Ah, the Richmond Football Club. It is a club with a tremendous supporter base and a tremendous myth. A great Club of the late 1960s, 70s with a last hurrah long ago in 1980. And since that time, the Victorian Football League has become the Australian Football League and the footy landscape has changed dramatically. The Club has had countless lowest moments and countless false dawns: the latest being the three successive finals appearances, which have all ended in tears. Richmond fans are notoriously ‘passionate’: excitable as soon as their team seems to be on the rise; risible when their team has thrown up another half-hearted, barely there performance. The Club remains attached to its spiritual home of Punt Road, while clubs such as Hawthorn and Collingwood have long left theirs, while the Roos have renovated Arden St and turned it into a multi-purpose community centre. Richmond fans and members can now enjoy watching their VFL side play on Punt Road from the wonderfully wooden Jack Dyer Stand while surveying the Richmond landscape of the densely packed terrace houses, Pelaco sign and St.Ignatius spire. Oh, Richmond Football Club: so easily to love for its jumper, song, heritage. Oh, but how you torment your fans.
The Club made a name for itself in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s for infighting and instability. Yet, the ship has been pretty-well righted with the stability of the Peggy O’Neal, Brendan Gale, Damien Hardwick trio. Now, to satisfy the footy puritans, Neil Balme is on board to give the Club some well-needed clout. Out goes Lids for a well-deserved glory hunting end to his career at GWS, and in come the young bucks of Prestia and Caddy. The AFL website and The Age and the other paper jump at any chance to write of the board ructions at Tigerland. So, despite having started a campaign to be on the board of the RFC some months ago, Simon Wallace is doing well to have kept a low profile. The Focus on Footy brouhaha has passed and Balme arrived soon after, so, things evened themselves out. Some members and agitators, though, are critical of the present stability and regard it as being an indication of accepting mediocrity. The Club wants its members and legions of fans to forget the shamozzle of 2016, while Wallace wants to be thorough in his scrutiny of how and why things collapsed into the unholy mess that they became.
I got in touch with Mr.Wallace not long after he initiated his 4 Points Prospectus in early October. The prospectus appeared at the end of the season and Richmond fans were hurting through the debacle of the last few rounds: smashings from Hawthorn and Sydney and a self-immolation against Geelong. I was taken aback by his Prospectus: it was passionate (haha!), measured, planned and structured. Moreover, through disguising his identity on his popular Twitter account, there was a degree of surprise when he came out as Simon Wallace – the man behind a fake Twitter account under the name of Richmond FC historian, Tony Greenberg. I was curious about how Simon had moved from being a regular fan to being willing to be a part of improving things in Tigerland.
What was the defining moment that led you to writing your 4 Points document?
Although the thoughts, values and positions espoused in my Prospectus have been in my mind for much longer, that document itself started out as some research done for my own personal purposes, shortly after the Crows game in Round 3 this year. I went along to that game, fresh from the agony of the previous week’s last gasp loss to Collingwood and the ubiquitous “analysis” in the media that followed. The Adelaide game – and the way it was lost – for me, was more distressing than the Pies’ game, as I walked away from Docklands with a sombre view not only about the match, but our capacity and prospects as a team. I’m not one to draw wide conclusions from small samples, but we seemed directionless, offensively inept and incoherent when looking to transition. I was equally as impressed by the Crows as I was disappointed with us.
I started by compiling my own spreadsheet, comparing the two teams that played that day. To my surprise, the data revealed that we actually weren’t much younger than Adelaide, we had about the same experience and our team was comprised of a suite of players taken with high draft selections, compared to the Crows’ very few. They had 12 players initially selected with a pick in the national draft after 40; we had 2. I acknowledge that the draft concessions handed out to the expansion teams make direct comparisons a little difficult, but they had 5 first rounders out there; we had 12. Their coach was in his third game as chief strategist, whereas Dimma was at the start of his seventh year. On any measure, that raw data should have supported a win. Instead, we were comprehensively handled.
