Whilst the identity of many professional sporting clubs is defined by geography, that hasn’t been relevant to Melbourne-based AFL clubs since the days of recruiting zones. Even then it wasn’t that relevant. Clubs like Richmond have always had to appeal to fans with great players, personalities, mascots, on-field success, and style of football.

Take a cross-section of Tiger fans and it’s obvious what appeals to them. They love hard, tough, courageous, and uncompromising players and a powerful and strong club culture. The source of this is clear for if there is one team that created a strong identity and a successful culture it was the Tigers during the Tom Hafey era. When Hafey arrived at the club in 1966 the Tigers had made one finals appearance in the past 24 years. Upon arrival and for the next 11 years he transformed Richmond into a feared powerhouse of the VFL, playing in 7 finals series, 5 grand finals and winning 4 premierships. It was a truly defining period in the club’s history.

Those who recount the Hafey years tell of the team’s camaraderie, ferocity, tackling, courage, shepherding, smothering, and support of each other. They played footy like the Richmond theme song.

The term ‘Eat ‘em alive’ was coined earlier, but in this period it really came to the forefront. Fans and players were rabid and thrived on the win at all costs mentality driven by Hafey and football administrator Graeme Richmond. Kevin Sheedy remarked “They made you hate losing at Richmond, Graeme Richmond, Tommy and Alan Schwab and the committee”.

Hafey also inspired great loyalty in his players. They considered him to be more than a football coach, to them he was a “life coach”. Former players have said; “Tommy stuck with me and his faith created the scenario where there was no way I was going to let him down”; “We played for the team and Tommy”. Incredibly, 20 of Hafey’s former players have gone on to become coaches.

The loyalty he inspired in his players penetrated to the fans who were proud to align themselves with Hafey and the club’s heroes such as Hart, Bourke, Barrot, and Bartlett. They were undoubtedly the most boisterous and in-your-face supporters in the league. It’s hard to believe at the moment but in the 70’s Richmond fans even had a reputation for being arrogant. The team’s on-field dominance and bravery allowed them to be.

Conversely, Tiger fans in 2012 look uncomfortable. They’ve been forced to hide their club’s persona beneath layers of embarrassment and sheepish remarks about coach sackings, finishing ninth and poor draft picks. Through 30 years of poor on-field performance Richmond has become one of the least respected or feared teams in the expanded competition. Losing games hurts, especially losing repeatedly but what hurts most is losing the respect of your competition. It’s those games that are weak spirited, the games where players stop playing for the club that cause the heartache.

You would think that after such a sustained period of poor performance that Richmond would be in fatal decline or at least losing large chunks of its supporter base. It’s a club with nothing to hang its hat on in 30 years and no geographical area to fall back on. However the supporter base is still large and the club remains to be considered by some as a ‘sleeping giant’.

This is a truly remarkable show of loyalty that surely would not have been possible without the culture ingrained during the Hafey era. Despite not having played a final since 2002, the club’s membership has risen from 27,000 to 40,000 in 2011 (a rise of 48%). Whilst this can partly be attributed to a general increase in all AFL club memberships, Richmond’s increase of 48% is greater than the average increase of all AFL clubs of 33%. Furthermore, during this finals-less period Richmond’s average attendance has risen from 35,277 to 40,184.

The fans have also dug into their pockets, firstly during the 1990 ‘Save our Skins’ campaign that required $1 million in donations in less than two months to keep the club from liquidation and prevent extinction. In 2011 the club successfully launched the ‘Fighting Tiger Fund’ to reduce debt and increase spending on the football department. In its first year the FTF received $3 million primarily from fans as well as from players, past players, and administrators.

However whilst the loyalty and passion remain, the true Tiger identity is not there. It’s been lost in the wilderness since the early 80’s. The fans are subdued, they’re missing their mojo. You can tell deep down they’re ready to explode into frenzy but the club has consistently let them down. Recruiting during the 90’s and early 2000’s was horrendous; Oakley-Nicholls, Tambling, Fiora, McMahon, Polo, Meyer, and Pattison were not just poor players but players Tiger fans couldn’t relate to.

Recently there’s been some change. Whether it’s happened consciously or not, in the past 6 years Richmond have recruited players who fit their identity. Since the 2005 appointment of recruiter Francis Jackson, the Tigers have taken Riewoldt, Cotchin, Martin, Rance, Nahas, Vickery, Conca, Batchelor, and Grimes. These are not just promising players but they play tough and show character on the field. These players impress the fans.

They’ve also recruited former hard-nut Damien Hardwick who would certainly have been at home playing for the Tigers under Hafey.  He has general admiration from the fans, which is saying something given the clubs he previously played for. He could just be the perfect personality for a modern day Tiger coach; hard-nosed yet tactical, disciplined yet friendly. One gets the feeling he relates well to his players, we’ve already seen him get the best out of madman Jake King.

The Tigers continued their recent drafting trend and picked up two wrecking balls in Ellis and Arnot this year. From internal reports and intra-club footy vision these guys already have bulging biceps and have been recruited to strike fear into opponents.

I’m not foolish enough to make any predictions about the Tigers, saying that they will make the eight is just getting old. All that can be said is that the current crop of young players belong at the club and relate well to the fans. They play hard, and most of them have already turned down big money to stay at Richmond. Hopefully these guys can forge a career at Richmond and in the process rediscover the legacy of Tommy Hafey.