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Opinion

Richmond: The long march to conquest

Louis Blitsas new author
Roar Rookie
22nd October, 2019
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Louis Blitsas new author
Roar Rookie
22nd October, 2019
31
3100 Reads

It began with a March, (a Gary March to be exact) and it was a long march too, beginning in 2006. The final offensive, the last attempt to lift Richmond out of a stop, start and mainly stop plodding meander through mediocrity that had begun a quarter of a century earlier.

There had been hope before, but each time failure and a return to the safety of the wilderness to regroup and try again. A different approach was required.

No big spend or turning to cashed up arms dealers with their own agenda this time.

Like Mao’s, this revolution would be done slowly, methodically as Mick Malthouse’a famous quoting of Confucius ‘The Ox is slow but the Earth is patient’ suggests, the only way.

Step by small incremental step, they plotted a course. They recruited great leaders and advisors and made some of their own. Ox-like, patiently, building. One goal, conquest.

There were setbacks along the way but as sleeper cell after sleeper cell awakened a formidable army grew.

The advance party is the football team that that takes to the field every weekend. They are the vanguard of the Tiger Army. As their successes grew, so did their belief, they felt that pretty soon, no enemy could stand in their way. They developed a fantastic shock and awe guerilla campaign that surprised all and achieved their goal.

Victory celebrations were huge. The talisman of the Tiger Army, often a rock star on the field, jumped on stage in his footy jumper, adorned with a premiership medal and became a real rock star. Swan Street Richmond resembled Havana in the hours after the Castro victory in Cuba. Frustrations were replaced by rapture at an unprecedented level.

Older supporters could die happy, their children happy that they had seen what they had been told about by their parents and their children could finally go to school swollen with pride and wearing their colours.

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They knew they would have to defend their territory fiercely but perhaps weren’t prepared for the insurgency when it came in 2018. Their main attacking weapon was hobbled, illness struck the main defensive position just as they were attacked. Collingwood launching their own ‘Bay of Pigs’ succeeded in establishing a foothold.

They regrouped. They ventured north and armed themselves with the most potent attacking weapon available. They found two unlikely heroes, one a veteran in other fields, the other a youthful rebel with untamed flair and both became vital in the 2019 counter offensive.

At the beginning of the 2019, they lost their great defensive general and this threatened to undermine their attempts to reassert their authority.

There were many more casualties along the way, more than most could endure, but their soldiers were prepared this time. Chastened, hardened, emboldened enough to take the lead.

As the wounded recovered and returned, there was no stopping them.

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Gone were the short sharp attacks susceptible to insurgents.

What remains now is an all powerful football machine with no weakness.

When they attack, it’s a blitzkrieg. And, though you know it’s coming, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

If you attack them with all your might, they will withstand you at first, then launch into a counter offensive that will leave you depleted, demoralised and defeated.

On their home ground, the home of football, backed by the biggest fan-base in football, they are practically invincible.

They are Richmond.

So how did they do it? How, after so many failures did they succeed this time, and succeed so much so as to surpass even the most optimistic of expectations.

They succeeded because they had a plan, everyone has a plan but they had foresight.

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The three main components of a football club are; finance and administration, membership and fan engagement, and football.

For over a quarter of a century, Richmond were underachievers in all three categories. Gary March sought to change that. Others had tried, but he succeeded. So much so, that now Richmond is the benchmark in all three. They have delivered to all a template for success.

But not every club is Richmond.

When March became president in 2006, Richmond was burdened with an ongoing debt of around $4.5m. Meeting interest payments alone was a task in itself. It held the club back from investing in facilities, infrastructure and development programs that would bring the club into some sort of reach of the wealthier clubs.

While the football club had taken some steps in improving facilities, ten years after Richmond Cricket Club had ceded control of Punt Roadd Oval, little had changed.

The playing surface remained sub standard, the gym and other player’s facilities belonged to another era and to top it off, Richmond couldn’t train there over summer as cricket was still being played.

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Certainly the regime led by Leon Daphne and Jim Malone had tried to address these issues but, late in his tenure, Daphne was caught up in a ridiculous public spat with Mal Brown that unfortunately led him to resign as president.

The appointment of Essendon supporter and retirement home developer, the mega rich Clinton Casey – like Alan Bond before him – was more about perception and splurging money on big name recruits than a slow build.

