I recently re-read John Powers’ The Coach, which chronicles a season under Ron Barassi.
Reading the book, let alone playing under him, was exhausting. It gave me a migraine. Barassi – like the book – simply doesn’t let up. The entire thing may as well have been written in capital letters. He is constantly barking, exhorting, admonishing.
If you spoke to the current generation like that, chances are you’d have the police at your door.
It’s still a mighty read, however, thanks mainly to the author’s deft touch, his keen ear and the extraordinary access he is granted. Most of all, his timing is impeccable.
A drawn grand final and a coach at the peak of his powers – it is a sportswriter’s dream.
Martin Flanagan was not so lucky. He spent the 1993 season with Footscray, then seen as being on a cusp of something big. But their season fizzled out. As with Powers, one of the main takeaways of Southern Sky, Western Oval is just what a grind a football season can be.
“For the most part, it seemed to me to be a dull, aching struggle,” Flanagan wrote. “Like hanging suspended from a rock face for a year –climbing, slipping, losing ground, beginning again.”
As far as behind-the-scenes football books go, Konrad Marshall’s newly released Yellow and Black: A Season With Richmond draws on both these works and in many ways surpasses them. His task was a daunting one.
“It’s like being given a tour of the old Soviet Union,” one of Australia’s best sportswriters warned him. “They’re not going to show you the gulags.”
And indeed, there are the obvious omissions, particularly around tactical nomenclature and the obligatory culling of hundreds of ‘F-bombs’ and ‘C- bombs’.
Others are more surprising, but in no way detract from the final product.
We hear little from Richmond superstar Dustin Martin, for instance. We learn that he frequently swims alone at night in Port Phillip Bay. It’s one of the few places he finds solitude. But he is a mostly silent presence throughout. He is what he does.
We also only get a brief, though vivid, look at the club’s extraordinary fan base.
This, after all, is a book that concerns itself with what goes on within the four walls of the club.
That’s why the media, with its frothing opinions and what Fremantle coach Ross Lyon calls “its fingernail-deep analysis” is also scarcely mentioned.
Instead, it shines a light on those essentially anonymous figures that make up a modern football club. Most of us wouldn’t recognise them if they sat next to us at a game. But all, in their own way, helped deliver this flag.
There’s Peter Burge, a former long jumper who oversees the physical conditioning. On his watch, the Tigers barely had an injury all year.
There’s Bronwyn Doig, a marathon runner whose ‘development manager’ role is more that of a big sister.
She teaches homesick young recruits how to use a knife and fork correctly and how to introduce themselves to strangers. She sits with them in the ambulance when they’re injured.
There’s football analysis manager Hayden Hill, who started at the club during the Terry Wallace era, fixing broken printers and the like. He now flanks the senior coach on match day.
He works until 3.30am, crunching numbers and unearthing trends. He has thrived under coach Damien Hardwick, who takes an evidence-based approach to everything he does.
Perhaps most significantly, there’s Emma Murray, who runs a business that incorporates mindfulness, meditation, visualisation and hypnotherapy. The day before she was scheduled to begin working at Richmond, her teenage son, a gun junior footballer, jumped from a pier and broke his neck.
She now works with VCE students, Olympians and neuro surgeons. She shows the Richmond players how to train their minds, address their arousal levels and make better decisions under extreme pressure.
She’ll have the entire playing list, including a devout Muslim, a Jehovah’s Witness, a Tiwi Islander and the son of a bikie, breathing as one, visualising, perfecting what she calls their “intentional quadrant”.
“I’m not blowing smoke up your arse,” Hardwick tells her following her opening address to the group. “But you’re going to be very important.”
Then there are the players themselves. Footballers have never been more roped off, more cosseted, more unknowable. They get an increasingly bad rap these days.
Every day, there’s po-faced reflections on toxic masculinity and male entitlement – some of it warranted, some of it unreadable. But as Nick Vlastuin tells the author: “We’re not all square blocks in a pile – we’re bits of a jigsaw. We’re all different.”
There’s Bachar Houli, who prays to Mecca five times a day. There’s Brandon Ellis, who was raised in a tiny housing commission flat in Carlton, ashamed to bring friends home, stealing clothes to keep warm. There’s Jacob Townsend, a chronic stutterer who comes from nowhere to play a key role in the premiership.
This year, they’re given a licence to play like kids, for fun, without fear. They are fortified. They are utterly untrammelled by past disasters.
Much of this, of course, is attributable to the senior coach.
In 2016, Hardwick was overwrought, angry and seemingly doomed. This year, he “dials up his right brain.” He thinks laterally. He’s replete with quirky homilies and dad jokes. He almost never bags his players.
Prior to the 1977 Grand Final, Barassi refers to it as “MURDER DAY!”
Hardwick, for a brief moment, sounds like a yoga instructor.
“We’ve embraced imperfection this year, haven’t we? We all understand we’ve got strengths, and we all understand we’ve got flaws. The game today is going to be based on imperfection. We’re asking you to embrace those moments,” he says before Richmond’s Grand Final against Adelaide.
But there’s still a hint of the Kevin Sheedy protégé in him.
“I want these guys on a skewer,” he adds to his players.
Like Powers and Flanagan, Marshall has a gimlet eye, never more evident than his description of the Richmond fans in the final quarter of the Preliminary Final they won against Greater Western Sydney.
One old Tiger “simply hunches over, fists clenched, forearms flexing, upper body shaking, eyes shut, mouth open – wide open – screaming.”
There’s also some wonderful sketches of Hardwick in moments of high tension. Indeed, there’s never been a more comprehensive and raw account of what goes on in an AFL coaching box.
Marshall also has a rare knack of interviewing around his subjects, allowing them to tell their own stories without pages laden with quotes.
And for those baffled and put off by the modern game, this book will go a long way to alleviating that – particularly the importance of what happens off the ball and the decoding of tactical-speak. Read it and you’ll never watch a game the same way again.
It sounds like pop psychology.
But it helped deliver this most unlikely of premierships. And it forms the basis of one of the best books ever written about Australian rules football.
Konrad Marshall’s A Season With Richmond: Yellow & Black, published by the Slattery Media Group, is on sale now.