The Football Solution
You can tell from the title that George Megalogenis is drawing a long bow here. And he knows it. But as hyperbole goes, it’s harmless enough. Even as you smile at the cockiness of the thesis – premiership-winning footy as a model for political salvation – you’ve got to admire its audacity. And, coming from Megalogenis, it even carries some heft.
A lifelong Tigers supporter and self-described “data nerd”, he is also a master analyst of Australian politics and society. His chief gift is in drawing out patterns and outliers from the broad sweep of the past in such a way as to cast fresh light on the present state of things. And as the upshot of this book suggests, Megalogenis is no lofty expert but democratic, keen to meet the reader on their turf.
That’s speaking metaphorically, but the literal turf of The Football Solution is the Melbourne suburb of Richmond, along with the contiguous expanse of Yarra Park, home to the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Perhaps three quarters of the book is devoted to the history of Australian rules football and, in particular, of the Richmond Football Club. That may be too much footy for many readers. To follow Richmond’s fortunes, season by season over decades, is a big ask (as any Tigers fan will admit). But Megalogenis seeks to show the correlation, over time, between what happens inside and outside the boundary.
To that end, he traces the forces that shaped Melbourne and Victoria: dispossession, gold rushes, a reputation as a laboratory for democracy, rivalry with Sydney, boom and bust. And he presents, as a parallel, the development of Australian football. He considers the likely influence of the Indigenous game of marngrook and reflects that no other football code allows the freedom of movement that characterised Australian rules from the start. In Britain, Europe and America, an offside rule tightly restricted players’ movements on the field, but, writes Megalogenis, “Australian football didn’t care if the teams wandered into each other’s territory”:
… the settlers were ready for a sport that reflected their free spirit. Once they tried this new type of game – without an offside rule, without the gratuitous violence, and with the invitation to fly – they were led into a secret that the locals had known for millennia.
Off the field, though, territory mattered. By the time Australian rules was born, in 1858, and increasingly as the decades passed, the hierarchy of Melbourne suburbs was etched in stone. Directly across the Yarra from Richmond’s smokestacks and squalor rose the regal mansions of Toorak. Footy barracking, Megalogenis finds, took on a more partisan pitch during the depression of the 1890s, deepening the identification of suburb with club. Along with Collingwood, Richmond was the poorest of the suburbs, and along with Collingwood, its footy club attracted the most fanatical following. The data-nerd Megalogenis charts the club’s fortunes alongside those of the economy to reveal an inverse correlation between national prosperity and Richmond’s footballing success.
It’s when Megalogenis, approaching Richmond’s latest season in the sun, focuses on club management that the book’s unlikely proposition (“How Richmond’s Premiership Can Save Australia”) starts to make sense. He’s already sketched out the boofheadedness that has often passed for leadership in footy; now he shows us a new way. Club president Peggy O’Neal and chief executive Brendon Gale exemplify football savvy and emotional intelligence. In 2016, Richmond finished 13th on the AFL ladder, its worst result in Damien Hardwick’s seven years as coach. Hardwick’s contract was up, and everyone expected him to be ditched. Richmond, like most clubs, had been quick enough to sack underperforming coaches in the past. But Richmond hadn’t won a premiership in 37 years, in the first 12 of which they sacked seven coaches. So, clearly, a new coach was no magic bullet. O’Neal and Gale persuaded the Richmond board to do the unthinkable: extend Hardwick’s contract by not one but two years.
Not only did the club show belief in its coach. During its decades in the wilderness, Richmond had gained a reputation for lacking self-belief (and not just the players, but fans, whose vituperation towards their team – expressed sometimes in phlegm – was notorious). Now, as Megalogenis writes, memorably if not elegantly, “The other key that was waiting to be turned in 2017 was mindfulness.” A mindfulness expert worked closely with key players, the idea being that, coached in better habits of thinking and concentration, they’d be less likely to think like losers when the play turned against them. And it seems to have worked.
Megalogenis’s analysis of the reasons for Richmond’s premiership win isn’t entirely convincing. Surely other clubs have had like advantages and employed similar strategies and yet not brought home the silverware? A lucky alignment of the stars and the freakishness of star player Dustin Martin – which also amounts to luck – would seem to account just as well for the Tigers’ triumph in 2017.
But The Football Solution is, in essence, a leadership text, and relies on the lesson of Richmond’s success to illuminate a better way for politics and government. Megalogenis, for many years a Canberra correspondent with The Australian, blames the advent of fortnightly Newspolls in the 1990s and, more recently, social media for the foreshortening and narrowing of political outlook, which has led to disposability of leaders, playing to the base, and policy-making on the run (if at all). It’s leadership by barracking, in effect. Next time there’s a poll-driven urge to dump a party leader, Megalogenis would have us stop and ask, mindfully: “What would the Tigers do?”
His book isn’t all sport and politics. As is so often the case, Megalogenis’s team loyalty is dynastic. His mother, whose first Australian home was in Richmond, passed on the Tigers gene to him and now his daughter has inherited it. So, it’s not just football, it’s family. His being as passionate about politics as he is steeped in Tigers lore makes The Football Solution personal, and even a bit inspiring. FL
Viking, 224pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 18, 2018 as "George Megalogenis, The Football Solution". Subscribe here.