Late in the 1977 season, ‘The National Times’ commissioned a special report on how the top VFL teams of the day prepared themselves psychologically, as well as physically, for their weekly on-field showdown with the opposition. Reporter Laurie Clancy monitored the Tigers’ intense preparation for a critical match. Here, in full, is his fascinating insight . . .
“Leaders are made, they are not born,” the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi, wrote in 1970,“and they are made by hard effort. And that’s the price we all have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.”
The Richmond Tigers’ new coach, Barry Richardson, is fond of quoting the American gridiron coach. In the old days motivation and endeavor used to be called guts and determination and coaches worked themselves up into a lather just before the game, making thundering speeches, and then forgot about it for the rest of the week.
Allan Killigrew was famous in the fifties for the messianic fervour of his half-time addresses. A friend who played under him told me what it was like. “It reminded me of those sermons by redemptorist priests on the terrors of hell. The effect was terrific for about five minutes. Then, when the opposition kicked a goal, you came right back to earth.”
Barry Richardson is firmly dedicated to the paradox that motivation – that mysterious, intangible force that often means the difference between winning and losing the important games – has to be worked on by scientific means. He prepares not only for each individual game, but for the season as a whole, with meticulous thoroughness.
At the start of the season each players was given a specially prepared handbook containing “The Basics of the Richmond Game.” Every player is required to fill out a questionnaire on his opponent for the game, answering questions from the purely technical – “Which foot does he kick with?” – to the highly emotive and subjective – “Is he aggressive in play or speech?” or “Will he give up if beaten early?”
Each player has an Athletic Motivational Scale ranging over one point to 10 based on a Player Profile consisting of 108 questions which the player has to answer, carefully designed to reveal the extent of his desire to win and his reasons for playing in the first place.
It is a test devised by the American sports psychologist Dr Thomas Tutco. The player is asked such questions as “What does winning mean to you?” or “What is your reaction when your opponent strikes you?” Based on his answers, he is given a score out of 10, on such attributes as determination, coachability, trust and emotional stability.
“Some players, Bourke for instance, do it all for the club. Winning premierships is all that counts. Others are motivated by a color television set.” Barry Richardson is referring to the Richmond captain Francis Bourke, one of the most inspiring players of the last decade and known around the club as Saint Francis.
Bourke is a superior product of the old Catholic system of education. His values, both on and off the field, are straight-forward, simple and held with utter integrity.
Richardson says he scored extremely well on the Athletic Motivational Scale.
The key to Richardson’s approach is individuality. Each player must be respected, treated differently, and the tests and questionnaires help him work out his approach.
At Punt Road you step from the luxurious members’ lounge immediately into bare, locker-filled rooms with concrete floors. They are probably the worst quarters of any League club’s. Now all that is changing. “Getting the new rooms might well be my biggest achievement for the year,” Richardson mutters gloomily on Saturday morning, thinking of the coming game.
For the past decade Richmond had been the most successful club in the League under Tom Hafey, winning four premierships to add to the five it had taken them almost a century to win before that. Then slowly, in the way that happens to every successful club in the end, things started to go wrong.
After successive premierships in 1973 and 1974, they finished third in 1975. Last year they finished eighth with only 10 wins, their worst year ever under Hafey. This year’s 14 wins and a draw is a big improvement and although he would never say so, I suspect that Richardson would consider it a reasonable accomplishment to finish third, behind Hawthorn and Collingwood.
The team is mostly young, with several new faces and promising players like Roach and Tempany in the reserves. Richardson doesn’t like to talk about rebuilding. “I call it re-loading. Fitzroy have been rebuilding for 10 years.”
He’s right, of course. A good team is always re-loading, blooding new, young players, who will eventually replace the veterans as they retire. At Richmond, something went wrong. Some of the young recruits they found, failed to come up to expectations. And the policy, which Richmond effectively introduced, of recruiting players from other league clubs, rather than expensive stars from interstate, who often failed to meet the standard in Victoria, started to misfire.
Another problem is teaching the old dogs in the side new tricks. Everyone at Richmond still speaks of Tom Hafey with admiration and affection, but they insist that his coaching methods would not work with the present Richmond side.
“In the old days we used to just get the ball and kick it as quickly and as far as possible. There was always someone there to take the big grab – Royce, Neil Balme, myself.” (Richardson adds the last with obvious reluctance.) “Nowadays, we simply haven’t got players like that.”
All his coaching emphasis is on kicking to position, using short passing a lot more and relying on his forwards to lead intelligently. “Sometimes the older players, who’ve been trying to do what I tell them, fall back under pressure into the old habits.”
Kevin Bartlett, a veteran of 13 years of football, admits with disarming frankness, that he finds it hard to change his game under new coaching tactics. Nevertheless, sometimes he is now induced into a handpass, or decides not to shoot for goal from a hundred yards out.
Kevin Sheedy, another of the side’s veterans, agrees that the side is different under Richardson, and understands the necessity for it. “Either you change your game to suit the players or you get the players who could play the old game.” Without saying so, he sounds as if would prefer the latter.
