No matter how well-equipped and well-prepared an AFL football team is, there’s still a certain amount of fortune required to achieve the ultimate. You could say the same about football literature.
When Fairfax journalist Konrad Marshall embedded himself within the Richmond Football Club to write an inside account of the Tigers’ 2017 season, literally no-one could have dreamed he’d end up writing the story of one of the most remarkable premierships the game had seen.
The result is arguably the most compelling book about the inner workings of an AFL club yet produced, certainly since what remains the standard for footy books, John Powers’ famous account of the 1977 season with Ron Barassi’s North Melbourne, “The Coach”.
Powers, too, got lucky, with North winning a famous premiership over Collingwood after a drawn and replayed grand final. But like “The Coach”, Marshall’s “Yellow & Black: A Season With Richmond”, is also a triumph of story-telling, gripping reading not only because of an amazing plot.
A brilliant writer, Marshall deftly interweaves the momentum built by Richmond throughout the season with tremendous interviews and insights with a wide array of characters that contribute to an AFL club’s operations; not just the players and coaches, but list managers, recruiters, psychologists, trainers and assorted volunteers who live and breathe their team.
Far from just a souvenir for still-delirious Richmond supporters, this book, on general sale from Wednesday, is a must-read for anyone with a passing interest in what makes a sporting organisation of any sort tick. And its lessons are considerable.
If you’re still scratching your head attempting to work out just how a side which finished the previous season 13th and was tipped by hardly any pundit to even make the top eight, let alone win a flag did so, this book provides many of the answers.
It’s also potentially a very handy guide for other clubs attempting unlikely surges of their own, one which simply by virtue of what Richmond achieved, forces the reader to re-think many accepted maxims about the requirements for success in professional sport.
Several themes resonate throughout. Positivity. Vulnerability. The power of the collective being stronger than the individual parts. But perhaps most significantly, the affirmation of that adage about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
In time, the key to Richmond’s first premiership in 37 years may be seen as not just how it steamrolled its way over a succession of seemingly more naturally-gifted finals opponents in Geelong, Greater Western Sydney and Adelaide, but in how it held firm on and off the field after its disastrous 2016.
More than perhaps any other club, Richmond’s unsuccessful modern history suggested that massive setback would lead to inner turmoil, a boardroom coup and the removal of coach Damien Hardwick.
There were enough rumblings about either possibility. But an ill-conceived board challenge was quickly and efficiently snuffed out, and Hardwick’s position decisively and emphatically confirmed.
Most importantly, Richmond president Peggy O’Neal, chief executive Brendon Gale and their administrative and football brains trust took the big picture view – that three years in a row between 2013-15 in which the Tigers made finals, two of which they did so winning 15 games – made 2016 an aberration, not a forewarning of worse to come.
“Yellow and Black” has fascinating insights into the detailed preparation leading into each of Richmond’s games, the intelligence gathered by Hardwick’s senior assistant coaching team of Justin Leppitsch, Blake Caracella, Ben Rutten and Andrew McQualter, and how those insights are drilled into their players.
But perhaps the most significant revelations are the extent to which psychology played a role in Richmond’s amazing revival.
Much has been said already about Hardwick’s transformation from a coach feeling the pinch and prone to the negative to one who relentlessly in 2017 sought instead to dwell on his and his player’s strengths rather than weaknesses. So, too, with his captain Trent Cotchin.
But that was mirrored throughout the playing list and entire club, the insecurities and anxieties of individuals shared with rare honesty, then embraced and supported by teammates who perhaps for the first time saw the whole of a colleague rather than just mere quirks and foibles.
An extract from the book published in “The Age” last weekend detailed a pre-season “Triple H” session in which each player was required to share in front of the playing group three personal tales, of a hero, a hardship and a highlight.
Like several teammates, Brandon Ellis reduced the group to tears as he spoke about his father’s battle with cancer, and his embarrassment as a child at his upbringing in a tiny Housing Commission flat, the detail of which he had never shared with teammates previously.
But that sort of honesty and vulnerability is something which was embraced not only on one-off training camps, but in regular weekly sessions with the likes of mindfulness coach Emma Murray, who worked with the Tigers individually and in groups to give them simple, easily-digestible tools to visualise their strengths.
Read those accounts and you get a better idea of how one of the AFL’s youngest, least-experienced forward lines featuring just one experienced key position player in Jack Riewoldt and a host of raw but quick, eager small men like Daniel Rioli, Dan Butler and Jason Castagna was able to play such a key role in a premiership.
They epitomised the pressure Richmond was able to apply to its opponents when it mattered most. Against opponents who might have been blessed with more obvious natural talent when it came to fundamental football skills, but who could at least be “out-hungered”.
You can feel the confidence of the group rising as the journey continues and a succession of more acclaimed rivals are put to the sword. And by the realisation of that premiership dream on grand final day against a more-favoured Adelaide, the result, with the hindsight of such rare access into the inner sanctum, seems far less surprising than it appeared on the day.
Yes, the planets aligned for Richmond in 2017. Certainly, as an author, they have aligned for Marshall. But so have they aligned for anyone who wants a better idea of how AFL premierships are won.
For all the words expended on AFL football, few can ever convey with such accuracy and detail exactly what goes into the journey of a club rising from mediocrity to the game’s ultimate prize. This book is as close as most of us will ever come to that knowledge. And that makes it absolutely essential reading.