To his credit, Casey did begin some redevelopment, but the major issues were never tackled and though the recruitment of Nathan Brown was great and, but for that cruelling broken leg injury, may have been even greater, that’s about all I can remember of a positive nature from his time as president.

Gary March was adamant that removing the cricket pitches and cricket itself from Punt Road was a priority, however, finances didn’t allow it.

Richmond needed to strengthen its financial position so it could do this, maintain interest payments on the debt and to grow its membership base.

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To do so, the previous administration had decided that, during summer, Richmond would train at a brand new facility at Craigieburn. They had hoped that this would engage the growing residential base there and somehow miraculously they would all decide to follow Richmond. This didn’t happen. Furthermore, players hated training there.

Traditionally, Richmond doesn’t have a big membership in the outer northern area and many of the people moving in were of a wide and varied multicultural background, to whom Aussie rules was a complete mystery, so an urgent solution to the Craigieburn failure was needed.

The appointment of Brendon Gale as CEO in 2010 was rightly described as a watershed moment in the history of the club. Equally, Brendan’s appointment of Cain Liddle as ‘Chief Customer Officer’ (Membership Manager) can also be looked upon as just as transforming.

Liddle was an ex-Geelong footballer with an MBA, who also looked after the club’s gaming operation. He decided to approach the growing of membership from a different and more professional perspective. He had been tasked by Gale to double Richmond’s membership from its then record of 37,000 to 75,000 by 2015.

Liddle had been to a seminar where renowned demographer and social scientist Bernard Salt spoke and, immediately afterwards, commissioned demographers ‘.id the population experts’ for assistance.

After extensive research they decided Richmond should move its summer training base to Cardinia shire in Melbourne’s South East growth corridor. This was a resounding success.

Here is a link to a video that explains how it was done.

In five years, Richmond’s membership reached 75,000 with no on-field success to help it along. Liddle is now the CEO overseeing Carlton’s resurgence.

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That was step one of Gale’s ambitious plan done, goal met. Since then, Richmond has become the first sporting club in Australia with over 100,000 members and continues to stand alone in that stratosphere.

Brendon Gale’s famous edict was reported on by Michael Warner in the Herald Sun, on March 4, 2010.

“The Tigers are determined to rouse the sleeping giant of football and their dormant fans through their plan, which carries a motto of 3-0-75. The motto stands for playing finals three times, having zero debt and signing 75,000 members within the next five years.

“The five-year plan is about positioning the club for where it will be by the end of the decade, with a vision for 2020 that they return not just to being one of the top four Victorian clubs, but the top Victorian club.

“Significant in the short term is the intention to play finals three times by 2014, which would require the Tigers to make the eight no later than 2012 – and stay there.”

Richmond coach Damien Hardwick

Richmond during tougher times. (AAP / Julian Smith)

While there was no specific flag target mentioned at that time, at a Fighting Tiger Fund meeting in 2011, the target of one flag by 2016 and three by 2020 was announced.

Step two was dealing with the finances, clearing the debt and growing the business.

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Small steps in the right direction were being made by March to address the debt issue but, when Brendon took over and Rob Dalton became treasurer, they were articulated for all to see and many to ridicule.

This led to the establishment of the Fighting Tiger Fund.

The aim of this fund was to finally clear Richmond’s debt. Once that was done, further funds would go to facilities, the then ME Bank Centre (now Swinburne Centre) and the Korin Gamadji Institute.

I remember attending the first meeting in early 2011. I felt a little out of place sitting next to the late life member and unmatched benefactor David Mandie and being surrounded by Richmond’s wealthiest supporters, but the mood in the room was strong as was the commitment. The debt was wiped within a month or two.

At that meeting in 2011, a tape was played to us of a future Premiership, with a ‘phantom’ call from Anthony Hudson.

It predicted a Richmond premiership in 2016 and David Astbury kicking the winning goal. Okay, they got it wrong by a year and the fact Astbury has made a name for himself as part of this extraordinary Richmond defence. Ah, Predictions.

The Korin Gamadji Institute has been instrumental in changing perceptions of the club previously held by the Indigenous community and has been a tremendous success in providing education and pathways for Indigenous youth.

