ACCOMPANYING Richmond's launch of its Fighting Tiger Fund in February was a message from the CEO, Brendon Gale: "We're not here just to compete; we're here to be the best."
Since the 244-game former Tiger rejoined the club 18 months ago as chief executive, a change in attitude - one less obvious than the change in personnel but just as significant - has been happening.
"We're here to be the best. That is not to say we're guaranteed to be the best, it's to say we have the socks to pull up if we get the right people, right plan and make the right decisions at the right times," the 42-year-old Gale said.
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The club however is not about just making the right decisions to survive, bouncing along the bottom without challenging. The executive understands that to win a premiership, a club MUST be financially strong.
"At the moment, we're fighting with one hand behind the back," said Gale; so it has made a pitch to the corporate sector to invest in the football club to realise an on-field dividend.
It is asking the rank and file to make buying a membership its priority. Any contribution beyond that is up to them.
But the target audience is clear. On March 17, an invitation only dinner will rally support from those capable of putting a significant dent into the targeted $6 million.
The club did not make the decision to launch the appeal lightly. After all, the money is not required for survival. The bucks will provide financial muscle to push for a premiership.
This meant that before making such a pitch Gale had to be confident he had the right people in the right positions building the right foundations to create a successful culture.
Gale understands this requirement in both a commercial and an emotional sense: "We have to involve everyone, we have to be open, we have to level with the people."
The possibilities - and possibilities have dogged Richmond since its last flag 31 years ago - are energising a relatively new group of leaders: the CEO has been there 18 months; he was instrumental in appointing a new coach, and as is usual in any transitional phase, there are new and ambitious faces in administration.
They know this club has some socks to pull up, but they also know that working the right models will achieve success. Whether that success is a premiership depends on many imponderables, but the model is now clear: recruit well, manage resources well, provide the right resources - human and financial - rely on a little luck, and it will come.
In the last decade, Hawthorn did it, Geelong did it, Collingwood did it. It can be done.
There are two parts to the Richmond history. One is power and glory. The other is doom and gloom. This administration is not being misty eyed about either. It's examined what the club is about and what it stands for in forensic detail.
"I think you need to understand what's happened (in the past), have a really objective view and work towards having a shared understanding about the past. Then it is about having a shared view of the future, what the future looks like," said Gale.
The first point the CEO makes is that when the club is firing on all pistons as it was during the golden period from the mid-60s until the mid-70s it was the competition's superpower. Most wins, most premierships, biggest attendances, the greatest club in the land, despite what palaver might have wafted across Bridge Road from Collingwood.
The second is something of an admission although it's hardly a revelation. It relates to the post-1982 period when the club became, let's be honest, a laughing stock, appearing in two finals series in 28 seasons. "On the measure that matters most to Richmond we have failed because we are about winning premierships," he said.
'Benny' Gale can say that without putting noses out of joint. He was part of that collective failure. He won't say this himself but he proves the point that good people can be involved in football clubs yet failure, for a myriad of reasons, can still happen.
Gale is the right man for the moment. He is a proud Richmond man with a "yearning and a hunger" to see the club succeed. But he is also a modern football executive with the right background to understand many of the game's administrative subtleties.
His grandfather, Jack Gale, came from Northern Tasmania to play three games for the Tigers in 1924. His father Don was a champion Tasmanian player, one of the state’s finest.
Gale grew up in Penguin, near Burnie, and Richmond drafted him with pick No. 27 in the 1987 AFL National Draft. His older brother Michael started at Fitzroy in 1986 before playing for the Tigers from 1994.
Any initial disappointment that he was not joining his brother at Fitzroy was assuaged when his father told him that at least he'd be playing in Grand Finals at Richmond. "The sense I was coming to a great club was not lost on me," said Gale.
'Benny' arrived in 1988, club legend Kevin Bartlett’s first year as coach, and was excited, talented and smart.
During the week he studied law at Melbourne University, his long legs dangling across tutorial rooms, his mind ticking underneath dangling locks.
