Unfazed by critics who say she’s been largely silent while Richmond’s season has plunged, Tigers president Peggy O’Neal says she will do her best work behind the scenes. Telling Fairfax Media this week “I would talk to the media all day, every day, if it meant we’d be sitting on eight wins right now”, O’Neal said her priorities were elsewhere and would not be changing.
“I’m not somebody who calls a press conference to say ‘here’s what I have to say’.
“I don’t know if this (criticism) is a bit of a test of me, but I’m doing my presidential role and I’m acting much like all the other club presidents,” she said.
“The best-placed person, with the most information, should be speaking on behalf of our club. And so if you want to talk about game plan and what’s happened in our games, well, there’s no point in me being a translator for what Damien (Hardwick) would tell me about. Talk to Damien.
“When called upon to talk on issues that are topical in the AFL, and how that affects football clubs generally, I’m happy to talk about those things. The same applies to what’s going on in terms of the long-term strategic direction of the Richmond Football Club.
“But me talking to the media has nothing to do with getting things right, and I’m a bit puzzled as to what it is that I’ve shirked.”
In an extended interview eight months after she became the AFL’s first female president, O’Neal, now in her ninth year on Richmond’s board, said she felt warmly welcomed in the position of influence within the game.
Unlike the first female AFL commissioner, Sam Mostyn, who was appointed in 2005 and detailed years later how she’d received a significant amount of hate mail at the time of the breakthrough, O’Neal said she’d only received encouragement.
Congratulated immediately by some of the competition’s most senior powerbrokers – AFL Commission chairman Mike Fitzpatrick was among the first to contact her after she became president in October and indicated he was only ever a phone call away – O’Neal said she never felt one-out despite being the lone female among the code’s other presidents and chief executives.
“That might go back to being a lawyer in those early days of women and law,” she said. “But I’m used to being the only woman in the room and have been for a very long time.”
The criticism that O’Neal should have been more of a spokesperson through Richmond’s sequence of losses has largely been made in the football media. Retired Essendon great, now AFL commentator, Matthew Lloyd, also questioned O’Neal’s football credentials on television this week.
O’Neal said she’d give Lloyd “the benefit of the doubt” over his questioning, but added he could easily have checked her qualifications. She suggested Lloyd’s comments were potentially more insulting to her fellow Richmond directors who elected her as president last year.
O’Neal described how, the next day, she had been asked by a reporter in the car park at Punt Road Oval why she had been ‘'hiding'’.
“I thought it was a bit odd to pop up and say ‘have you been hiding from the media?’ when I was walking into the club!” she laughed.
“If you know the role of management, and the role of a board, and the role of a president, you wouldn’t think that any of what happens at Richmond is out of the ordinary.”
Describing Richmond as no longer the “volatile” place it once was, O’Neal said the club would continue to back its personnel and plans despite a 2-6 start to the year and a particularly disappointing loss to Melbourne last week after the life of Tiger legend Tom Hafey was celebrated.
Describing herself as “pretty unflappable”, O’Neal said she intended to chair the Richmond board that way.
“Ranting and raving isn’t the style of good organisations. It isn’t the style of getting the best out of your people, and it isn’t the style that really is conducive to teamwork and team spirit,'' she said.
“When you lose your perspective because you’re angry, or your good judgment because you can’t see the long term, then you make bad decisions.
“There’s no better way to lose a negotiation than to lose your temper. I’m pretty steady as she goes, I’m pretty unflappable in those ways. I don’t anger easily and around the board table that’s the way we approach decisions.
“Maybe it’s my legal training. Clients don’t want lawyers who can’t see their way through and solve the problem.”
O’Neal gave coach Damien Hardwick her unconditional support this week, reflecting on the board’s decision to extend his contract by two years, after he broke a finals drought last season, but only after a thorough – and still entirely relevant, according to O’Neal – review of the football department.
She also said that CEO Brendon Gale had been entirely focused on his Richmond job despite the fact he was interviewed for the AFL CEO role.
“The timing, with Brendon, between the approach and when he went for his interview was only a matter of days,” she said.