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Posted on 18 Oct 2018 in Non-Fiction |

GEORGE MEGALOGENIS The Football Solution: How Richmond’s premiership can save Australia. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

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The Football Solution is a history of the Richmond Football Club with a powerful political dimension.

A week might be a long time in politics as Harold Wilson once said, but a fortnight is too short a time between Newspolls measuring voting intentions. The latter marks the beginning of the rot setting in for the Australian system of government.

In his introduction, long-time political journalist George Megalogenis tells us that ‘politics is increasingly conducted like sport once was’ and that his story of Richmond and the nation, told in three acts, is meant to be read ‘with the one eye of a sports fan and the open mind of a citizen’. The three acts are roughly equal in page length but markedly different in the time spans they cover. The first, ‘The People and Their Game’ runs from the 1850s to the 1960s; the second, ‘Political Football’ from the 1970s to the 2000s; and the third, ‘A New Way to Win’, from 2010 to 2017.

This densely written book begins with what is termed Australian Rules Football’s ‘conflicted origins’, the rise of the Richmond Football Club as the suburb dies, the great football rivalry with neighbouring suburb Collingwood, and Richmond’s fall and rebirth as a football club with four premiership successes under Tom Hafey between 1967 and 1974.

Megalogenis calls himself a ‘data nerd’ but one of the most impressive aspects of the book is his marshalling of demographic data to describe the changing nature of the inner Melbourne suburbs (including Richmond) and the impact that has had on football. In the 1880s Richmond is an ‘upwardly mobile suburb’ with a ‘rugged football team’ but a decade later during the depression of the 1890s it loses 7000 people (20 per cent of its population), although the football club revives to win the Victorian Football Association premierships of 1902 and 1905 and gain admission to the Victorian Football League. By 1920 when it won its first VFL premiership the suburb was poor but the football team brought respect:

The template for Richmond’s first ten premierships was established on this day, from using an exaggerated sense of victimhood to motivate the players all the way to the jubilant street party that celebrated the win.

Respect comes in a different form for a child of migrant parents in the 1960s and 1970s:

Football and music were the twin shields of my childhood identity. I wasn’t Greek or Australian, but a Richmond supporter and a Beatles fan. My boyhood heroes were pairings of contemporary Tigers and rock stars of other eras. Royce Hart and John Lennon, Michael Roach and Jim Morrison, Maurice Rioli and Bruce Springsteen.

Megalogenis was born in 1964 and his boyhood coincides with Richmond’s glory years under Hafey with four premierships in eight years and another in 1980. Going to the footy is ‘the week’s big adventure’ and a ‘day release from the house arrest of migrant life’, but interestingly he also sees the club ‘personifying the worst aspects of Australian public life in the 1970s’ with an attitude of winning at all costs and whinging at every opportunity. In 1980 the club attracts a phenomenal 50 000 people to home games, yet the aftermath of a grand final loss to Carlton two years later leads to such reckless decision-making and a revolving-door approach to coaching staff that by 1987 home crowds had collapsed to 18 000.

It is a long haul back and Richmond takes its time, so it is not until 2017 that it is able to add a first AFL premiership to its VFL successes. In the book’s third act Megalogenis closely examines the role of key Richmond figures – chief executive Brendon Gale, president Peggy O’Neal, coach Damien Hardwick, and football director Neil Balme – in bringing about a winning formula. O’Neal understands the importance of corporate governance and of the separation of powers within a football club; Gale works on a five-year plan to make three finals series, remove debt and reach 75 000 members; and Hardwick achieves progress but faces the disappointment of losing three finals series. Patience is required for all, and whereas the old Richmond would have long ago sacked the coach, now he is given an extended contract. Patience, empathy and belief underwrite the pennant win.

Megalogenis firmly places the main political message at the back of the book:

Richmond is better run than the country now, while the Labor and Liberal parties have been behaving like the Tigers of old, executing prime ministers even after they’ve won an election.

My frustration with politics today is its belligerent immaturity.

Football had little to teach politics in the 1990s because political leaders did not fear scrutiny, and had the confidence of their beliefs to promote unpopular policies in the national interest … I grew up in a press gallery in which politicians relished interrogation … Now they speak only to those who agree with them … Parties don’t learn from their mistakes; they repeat them.

The Richmond model of collaborative leadership isn’t a new one, it’s a reminder of that better way of governing in an unexpected setting.

Do patience, empathy and belief stand a chance in the political setting? Maybe.

I’m not persuaded by all of Megalogenis’s arguments. He falls for the romantic myth of Australian Rules Football’s origins in marngrook, and his statements that today’s players are less deferential, and that ‘no one ever won a premiership through empathy – until 2016’ (when the Bulldogs did so) are surely Vic-centric.

In Adelaide in 1976 South Australian captain Peter Marker and state full-forward Fred Phillis told of how they (among others) informed their Glenelg coach Neil Kerley (a strong authoritarian figure) that they ‘knew how to play the game’, which caused him to moderate his tone. Discussion around the same time with Sturt players stressed that Jack Oatey concentrated on ‘positive reinforcement’, and when Neil Balme coached Norwood to the 1982 and 1984 South Australian premiership wins, players approved of his realistic expectations of them. Perhaps the Victorians took a long time to catch on but Oatey’s and Balme’s successes in SA certainly incorporated empathy.

A week can be a long time in football and as I was writing this review 2018 premiership favourite Richmond had just lost a preliminary final to long-time rival Collingwood. Ninety-nine years ago the clubs had strong ties as working-class neighbours and although they met in the final (and challenge final), Magpie president Jim Sharp stated ‘that if the premiership should go to any team outside his own, that team should be Richmond’. After their defeat this year Richmond players offered support to Collingwood, telling their players to enjoy the grand final week and keep the game in perspective.

The Football Solution is a stimulating and perceptive book but it may not be simply Richmond’s premiership that saves Australia. It could be that of the Bulldogs, or Collingwood’s or West Coast’s premiership that influences our political leaders to wake up. As presidential candidate Bill McKay (played by Robert Redford in the 1972 film The Candidate) kept saying, ‘There’s gotta be a better way.’

George Megalogenis The Football Solution: How Richmond’s premiership can save Australia Penguin Viking 2018 PB 272pp $32.99

Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. His latest book is Joe Darling: Cricketer, Farmer, Politician and Family Man.

You can buy The Football Solution from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.