THEY were grim days at Punt Road. A kid from the country, picked at Number One in the draft, arrives to become a League player and finds himself rattling tins to raise money to keep the club alive. Author DAN EDDY presents the Anthony Banik story:
AS RICHMOND ran rampant against Geelong in the final quarter last Friday night, the release of energy within the MCG by long-suffering Tiger supporters was as loud and joyous as anything ever heard in the great stadium. After years of near misses, heartbreak and constant criticism, finally – finally! – the Tiger Army were able to hold their heads high and dream of premiership glory.
There is a sense of the 2016 Western Bulldogs in Richmond’s run to the 2017 preliminary final. As if destiny is roaring. Theirs is a history that, since 1982 – the year of the club’s last Grand Final appearance, albeit a loss to Carlton – has been littered with hope, of occasional champion players, near misses, sacked coaches and questionable draft selections. And while ghosts of the past still linger at every turn, all will be forgotten should Damien Hardwick’s men book their place in the Grand Final.
For those too young to remember, less than three decades ago, in the downtrodden years after the ’82 loss but before Matthew Richardson arrived in 1993, the Richmond Football Club teetered on the brink of destruction. The club was broke, the playing group a shell of the mighty sides from the 1970s, and it was spitting out coaches like baseball managers spit tobacco. But in 1989, a glimmer of hope arrived at Punt Road in the form of No. 1 draft pick, Anthony Banik; the “bonus” of finishing last on the ladder that season.
Banik, who lives in Yarram, some 219 kilometres east of Richmond’s home ground, can look back and reminisce about a club now appearing on the cusp of a new and exciting era. His experiences at Punt Road provide context to the significance of the club’s recent success:
I went to Richmond as a 16-year-old in 1989. I remember Kevin Bartlett, Barry Rowlings and Doug Vickers – the recruiting fellow – all coming down to our home to speak with me. Barry was a Gippsland boy himself, coming from Thorpdale. It was daunting having the great Kevin Bartlett knocking on your door! I can’t remember exactly what they told me, but I do remember that at that stage I just wanted to play senior footy and was not fussed which club I went to. I figured that if I got an opportunity I was going to try and make the most of it.
In hindsight, it was probably ideal for me that I went to a Melbourne club because it was only a two-hour drive back home. In my first year there I didn’t have my licence, which made things extra difficult. But, once I turned 18 I knew I could be home in a couple of hours if I needed to get out of the city. I missed home, missed being in the bush. It’s certainly different in the city, and you can feel pretty isolated and lonely.
There was added pressure being the number one draft pick. You weren’t scrutinised like they are now: there seems to be a reporter for every player these days, but there wasn’t back then, thankfully. The Footy Show hadn’t even started then, that’s how long ago it was! But there was still pressure.
I grew up in Yarram. We lived no more than a kilometre from the Yarram football ground. All the kids in the neighbourhood would team up and we’d play games of footy in the park. Either that, or I’d be kicking the footy by myself. It was just what you did if you lived in the area. I started playing junior footy at Yarram, then when I was 11 we moved out to Woodside (23 kilometres east of Yarram) and I played in the fourths out there.
I played mostly on the ball as a kid. I wasn’t the biggest kid and I grew up with a lot of bigger, stronger players, so midfield suited me. We won quite a few flags at Woodside in the juniors. You started in the under-14s and worked up through the age divisions. If you were 11 like I was, you were competing against much bigger boys around the 13-14 age bracket. But that’s what you did if you wanted to play.
My pathway to the AFL began with the East Gippsland schoolboys’ squad, a precursor to the Gippsland Power side today. Quite a few of the regions had squads and you’d go down to Melbourne and play in a week-long carnival where you might play five or six games in as many days. It was tiring, but it was an amazing experience. Here I was, a kid from Woodside, and now I’m playing on VFL grounds like Princes Park, the Junction Oval or Moorabbin where they all had grandstands. Those grounds just had that aura about them. It was the big League, and that’s where all the big boys hung out in a football sense.
The word had spread that we had some good players, so that drew other kids to Woodside. It also attracted VFL recruiting officers. There wasn’t the same set-up as there is now where they pool all the talented young players together. It’s a lot more localised now, and recruiters can go and watch the Power play to see what sorts of kids are coming through from the area. Back in my day there was more mystique to the recruiting job, a kind of romance if you like, in going out and hunting for a player that no-one else had heard about. There’s not the same story attached to it now, because it’s become so clinical.
I didn’t know until draft day that I was to be the number one pick. I had an inkling because it had been indicated in the press that I could go in the first few picks, but I didn’t know that I was going to go number one. I was in a biology class at High School and got told that I had a phone call. There were no mobile phones or email then, it was sent by fax or telegram, then a call was placed. I can remember being in one of the newspapers the next day. But there was no over-the-top celebration at home or anything. For me it was more a case of, now I’ve got an opportunity.
