Footy: Say it isn’t so Richo … or then again … maybe the time is right

By Sam Steele

I don’t think a better verbal portrait of Richo can be painted than Waleed Aly’s piece that prefaced the 2008 Almanac.  Nor can a better image be conceived that Jim Pavlidis’ wonderful cover picture.

I won’t even attempt to compete with these.  My contribution to what will doubtless be a host of Richo eulogies is therefore simply personal reflection about a player that has defined Richmond and has been the single-most talked about player among Richmond fans for the last 17 seasons.

There has always been a contrariness about Matthew Richardson.  In the way he played the game, he was the perennial flawed genius.  As an athlete, he had a body that was both superhuman but fragile.  The way he conducted himself as a professional sportsman was superbly and passionately dedicated, utterly sporting on-field and without blemish off-field, yet all done in a remarkably individual manner that was beautifully at odds with the increasingly robotic nature of the modern game.

The contradictions continue even as Richo announces his retirement.  The medical advice seems conclusive that his time is up.  Now is certainly the right time for him to join the clean sweep of the Richmond playing list.  But there will be legions of Richmond supporters who will be devastated at this announcement and will fervently opine that if anyone could defy the odds for one more year, it would be Richo.

I had desperately hoped that Richo would be Richmond’s first 300-game player since Francis Bourke.  I can’t think of a player who would be more deserving of such a milestone.  But fate seems to have consistently determined that he is to be stopped cruelly short of all sorts of achievements through his career so it can scarcely surprise that fate has decreed this finish, just 18 games shy of the target.  But her harsh interventions cannot detract from his contribution to the game.

I first watched Richo play in 1993.  Barely 18 and in about his fourth game, he kicked six match-winning goals against an admittedly very weak Sydney team.  In a dreadful game played in bleak, windy conditions, his game was like a beacon on a dark night.  It was the first ever AFL game for my son Tom.  He was aged 3 at the time.  He is now nearly 20.  Richo has been there for Tom’s entire footballing experience.  My younger son, Billy, adores him, too.

If that game offered a rare glimmer of hope for the shivering fans that day, the next two years provided a snapshot of the long rollercoaster ride that Richo’s career became.  He had 15 goals from his first two games of 1994, but had been dumped to the reserves by mid-season.  He returned as the Tigers’ stunning late-season revival took shape, again playing superbly, instinctively, like an untameable colt.  By 1995, he’d bulked up and had worked on his notoriously wonky goalkicking and had 27.3 to his credit when his knee buckled early at the SCG and he missed the Tigers’ first finals appearance in 13 years.  We finished that match on top of the ladder, but with the hollow feeling that our genuine hope of a great season had vanished.

The current universal love for Richo that even prompted an unusually soppy tribute from AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou wasn’t always there.  Many times, I’ve done the maths in frustration at yet another bizarre Richo injury (remember that season-ending foot injury that was described by the doctors as akin to the impact of a serious road accident?) and consoled myself with the fact that Richmond’s win: loss ratio was pretty much the same with him in the team as without him. In 2002, after a one-point loss to wooden-spooners-elect, Carlton, in which Richo chucked a number of costly tanties, I loudly declared that we should trade him while he still had a few good years left in him.  I wasn’t alone among Richmond fans on this.  He was also subject to plenty of vitriol from opposition supporters during his prime.  Sometimes it was because he was just too damned good.  I well remember him being tagged by that great football “athlete”, Anthony Koutoufides, when he was in his prime.  Richo ran him ragged.  But supporters also knew that they could get into his head with their hooting and bronx cheers, especially when he had the kicking yips.

But when he was at his peak, he was unstoppable.  Sadly, even his best years – 1996 and 1999 in my opinion – weren’t enough to compensate for an otherwise mediocre Richmond line-up.  His great performances over the years will largely be remembered as individual efforts rather than major contributions to team success.  In this lies the great unanswered question about Richo – what could he have achieved in a really good side?

One question that was answered instead was that, yes, to some extent age mellowed Richo.  His last few years with the battling Tigers were relative models of consistency.  He finally kicked those big bags of 10 and 9 goals that he’d always promised.  He dropped the “bad body language”.  He became more obviously a team player (not that he ever wasn’t) and yet still maintained his phenomenal individual output.  His effort last year in reinventing himself as something I can only describe as a “key position on-baller” was a joy to behold.  It almost scored him a Brownlow.  Yet with typical contrariness, he failed to poll the crucial votes in the Round 22 massacre of Melbourne, a game he could easily have dominated.  I watched that game and knew he wouldn’t poll.   After giving his all for the year, it was as though he was saying “I don’t need to bust a gut in this go-through-the-motions exercise”.  And he didn’t.

I said before that Waleed Aly described Richo as well as anyone could.  But I can’t finish this without quoting my mate, Peter, who I’ve attend matches with through most of Richo’s career.  Contemplating a typically freakish Richo moment (and I can’t recall if it was a good one or a shocker), Pete simply shook his head and said: “Richo’s a force of nature.”  Suddenly everything he did on a footy field made sense!

About Sam Steele

Stainless (aka Sam Steele) started following Richmond in 1970 when he was 6. This occurred when his mother, under instructions to buy him a Melbourne jumper, found they were out of stock and purchased a Richmond one instead. Despite the decades of heartache and turmoil this fateful decision has brought on Stainless, he is grateful to his mum as he has at least seen his side win a couple of Premierships. After 30 September 2017, his mum is now officially his favourite person.

Comments

  1. Stailess – the best description of Richo I’ve heard was simply:

    “Richo, Richo, Richo…..” combined with a head shake.

    Signified disaster and/or joy.

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