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'Hey Richmond, Every Fairytale Has A Villain, And GWS Is Here To Crush Your Dreams'

You'll cheer for both teams when you meet these guys.

23/09/2017 7:56 AM AEST | Updated 07/10/2017 9:20 AM AEDT
Getty Images/Michael Shillito @Tealfooty on Twitter
He's outnumbered, but he's not outpassioned.

To most people in the AFL heartland of Melbourne, the Richmond Tigers versus Greater Western Sydney Giants Preliminary Final is a clash between everybody's second favourite team and a club with no soul.

It's the club from a city that lives and breathes footy versus the second club in a city that's like "Wait, there's a football game on? Whatever. I was too busy looking for a parking spot at the beach to notice".

It's the iconic 19th century club which has waited longer than any of the nine Melbourne-based AFL clubs for a grand final berth (35 years) versus the club which has been around for -- what -- about five minutes? (The Giants are actually in their sixth season.)

It's the club with the third most members in the AFL (72,000) versus a club with the second lowest (21,000), which just registered the lowest crowd for any finals game since WWI when just 14,000 turned up against West Coast Eagles last week.

In short, it's a game between the club that deserves it and the club that doesn't.

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This was the scene on Friday at Tigers training. GWS would love this sort of crowd on game day.

Greater Western Sydney Giants cheersquad member Michael Shillito has a different view.

"Everyone's saying what a fairytale it would be if Richmond made the grand final, but every fairytale needs a villain, and here we are. Barracking for the Giants this weekend is a bit like barracking for the Big Bad Wolf against Little Red Riding Hood."

Shillito has been part of the GWS cheersquad since day one. This year he's attended every home game and travelled to Melbourne three times and Perth once. This weekend he's bussing it to Melbourne on a Friday overnighter. While the 100,000-capacity MCG sold out in hours due to demand from Tigers fans, the Giants are sending down just that one fan bus from Sydney, and another from Canberra.

It will be a loud trip. There'll be chants, a little sleep, more chants. When that red-eye arrives in Melbourne after 10 hours on the highway, Shillito will stagger around Lygon Street looking for coffee, then head to the 'G. There, he will cheer till his lungs just about rip themselves out of his chest.

"Passion comes in many forms, says the 46-year-old accounts officer. "No one's born with it, you grow it, and we're growing it pretty quick from nothing. We've been working hard to build this game from scratch in a place where it didn't really exist before."

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The sign in the middle says it all.

Shillito has heard it all from rival fans, many of whom deny his club's right to success, and even their right to exist. At the thrilling Preliminary Final last year, which the Giants narrowly lost to eventual premiers the Western Bulldogs, Bulldogs fans sledged the Giants cheersquad. They said they supported a "plastic franchise" that was not a "real club".

Anyone who saw HuffPost Australia's 2016 story about life inside the Giants club would understand this club is growing a genuine culture -- and fast. At what other club can fans drop in for coffee with players after training?

"We're in it for the long haul, and it's only going to get bigger from here," Shillito says. "People say we're not a real club, but a real club is the people in it. Passion comes from the heart and we've got just as much as anyone else.

"People have been quick to slam the club this week," the Giants told HuffPost Australia. "But it's important to remember we had membership growth of 36 percent this year as well as 11 percent in attendances.

"We are a six year old club growing quickly but of course we are going to be outnumbered at a game in Melbourne against one of the biggest clubs in the city who've been starved of success."

One success-starved Tiger who'll be at the MCG with claws bared is Steve Mesaric, a lifelong fan from Traralgon, in Victoria's Latrobe valley.

Steve Mesaric
That's Steve on the right with his favourite Richmond player Scott Turner (in the beanie), whom he just happened to bump into recently while he was wearing -- WAIT FOR IT -- Scott Turner's old jumper. Steve joked if he wanted it back. Turner said nah mate, he'd be right.

Traralgon is two hours from the MCG but Steve will be there with his nephew (who's actually older than him and is a good mate). The two of them pray the Tigers hold their recent form, and don't perform an oh-so-Richmond capitulation.

"We will never live down the fact we lost to team that came 9th," Mesaric says, in reference to the shock of 2013, when the in-form 5th-placed Tigers lost the elimination final to Carlton, who'd only made the finals after Essendon was ousted over the supplements scandal.

Richmond fans like Mesaric always fear the worst. In fact, they've pretty much come to expect it.

"I think we will beat the Giants if we play anywhere to our ability," he says. "But -- capital B, capital U, capital T, it's Richmond so there's always that fear in the background."

Like Shillito, Mesaric is in his mid 40s. He is philosophical about Richmond's lack of success down the years. If anything, he believes it has made him stronger.

"When I was seven, I nearly ended up following Hawthorn. I would have seen more than 10 grand finals barracking for Hawthorn, but would I have been happier? I don't think so.

"Every year brings new hope as a Richmond supporter. That hope sometimes gets ripped out of your hands in strange ways. There's been plenty of 'thin' and not much 'thick' during those times, leading to many jokes and wisecracks over the years. So our current success is thoroughly being enjoyed."

Times have been tough in the Latrobe of late, especially since the closure of the Hazelwood power station 20 minutes south of town, which affected not just coal workers but people employed in a range of ancillary industries. For Mesaric, work has been hard to get. A bit here, a bit there. Odd hours. No certainty. Nothing to rely on. A flare of hope, then disappointment. A little like the football club he supports.

If the Tigers manage to beat the Giants and make the grand final, here's what Steve Mesaric plans. He's going to stay home and watch the big dance by himself. Normally he'd go to a BBQ or something with his wife wife Julie and sons Brock and Rhett. Not this year. Mesaric will be in his own internal world, too nervous even to crack a beer until the final siren.

And if the unthinkable happens and the Tigers lose to the Giants this Saturday? Will there be bitterness at losing to a team which was only conjured into existence in an AFL marketing brain explosion?

"No, no bitterness," he says. GWS were given some high draft picks, but so were Richmond. We're heading in the right direction now. Richmond has got it right."

Meanwhile, Michael Shillito is feeling pretty upbeat too. "Everyone else reads history," he says. "We're planning to make history."

You can follow Michael Shillito on Twitter @tealfooty and Steve on Twitter at @TraralgonTiger.

The match is at 4:45pm Saturday. You can watch it on Channel 7. And to help you get into the spirit, here are the two club songs. Richmond's "Tigerland" anthem is always ranked top of the list of club songs, but we reckon the Giants song pays perfect homage to the man choir songs of old, whilst being new fresh, and blood-pumping. Enjoy.

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