In Melbourne, it was a different level of scrutiny altogether. You go from being just a schoolkid to suddenly being thrust in the spotlight. And there was no media training like there is now, there was really nothing to prepare you for what was to come. When I see old interviews I did back then I cringe. I haven’t even shown my two girls any of them, because I know they’d get a laugh out of them! I was wearing tight shorts and I had a mullet. It was a different time back then, that’s for sure.
There were some great names that got drafted after me that year, including Peter Matera (West Coast, pick four), Gavin Wanganeen (Essendon, 12), Ben Allan (Hawthorn, 14), Gilbert McAdam (St Kilda, 17), Wayne Campbell (Richmond, 29), Shaun Hart (Brisbane Bears, 33) and Brett Heady (West Coast, 92). But there wasn’t any added pressure on my part once they started to develop into good players. You’ve got to remember that I played nearly 40 games in my first two seasons (38), so I didn’t have the conjecture that someone like a Jack Watts later faced at Melbourne. Maybe later on there was a bit more of it: those guys went on to do well for themselves and I started to have health issues. But it was never a concern initially.
The number didn’t mean that much, because as long as you got picked up by someone you had the same opportunity as all those other blokes. At the start of that first pre-season there was no difference between pick number one and pick 100. You still had to train well and you still had to do all the little things right; you still had to listen and you still had to be disciplined. The main thing was, you were on a list and anything was possible.
Almost from day one I was on the corner of Bridge Road and Punt Road shaking a can as part of the “Save Our Skins” campaign. That was my welcome to League football! Footscray, too, were in a similar situation, and it was dire times for a couple of the other clubs. Here I was, next to the window washers, holding a can saying “Save our footy club”, and I was supposed to be this highly-publicised number one draft pick! I never thought of myself in that way, but yes, I was the new young recruit and there I am begging for money. In some respects, it was no different to selling raffle tickets at Woodside on the gate of a Saturday, except I’m in the middle of Melbourne shaking tins. I learnt very quickly that it was not the razzle dazzle that we all expected it would be. It was real eye-opening, ground-level stuff.
It was a trying time early on. The first game of 1990 we played the Brisbane Bears up at Carrara, and I played in the reserves and we got beaten. Then the seniors got walloped by 59 points. We stayed up that Saturday night and a few of the boys didn’t make the plane the next morning, so there was a bit of strife and we had a big three-hour training session at Waverley on the Monday night. Kevin Bartlett was coach, and he had us doing commando stuff, it was awful. He was angry, and I remember it being gruelling – I hadn’t done anything like it before. We then played North Melbourne, the Friday night specialists, the next Friday night and the reserves again got beat, and then the seniors got thumped by 141 points. The next week I got the call-up.
It happened pretty quick for me and could well have been out of desperation. Our round three opponent was Hawthorn, the reigning back-to-back champions, and we only lost by five goals which wasn’t a bad effort. I have vivid memories of coming out of the rooms at Princes Park afterwards and the supporters wanting blood; they were angry and it was a real dark time. I’m rattling tins, the supporters want to kill us, it was pretty intimidating I can tell you. I was homesick too, and there was certainly a thought that I could go back to Woodside and be a lot more comfortable. But I was determined to give it a go. I slipped back to Woodside whenever I could though, just to get away from it for a day or two. You look back now and it was a fairly unforgiving environment with nowhere to hide.
It was a real blur: it just happened so fast. I found out that I was playing early in the week and I had my family and a few others from home come down to watch. I was living in Moorabbin, boarding with Trent Nicholls’ parents, Les and Judy, and I was catching the train into Punt Road. We’d have a light training on the Friday night before a Saturday game, and by the time you had your team meeting and caught the train home it was after eight o’clock, so it was pretty draining.
It was never heaped on to us that we must win to survive. You knew you had to win anyway, no-one needed to say it. Everyone had pressure on them. There’s no doubt it was tough.
In that first year, I ran out of puff. I was knackered, because it was a big step up from country footy. We were getting beaten, flogged really, and we’d be made to do 800-metre runs the next week at training, so I had no energy. It’s far different now, because all of their training is done purely to get them to peak by game day. As a teenager back then, it was really tough. By round 18 I was tired and looking for a spell.
In 1991 I played my best footy. No doubt about it. I even got a Brownlow vote at the end of the year! I came fifth or sixth in the club best and fairest playing predominantly at half-back. I was kicking in too, that was my responsibility. I was a long kick, and fairly accurate. But, we seemed to go through defenders during my time there, largely because we were being beaten so badly. We rarely had the same six each week. I had Scotty Turner down there with me, Andy Goodwin was another; Al Scott played full-back there for a while, too, but we just couldn’t seem to keep six guys together for any length of time to build some consistency. We were always under the pump. (In 1991, the Tigers lost 15 of 22 matches by an average losing margin of 30 points).
One of my best memories was beating Collingwood on the MCG, in round eight of 1991. They called it the “Mother’s Day Massacre”. Jeff Hogg kicked 10 goals and I had 22 disposals playing on Gavin Crosisca. It was a great day to be a part of. Beating Collingwood by 57 points in front of a big crowd at the MCG, it was dream-come-true stuff. (Richmond 24.15 defeated Collingwood 15.12 in front of 28,322 at the MCG).