He worked hard at the law, but even harder on his football, and the community of football. Before he had even played a senior game he was the players' delegate with the AFL Players' Association.
Brendan Bower (92 games for Richmond from 1986-1991) had noticed his young teammate studied law so was quick to hand over the responsibility.
In 1990, Gale played his first senior game, after 18 games in the reserves. In that same year he, along with his more renowned teammates, was rattling tins in order to save the club. It was the year of Save Our Skins.
What an irony it is that two decades later, Gale, in his second season as CEO is leading another campaign, this time to reduce the debt strangling the club.
Through his career, Gale hated losing, even though it was the inevitable result in 133 of those 244 games.
Those around the club remember the looks on the faces of Gale, and Wayne Campbell, and Matthew Knights, and Paul Broderick after games, and understood how desperately they wanted to be part of the winning culture that was then in recent memory.
They played in a preliminary final in 1995 before circumstances derailed well-placed hopes for success.
In 2001, they were again part of a team that made a preliminary final. At the end of that season Gale, spent, and no longer a first pick, retired.
The club has not played a final since.
Despite the losing experience Gale’s love for the game and the club that nurtured him remained strong. He was CEO of the AFL Players' Association from 2004 until 2009, following on from Rob Kerr.
The job, once the domain of current AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou, exposed him to the cultures of many other clubs, as well as the responsibility of the players beyond the game.
He saw what made 16 clubs tick, the good and the bad. It was a formative time.
In August 2009 he surprised the football world, and left a relatively simple job to become Richmond CEO. The team was sitting near the bottom of the ladder. A new coach was being sought. Five years of optimism descending to despair under Terry Wallace had finished.
It was a situation familiar to any Richmond supporter, and certainly known back to front by Gale.
The CEO however was not looking at the failures that preceded him, not seeking scapegoats.
Even though he knew that everything and everyone had become a target for blame, he was not blaming anyone: he was looking to the future, and how to create another golden era for Richmond.
The past was the past, and only relevant for what it could teach, what could be learned from it.
The list of negatives was impressive, if failure is impressive:
Nobody to replace Graeme Richmond, that is 'GR' the club icon.
Graeme Richmond was the reason for the long-term failure, that is 'GR' the polemic figure.
Recruiting John Pitura, and trading the spirit of the club.
The trade wars with Collingwood.
Not paying players enough.
Paying them too much.
Five year plans.
Coaches axed ruthlessly.
Choosing the wrong coach.
Being ruthless rather than smart.
Not welcoming past players, then blaming them for having too much influence.
Board members rode in with big ideas like the Road Runner and some rode out with no idea, like the coyote.
Coaches and players were being asked to appear at shopping centres to spruik for members such was the club’s financial desperation.
The administration - many administrations - toiled but could not work out what was required or swim past the tide of negativity.
With money an ongoing issue the sense of doom had become an entrenched helplessness.
When the team kept losing panic prevailed.
Even the 1982 Grand Final streaker, Helen D'Amico, was to blame - 'we would have won if not for her!'
In case you've forgotten, in 1987 for three months Alan Bond was club president.
Richmond became a laughing stock, footy talkback's fall back topic.
One board member even told an incoming committeeman in the mid-'90s, 'this club is terminal'.
All this added up to a culture in decline. One where expectations were low, self-preservation became the overriding theme and the senior leadership fell short.
This is not news to Gale. His team has spent time looking into that period and then pushed beyond it.
"There is a view that you don't go back in the past, you completely disregard everything that has been done and that is the way to improve. But the future and the past are not mutually exclusive. You can't forget about the past. There have been great contributors," said Gale.
"Of course, in the absence of a real clear plan for the future and a clear vision you might be at risk of pulling on the past too much but I think you should be proud of what you achieved. But you have your foot to the floor and be focused on the future."
The charismatic Graeme Richmond recruited a multitude of talented youngsters to form the 1967 flag winning team, the club's first for 24 years. Fourteen of the 20 premiership players that season had joined the club after 1963, many from Catholic schools, many well educated.