A little less popular was the selling of home games to Cairns. At the time it was a necessity and, once this was not required, Richmond opted out one season earlier than first planned. It took courage for March, Gale and Dalton to carry such a policy.

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By 2015, the club was debt free and turning a profit. New facilities were finished, Punt Road Oval became such a showpiece that, within a year, it was hosting VFL Finals.

Richmond had played AFL finals for three successive seasons, but had been knocked out in the first week on each occasion. This was the last piece of the puzzle.

Gary March stepped aside from the board at the end of the 2013 season, content in the knowledge that finally the club was heading in the right direction.

This led to a power play on the board for the top job between former cricket and basketball administrator, Malcolm Speed, and Gary’s preferred successor, Maurice O’Shannassy.

When it became obvious that O’Shannassy didn’t have the votes, Gary suggested a third candidate in Peggy O’Neal.

O’Neal was an American immigrant who grew up in the mining towns of West Virginia made famous by John Denver songs. She had followed her partner at the time back to Australia.

They settled in Richmond and she adopted the Tigers as her team.

She continued her distinguished legal career by joining Collins St megafirm Freehills. Those familiar with that firm would think it strange that she and Brendon Gale could form such an incredible bond as they have, but that sums up the current version of Richmond.

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As the banner behind the goals at the Punt Road End says.

‘Richmond, many cultures, many backgrounds, many beliefs, One Club.’

Jack Riewoldt

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/AFL Photos/via Getty Images )

Off the field, Gale and O’Neal had the club flying yet, despite playing finals every year from 2013-2015, Richmond had yet to win one.

Richmond were still the butt of jokes from the media and their members were getting more frustrated, if that was possible.

2016 was Richmond’s Annus Horribilis. It seemed everyone was losing their way. Somehow the game plan changed to a slow, methodical short kicking, high possession game. It was excruciating to watch, especially as they couldn’t execute and their performance suffered. Like many (including Dimma himself), I questioned where Richmond was heading.

Was this as far as the resurgence would go?

So, as Brendon puts it ‘the core business’. Football and winning premierships.

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There had been so many false dawns since the fabled 1980 premiership. Two years after the 1982 grand final, I was sitting in the club’s board room for our usual Friday night drinks with Kevin Dixon, the staff and some of the Esso crew – our sponsors at the time.

Dixon received a call from the ANZ Bank that they were about to issue wind up proceedings against the club. A hasty phone call to former Treasurer Ron Carson saved our skins that time. Similar messages had been relayed to Collingwood as these two power clubs had got themselves into a ridiculous tit for tat war that threatened their very existence.

By 1995, Richmond looked to have a team ready to be contenders – until Andrew Dunkley pushed Matthew Richardson into the SCG fence in a marking contest and ruptured his ACL.

Richmond still managed to get to a preliminary final despite coach John Northey secretly committing to coaching Brisbane the following year.

I laughed when Northey blamed Richmond for not giving him an extension as to the reason he left.

A strange swap ensued and Richmond ended up with Brisbane’s former coach Robert Walls. That appointment never sat easy with traditional Richmond supporters. One false dawn, gone.

In 2001, Danny Frawley had moulded together a pretty handy side. Much of the 95 talent was still there, Richo was playing this time along with Brad Ottens – forming a formidable twin tower forward line.

Frawley was a class act. Despite the chicken manure episode which he handled with dignity and humour, the supporters – especially those at the Punt Road end – loved him.

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They still chant his name when the Tiger Army chant is sung as it was at this time that the origins of the ferocious, guttural roar that is synonymous with Richmond can be traced back to.

Unfortunately for Frawley, Richmond failed to get past the preliminary final in 2001. Danny made the mistake of thinking the addition of a couple of ready made crumbers in Paul Hudson and Adam Houlihan would do the trick. He was wrong. Another false dawn.

The appointment of Terry Wallace and recruitment of Nathan Brown created another as, with Richo in tow, the duo dominated the AFL until one fateful night at Docklands.

The failure of the club to cope with that and to bounce back reflects poorly on the recruiting, development and conditioning of that era.

Famously, Richmond had five picks inside 20 in Wallace’s first year, with one win – the brilliant Brett Deledio.

Folklore now recounts that Lance Franklin was overlooked by Richmond. There had been too many of those stories at Richmond until the draft of 2006.

