Lesson #04 – “Just be you. It’s easier.”

by | Jun 9, 2022

My first day.

My first as the newly appointed CEO of the Richmond Football Club.

I am 24 years of age.

So much is familiar, yet everything is different.

I know this room, the CEOs office, although it seems smaller than I remember it.

I sit in the CEO’s chair behind an old veneer desk.

“This old boy could tell some stories”, I thought.

The office sits under the century-old Jack Dyer Grandstand at the Punt Road Oval Richmond. The room is adjacent to a boardroom. On the boardroom table lays a weathered and storied tiger-skin. I had my photo taken with the tiger earlier, an obligatory image when Richmond announced new appointments or signings.

Welcome to Tigerland.

I was last in this office a dozen or so years ago, sitting on the other side of the desk. A visitor, but privileged, for the man who is sitting in the chair I now occupy is my father Alan, and from here he ran the Richmond Football Club. They were called Secretaries then.

As a kid, I would set myself up, drawing pictures of my footballing heroes on Dad’s foolscap pads using his black Bic biros. Players flying over improbable packs taking impossible marks. It was always possible that one of the players would come into the room, ruffle my hair and say “G’day young Schwabby”. I would then stay silent and try and decipher the coded conversation that would follow.

But it is the smell that brings me back.

“The room still leaks”, I thought, recalling Dad’s stories of rain running down walls when a storm came from a certain direction. I breathed in the musky air. The Tigers were proud of their dilapidated facilities. They were a symbol. The suburb of Richmond was known as ‘Struggletown’, and its footy club exemplified its working-class heritage.

“An old 50lb dumbbell takes the same amount of lifting as a new 50lb dumbbell” you’d hear.

But really, it was about trade-offs and priorities. Any left-over cash was spent on recruiting players, the resource always in need of renewal.

The strategy served them well. The Tigers were the power club of the competition. Four Premierships in eight years. Who cares if the roof leaks when you have a cabinet full of silverware?

‘Ruthless Richmond’, the commentators would say, and it was a brave person who got between the Tigers and a victory, be it on or off the field.

But there is no lack of courageous individuals in elite sport, who soon found ways of matching the Tigers’ daring and work-ethos, but also uncovered new ways of doing things, more sophisticated, more strategic, and before long, more successful.

Richmond held onto its old ways. The ‘Ruthless Richmond’ mindset often turned inwards, and good people were lost, sacked or squeezed out, including legendary coach Tom Hafey, and my father a decade earlier.

As the competition was entering a new era, with the old Victorian Football League (VFL) morphing into the Australian Football League (AFL), the mighty had fallen. Richmond was just a shadow of its former self, last on the ladder, and having spent money it never had, was on the verge of bankruptcy.

The neglected facilities were again symbolic. A metaphor for a club in decay.

I had no lack of visitors on my first day. Familiar ‘inner-sanctum’ faces, some I remembered from my childhood, would appear in the office doorway. They didn’t wait for an invitation to enter, they presumed, closing the door behind them, seating themselves in the same visitor’s chair I sat in as a boy.

They arrived under the guise of good wishes, talk about my dad, what great mates they were and the fun times they shared, but mostly with an agenda of some form. They would explain where it had all gone wrong for the club, never speaking of their role, and always building a platform for the advice that was soon to come my way.

They’d glance back towards the doorway, sometimes standing up to check it was fully closed, even going as far as to snib the lock before resuming their seat. Leaning forward and encouraging me to do likewise, they would take a deep breath, exhale theatrically, and speaking with a loud whisper say something like:

“If I was sitting in your chair, the first thing I would do is get rid of (insert name of coach, player, president, director, doctor, trainer, bootstudder) they’re the fucking problem….”, and “whatever you do, don’t let that prick (insert name of former coach, player, president, director, doctor, trainer, bootstudder) back in the joint. He is a cancer”.

They would then stand to leave, without expectation, or even opportunity for response. “And remember, this a caper for tough and ruthless bastards, there is no room for sentiment. There are no friends in football”.

“If you ever need anyone to talk to, and you are looking for someone to trust, and they are in very short supply around here, give me a buzz. Come over to our place for a beer. My missus will cook a roast. Reminds me, be careful who you talk to. The joint leaks like a sieve. Selfish pricks everywhere”.

And with a handshake, a wink and a “Go Tigers! Eat ’em alive!” they would leave.

Each time the door opened, the smell of liniment and Deep Heat from the adjoining player changerooms would waft into the office. The current generation of players had arrived for training and were preparing to go out onto the oval.

It was the other fragrance I associated with my childhood visits to the Punt Road Oval.

It was the scent of competition. Opportunity and desire. Endless hope, a passion that had intoxicated generations of football people. Again I breathed it in. Deeply. So deep that my nostrils stung and eyes watered.

I felt light-headed. I needed to sit down. I sunk deep into my chair, falling and flailing inside the new double-breasted suit that had cost me my first week’s salary.

My mind was swimming with disconnected and racing thoughts. I couldn’t slow them down. It was like I had pressed fast-forward instead of play on the remote, and now it wasn’t responding. It was a rush of intense fear, that felt like I’d been winded in a tackle I hadn’t seen coming.

Blindsided.

The room felt like it was shrinking, tightening on me. I was struggling to find anything other than the shallowest of breaths.

I could hear my racing heartbeat in my head and neck, and I was sweating, my shirt clinging to my body underneath the armour of my suit.

“I gotta get out of this room,” I thought, but when I stood up, I felt dizzy, nauseous.