Richmond began an era of success built on a tight bond.
Coach Tom Hafey had them fitter then any other team. They socialised together at Carson's Garage (Ron Carson was a committeeman) or at the decrepit clubrooms.
They felt as though the club cared about them both as footballers and people - an important characteristic of the Richmond winning culture that many who played during this period believe is overlooked by commentators who simply focus on the "ruthless" cliché when attempting to define the era.
Lifelong friendships were formed while the club fostered an 'us against them' mentality.
Barry Richardson was a key part of the golden period. He played in three premierships, missing the 1973 flag through injury. He coached the club in 1977 and 1978, replacing Tom Hafey and was president in 1985. "As a group we seemed to perpetuate that myth as the struggling Tigers. It was a strength but it gradually became a weakness," said Richardson.
It took time for the weakness to emerge. The Tigers won 135 of 185 games between 1967 and 1974 and put four premiership cups in the cabinet.
Richmond was a dynamic, powerful, focused football club.
Graeme Richmond ran the show and Ian Wilson and Alan Schwab ably assisted him. If they needed something they persisted until it went their way.
Those who were around at the time - many who would prefer to remain in the background - say things began to fray once John Pitura was recruited in exchange for Brian Roberts, Francis Jackson (now the club's recruiting manager) and Graham Teasdale.
Some luck with the zone yielding Geoff Raines (who was enticed from Footscray), Mark Lee, Dale Weightman and others stretched the successful era out until 1980, when the Tigers smashed Collingwood by a record 81-point margin.
But the foundations of success - development - were crumbling.
In 1978 Ian Wilson summed up the attitude emerging among the administration when, after Richardson was sacked, he told The Age: "Step on one Richmond toe and you step on the lot. We are still ruthless. If you don’t measure up, you go."
Tony Jewell's public response when he too was sacked as coach four years later showed what impact such an attitude could have: "I suppose it is difficult to criticise in view of the success the club has had while he (Graeme Richmond) has been there. But there is a total disregard for people and for loyalty."
An adversarial relationship between players and administration had begun to open up, and became a bigger issue during Francis Bourke's reign as coach. Many say the club was a superpower in denial. It was showing all the signs of a dynasty destined to implode.
By the time Richardson became president in 1985, with the competition on the verge of the most sweeping changes in its history - the draft and the salary cap - the club was miles away from what it took to run a successful football club.
He only lasted one year, leaving in despair as he'd given his word to the coach, former premiership player Paul Sproule, that he would be given two years. He was powerless to stop the board sacking the coach after one.
Financially the club was on the path to destruction. The reasons are detailed and varied but General Manager Kevin Dixon's comment, expressed in The Age in 1983 when asked about recruiting, gives an indication as to the mentality: "Cost is a secondary consideration. It is as important as that."
The revolving door of coaches would begin. In such a climate it is no surprise the biggest football names used their footy smarts at other organisations: Kevin Sheedy, Mick Malthouse, Neil Balme, Richardson, Brian Taylor and eventually Kevin Bartlett becoming significant players in coaching, recruiting and the media.
Past players would remain friends and retain a deep love for the yellow and black but the involvement of many - contrary to popular perception - would be minimal. As former player and president Neville Crowe says quietly, "We've lost a few Richmond people along the way."
All successful cultures are dependent on respect for those who have toiled before them. They keep the foundations steady.
You don't have to hear Gale to understand the club has learned some lessons from these experiences. Every former Richmond person contacted for this story, whether willing to talk, be on the record or off the record, says with conviction that Gale and Hardwick look to be on the right track.
The club is involving such people in a respectful manner. Bartlett's support for the Tiger Fighting Fund is the most notable example of the restoration of faith among the faithful, a game of golf alongside Matthew Knights (another favourite son supporting the campaign) cementing Bartlett's support.
