How 'Connect Four' shaped Damien Hardwick as a coach

Veteran publisher, media man and one-time restaurateur, Geoff Slattery, has, it seems, won footy publishing's equivalent of Willy Wonka's golden ticket.

Slattery, the MD at Slattery Media, was approached last year by senior Fairfax journalist, Konrad Marshall, with the idea that Marshall spend a year embedded inside the Richmond footy club (in a joint project with the Tigers) to write a fly-on-the-wall season-in-review.

Slattery thought the plan had merit so struck a deal with Marshall. Soon, the Tigers were on board and the journalist was to be allowed into team meetings, and the coaches box on match days, as well as having unprecedented access to coaches and players.

The book was to be a riff on a similar theme pioneered by John Powers in his seminal 1977 work, The Coach, in which he was given carte blanche access to North Melbourne, and the Roos' combustible coach Ron Barassi, during the season which netted the club its second premiership.

But given how poorly the Tigers were travelling in 2016, both Slattery and the club decided to pull the pin on the project in June - and try to revive it again in 2017.

Slattery had no great expectations for the Tigers this year either but felt that, at the very worst, he'd end up with an insightful and informative footy book which, he said, "would describe the truth at an AFL club".

As Marshall writes in his introduction: "I would go to meetings; attend matches and training; sit in the rooms as the coach instructed and inspired his players. I would interview and profile the athletes and their mentors and trainers. I would sit in on match reviews, or opposition analysis, or selection committee, or Board meetings, or in the coach's box on game day."

But as the Richmond wins kept piling up, and they ended the home-and-away season in third place, riding a surging wave of momentum going into the finals, Slattery finally allowed himself to think that, just maybe, the Tigers could go all the way.

And when he read the first instalment of "YELLOW & BLACK-A season with Richmond: By Konrad Marshall", the publisher became convinced that the club's 37-year premiership drought was about to come to an end.

"I can honestly say that I was very confident that Richmond would win the flag after reading those early chapters because the camaraderie among the players, their belief in the system and the sense of unity at the club just shone through," Slattery told ESPN.

And so it came to be, of course, last Saturday when they steamrolled Adelaide by eight goals to win the grand final - and give Slattery's long-shot punt a well-deserved payday.

The book will be available in November and can be pre-ordered now from richmondfc.com.au.

One fascinating story in the book which neatly encapsulates Hardwick's change in strategic thinking, and the club's new emphasis on defence in 2017, revolves around the Tigers' Round 5 match against Melbourne at the MCG, when Marshall was sitting in the coach's box.

The author explains how the Richmond coaches sat in the rooms before the game and watched a video clip recorded by senior coach Damien Hardwick earlier that day. It showed him, dressed in casual clothes at home, sitting in front of a game of 'Connect Four', concentrating hard as he scanned the yellow and red circular discs in the blue plastic frame.

The object of the two-person game is to place four discs of the same colour in a row, while preventing your opponent from doing the same.

The voice holding the camera, that of his 17-year-old daughter, goads him by asking: "Did I win?"

For once again, she had out-thought and out-manoeuvred her father with deft play based on defence.

Even though Hardwick hates losing, he decided to draw on the lessons of 'Connect Four' when addressing the players in the briefing room before the game.

As the players take their seats for the Hardwick rev-up, they notice up on the wall a picture of Connect Four in its box.

The coach then turned to his players and said, smiling: "This is the greatest game on the face of the earth. Unfortunately, I can't beat my 17-year-old daughter. It drives me insane. But there's a reason why."

He then looked at his defender David Astbury and said: "What's the object of the game, David? It gives you fair hint on the box."

"To Connect Four?" Astbury replied.

"You've got to Connect Four, David. So, what do you think I'm trying to do? What am I playing?" he asks, before answering his own question. "I'm playing too quick. I'm playing all offence. And what do you think my daughter's playing?"

"Defence," answers the room.

"Deny, deny, deny. That's all she does! So, Dad gets frustrated. Dad makes a shit move. Dad loses. She goes in with a defensive mindset and she either wins-or has a draw. With my offensive mind set I either win-or lose."

Hardwick begins getting to his point - and it is a point that will serve the Tigers well all season.

"It takes great discipline to play defence, but that's what we're doing. We're looking for that ability to deny. If you take away their strengths, what are they going to do? They're gonna try to go for it, and eventually, they're going to lose. So, we're going to deny, deny, deny."

He points out that they've trained this system all summer long, and put it in practice in every game. The Tigers are-statistically speaking, after four rounds-the best defensive side in the AFL. "Understand today is all about defensive effort. We win. We don't lose. 'Connect Four' boys."

Marshall then writes: "It's such a playful beginning, and so representative of the Hardwick demeanour this season. The man is buoyant, a disposition not based on results but on process. He more than anyone made the decision to change Richmond into a defensive-yet-unshackled team, and now he delights in the plan's application."

While not a lot went right on the field for the Tigers that day, they still managed to claw their way to a 13-point win, before 85,657 fans - thanks in no small part to a child's game with yellow and red plastic discs.