by Tom Briglia
Individuals that become a part of the St Kilda Football Club – most of whom we’d have nothing to do with them otherwise – players, coaches, officials, whoever, are intertwined with our search for a life experience as Saints supporters; the “after” that we can pair with this 53-year-old “before”.
And so they come to represent more than just themselves as individuals. What position should Blake Acres be played in? How many games will Dan Hannebery be fit for? Why isn’t Brandon White being selected? Maybe Max King will take us to glory. We see the St Kilda supporter in ourselves in him, and we see our messiah complex being fulfilled by him.
We’ve started asking deeper questions in the past few years. Where did our leaders go? Is our recruiting awful? What happened to the Road to 2018? Where are all of our New Zealand members?
Fairly, unfairly, simplistically, unusually, often this winds up being represented in the coach. The senior person who is in charge of and represents the players. It’s an easy place to have concentrated the frustration. A club’s primary function is to have a team play Australian Rules football, and St Kilda’s just hasn’t done that very well very often. Richo, given his position, has been at the centre of our frustrations.
But he’s been central throughout the past six years. In a period that has seen leaders and true St Kilda people go and very few emerge, Richo has been the only constant. Hayes left in the first year of his tenure; Fisher and Dempster were there a little longer; Riewoldt and Joey for four seasons. Armo peaked briefly in there, Geary emerged and perversely his best season has been upended by two freak collision injuries. But what else?
Who did we see and hear represent the club after every game? Who were we looking for when we looked to the coaches’ box across the other side of the ground? Who were we looking to to take us out of the post-Grand Finals misery? Richo may well have been the closest thing to an identifiably St Kilda person at the club that remained from the end of the Watters era black hole. As time goes on, that era appears a deeper and more curious chasm dividing the GT and Ross Combined era and the current post-Grand Finals era. Richo’s appointment and tenure has become a clear demarcation point. Even watching the (very funny and enjoyable) Doulton video was strange. All of a sudden, this is the St Kilda Football Club. Who are the Saints? It just looked Brett Ratten and a bunch of guys who like footy.
A modern-day storm of rebuild-via-draft-and-free-agency, and a St Kilda board seeking stability meant that despite a not-quite-35% win rate, Richo is St Kilda’s second-longest serving coach, and whatever I think of how he coached or the results during the past six years, the place feels strange without him.
It was a text from Matt that dropped down from the top of my iPhone screen that was how I learned what had happened on Tuesday. But I didn’t register it immediately; he decided to call me anyway in that moment, and I blankly opened with “What’s up?”
Heading into last weekend, many thought this was the most likely game to trigger an immediate move from the club on his position: a trouncing from the ladder leaders at the Cattery, ten years on from Paul Chapman ultimately being proved right. Instead, the team had put in one of their heartier performances, but like so many games throughout the past six years, the gulf in top end talent was the difference.
And maybe there was, indeed, enough in his face on the siren to gauge what was about to happen. I thought maybe it was projecting on my part, but it became apparent during the week that he knew.
Did he ever get a really decent chance? He took over a lost list and a heartbroken club, and then had to deal with genuine heart issues, head issues, mental health issues, poor trading and recruiting (but was the development his fault?), other strange injuries, and other strange list decisions (in hindsight anyway).
However it was, Richo carried himself with dignity, decency humility throughout whatever happened over the past six years. He engaged with anything he saw was in the club’s best interests. He kept fronting up to 360 to get asked about on TV why the club’s rebuild was collapsing, and if he was aware of the implications that the public scrutiny and pressure might only end up with him losing a role that he had worked years to attain. He answered similar questions for much of the past couple of months; he kept it out of the conversation at training. Going by the most oft-consulted metric for a coach’s viability, the players were still playing for him.
The only faint crack that appeared was a swipe at the umpires after Saturday night, but a very large part of me feels that it was his way of sticking up for the club in one of the few remaining ways he could. He certainly wasn’t going to get fined, and he could let AFL HQ knew that the club was watching.
Footy’s a business, sure, but you can’t just leave it at that. It’s a fucking emotional one, whether you like it or not, and whether I like it or not. Those simplistic components co-exist and cross over in uncomfortable ways. Maybe when tears appeared during the press conference – for what people had given up for him – it was that the situation became a whole lot more real. The chatter was something we’d become used to for more than 12 months, but the requirement he felt to stay stoic was now gone. His involvement with the club was now past tense. Some were keen for this event. I certainly didn’t take any joy out of it. His success would have been our own; the optimism of late 2016 was his and our own; the plummet down the ladder may or may not have entirely been his, but it was our own.
By chance, my brother Matt was driving around Moorabbin on Monday and decided to swing by the club shop. Maybe some of the players would be out on the track. Instead, on his walk from the car up Linton Street, he chanced upon Richo and Matt Finnis. Matt couldn’t pass up the opportunity. He thinks Richo had done really well in 2019 given the the varying physical and psychological tolls felt by the players.
“Sorry to interrupt lads, but I just wanted to shake this man’s hand and let him know what a great job he’s done this season.”
That ended up in a several-minute chat with two people who, it became apparent, were discussing a landmark event in this club’s history. One of them was 24 hours away from publicly getting the arse end of it; from answering questions about it, specifically how he had not been successful.
Matt’s interaction might have been the last Richo had with a supporter, or a member. I’m not sure. In the footy bubble, Alan Richardson the human is infinitely intertwined with Alan Richardson, and I don’t know how many positive lines he would have heard about his coaching over the past 12 months, nor, given what we walked into, the past six years. I hope he got some affirmation from what Matt said. That the time and effort he had spent – and the pressure he felt – during his time at the club had meant something to St Kilda supporters. On a windy and wintery day in a suburban Melbourne street, away from anyone else and knowing that he’d coached his last game at the club, he still felt and honoured a responsibility to engage with them.