Sheedy, Bartlett and Bourke are really the last of the old guard, now that the toll that months of heavy grounds have taken of Royce Hart’s knees finally forced him into retirement.
Much as Richardson relies on and admires his former teammates, I have the feeling that he won’t really consider it his side until they’re gone.
Meanwhile, Collingwood under Hafey are grabbing the ball and kicking it as hard as they can, and Collingwood have gone from last on the ladder last year to first. Collingwood thrashed Richmond both times they played them this year. The first time, Sheedy grabbed the ball immediately after half-time and kicked it the wrong way – as if he still felt mentally that he was playing for Hafey!
Richmond go for a run on Sunday mornings, before having a beer together, train under Richardson on Tuesdays, under assistant coach Mick Erwin on Wednesday, to give them a break from Richardson and vice versa, but the real preparation and build-up doesn’t begin until Thursday.
Barry Richardson arrives at the ground about two o’clock and begins planning immediately. On a blackboard he has drawn the probable Carlton line-up, and now he is working out the best Richmond side to meet it.
“You have to think about particular players and who is best to do the job. Sometimes you have to drop a bloke who’s played quite well, because he’s not right for the bloke he has to play on. You explain it, of course, but even then they don’t always take it well.”
He draws up six or seven teams during the afternoon. Shifting players during a game is something like playing chess on a board on which all the pieces are moving of their own volition. Unless you have a specific plan to meet every contingency, you can shift one player who is doing badly without realising that you’ve thrown everyone else in the side out of balance.
The players start to arrive about 4.30. Sometimes they watch the video of last week’s match together before training. It’s a useful coaching device and sometimes the most effective way of forcing players to eliminate mistakes in their own game. If someone fails to handpass, the whole team notices it and rubbishes him.
Then training – hard at Richmond, as they all learned fitness (Richardson included) under Tom Hafey. Training is a collaborative process. The players urge each other on, shouting, exhorting, much more than they have time to do in a match.
At the end of it Sheedy goes out of his way to talk to the small group of onlookers before going inside. Bourke gets Emmett Dunne, a young player from whom Richmond are expecting big things, aside in front of the lights and starts to kick the football as hard as he can at him from 10 yards away to work on his reflexes and grip.
Dunne, who is a policeman, looks as guilty as a small boy caught with his hand in the biscuit jar when he drops one. “Sorry Francis,” he says again. Francis slams the ball at him again. His hands are going to be a vital factor in Saturday’s game.
Tonight, Richardson has arranged a special event. Herb Elliott has been flown in from Perth to talk to the players about dedication and will-to-win. It is something he has done for Richmond before.
The club is fond of getting sporting celebrities to speak. Rodney Marsh and Dennis Lillee, both Tiger fans, spent their day off during the Centenary Test at Richmond. The manager, Max Scales, says: “If Muhammad Ali came to Melbourne, we’d move heaven and earth to get him out here just to say to the boys, “I’m the greatest. Because he is.”
Saturday morning. Richardson has arranged for a breakfast in the club rooms. Hafey used to do this nearly every week, but Richardson reserves it for special occasions. The new players’ room is open this morning – carpet, color television set, fridge with cans inside, cocktail cabinet, lounge chairs. After 13 years, Bartlett can’t believe it.
The players joke a lot, exchange friendly obscenities, talk about what films they’ve seen, want to see. Neil Balme ponders thoughtfully the question of whether Jacqueline Bissett’s breasts make a rotten film like The Deep worth going to.
Balme is the man the team look to most, the dynamo who generates their energy. “He’s a leader,” Richardson says, summing up in one word everything he most admires about a footballer. There is an air of slight hysteria in the rooms. “It’s all a front,” says Neville Roberts, in answer to a question. “My stomach’s as tight as a knot.”
Locked away in the new room, Richardson talks to the players for about half an hour, and listens to any comments they want to make. Richmond and Carlton are traditional rivals in the way that Melbourne and Collingwood used to be; and Richmond are firmly convinced that they have a psychological advantage over the other side.
On the way across to the ground, Richardson says unhappily: “I’d far rather be playing now than coaching. I always used to like the big ones.”
At the clubrooms, things are at last becoming serious and the jokes have disappeared. The players are rubbed down, in some cases bandaged. They thump footballs against the nets and then at each other, and bystanders duck.
In their enthusiasm, a board above the portraits of Richmond’s Best and Fairest players comes down and a fluorescent light is broken. Richardson calls for silence, takes the players into a little alcove in a corner of the clubroom and speaks to them. The sound of thumping on the wall is heard. Then they emerge and the exercises begin. A space is cleared in the middle of the room and the physical instructor takes them through their paces.
Suddenly, the theme from Rocky comes over the loudspeakers, turned up full blast, and Balme grabs the players next to him and shoves them violently. Bourke gets the idea and does the same thing. In a moment, they are all fighting and shouting at one another. Bartlett, ducking Balme, does a private war dance on the outskirts of the mob.
The 20 players have become a bunch of screaming, milling savages, themselves against all the world. Committeeman and former player Mike Green shouts exuberantly above the noise: “I’ve never seen a build-up like it.” What was that about evangelism?”