With the best player on the ground in Saturday night’s Anzac Day Eve Richmond v Melbourne blockbuster to be awarded the inaugural Frank ‘Checker’ Hughes Medal, Tony Greenberg provides an insight into the magnificent league football career of the man that the award is named after.
It is doubtful if any figure in AFL/VFL history has exerted more influence at two clubs than Francis Vane ‘Checker’ Hughes.
Having played in a senior premiership side with suburban club Burnley in 1913 at the age of 19, Hughes was recruited by Richmond, who narrowly beat arch-rival Collingwood to the punch for his signature.
Hughes, a 175cm, 70kg, talented and fiercely determined rover/centreman, made his senior debut with the Tigers in Round 3 of the 1914 season, ironically against Collingwood at Victoria Park.
He played 16 games all-up in a promising introductory season to big-time football.
Midway through the next year, however, following a further eight senior appearances for Richmond in 1915, Hughes’ playing career was put on hold, when he enlisted in the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) for duty in World War 1.
At the time, Hughes was a 21-year-old leather presser, living with his wife Irene not far from Richmond’s Punt Road Oval headquarters.
Hughes would go on to serve the 57th battalion of the AIF in France and Belgium, displaying many of the fine attributes that would later underpin both his playing and coaching careers in the then VFL football competition.
He was rewarded for his brave, bold wartime efforts with the Meritorious Service Medal. This was a medal awarded to soldiers for actions above and beyond the call of duty.
On May 12, 1919, after nearly four years fighting for his country in what was known as ‘The Great War’, Hughes returned to Melbourne. Within a month, he was back in the Yellow and Black.
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He quickly established himself as a key member of Richmond’s line-up, and was one of the Tigers’ best in their 1919 Grand Final loss to Collingwood.
Richmond gained sweet revenge the following year, claiming its first league premiership with a 17-point victory over the Magpies in the 1920 Grand Final, Hughes playing an important role as the team’s centreman.
The Tigers made it back-to-back flags in 1921, defeating Carlton by four points in a thrilling Grand Final, with Hughes again one of their best.
Hughes retired as a league player at the end of the 1923 season, after 87 games for Richmond, and was subsequently awarded life membership of the Tigers.
He returned to Tigerland as senior coach in 1927 following a three-year stint as captain-coach of Tasmanian club Ulverstone.
Richmond had finished seventh (in the 12-team competition) under captain-coach Mel Morris in 1926 but was immediately revitalised under Checker Hughes’ astute coaching guidance.
Hughes lifted the Tigers into the 1927 Grand Final against Collingwood, however, they lost in waterlogged conditions by 12 points.
Frustratingly, Richmond was to suffer Grand Final defeats at the hands of the pesky Magpies in 1928 and 1929. Then, in 1930, Collingwood ended the Tigers’ season with victory over them in the semi-final.
Another Grand Final loss followed for Richmond in 1931 (against Geelong), before the Tigers finally broke through for the ultimate success in 1932.
Checker’s charges knocked over Carlton by nine points in a tough, thrilling ’32 Grand Final, much to the utter delight of the Yellow and Black faithful.
The great Jack Dyer, an 18-year-old, in just his second season of league football, unfortunately missed that premiership triumph, due to a knee injury. Decades later, in Dyer’s book, ‘Captain Blood’, he spoke in glowing terms of the influence Checker Hughes had on his formative football years . . .
“No matter how tough you are in Aussie Rules football, you can always find someone tougher.
“There was one bloke who had my measure. If he told me to jump over a cliff, I would have. He could make my skin prickle and I’d jump at the sound of his voice. Yet he was only 5ft 9in and stones lighter than me.
“His name – Checker Hughes. The greatest coach in VFL history. His word was law, no matter if you were a raw recruit or an established star. If you disobeyed an instruction you spent a week on the bench. He could make champions out of no-hopers. He was a great psychologist and understood the fear and thoughts of every player. His biting tongue could stir Richmond to victory.
“Checker was the most stirring and cutting orator I have heard. He could make the hair stand out on your arms. Two speeches stick in my mind. Both stirred us from inevitable defeat to victory.
“We were three goals down against Footscray at half-time and in his most sarcastic voice he cooed: ‘Now, don’t worry, just relax. We’re going to have a real picnic day. The ladies’ committee have made a Devonshire tea for three-quarter time and I have sent home for some tablecloths and we’re going to spread them out and really enjoy this sunshine. All they want to know about is the milk and sugar in your tea. We will have napkins in case you spill anything on your nice clean jumpers and shorts. And we’ll have a jolly pleasant afternoon’. Then with a roar, the blitz started. ‘But I’ll be buggered if any of you will ever play for Richmond again! Get out there and play like men . . .’ We squirmed in our seats, blushed, and couldn’t wait to tear back into the opposition. You had to take your hate out on somebody. We had the game won by three-quarter time.
“With Checker as coach, we weren’t game to be behind at any stage during the day. But it happened more than once. Another time we were trailing Collingwood and Checker drawled: ‘Before I start my address, I want to tell you a little story. Once upon a time, when I was a little boy, my mother bought me 18 wooden soldiers. I learned to love each and every one of them. I used to play with them for hours on end, and then came the day when I lost them. I searched for them for years without success. But now I’ve got the whole bloody lot back again!’ We went out and wiped the field with the Magpies . . .”
The 1932 Grand Final was to be Checker Hughes’ last game as Richmond’s coach.
Along with renowned Richmond secretary, Percy Page, he crossed to Melbourne as coach in 1933.
As he had done when he took over the coaching reins at Richmond, Hughes made an immediate impression with Melbourne, sacking 13 players and changing the club’s nickname from the Fuschias to the Demons.
Hughes went on to lead Melbourne to four premierships (1939, 1940, 1941 and 1948) and establish himself as one of the greatest coaches in league football history.
Today, his league coaching record makes for mighty impressive reading . . . 378 games, 244 wins, 130 wins, four draws, which is a winning strike-rate of 65%.
In 1996, Checker Hughes, most fittingly, was an inaugural inductee into the Australian Football Hall of Fame.
His contributions at Richmond, Melbourne, and for Australia during World War 1, were enormous.