Bartlett of course was sacked as coach in 1991, another coach to become the scapegoat for many problems bedevilling the club. He never stopped loving the club but he refused to attend official functions until four years ago.
On March 17, the five-time premiership player will deliver the keynote address at the Fighting Tiger Fund function. "I thought it was a pretty courageous move for Brendon to say 'we are not going off the landscape. We are going to survive, but are we ever going to be winners again?'" said Bartlett.
"I think that is a very important thing for Richmond people to consider. Are we going to be winners again?"
That's the question the club has not had the audacity to ask itself since it fought back from the brink.
When Crowe was forced in August 1990 to declare the club finished unless it raised $1 million in 10 weeks it was on the precipice. The last dollar rolled in on the last of the 70 days of tin rattling. Relief was palpable but the emotional toll of the campaign was high.
The near death experience of 1990 created a club under Leon Daphne's presidency that could not smash the ceiling of nearly but not quite. Daphne was a prudent manager and a man of great integrity. The club looked to be on track on field in 1995 but John Northey left, his decision inexplicable to many.
The official (and truthful) reason was that Northey wanted to extend his contract that had one year remaining to two years. Although the board did not want Northey to leave, they thought one year was enough guarantee. The board did not consider any proposal for an extension.
Compounding matters was the fact sections of the administration clashed with the coach, an issue Daphne could not resolve.
The possible loss of Stuart Maxfield to the Swans (where later he became captain) through Sydney's special concession pick rankled some even with compensation coming in the form of highly rated No.1 draft pick Darren Gaspar.
Such issues were causing consternation. The sense of on-field unity that existed was missing from in the club's corridors.
Northey left for Brisbane and any momentum the club had was lost.
Robert Walls and Jeff Gieschen tried to overcome a dysfunctional culture and failed. Close to the finals but not quite was their tale, assistant coaches Ross Lyon and Brendan McCartney an indication of the quality of the coaching group at that time.
Daphne persisted, managing to get the club into sound enough financial position to make a play for Sheedy. But Sheedy was on track for his fourth premiership with Essendon. He was not leaving the Bombers. Daphne also understood that constant change was damaging the club. He tied his tenure to Gieschen so when he decided to dump Gieschen at the end of 1999, Daphne's reign was over.
The negative effect of shuffling and sacking was obvious to everyone. But when a team is losing it takes a strong club to hold their nerve and believe in their plan. Any attempt to go backwards in order to go forwards was stymied because the club was not able to manage the dips.
Football understands the effects of such action better now. While Gale won't talk specifics he makes a general point about continuity that demonstrates the lessons learned, although he admits such insight only crystallised after he stopping playing.
"What (stability and continuity) allows is it gives players the platform and security to develop and grow and take risks without fear of failure. It allows them to be as good as they can be," he said.
"When you're playing you don't think about it. I loved my coaches and took something different out of all of them. Looking back now though that stability is not something we have been able to deliver."
The club fell just short many times during that period. But the precariousness of its financial status meant it was always handicapped. The best decision was not always the decision that was possible. Good men had tried hard to no avail.
This generation of Tigers does not want to repeat that valiant period of mediocrity.
Another sad trend emerged during the barren period as people looked to saviours.
Psychologically Richmond had linked its success to the impact of one-man bands such as Graeme Richmond who dragged the club to success. An almost messianic status, whether wanted or not, was attached to names such as Bartlett, Allan Jeans, Alan Bond, Terry Wallace and Greg Miller when they arrived at the club.
Whether their tactic was a new broom or more gradual the football environment had moved far beyond any one person being capable of leading the club to the mythical promised land. Premiership clubs of the era such as the West Coast Eagles, Essendon, North Melbourne and the Brisbane Lions were characterised by stability in coaching and the executive.
This executive team knows the path to success is about having good decisions being made by good people, by discussing, debating and being rational. "This is not rocket science," said Gale. "It's just modern business administration."
It's why "Winning Together" is the motto of their strategic plan that states an aim to play in three finals series by 2014, reduce the debt to zero and have 75,000 members.
