But those raw numbers don’t necessarily tell the full story. “In a way, it feels like he never really got a chance at it,” suggests one former insider who worked closely with Richardson at St Kilda. “Which sort of sounds ridiculous for someone who is about to be the second-longest serving coach at a foundation club.”
Richardson was on the back foot from the time of his appointment. So late in the piece did the Saints’ board decide to sack Scott Watters, the 2014 fixture had already been released when news of the axing emerged. Richardson therefore had no input into the Saints’ trade period plans of 2013 – which included sending Ben McEvoy to Hawthorn – and had been in the hot seat barely a week when the Saints snared Jack Billings, Luke Dunstan and Blake Acres in the first round of the national draft.
The new coach inherited a team that had fallen off a cliff face in 2013, but one still heavily reliant on an older core of players. Of the top eight in St Kilda’s 2013 best and fairest, five players (Nick Riewoldt, Leigh Montagna, Sean Dempster, Nick Dal Santo and Clint Jones) had turned 30 by the start of the 2014 season, although Dal Santo had departed as a free agent to North Melbourne.
St Kilda were in full-scale rebuild mode. There was no other way around it. But they had a plan. Driven by football chief Chris Pelchen, the man who had helped build Hawthorn’s 2008 premiership side, the Saints laid out a strategy to hit the draft hard from 2013 before upping the ante via free agency in 2016, with a view to becoming a top-four side by 2018 and deliver a premiership by 2020.
These specifics were accompanied by several lofty off-field goals, few of which have been achieved. In hindsight, the most ludicrous target was the plan for 10,000 New Zealand-based members by 2018.
Pelchen departed weeks before the 2014 draft, in which the Saints took Paddy McCartin at pick one as well as Hugh Goddard at the tail of the first round. Speaking to several St Kilda football department personnel of recent years, the McCartin decision is one which consistently emerges as the type of seemingly doomed call which has ended up costing Richardson hugely.
But until Jack Billings’ emergence this year as a consistent force, few of St Kilda’s early draft picks have made the cut. Dunstan and Acres have teased, Daniel McKenzie has become a solid player, and Josh Battle has held up well in defence this year. But Ben Long has been way too inconsistent, Nathan Freeman (traded for a second-round pick in 2015) managed just two senior games while Hunter Clark and Nick Coffield, both top 10 picks in 2017, are yet to establish themselves even as senior regulars.
Jack Steele, Tim Membrey, Josh Bruce and Nathan Brown have been reasonably successful acquisitions from rival clubs, but none are absolute A-graders. Jack Newnes, dropped this week after 123 straight matches, epitomises the club’s mediocrity under Richardson.
The Saints have had just one All-Australian in Richardson’s time (Riewoldt in 2014), while tellingly four-time club champion Jack Steven has never been selected. And until rookie Rowan Marshall’s emergence this year, the Saints have generally been average in the ruck under Richardson.
The upshot of that tale, according to a couple of recent insiders, is that the coach has extracted close to, if not as much as possible from the lists provided to him. The 2016 and 2017 campaigns, in which the Saints won 12 and 11 games respectively, were perhaps the best a middling group with a reasonably accommodating fixture could achieve, rather than the portent of a bright future.
It was hoped internally that the departure of Riewoldt and Montagna at the end of 2017 would prompt others to grow on and off-field. It hasn’t gone to plan.
That’s not to say Richardson has been perfect. Far from it. Though he is widely viewed as a likable person, his relationships with players were generally not up to scratch last year. Richardson paved his way as a development coach but in the main role his attention was said to be overly dedicated to his top 10 to 15 players.
Off-season soul-searching has created a more thoughtful coach, while the addition of Brendon Lade and Brett Ratten has helped sharpen the St Kilda coaches’ box. So given the umpteen episodes of misfortune which have befallen key Saints players this year, a 6-7 record is creditable.
But when you are about to become the second-longest serving coach in your club’s history, creditable might not end up being enough.
Daniel is an Age sports reporter