Peggy O’Neal’s eye on the Tigers
“I often say that law prepares you well for football, because there are just men everywhere.”
When Peggy O’Neal started practising law, she was the first woman hired at the firm in a century. Decades later, when she was elected president of the Richmond Football Club, she once again assumed a role that came with the added pressure of being “the first”.
Despite the success and stability the formerly reactive and turbulent Tigers have experienced since she took the reins in 2013, O’Neal remains the only woman among her presidential peers, a roster that includes Seek chief executive Andrew Bassat (St Kilda), Sunrise co-host David Koch (Port Adelaide) and radio and television personality Eddie McGuire (Collingwood).
“If you’d told me [then] that, in five seasons, there wouldn’t be another woman as president, I would have been surprised,” O’Neal admits. We’re sitting at the head of the glossy, imposing table in the boardroom of Richmond’s “Tigerland” headquarters. Dwarfed by the oil painting of the club’s team of the century consuming the wall behind her, O’Neal is generous and calm, in a way only a football fan whose club is onto something good can be. Outside the wide windows, a mild and sunny spring day makes the Punt Road oval seem a site of September possibility.
After growing up in a tiny mining town in West Virginia, O’Neal married an Australian she met on a holiday in Greece. They settled in Richmond in 1991, a year after the debt-ridden local football club had taken to shaking tins in an effort to save itself from financial ruin. The “Save Our Skins” campaign saw collections conducted by the players, including the reliable ruckman Brendon Gale, who is now Richmond FC’s chief executive and leads the club by O’Neal’s side.
Despite the decade-long premiership drought and recent threat of insolvency, enthusiastic sports fan O’Neal showed local loyalty when partaking in the Melbourne rite of passage: choosing a footy team to support. “People I worked with said, ‘Oh, they used to be good – you should have been here!’ And I thought, ‘Well, they’ll come good again,’ ” she says, laughing at the naivety underlying that hope.
It took another 26 years, but eventually her idealism was proved right. The Tigers came good. And on grand final day in 2017, the Channel Seven cameras caught sight of O’Neal and Gale dissolving into tears in the stands of the MCG. “That’s what it means. That’s what it’s like barracking for a footy team you love,” said commentator Bruce McAvaney.
O’Neal says she was unprepared for what her visibility would bring after the win. “Because I’ve lived in Richmond for such a long time, all the local people knew me because I was their neighbour. I didn’t expect their overwhelming joy to be transferred to someone in this role.”
After the last of the yellow and black confetti had fallen on the ’G in 2017, O’Neal attempted to walk back to the club the next morning and was met with a standing ovation inside her regular cafe. “I couldn’t believe it! I often think, ‘Well, in the absence of [captain] Trent Cotchin or [star player] Dustin Martin, I’ll do.’ But you realise that it’s the club that makes them happy and at that moment you’re a symbol of that.”
This is not to frame O’Neal as some kind of performative figurehead. Her surprise at being considered part of the win speaks to how intensely practical and internal her role is. We’re talking in the boardroom today because O’Neal doesn’t have an office at Punt Road. Unlike competing or past presidents, she doesn’t actively court headlines or controversy and, perhaps because of this, she has made herself one of the most visible AFL club presidents without needing to sit behind a microphone every morning to affirm her status. “Peggy, Brendon and the board,” is an oft-repeated list of thank-yous issued by Richmond players when accepting awards or commenting on the club’s renewed prosperity under their leadership. When reading profiles of her that detail those achievements, O’Neal jokes that she doesn’t “recognise the Mother Teresa character” being written about.
Even the title of president, she says, is a matter of semantics; technically her role is chair of the board, and she describes it as her “volunteer job”, undertaken in tandem with her 9-to-5 as a superannuation lawyer at Lander & Rogers.
There were no rules, O’Neal says of her early years trying to prove herself capable upon entering the legal world. No amount of study could prepare her for the challenge of carving out a role where no woman had been before, to set a precedent for how to act or dress, or to just bear the brunt of getting the men in her immediate radius accustomed to her existence. “You didn’t know how people would react to you. And so you try to fit in,” she remembers. “And lots of times that means you have to pretend things are okay when they aren’t.”
She’s more than aware of the pressure put on new arrivals to adapt to an environment, of being expected to succeed against the odds. She is determined that Tigerland will operate differently when its women’s side debuts in the AFLW in 2020. One of the long-term projects on the board’s agenda is an expansion of the Punt Road headquarters to provide top-notch women’s training facilities. A standalone women’s football program will be developed under the direction of former Collingwood player Kate Sheahan.
Women in leadership have long absorbed messages – explicit or implied – that outward displays of emotion can work against them in their pursuit of power or promotions.
“I’ve often said that when you’re the only woman in the room, you’re all the women in the world at that point,” O’Neal says. “Whether anybody else gets a chance is [based on] how you act. And I was quite aware of that early on. I’m a pretty even-tempered sort of person, so if I wanted to cry I’d wait till I got home.”
In 2018, after a celebrated season, the Tigers seemed primed to go back-to-back and claim another cup. Collingwood had other plans. “In 2017, we worked hard and we got the reward, and in 2018 we played the worst game we’d played in 18 months,” O’Neal says simply.
Unlike most diehard AFL fans, O’Neal avoids fixating on the past. While players and coaches will comment that they’re just taking their season “one game at a time”, O’Neal and her board have their collective eye on a point that’s further away, planning for future success long after their terms have ended. To rely on history to help guide those projections is a fool’s errand, and O’Neal only allows herself handfuls of nostalgia before filing it away and getting on with the practicalities of leading.
“In that immediate aftermath [of the 2017 premiership] – that week following – there was just a lot to be done,” she says. It took four days for O’Neal to catch her breath and find time to watch the replay. The emotion returned then, she said, upon reflecting on the efforts of many that resulted in a single symbol of victory. She says she’s watched the game just one other time. “Once 2017 is over you’ve just got to put that away. You want to be proud but you have to keep looking forward all the time.”
This weekend, if the Tigers overcome the AFL’s young expansion team, the Greater Western Sydney Giants, to claim another flag, we can expect O’Neal to celebrate the result in a similarly pragmatic way: with one glass of champagne at the post-game function, a willing ear for fans’ stories in the aisles of her local supermarket, and an eye fixed firmly on the work still to be done.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 28, 2019 as "Eye on the Tigers". Subscribe here.