It was the little things we’d missed – and savoured most – when crowds finally returned to men’s footy in Melbourne.

Taking the train with fellow fans, anticipation building. Strolling across Brunton Avenue, past the Punt Road Oval. Soaking up the magical MCG atmosphere. Singing the theme song as your team runs out.

And that’s before the game starts.

04:17 Mins
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Behind the scenes at the dual flag unfurling ceremony

Take a look behind the scenes of Richmond's dual flag unfurling ceremony.

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Nothing beats watching footy with the crowd in full voice. Experiencing it again when Richmond played Carlton in the 2021 season opener brought a tear to many eyes.

Footy was back at the ‘G!

It was almost 18 months since we’d soaked up the late afternoon sunshine at our favourite ground on 28 September 2019. That perfect day, life could not have been better.

All is well on Grand Final Day, 2019.

Our beloved Tigers had smashed the Giants by 89 points to win their second flag in three years. The 37 years of disappointment before beating Adelaide in 2017 were, finally, a distant memory.

Then, in early 2020, footy fans were gearing up for another big year. AFLW games had begun, and Richmond’s new women’s team played Carlton in an emotional debut at Ikon Park.

Those of us who had no opportunity to play organised footy as kids were beyond proud as we watched women play in the famous yellow and black. How good was this?

Then COVID-19 hit.

What followed were AFLW and AFL seasons like no other. Games were played without crowds. Clubs lived in hubs. Reduced crowds watched games in some states, and the Grand Final was in Brisbane.

An empty, closed MCG on AFL Grand Final Day, 2020.

It was bizarre, but it was footy.

Somehow, against all odds, the AFL and its clubs made it through the pandemic, giving us something to look forward to during Victoria’s lockdowns.

Footy was our respite, and when Richmond made the finals, that familiar excitement returned – to a point. We were not there in person, but we still lapped it up.

After a grounding loss to Brisbane, the Tigers swept aside St Kilda and pipped Port at the Adelaide Oval in a thriller to make their third Grand Final in four years.

Richmond fans rejoiced – again. For my family, however, what started out as the best week of a strange year turned out to be the worst of our lives.

Two days before Richmond played Geelong at the Gabba in the Grand Final, my sister Chris died.

At just 55, the respected Swinburne University of Technology social psychology professor passed away in her sleep from undiagnosed coronary artery disease.

Still in shock, watching the Grand Final was bittersweet to say the least.

A badge of Chris on the 2020 premiership scarf.

Chris wasn’t a footy fan. She grew up a token Carlton supporter; our younger sister Maree is a big Blues fan, and our brother, Paul, follows the Hawks like our parents. But Chris was rapt for me that Richmond had finally come good and loved Dustin Martin for his unconventional background and character.

Losing her rocked our world but also underlined important connections to family, friends, our footy clubs, and fellow fans. The Tigers’ Grand Final victory over Geelong gave those like me, who suffered hardship in 2020, something to smile about.

Footy does that. It unites. It distracts. And it heals. All is well in the world when your team wins.

Months later, as the 2021 season approached and the talk turned to crowds returning, plans were made, tickets secured, and sleeps counted.

For most Richmond supporters, our Round 1 clash against Carlton was the highlight of the past 18 months. For me, it became even bigger when Richmond CEO Brendon Gale asked me to unfurl the 2020 flag on behalf of all diehards.

I could never love my club more than I did at that moment.

Not only has Richmond won three of the past four premierships, our leaders, including Brendon and President Peggy O’Neal, have gone above and beyond to recognise those of us who could not attend games last year.

We’ll never be able to thank them enough.

Finally, the stage was set for an epic season opener. When game day arrived, 537 sleeps since Richmond last played at home in front of a crowd, the fans – and the players – soaked up every bit of it.

We may not have had our usual reserved seats, but our footy rituals had returned, and we were back in our happy place. Filing into the G as the sun began to set on a warm autumn day, we felt like kids about to open their Christmas presents.

Family: Cheryl Critchley, Brian Roy and Jess Critchley-Roy at the MCG in Round 1, 2021.

I also had the unforgettable privilege of walking around the boundary, on the hallowed turf and past my mates in the Official Richmond Cheer Squad, some of whom have been there since I first joined as a kid.

After 18 months without seeing a men’s football game live, I found myself standing in the middle of the MCG with Brendon, Peggy, AFL Chairman Richard Goyder, and AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan.

Wearing my 2020 premiership scarf, with badges of Dusty and Chris close to my heart, I then unfurled the 2020 flag as Peggy hoisted the 2019 pennant amid loud cheers from the Tiger faithful.

It was just incredible.

Walking back to sit with my husband, Brian Roy, our daughter Jess and Chris’s daughter Sam, the smiles in the stands were broad and the atmosphere electric as the teams ran onto the ground.

With Chris’s daughter Sam at the MCG last Thursday night.

Just when we thought this night could not get any better, the game was a ripper – a tight contest with the Blues taking it right up to the Tigers until Dusty decided to move into top gear.  

Capacity may have been halved, but the 49,218 fans lucky enough to be there made plenty of noise. Chris was also there in spirit, and through Sam.

The social psychologist in her loved people with a story, like Dusty and those who devote their lives to their club. Chris knew how much footy means to them, and me.

Nothing will take away the pain of losing my beautiful sister, but having our game returned to us after so long was just what the doctor ordered.

Cheryl Critchley is a Richmond member, Cheer Squad member and AFL Fans Association president.