Mark Coughlan: Game 84, Number 24.

by Chris Riches

Sixteen possessions, five marks, five tackles.

Not a bad night’s work for someone playing their first game for the season, and for a 27-year-old returning from a series of debilitating injuries it is a more than encouraging display.

Yet Mark Coughlan looks uncomfortable.
Richmond players and officials leaving Etihad Stadium after the side’s first win of the season against North Melbourne.Carlton.Melbourne more than four years later – and an acknowledging wave to the raucous Tiger Army.Punt Road’s future hopes and dreams.Tasmania those hopes lay in tatters, Coughlan’s knee buckling under him, a long recovery process ahead.Richmond fans who might have heard the name Mark Coughlan may be moved to look up his statistics to find out more about the man who wore number 24.
Maybe they’ll have been told about his wonderful 2003 season or maybe they’ll notice his name among the Tigers’ list of best and fairest winners.
Germany.Richmond jumper again?April 23, 2009.North Melbourne v RichmondRichmond: In – Coughlan.Richmond gradually pull away.Richmond in 2009, and partly because of the passion of its delivery and the shiver it sends down the spine of those who view and hear it.Punt Road, has returned.

He had, seconds earlier, been nudged to the front of the group of

Slowly, even reluctantly, he complied, tentatively raising a hand to acknowledge those hardy Tiger fans crowding near the players’ race. Sensing the significance of the moment, those fans, already hoarse from singing their famous theme song, roared with renewed passion.

But even as a faint smile touches the 27 year-old’s cheeks, his eyes belie the feeling that his mind is wandering, seemingly recalling other places, other times.

Or maybe it’s just an eerie feeling of déjà vu.


Thirty-eight possessions, eight clearances, seven tackles, six inside 50s and five marks.

A good day’s work by anyone’s measure, and for a 23-year-old a few games into a return returning from a debilitating injury, it is a stellar display.

Teammates nudge Mark Coughlan towards the front of their group as they leave the MCG on this sunny Saturday in May after a 14-goal mauling of traditional rivals

Never one for the spotlight he reluctantly he moves forward. Yet as the crowd roars its approval he is moved to offer a smile – one somewhat broader than that he would burnish on a stormy night in

The future again lays ahead of Coughlan after a successful battle against the groin complaint which derailed his previous season.

A brilliant 2003 which saw him win a Jack Dyer medal, average more than 20 possessions a game and grow into a one-man resistance army in a season where the Tigers managed just one win from their last 13 games saw him become the face of

Yet just over 12 months later on a windswept field in


In future years young

But one wonders what they might think when they see the gaping hole in the Perth boy’s playing career – the zeros under the “games played” columns in 2007 and 2008.

“What happened?” they might ask. “Why did his career just stop?”

“He did his knee,” they’ll be told. “Wrecked it against Hawthorn one day in 2006. We lost the game and we lost Coughlan that day too.”

A simple explanation maybe, but one which hardly has the impact of the zeroes next to 2007 and 2008 in the record book.

And one that hardly tells the whole story of someone who was a young midfield general at only 21, and yet a forgotten man just five years later.


Time stops for no man, so the saying goes. And for an elite sportperson, time not only ticks onward remorselessly, but seems to speed up as age and injury take their toll.

None of us – except maybe Coughlan himself – know how fast that clock was ticking for Mark Coughlan between Round 12, 2006 and Round 5, 2009.

And with each day, each setback, the clock’s pace quickens.

An initial knee reconstruction. Rehabilitation.

A second knee reconstruction. Rehabilitation.

Multiple hamstring problems.

Experimental treatment in

Rehabilitation. Again.

The clock ticks on. Times marches on.

How many times would Mark Coughlan think about giving it all away? How many times would the voice in his head ask if it was really worth it?

How many times, in the quiet, by himself, in the dead of night, would he truly doubt if he would ever pull on a

Even for the hardiest of souls – of which Coughlan is most certainly one – the doubts must have bordered on the overwhelming at times.

Yet as the clock ticked on, and as two more futile seasons passed, this young man continued to fight, to believe.


Coughlan! How many of us doubted we’d ever read that?

But four games, and four losses, into 2009, and there it was, in print, for all to see.

Two days later – and the walk through the wind and rain to the relative calmness of Etihad Stadium.

Snippets of conversations from scarf-clad Tiger fans: “It’ll be great to see Cogs back. Let’s hope he gets through the game.”

“Yes,” comes the response, “As long as he gets through the match”. Heads nod, consensus reached – expectations low, hopes are just that – hopes.


Coughlan’s entry onto the ground was, unsurprisingly, unobtrusive.

Overshadowed by an early Kangaroos onslaught (tempered by a serious injury to their own star, Brent Harvey), most at the ground don’t notice Coughlan until the big screen shows him getting up from the bottom of a pack after pinning an opponent in one of his trademark vice-like tackles.

A tentative ripple of applause echoes around the ground.

Slowly, surely, the Tigers emerge from their early-game slumber.

One goal becomes two, which becomes six before halftime. The Tiger defenders take control, the midfield starts winning the hard ball, the rucks toil and the forwards start breaking the game open.

And, unbeleiveably after three years out of the game, it is Coughlan who sets the tone. Three more vice-like tackles in the first quarter meet with approval, and some trademark close-in work begins to free up Tiger runners.

The second half becomes a celebration for the long-suffering yellow and black fans as

Through it all Coughlan continues to find his feet. Slowly. Unobtrusively.


And so we’re here again at the end of the game.

But now we’re off the ground and in the rooms, TV cameras at the ready to capture what is sure to be a hearty rendition of the best theme song in football.




Tigerland …

Yet this time around there’s something even more special. This rendition of the theme song will be replayed over and over in the media in coming days.

This is partly because it’s the first win for

But it is mainly because of the man at the centre of the ring of singing players, a man wearing a smile despite being doused with bottle after bottle of sports drinks.

A man playing game number 84 despite making his senior debut in 2001.

Mark Coughlan, the lost star of

About Chris Riches

Chris Riches is a journalist and writer who has worked in various forms of the media for more than 15 years. He also drinks too much coffee and often has a hoarse voice on Monday mornings, two things he attributes to his lifelong support of the Richmond Football Club.

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