I then looked at what sacrifices had been made, deliberately or otherwise, by Adelaide in recent times. The list of quality players who have left that club since 2011 is astonishing. They were sanctioned (in draft selections at least) for their part in the Kurt Tippett saga more than was Essendon in 2013. So, like most activism, I started with a sobering realisation that all was not as I had been led to believe at Richmond. Then I asked, why? And then I started putting more and more thoughts down on paper. I started discussing these numbers with others whose opinion I valued. I wondered how it was that this had happened. And then I started to wonder what I could do. All the thoughts I had previously had, which I’d dared not think were leading indicators, started to gel.
Was there a trigger point? Not in isolation, no. Whether it be my continued progression and increasing confidence as a director of an ASX-listed entity, the anguish I felt personally and saw on the faces of my children as I struggled to explain how our performances could be so at odds with our shared, and encouraged, expectations or the fact that our board had largely been compiled, rather than elected or even endorsed by supporters, I decided to offer myself to members of the Club I love. I saw friends of mine start to drop off and I realised we had a real issue that demanded action.
There’s a selfish element to this, too. Regardless of the outcome, I’m proud of what I’ve put together – the most thorough, thoughtful and researched submission ever made to members of any AFL Club by a board aspirant. At the end of this process, I hope to be a part of charting the path for Richmond. Irrespective of the result, though, my conscience will be clear.
How did you make the transition from being a fan who supports the club on the weekend, to being a fan who is willing to take ownership of the club’s problems and being willing to contribute to solving them?
Some of the above touches on this question, so I’d simply repeat it, but – without placing tickets on myself – I’m no dill, and while I have great respect for those who comprise our Board right now, it became clear to me that what we were doing, simply wasn’t working. I allowed myself to consider whether I could truly add something. The typical fan’s view on how to fix things (Player X to play, or not, and coach Y to do this or that differently) is of course something I engage in, but I saw that my thoughts weren’t productive, nor did I have the expertise to make them with any authority. I therefore looked to my own views, and took the time to put them in writing. Once I saw the gaps in what we were doing, and how our board was constituted, it became less of a choice to run and more of a personal obligation.
What are the realistic expectations of fans to have in the Club? What are the ways in which the club can improve its engagements with its fans and members? Do you sense a disenchantment from fans with the club?
I’ve been asked this a bit, actually. However simplistic, Richmond should be Top 4 in everything that we do, on field and off. Not as an aspiration, but as an expectation. Where we are not, changes need to be made (thoughtfully).
As for how I would like our supporters to see us? I want Richmond to be a club its supporters can trust implicitly, onfield and off. I have made my thoughts on our reliance on gaming revenues known, but when it comes to onfield performances, I don’t sense that we are a team that is trusted by its members. Whether it be the first goal that Geelong kicked in Q4 [by now Tiger player, Josh Caddy] of our late season game, which triggered an overwhelming sense of dread in every Richmond fan I’ve spoken to about that game, or that there were – frankly – too many ostensibly dishonest performances from our team this year, or whether it be that we’ve failed to progress beyond week one of the finals in 2013-2015, which have been excruciating for all associated with Richmond, I think this year amounted to a breach of faith. I hold no one person responsible, other than to say it wasn’t disappointing, but rather that it was totally unacceptable. What’s almost as bad, is that it seems to have been totally unexpected.
Wallace is a reluctant revolutionary, but, is equally reluctant to stay silent as long as his club under-performs and over-rates itself. Richmond members have only had their say in two elections over the past seven years and little is known about most members of the board. Wallace’s Prospectus is a rare document in the footy world for it provides a clear list of his ‘deliverables’ for the Club and what he will work towards. Of the incumbents up for election, us members know as good as nix.
Wallace is measured, much to the chagrin of the papers and AFL media that want to spin a picture of a Club on the brink of implosion. He says, while not being afraid of drawing grand parallels between local footy politics with that of major historical events: “I’m not Robbespierre, but I do just want to offer myself to members in a healthy, constructive election process for the Club I love. Heaven forbid we become a Club where members simply shrug their shoulders and think what we’ve delivered to date is what we should be thankful to receive. And in a week that my faith in democracy has taken a hit [i.e. US election], I have ample respect for Richmond members to make an informed, intelligent decision as to whom they will support.”
Between hope and fear. Simon’s children consider their futures.
Photos courtesy of Simon Wallace