Author Topic: Peggy O'Neal - the American battler who made the Tigers roar (Australian)  (Read 158 times)

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The American battler who made the Tigers roar

The Australian
September 29, 2017

Peggy O’Neal was born in a town that no longer exists. It was a coal camp named Killarney in the West Virginia mountains, where company-owned houses were built on the side of a steep hill and coal cars rattled past her front porch on a railway track.

To get to school in the morning, Peggy and her sister would wait for the train to grind to a halt, look to their mum for the signal, then scamper between the rusted ­bogies. There were two rooms in the school and a toilet out the back, which made for a freezing dash across the snow in the depths of the Appalachian winter.

Her family were coalminers since before the revolutionary war. Her father, his father, her mum’s father and her uncles; they all worked with blackened faces in Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia.

She was the first in her family to go to college, the first to graduate and the first to gain a law degree. For most of her life, she’s been the first.

Tomorrow at the MCG, O’Neal will become the first Richmond president since the creation of the national competition to watch her club play in a grand final.

She was the first woman elected to the Richmond board and the first and only woman to chair the board of an AFL club.

O’Neal is used to male domains. She was sports-mad as a girl but didn’t get to play much because the US government had yet to bring in its Title IX laws requiring state high schools to offer equal opportunity.

When she read law at the University of Virginia, the only women admitted as undergraduates were nursing students. At the end of last year, O’Neal became the first woman, alongside Olympian Nicole Livingstone, to join the staunchly male-only Carbine Club, which this week held its traditional, grand final lunch.

For other women working in male-dominated professions, O’Neal offers a simple truth: “You have really just got to know who you are, you have to have a strong sense of self. I don’t act differently in any environment I’m in. You ­either fit — or if you don’t fit, then it means it is not right for you.

“I’ve been asked, ‘Don’t you think you might be a token?’ All I can remember is a lot of hard work led to being a token. So what if you are? It gives you the chance to help an organisation change, if they want to.’’

Since O’Neal joined the Richmond board in 2005, the change at one of Australia’s oldest, proudest and most volatile clubs has been profound.

In keeping with the AFL’s best-performed clubs of recent times — think Hawthorn, Geelong and Sydney — the Richmond board has stopped interfering in the day-to-day running of the club. It has made the shift from being a committee of management to a board of governance. It has hired good people and, more importantly, let them do their jobs.

When there were calls last year at the end of a disappointing season to sack Damien Hardwick as coach, the club responded with a calm, informed review. It backed the coach — whom it had recently reappointed — and brought in new assistant coaches and administrators to improve the football department.

“We wanted to change those things that needed to be changed and not throw out the coach because people were screaming for his head,’’ O’Neal says. “There is this idea of an autocratic president; even the fact you’re called president implies this executive role of some kind. There is this idea that you come in, roll up your sleeves and go down and talk to the coach. You did that when you had no management structure around you.

“Now we are a properly formed company, we have a board charter, we delegate things to the CEO and his management team. They are all competent professionals and they want to do their jobs. They don’t want interference.’’

O’Neal moved to Melbourne in 1993 after she travelled to Greece, met an Australian backpacker in a bar and fell in love. She soon ­realised she needed a football team. From her terrace house in Richmond, it seemed natural to adopt the Tigers, a club then tin-rattling to “Save our Skins’’.

The first time she saw a match, she was hooked. As her law career progressed and she made partner, football became her weekly escape from the pressures of work. “I bought a membership and a reserve seat and went along and hugged people I didn’t know and made friends.’’

One of them was Neville Crowe, a champion Richmond ruckman and club president. He asked her to do some legal work for a new coterie. From there, she was invited to join the board.

“The club was in a bad way,’’ she says. “We were $5.5 million in debt and had lost $2.5m the year before I went on. Danny Frawley had finished (as senior coach) and Terry Wallace had come on.

“I wasn’t there when the decisions were made, but I think there was a bit of pie-in-the-sky stuff about how the money would come rolling in. It doesn’t. From the 1980s until 2005, Richmond really hadn’t been very modern in its thinking about how things worked.’’

In the 12 years since O’Neal became a Richmond director, the football landscape has undergone a transformation. Twice a year, she organises a dinner for women who serve on AFL club boards. When the dinners started, there were eight women board members across 16 AFL teams. There are now 38 across 18 teams. The next one, scheduled for next month, will be hosted by Jeanne Pratt, a Carlton director.

Club presidents don’t win premierships. If the Tigers beat Adelaide on Saturday, the glory will be shared by the players and the coach.

Yet everyone at Richmond — from the players to Hardwick to chief executive Brendon Gale — understands that if O’Neal and her board hadn’t held their nerve this time last year, the Tigers wouldn’t be where they are.

O’Neal doesn’t know what she’ll feel if the Tigers win. Earlier this week, she caught up with Lydia Dowse, a friend she met at her first Richmond game 24 years ago. She likened grand final week to being trapped inside Samuel Beckett’s famous play. “I feel like I’ve been waiting for Godot — and Godot is about to arrive.’’