We crank up the Tiger Time Machine to travel back to 1916, when the league football season was thrown into chaos, similar to today, and how Richmond responded then.
Richmond was one of only four clubs that competed in the 1916 VFL season because of World War 1, along with Carlton, Collingwood and Fitzroy.
Melbourne, South Melbourne, St Kilda, Essendon and Geelong were unable to field teams.
The Tigers’ committee had decided that it was important to keep playing in the competition, so as to assist the patriotic funds through raising money. All profits for the season would be handed to the Returned Soldiers’ Immediate Relief Fund.
To maximise the money that could be raised at matches, the best players competition-wide needed to be available to play.
As a result, Richmond adopted a bold approach that would have warmed the heart of latter-day Tiger powerbroker Graeme Richmond.
The Tigers initially recruited star Geelong rover Alec Eason and subsequently secured the services of his teammates Percy Martini, Harry Marsham and James Kearney, even though they never obtained official permits for them to play in that 1916 season.
On Saturday, May 13, the ‘Richmond Guardian’ newspaper reported, “Richmond’s committee hold the opinion that as the reason for the continuation of the games is to assist the patriotic funds, it is the bounden duty of the club to put into the field the best available team and so make the games as interesting as possible. The matter of playing for a premiership does not count alongside the greater issue. Therefore, though no permits have been obtained, the Richmond club will today strengthen their side by the inclusion of “Billy” Burns, the champion of 2 or 3 years ago, and also the redoubtable Alec Eason, crack rover for Geelong. There is no question that the inclusion of these 2 stars will brighten the Richmond firmament considerably, but there is bound to be criticism of the Richmond committee’s decision.
It will be argued that if the Richmond Club includes Eason, who is not a Richmond resident, the club is breaking the League’s district scheme.
Some knotty problems are undoubtedly opened up and there is certain to be long-drawn-out argument, but the general public will recognise the broadmindedness of the Richmond attitude. The committee is concerned only in sending out a team, which, sadly weakened by the enlistment of more soldiers from it than any other League club, will regain some of its lost backbone by the inclusion of these experienced players who step forward to play without any form of payment for their services, so as they can join in the movement to help the brave but broken men who are for ever coming back to us and for whom everything possible must and will be done.
The better the games the better the public patronage, is the Richmond committee’s opinion.”
According to current-day Richmond historian Rhett Bartlett, although other clubs in the competition were unhappy with the Tigers’ action, the League had its hands tied.
The players were competing for free and coach Charlie Ricketts also wasn’t being paid, so the League couldn’t financially sanction them. And if the League kicked Richmond out of the competition, that would have left only three clubs to compete that season.
When Martini, Marsham and Kearney started playing alongside Eason at Tigerland, the Richmond Guardian began referring to the team as the “Gee-Richers”.
Unfortunately, the addition of those Geelong guns didn’t have the desired result for the Tigers, who won just five games in the 12-round, home-and-away season and was then knocked out of the premiership race, losing to Carlton by three points in the semi-final.
Fitzroy, which had finished last (fourth of four teams) at the completion of the home-and-away rounds, went on to win the premiership, defeating Carlton by 29 points in the Grand Final.
In that 1916 season, Eason played 12 games and kicked eight goals for Richmond.
Martini played 10 games and was the Tigers’ leading goalkicker with 22 goals.
Kearney played seven games and didn’t score a goal.
Marsham, who is the great-grandfather of former Channel Nine ‘Footy Show’ co-host Rebecca Maddern, played seven games and kicked four goals.