Weak.

I managed to open my office door, checked that there was no one in the short hallway, before making my way outside.

It was now getting dark. A cool Melbourne August night. Just a hint of Spring.

Standing twenty metres away was a lone supporter. He looked as though he was in his 40s, but could have been 15 years older, or 15 years younger. His long tousled hair was tamed only by his timeworn Richmond beanie. His hands buried in the pockets of his relic, too-small black duffle coat that had a big yellow number 8 and the words ‘Michael Roach’ on the back, the sleeves lined with hand-sewn names of generations of Richmond players.

He called out to me “Starting to smell like September Alan, sorry Cameron. Young Schwabby. Finals for us next year eh!”.

I gave him a thumbs-up, the best I could muster.

Making my way into the Jack Dyer Stand, I found a small section yet condemned. I brushed what seemed like a decade of grime and possum shit off the seat with the sleeve of my new suit and sat, hopefully hidden in its darkness.

As a boy, I would watch the old Tigers train from this same vantage. My father would talk with Tommy Hafey moments before the coach would join his players on the track, his muscular, super-hero arms gleaming from a cut-off rugby jumper worn in defiance of the Melbourne winter.

I wanted to be that boy again. Who was I fucking kidding?

The chill air felt good as did the smell of the recently cut grass. The familiar sounds of training, urgent voices calling for the ball, encouraging each other, and I felt my composure start to return.

I looked down at a group of men who stood and watched training, next to the race where the players, coaches and trainers made their way onto the ground. Some I recognised from the visits to my office during the day. It was a loud and animated group. Familiar and friendly, you could sense the byplay and banter. It was their club.

One of the men stood slightly remote from the group, even though he seemed to be the centre of their attention. His hands were behind his back, and he would lean forward to speak, rather than fully enter the circle. Then one of the group pointed towards me as I sat in the grandstand as if responding to an enquiry. The man then left the group, and I could see he was making his way towards the stand, looking up into the darkness. His silhouette was familiar, as was his gait. My mind quickly made the connection. It was Francis Bourke, my childhood hero, a revered Tiger player known as ‘St Francis’, his number 30 adorning the Richmond guernsey given to me by dad when I was ten years of age, the same jumper I would wear to his work on those days I spent in his office.

Francis had signed it with one Dad’s black biros:

“To Cameron, Give it your best, Francis Bourke”.

I realised he was coming to see me and I brushed off the bench-seat next to me. I stood up to meet him, shook his hand, summoning the lessons my dad had taught me on how to shake a man’s hand. I think I may have overdone it as Francis smiled shyly at me.

We chatted about the players out on the ground, now under the tutelage of one of Francis’ famous teammates, Kevin Bartlett who stood in the middle of the Punt Road Oval watching the drills, and occasionally taking a player aside for a conversation. He’d blow his whistle, and the players would run in from all sections of the ground in a race to the middle.

Five years earlier it had been Francis who had the whistle in his hand. Appointed coach just one year out of retirement as a player, and taking the team to a Grand Final in his first year, beaten by a great Carlton side, only to be replaced one year later when the Tigers missed the finals. They had not made the finals since.

Francis then turned to me and said: “Had a few visitors today, eh?” looking towards the cluster of men.

I nodded, trying not to meet his eyes as I didn’t trust myself to maintain composure as I felt my eyes moisten. I stared out at the ground as a player dropped a chest mark, and one of the men yelled out “Bloody hell Dessy. You’re better than that”.

“You don’t want for advice when you are appointed CEO of the Tigers”, he said.

I smiled but continued to gaze out onto the ground, unable to make out one player from another through the thin haze of tears. I remained unblinking, not wanting to highlight my fragile state, show any weakness to my childhood hero, one of the toughest Tigers of all, a man who once famously played with a broken leg.

But then Francis touched my hand. It was a gentle touch, friendly, not what you would expect from a 300 game warrior, and I turned almost in shock.

I met his gaze this time, and Francis said “When I coached the team, whenever I faced a tough situation, I would ask myself ‘What would the great Ron Barassi do now?’ Then if that didn’t work, I’d ask myself ‘What would David Parkin, the reigning Premiership coach do now?’ Then if that didn’t work, I’d ask myself, ‘What would my old coach Tommy Hafey do now?’.

“You know the question I didn’t ask nearly often enough?”

“No”, I responded.

“What should Francis Bourke, coach of Richmond, do now?”

“I thought I had to know everything, always have an answer because that is what I thought was expected of me, but it wasn’t my thinking and they weren’t my answers.”

“Yes, seek advice, do your homework, try and understand the problem, but in the end, trust and believe in yourself Cameron”, he said.  “At least then if you get it wrong, and you often will, you’ve taken responsibility. It is your lesson learned, your wisdom gained.”

“It is too hard trying to someone else. It is exhausting, and the game is hard enough. All you do is confuse yourself, and people are left wondering ‘who is this bloke?’.”

He continued “I never really found my identity as a coach. Maybe I wasn’t good enough, and the club did me a favour, but I don’t think I gave myself a chance”.

“I love your Dad Cameron, and yes, you might ask yourself the question, ‘What would Alan Schwab do?’, but be sure to finish with ‘What should Cameron Schwab do?’.

“Just be you.”

“Why make a really hard job, harder? Just be you. It’s easier”.

We sat silent for what seemed minutes.

Watching.

Then Francis broke the silence. “Those blokes are right about one thing, Dessy should’ve taken that mark”.

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