stayed hidden away in a cupboard somewhere in my room.

Of course I could never get rid of it – it was irreplaceable. But I never really took it out to games … the circumstances under which it was bought and the way Richmond ended up going – hell, that flag, rampant Tiger and all, well, it had to be cursed with bad luck.

And so it went, for years and years. Every time Richmond showed some competence, some level of football nous, every time we pulled it together and looked like we were on our way back, something would happen to make it all fall apart.

Ninths. Freak injuries. Bad administration. No money. Bad recruiting. Bad luck.

Sure there were small triumphs but as the years rolled on a certain level of fatalism grew.

Maybe we would never be good again. Maybe it was the fault of that damn flag.

No, it couldn’t be, the rational part of my brain would say. It is just a flag. Flags can’t be cursed.

Finals, finally

Yet after more darkness, 2013 arrived. The clouds parted, we had some hope – unbelievably, finals beckoned.

By now Nathaniel was six, indoctrinated into the black and yellow cult.

I don’t know if I showed him the flag, or whether his Poppa – my Dad – told him about it. But he began to ask after it, began to want to take it to games.

Wanted to take it to the final. Against bloody Carlton.

I didn’t refuse, but I didn’t exactly make a great effort to remember the flag on the day of that final so it got left at home. I didn’t want any hint of bad luck.

Ultimately it didn’t matter.

Overrun in the second half again. By a team that only got into the finals by default. This couldn’t be happening. After the game we got back to the train station and hopped aboard a carriage made up almost entirely of dejected Richmond supporters. No-one said a word, no eye contact, nothing.

Nathaniel and I stood in the aisle, clad in matching dejected looks and Richmond scarves trailing near the ground. Seated nearby an elderly woman, Richmond supporter, looked at Nathaniel and smiled.

“Oh love,” she said. “Don’t worry, they’ll be back next year.”

Those words – that damn flag mocking me from afar. Nathaniel smiled, not knowing any better. I lowered my eyes further.

A flag’s new life

Nathaniel eventually found that flag and took ownership of it, spiriting it away to his room and even sneakily taking it to the very occasional game. He’d insist, even when I explained that flag hadn’t really brought us a lot of luck over the years.

He took it to the Brisbane game earlier this year which we won. “See Dad,” he said. “This flag’s fine.”

Of course I didn’t entirely believe it – Brisbane weren’t exactly formidable opposition and we played some pretty average football that day. But still, it made him happy and that was grand. And Richmond seemed to be winning again … though that flag – I didn’t trust it.

So when Nathaniel announced last week that he would be taking the flag to Saturday’s Prelim Final, you can imagine the 24 contradictory thoughts that flashed through my brain.

The loudest one was, of course: “No mate, no, we can’t jinx this”.

But he insisted. And he reckoned we might even win – after all, he wore the biggest smile of all after hearing we’d beaten Geelong a fortnight earlier.

So he wanted to wear his Richmond guernsey, carry his flag to the ground and he wanted to wave the flag when the Tigers kicked a goal.

And so the flag was packed. “That bloody flag,” I muttered semi-ruefully to my wife as we left for the game. “Better not bugger things up”.

The curse is lifted

Nathaniel was true to his word. He waved that flag every time we kicked a goal on Saturday. He waved it extra when Dusty kicked his three – the last right in front of us at the Punt Road end.

“Damn it, we might bloody win this,” I thought. And I looked at Nathaniel and he couldn’t wipe the smile of his face.

We stood up near the end of the game and cheered and sang and shouted and hugged with 95000 delirious Tiger fans.

And he held that flag up and waved it – this old bloody flag with the old Richmond Tiger, still fierce even after all these years, but just a bit duller compared to the bright new flags with new logos everyone else had.

And then, as we were leaving he looked at me: “Dad,” he said.

“What’s up?”

“I guess we’ve gotten rid of that curse from the flag now, yeah?”

Respect to the kid.

And he carried that flag over his shoulder as we walked all the way from the MCG back into the CBD, proud as could be.

And I didn’t have to say to him: “Maybe next year.”

In fact, I found myself saying to him: “Well, you never know, maybe it might even be this year.”

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