It's why when Gale made a speech to the whole club in March 2010 he said: "This room holds the future of the Richmond Football Club in its hand. This room is not our present; this room is our future - all of us, board members, administration, football department, players."
Gale retired in 2001 after a preliminary final appearance where the Tigers were 68 points off the eventual premier, the Brisbane Lions. But the list - which included Broderick, Knights, Gale, Campbell, Matthew Richardson, Duncan Kellaway, Joel Bowden and Leon Cameron - was spent. However the board did not see the writing on the wall and pushed hard for an immediate flag.
A competent but inexperienced coach Danny Frawley found the impetus difficult to resist.
When sober reflection and a long-term assessment of the list should have been undertaken, impatience ruled. It is difficult in hindsight to imagine how Frawley could have prospered in such an environment.
He was given five years and the president Clinton Casey supported him but the CEO and football manager kept changing. Rarely did they come together to ensure everyone was on the same page.
The fragmented approach was costly. If the club had regenerated from the bottom of the list in 2001 rather then trying to patch up from the top, Frawley's record may have been different. To his credit, Frawley left with the respect of the football world and dignity.
Then Terry Wallace repeated the mistakes of Frawley's reign. The theories of rebuild that worked for him at the Bulldogs collapsed under the weight of debt, few resources and recruiting decisions with early picks that earn a fail mark.
Everyone could see what was happening but by then the Richmond story was too far-gone. Wallace's departure was unedifying, again a coach gone mid-season - 10 of the 11 Tiger coaches since Bourke have not coached again - and the club back to square one with debt remaining an issue.
The current administration will not let lack of communication be an issue. It will debate and argue and respect expertise but it will always talk.
This is not easy: the challenge inherent in finding the right balance between urgency and patience remains a reality.
Hardwick knows better than most the right balance to strike. He was clearly a man used to success, having played in two premierships (Essendon 2000, Port Adelaide 2004) and sat in the coach's box at Hawthorn when it won the flag in 2008.
But he is no saviour. He is tough, honest and a team player.
The first step Hardwick took was to cut the playing list deep and introduce new blood. He respected servants such as Matthew Richardson, Joel Bowden, Graham Polak, Troy Simmonds and even Ben Cousins, while making a hard decision on Nathan Brown.
Eleven players made their debut in his first season as coach. The coach stated ambition was to get 500 games experience into players aged under 22 during 2010 and 2011. He managed to get 218 games into that group in 2010, a handy start.
In the first 11 rounds the Tigers conceded 1207 points, in the final 11 rounds it conceded only 1141 points. More detailed signals of defensive trends headed in the right direction too with opposition goals from stoppages and kick-ins declining as the season progressed.
Their No.1 draft pick Dustin Martin performed well but when he returned to pre-season in 2011 out of shape he was left in no uncertain terms that slackness was not acceptable.
They now have six first round draft selections on their list with the addition of Reece Conca in 2011. They won six of their last 12 games in 2010.
Captain Chris Newman's comments at the end of last year signified the coach's impact: "He provides a forum for those (young) guys to be able to ask questions," said Newman. "It really was a learning year for all of us."
This is the Hardwick way, a similar uncompromising approach that took Hawthorn to the flag two years ago. No wonder the skipper is on the record this year as saying the group has never been tighter in his 10 seasons at the club.
The bright spots are there wherever you look. The doom is lifting.
The club, led by Gale, has analysed its past. Not only has it accepted the lessons, it is proud of the successes.
Hope has returned. Hard work lies ahead. Some financial muscle is needed to push through. The Tiger Fighting Fund is the first step.
"When this club is going all pistons and is working in a common direction it is a very powerful club," said Gale.
Bartlett represents that power better than anyone. His belief is a huge vote of confidence in the administration.
"I think a nerve has been struck that this club was once a powerful club," said Bartlett. "This is a call to arms to say to people do we want to be winners or do we want to be merely survivors?