Even more than the appointment of Brendon Gale, Damien Hardwick or Peggy O’Neal the overhaul of recruitment and list management was Gary March’s finest achievement.

His first major appointment as president – and one that gets forgotten but is one of his most important – was that of Francis Jackson as head of recruiting.

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The final cog and his best of all was the recruitment to the club of Blair Hartley as list manager at the end of the 2009 season. 2010 was the beginning of the compromised drafts.

Tom Lynch

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

The draft of 2005 had seen the selection of Jarrod Oakley-Nicholls at Pick 8.

Terry Wallace has since admitted that no one had even see him play live. That in itself is a stunning admission that seems to get washed over as joke material, but it shouldn’t. How is this possible at AFL level?

Needless to say, he failed to make it in the AFL despite being given a further opportunity at West Coast. Not much came of pick 20 Cleve Hughes or pick 40 Travis Casserley.

2006 was the first draft overseen by Francis Jackson.

Pick 13 was Jack Riewoldt and pick 26 was Shane Edwards, no comment needed.

The talented but wayward Daniel Connors and Andy Collins, who was later traded to Carlton for Shaun Grigg, were among their late picks that year.

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2007 saw Pick 2 used on Trent Cotchin and pick 18 on Alex Rance. In two years, the leadership core of Richmond’s current premiership era was drafted to the club.

In 2008, Ty Vickery at pick 8 led some average selections but the team had credits in the bank from last two years.

In 2009 Melbourne, thanks to Jordan McMahon’s famous goal after the siren, ended up on the bottom and with picks one and two.

When McMahon kicked that goal, Richmond fans were devestated. Only McMahon himself, Terry Wallace and Melbourne were happy.

Word had filtered down to me from a friend connected to the Sydney Swans about a kid from Bendigo who they thought could revolutionise the game. I thought Melbourne would pick this kid with pick 1 or 2. Sydney, however, knew Melbourne’s form better than me.

They knew his back story would not suit the Ivy Leaguers with the patched elbows and they were right.

Melbourne selected Tom Scully and Jack Trengove with picks 1 and 2.

Sydney offered Richmond two first round picks for their pick 3, I believe those picks were in the top 12.

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It is to the eternal credit of Francis Jackson and Blair Hartley and to the immeasurable pleasure of Richmond supporters that they held firm. Pick 3, of course, was Dustin Martin.

Martin is already anointed by many as Richmond’s greatest ever player and soon, as David Parkin no less believes, if he continues to dominate finals as few before have, he will finish his career the equal of Leigh Matthews.

The shy talented youngster from Bendigo who boarded with March and his family in Middle Park when he first arrived, has grown to the stature of few other players simply by his deeds.

Only Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin can be compared to Martin for broad appeal, marketability and talent. Amongst the Richmond faithful, he is the most popular Tiger ever – sorry Richo.

His 2017 season was filled with stories of his excellence and almost as many about his impending decision of where to play in future years.

During the preseason, Martin immersed himself in mindfulness, meditation and extra training at Port Melbourne’s Boxing Fit gym, run by mad Tiger fan and former professional boxer Mick Hargraves.

Dustin Martin

Dustin Martin. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

The results were stunning. Despite the season-long distraction to all others of a ridiculous money offer from North Melbourne, Dustin Martin played the perfect season.

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As Matthews described it, ‘the best individual season ever played in the history of Australian Rules football’. A premiership, Brownlow, Norm Smith, Gary Ayres, MVP, Coaches Award, every media award except The Age says Matthews is correct.

The decision on the eve of the finals for Martin to stay at Richmond, sacrificing millions – albeit he was on a record amount now at the Tigers – gave the club that final bit of impetus it required and they steamrolled their way to a drought-breaking Premiership that will long be talked about.

The list management skills of Hartley reached new levels during the compromised drafts of 2010-2013.

He and Jackson also became particularly adept at recruiting rookies that would go on and have an impact. The premiership teams of 2017 and 2019 were half made up of players from rookie drafts or pre-season drafts.

This year, of course, saw the most incredible of stories when a player was picked up from the WAFL in the mid season draft at the age of 27.

Marlion Pickett had a troubled past, though most of it seemed to have been almost a decade ago. For some reason, no one had seen fit to ever select him in countless drafts and rookie drafts. This is despite the fact that in every final he played in the WAFL, he was either best afield or very close to it.

