For a bloke who has experienced his share of football’s vagaries, Robbie Richards remains remarkably upbeat.
He underwent the tribulation of dual knee reconstructions which robbed him of close to four years of his playing career… was at the mercy of a fickle committee which cut short a coaching stint… then endured some of the darkest times in his club’s history.
Yet he retains a boyish enthusiasm for the game.
He’s still vitally involved in footy, more than 40 years after he first excitedly stepped out as a slight, skilful youngster, with the Junior Magpies.
I caught up with Rob at last week-end’s Junior League finals. He had just come from giving one of his Magpie Thirds players a fitness test and was gearing up for their Elimination Final the next day.
Match-day coaching stresses him, he says. Rather, being able to sit back and watch a game, and pinpoint some good kids, as he was doing, gives him a real buzz ……….
In his heyday, during the sixties, his dad Len, was a pillar in defence for Wangaratta. It takes something exceptional for a back pocket player to win a Best & Fairest, but that’s what the tough and uncompromising Lennie did in the Magpies’ famous premiership year of 1961.
He had joined the ‘Pies via Eldorado and Tarrawingee and was a steadying influence amidst flamboyant personalities like Kevin Mack, ‘Rinso’ Johnstone and ‘Bushy’ Constable and champs of the calibre of Ron McDonald and John Mulrooney.
Wang were around the upper rungs of the ladder for most of Len’s 152 games and when he took on the coaching job at Chiltern in 1967, some suggested it might be a hazardous task to win over the tight-knit footy town.
To the contrary, he proved immensely popular and led them to the 1968 flag during four enjoyable years with the Swans.
“They’re terrific people, and Mum’s still got a lot of good friends from Chiltern,” says Rob, who, as a young whippersnapper, recalls tagging along behind Len, whilst he performed his coaching duties.
It’s always intrigued me, I put to him, how he ended up playing with the Rovers Thirds.
” Well, Dad didn’t put any pressure on me. The Rovers invited me to have a run when the Junior League season finished in 1977. The Thirds reached the Grand Final and I could easily have stayed there.”
“But they were really strong at that time and I couldn’t see myself breaking into the senior side in a hurry.”
So Rob headed over the road…. and the rest is history.
He was a talented winger with all the skills – and soon developed into one of the O & M’s best.
Wang finished on top in 1980, and were 4 points up at three-quarter time of the second semi-final against the Rovers. But they couldn’t withstand a withering last term from the Hawks.
Richards was the Magpies best. The following week, when they kicked 18.10, to go under by a solitary point to North Albury, in the Prelim Final, he again shone.
There would be plenty more finals ahead, he no doubt thought. But it was to be his last September experience for a few years, as the Pies plummeted down the ladder.
The next decade or so was to prove something of an on-field roller-coaster for Rob Richards.
In the midst of some superb form in 1982, which saw him being tipped for inter-league selection, he ‘did’ his knee, and missed the rest of that season – and the next – after the resultant reconstruction.
In the meantime, he moved to Maffra in his employment as an Electrician and had not long settled into the LVFL club when the knee ‘popped’ again……. resulting in another agonising spell on the sidelines.
It takes time to restore confidence and touch when you’ve been out of the game for such a lengthy period. But when Rob returned to Wangaratta he was a solid contributor – aside from a two-year absence, as assistant-coach to Brendan Allan, at Milawa.
He made 142 senior appearances with the Pies, spanning 17 seasons. In the last, he combined playing, with coaching the Thirds.
It was a handy preparation for the Greta coaching job, which he accepted in 1995. I twig his memory by running through some of the names in this star-studded side, like Paul Hogan, Brett Keir, Peter Mulrooney, Alan Millard and John Shay…
“From half-way through the season, Beechworth and us were shaping as likely Grand Final opponents. And that’s how it turned out. We led comfortably, then the Bombers fought back in the last quarter. We ended up winning by about four goals,” Rob says.
Greta dropped just one game for the season and the Chronicle reported that it was ‘…….a fitting reward for the veterans Richards and Keir, who had finally capped their fine careers with a premiership…’
Spaced 27 years apart, the rare achievement of a father and son coaching O & K flags had the statisticians scurrying for the record books.
After two years at Greta, Rob decided to take a year off. He was really enjoying the break, when Wang officials approached him, seeking a favour.
Maurie Wingate was struggling to combine the coaching job with running his sports-store. Could he possibly lend him a hand for a while ?
Sure, he said. But two rounds into the season, Wingate resigned and Rob was thrust into what was then the toughest gig in O & M football.
“After a couple of games, I realised how precarious the situation was. They’d done no recruiting; had no money. I said to the Board : ‘…Look, we’ve just got to put our heads down and grind out the year…..’ I thought we were on the same page, and we battled through.”
“I was happy to continue the next season, but a few weeks later, they called out to see me at Toil and Soil, with the news that they were bringing Gary Cameron and Marty Dillon over from South Australia to coach.”
“I could see where they were coming from, but it was really disappointing not to be kept in the loop. Still, it doesn’t do any good cracking the sads, does it ? You’ve got to move on.”
Rob coached Tigers for the next two season (winning the 1998 flag) and had the pleasure of being in charge of AFL players of the future, in Steve Johnson and Luke Mullins.
After another year at the helm of Greta (2000), he made a playing comeback, picking up a few kicks – and having one of his most enjoyable years of football – with their Reserves side.
When his good friend, Jon Henry, assumed the senior coaching position at Wangaratta, Rob came on board as Reserves coach for two years, followed by another two as the Thirds mentor.
In recent times he has been tied up with Imperials, where his sons Nick and Joe came through the ranks. He was named the AFL North-East Junior coach of the year in 2014.
So it was only natural, when the Pies were casting around for a Thirds coach this season, that Rob agreed to step into the breach – for his third stint with the Under 18’s.
He can now anticipate what might become the most enjoyable period of his marathon sporting journey – following the progress of his kids, Nick, Joe and Olivia.
Nick, a classy small forward, has made a big impression with the Murray Bushrangers this season.
The laconic 16-year old Joe hit the headlines earlier this year, with an 11-goal haul against Corowa-Rutherglen, in one of the handful of senior appearances he made with the Magpies.
He’s one of his dad’s key weapons, as the Wangaratta Thirds strive to take out their fourth flag in five years. Olivia has also done well in her first season with the club’s Under-16 Netball side.
One thing’s for sure ; the Richards kids won’t be facing any undue pressure from their old man, whose vast experience has taught him to read youngsters like the back of his hand.
He’s a highly-respected football person, is Robbie Richards……