Early in 1992 I began to suffer from chronic fatigue. I was zapped of energy, and couldn’t get out of bed. The club were scratching their head over it. Chris Bradshaw, our club doctor, took blood tests but we couldn’t get any definitive answers. It was around the same time that Alastair Lynch had something similar, and he rang and spoke to me about it. It was disappointing for me, especially after having had a fairly solid start to my AFL career. I tried to fight through it, and I was questioning whether there was really something wrong with me. But when you can’t get out of bed you know that there is something wrong. I just couldn’t compete. I played the first game against North Melbourne at Waverley and I can still vividly remember not being able to run around the oval. I was chasing arse all day and I knew that something was clearly wrong. (North won by 66 points and Banik had 13 disposals).
I had time off, then played some reserves games and I thought I was starting to feel better. I came back into the seniors in round 21 and played the last four games. There was criticism from outside the club about why I wasn’t improving after a good start, and I certainly felt that pressure to some degree. But my body wouldn’t allow me to compete at the level I wanted it to. I had no energy, and no-one seemed to know what to do to fix it. Eventually I got through it and I started to feel better, which is why I managed those last four games.
Allan Jeans replaced Bartlett in 1992. Allan had been a very successful coach and suddenly he found himself coaching the bottom team. He didn’t have the cattle he had had at Hawthorn, but I also found him a bit negative as a coach. It was like he didn’t think we could win, and so we went out there almost believing that we couldn’t. Allan was only there the one season and then along came John Northey, who had a different philosophy again. He had some different ideas and bought a couple of players across with him, but I never really got started with him. I wasn’t in his thoughts I guess, so we didn’t click. It was very frustrating because I was still only 21, and suddenly I was at the crossroads. Part of that frustration came from what had taken place the year before under Allan. It sapped my confidence. Under John I won the best and fairest in the reserves in 1994, but I wasn’t in the picture for senior selection. I can remember being named an emergency on so many occasions that year, which was really frustrating, but that’s the way it went.
It all comes and goes pretty quick. I was delisted on a footy trip at the end of 1994. We played Carlton at The Oval in London in an exhibition game, and afterwards Northey took everyone into the rooms and said who was going to be on the list next year and who wasn’t. I wasn’t told anything, so I thought I was safe. Then I went away to Ireland with Scotty Turner, Al Scott, Chris Bond and Tony Free, and I made a phone call home to my family while I was there and it was then that I was told that I had been let go. The Club didn’t even have the courtesy to tell me themselves! I had to find out through family, which I thought was pretty ordinary. I never had a manager to handle things for me. When I returned to Australia I did a pre-season with Essendon under Kevin Sheedy, but nothing came of it. The AFL had a pre-season draft back then, and when I wasn’t picked up in that it was too late to find a new AFL club.
West Adelaide rang me out of the blue. I was fit, because I had been training with Essendon, and I played five years in Adelaide, winning a couple of best and fairest’s in 1995 and 1997. I really enjoyed it over there. Geoff Morris was our coach at the time, and he really helped me to develop as a footballer.
In my final year at West’s I knew I was going to be returning home. I had always thought that some day I would like to have a crack at coaching and an opportunity came up at Sale (216 kilometres east of Melbourne). I was there for two years in which time we had a really young side. Then at the start of 2001 the inside of my knee fell apart. The doctor told me that I shouldn’t be running anymore because it had been a pretty horrific injury, but I was determined to keep playing so I came home and coached the Allies (an amalgamation of the Devon, Welshpool, Won Wron and Woodside football clubs) in 2002. In my final year, 2003, we won the flag in the Alberton Football Netball League. It had taken me 17 years, but I finally got my senior premiership. I played my first senior game at 14 and my last at 30.
The drafting process is so refined now and the scrutiny vastly different to my experience. It was so different back then, whereas now there are many things in place to assess and support a new player. When I was delisted by Richmond there wasn’t even a follow-up phone call. They even owed me money and I had to chase it up through the AFL Players’ Association. That just wouldn’t happen today. In my case I was forced to grow up and learn about the system pretty damn quick. But there’s no bad blood or anything now. I still follow the Tigers and my girls, Georgie and Jessica, do too because their dad played there, but I’m not fanatical about them. There’s no memorabilia up on the walls here at home.
(Anthony Banik played 49 games for Richmond, 1990-94, and never kicked a goal. He averaged 13.78 disposals per game, and played in just 15 winning sides. Banik is one of just three No. 1 national draft selections in Tiger history. The others were Richard Lounder, in 1987, who played four games, and Brett Deledio, in 2004, who played 243 games).
Author: Dan Eddy
DAN EDDY is a storyteller with an impressive collection of works. He is the author of four books, including King Richard and Larrikins & Legends, and co-author of three more, including Champions and The Shinboners.
He has a Master of Arts degree which explored the connection between Essendon champion Dick Reynolds and the Essendon community, and is a currently researching a PhD on another AFL Legend in Alex Jesaulenko. He is also a regular contributor to Inside Sport magazine, and has had articles published in the AFL Grand Final Record.