AFL

The media sideshow that followed Damien Hardwick’s resignation as Richmond coach this week was yet another demonstration of the obsessive scrutiny and lack of perspective that dogs the AFL. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Quitting time for Damien Hardwick

Damien Hardwick interviewed at a press conference.
Damien Hardwick announced his resignation as coach of Richmond on Tuesday.
Credit: AAP Image / Diego Fedele

Is this what the death of JFK felt like? Early this week in Melbourne, the city’s TV and radio stations, its front pages and live blogs, were breathlessly devoted to the sudden resignation of Damien “Dimma” Hardwick, Richmond Football Club’s longest-serving coach.

Professional footy chatter is ceaseless, inane, amnesiac and obnoxiously performative, but with this news it became almost delirious. If you were even partially attuned to Melbourne’s popular media this week, you might have sensed the city’s very atmosphere suffocatingly reconfigured with hyperbole. “The game’s capacity to surprise knows no bounds,” Gerard Whateley expressed on Fox Footy. “An absolute bombshell,” said his colleague Mark Robinson. “This is an absolute shock to everyone in footy,” offered Gerard Healy. Collingwood coach Craig McRae said he “went into shock” upon hearing the news and then wondered, touchingly, “Is it real that he’s actually moving on?”

Where had I encountered the same high notes of shock and solemnity? “It has been a day of shame and horror,” JFK confidant, and Camelot’s biographer, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in his diary the day after the assassination. “Everyone is stunned … I still cannot believe that this splendid man, this man of such intelligence and gaiety and strength, is dead.”

Here’s the late journalist Hunter S. Thompson writing to a friend on the night of the killing: “I am afraid to sleep for fear of what I might learn when I wake up. There is no human being within 500 miles to whom I can communicate anything – much less the fear and loathing that is on me after today’s murder.”

But for the pundits this week, the shock of this apparently epochal moment did not inhibit speech as it had for Thompson – rather, it excited great, foaming rivers of clichéd praise and astonishment. There were “shock waves” and “bombshells”, words that it seemed God Himself had mandated an excessive use of, and it became dispiriting to consider how abundantly resourced the professional spewing of footy clichés is, compared with, say, regional reporting.

But the news also excited the public and they loosened their tongues on talkback radio on Tuesday morning, rhapsodising about the great man as if he had just been struck dead. He was wise and selfless; a reformer of profound integrity. The testimonies resembled eulogies for Lincoln, and proportionality seemed as elusive this week as tactical creativity has been for Carlton all year.

Of course, Hardwick was not dead. Just knackered. Burnt out. Spent. It never seemed to occur to anyone in the footy media this week that their witlessly feverish chatter might have played a role in his exhaustion, or that, generally speaking, footy’s infernal Hot Take Machine now resembles a giant industrial chimney, proudly belching out great clouds of psychic pollution.

Words, words, words. There were so many words for a story that was, ultimately, simple and unrevelatory. Hardwick was in his 14th season with the Tigers and had helped transform them from hapless underachievers to dynastic warriors – three flags in four years, achieved with a ruthless run-and-gun style. But they had not won a final since 2020, and now Dimma was cooked. “I kept asking myself the question more and more,” he said in Tuesday’s press conference, where he formally announced his resignation. “If you keep asking yourself the question, you know the answer. I had some conversations with some really key people around me just to make sure that I was in the right frame of mind to make that decision and it became clear two weeks ago the time was about right.”

He didn’t want to continue half-heartedly, he said. He wanted to leave the game while he was still enchanted, and not embittered, by it. He wanted to be able to look at his players and know he was as committed to his job as much as he was asking them to be to theirs. Failing that measure, he would quit. And so he did. “I’ve tried to cook the sausages 1000 different ways,” he said. “I couldn’t find 1001.” Fair enough and amen.

Hardwick was, unsurprisingly, quietly emotional – especially when acknowledging his players – but on the whole he seemed conspicuously lighter, happier. He betrayed no regrets.

As is obligatory, and gracious, Hardwick acknowledged the warmth of Richmond fans, but it’s easy to be warm when you’re winning. The obvious truth is fandom can just as easily be neurotic, violent, self-pitying and creepily possessive. The lack of proportionality of the media this week only reflects their audience.

One of Hardwick’s predecessors, Danny Frawley, coached Richmond during an especially fallow period that was punctuated by a fan spitting on him in 2004. “That was the night [that] mentally I thought, it’s taken too much out of me, out of my three girls, my mum and my dad,” Frawley, who struggled with mental health issues and died at age 56, told the Herald Sun in 2019, in one of his last interviews.

Frawley’s successor, Terry Wallace, received numerous death threats – one of them included a picture of a skinned snake. An earlier coach and distinguished player, Kevin Bartlett, was sacked in 1991 – so bitter was the divorce, and so virulent the contempt of some fans, that Bartlett effectively exiled himself from the club for almost two decades. He would come to regret his “stubbornness”, as he described it, but perhaps his example was cautionary for Hardwick. Best to go out before the exhaustion degenerates into resentment.

But let’s consider, soberly, Hardwick’s legacy. In 2016, after bullish expectations were lanced by a 13th-place finish, the club faced, in the words of its forward Jack Riewoldt, “hysterical” criticism. To its great credit, the Richmond board resisted pressure to sack its coach – and won the flag the next year. It was their first since 1980, and two more quickly followed. No doubt the fans and pundits who desired Hardwick’s blood in ’16 have conveniently erased the memory, and Dimma is now forever assured of their admiration and gratitude.

It was exhausting work, though, and Hardwick tried graciously in his press conference to express how the job was simultaneously a great privilege and an intense burden. Our collective, often puerile lack of perspective plays a part in the latter while making sacred the first.

The British writer Martin Amis also recently retired – like, really retired – and in my proportionate shock and sadness about his death, I opened up my dog-eared collections of his journalism. And in pieces on football, tennis and poker, there it was again: his electrifying verve, wit and curiosity.

It was a cleansing contrast to this week’s circus of obsequiousness, faux-solemnity, and cringing surrender of perspective. Of course, none of it was surprising. Here was how the AFL Commission chairman, Richard Goyder, recently announced the appointment of Andrew Dillon as the league’s new chief executive: “We believe this is the biggest job in Australian sport,” he said. “Actually, we think it’s bigger than that.”

What Hardwick seemed to sense, and certainly others have before him, is the longer you stay in the game, the greater the odds of it consuming you. That consumption can manifest in various ways. It might be the bitterness that follows when fans gob on your face or threaten to torch your family’s home. Or it might be that your ambition and witless credulity compels you to hire a grifter as your club’s experimental chemist. Or perhaps your past playing glories have encouraged an exaggerated confidence about your managerial gifts, and you place your squad in the dubious hands of a consultancy firm specialising in “high-performance leadership” that will then weaponise its privileged knowledge of your players’ childhood traumas in weird and destructive hazing rituals.

“I need a break,” Hardwick said on Tuesday. And honestly, who could blame him.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2023 as "Quitting time".

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