At the beginning of the 2018 season, Gold Coast flew him over with a view to selecting him with a late pick or as a rookie. When his story is properly written, surely this chapter should be titled ‘sliding doors’. Imagine if he had signed there. Ultimately, Gold Coast baulked like everyone else and back to the WAFL he went.

Richmond had him in their sights for the 2019 mid-season draft, but did not have a place on their list.

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Enter Shaun Grigg. The Tiger Premiership hero and second ruck from 2017 is widely considered within the club as one of the most intelligent and selfless players going around.

Grigg had announced he would retire at season’s end but upon hearing of Richmond’s desire to select Pickett and seeing his highlight reel, he decided to retire immediately to free up a spot on the list.

History records that Pickett not only made his debut, but starred, in an AFL grand final, picking up Norm Smith Medal votes. Pickett’s name will live forever in footy folklore.

This same year, Richmond drafted Sydney Stack as a supplementary rookie listed player pre-season and, had it not been for an injury late in the season, the NAB Rising star third place getter would also have played in that game.

Stack had also been overlooked despite some reports from former coaches like Peter Sumich that he was the toughest and most talented player he’d ever seen at Under 18 level.

And then there’s Tom Lynch who despite already having four ‘franchise’ players in Martin, Riewoldt, Rance and Cotchin, Richmond were able to fit in seamlessly into the salary cap and the team.

Take a bow Blair Hartley.

In summary, here’s where Richmond was at the beginning of this decade and where they stand now.

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2010 2019
Debt $4.5 million None
Facilities Outdated, sub-standard surface at Punt Road Oval State of the art
Indigenous community involvement None Koran Gamadji Institute
Indigenous players 1 7
Members 37,000 103,360
Finals appearances None since 2001 2013-15, 2017-19
Premierships None since 1980 2017, 2019

As yet, no other AFL club has come close to achieving over 100,000 members and, scarily, at Richmond there is little sign of this slowing.

‘We’re going to need a bigger MCG’ comes to mind.

Richmond has, by the end of 2019, won 36 of their last 39 games at the MCG – including nine in succession leading to this year’s premiership.

The 2017 flag was among a run of 23 straight victories at the home of football. There are many reasons for this dominance, but surely the Tiger Army is one of the main ones.

Despite other clubs drawing huge crowds, there is something different about the noise at a Richmond game. It’s more than primal. It’s unique. I still hold as my greatest memory to be part of the preliminary final crowd of 2017 against the GWS Giants. No one will ever experience that again.

The connection between all at the club and, indeed, with its members that once may have been the source of ridicule is now the template for other clubs and not just in the AFL.

The ability to retain its stars and still sign players such as Tom Lynch is a credit to the list management team and the players themselves.

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The development of players initially selected as rookies or, as in Ivan Soldo’s case, from a basketballer who hadn’t touched a footy to a premiership ruckman in three years is another tangible advancement.

The continued success of the VFL Program with repeated top of the ladder finishes and a premiership is remarkable considering winning games is secondary to developing players to play ‘the Richmond way’.

This speaks volumes for Craig Macrae, Xavier Clarke, their team and, more recently, VFL captain Steve Morris.

The next great task for Richmond is to transition enough players into the senior team so as to maintain success, not lose talented youngsters and not upset club legends or stalwarts.

This is probably going to be Blair Hartley’s toughest task. I look forward to seeing how he will do this, because I have every confidence he will.

Keeping the assistant coaches is also a task that will only become more difficult but, as Neil Balme said to me when I quizzed him about the departure of Blake Caracella at a pre-match briefing in Round 23, “The Godfather offer was too much, he didn’t want to go and we didn’t want him to go. At least we now know all he knows.”

The strange thing about Richmond is that their IP doesn’t have much value to be poached. Everyone knows Richmond’s game plan. Every week we see experts telling every club how to unpick it, yet they fail.

Everyone knows Richmond’s philosophy. Richmond is an open book. The connection is real, the HHH sessions set up by Trent Cotchin, Damian Hardwick and Ben Crowe still get scoffed at by those dinosaurs living in the past. Strange how all other teams have now adopted the same philosophy.

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Footy isn’t what it used to be, but when you can go to the MCG and there’s a big crowd and the Tiger Army are in full voice and Dustin Martin is on song…