Richie Vandenberg has battled his way to the Hawthorn captaincy, Mark Fuller writes.
Never in his days playing junior football on the dusty fields of the Mallee was Richie Vandenberg a captain.
He was not, he readily concedes, of the fabric considered for junior football leadership. Vice-captaincy, occasionally, came his way, but never captaincy.
"I suppose that comes from the fact that when I was a junior, I was never the star of the side, and quite often they're the people who are leaders in junior football clubs, as we all know," Vandenberg said. "In a sense, I've just always been the battler or the hard worker."
Such has been the case in his 99 games of AFL football during his seven seasons at Hawthorn. The Hawks' match against the Swans in Sydney today will be his 100th. Perhaps, more notably, it will be his first as Hawthorn captain.
The significance of the latter milestone was magnified for Vandenberg as he stood, just over a week ago, in a windswept square beneath the AFL Hall of Fame at Melbourne's QV shopping mall. There, as he was joined by James Hird, Nathan Buckley, Mark Ricciuto, Michael Voss and Anthony Koutoufides in a gathering of the AFL's 16 captains, Vandenberg also might have observed that leadership selection at the highest level was not so different to that of his junior days. The only player among that group with fewer games than Vandenberg was St Kilda's Nick Riewoldt, one of the game's emerging stars.
It is instructive that in this environment, Vandenberg saw and grasped an opportunity to better himself.
"I learnt a lot from those guys on that day," he said. "I've got no doubt that those sort of people - the Hirds, the Vosses and Buckleys and the likes - are hugely talented players, but they're also great leaders of their football clubs.
"As an individual, I certainly don't put myself in their league talent-wise as a player at all. I've got no idea how they go about leading their sides off the field, but for me to be in that sort of company was very humbling, that's for sure.
"It was a fantastic experience to be around those people. One thing you do realise is you're very fortunate to have the position."
Vandenberg comes to the Hawthorn captaincy at a pivotal time for the club after its 15th placing last season. At 28, he was chosen by new coach Alastair Clarkson ahead of outgoing captain Shane Crawford and influential ruckman Peter Everitt, who are both 30, as a captain for the future.
The leadership qualities that were outshone by Vandenberg's flashier teammates in his junior days have not escaped Clarkson, who says his captain is "very forthright, honest and has great integrity" - qualities his teammates admire in Vandenberg, too, according to the coach. These are not imagined. In his considered, articulate manner, Vandenberg reveals them to be the central elements of his leadership philosophy. And it is no cobbled-together approach. There is a sense that Vandenberg, who has a finance and economics degree, has been gathering intelligence for this mission for most of his career.
Although he says the pre-season has been a "whirlwind" of functions - "peripheral distractions associated with the captaincy" - and he has had little time to sit and appreciate the role, Vandenberg has a firm vision of what his leadership style should be.
"I've thought about it many times," he said. "I think the way I would like to lead, and I'm sure most people would like to lead, is from the front.
"I hope the example that I set is a good example for the side, and especially for the young guys. The beauty of it is that I do have a good group around me, and they're certainly going to help me with that. It's certainly a challenge that I'm looking forward to."
In plumping for Vandenberg, Clarkson has been seen to have found an obvious link between the promise of Hawthorn's youngsters and the proven capacity of its senior players. Peter Schwab, who coached the Hawks for four seasons before losing his job amid last year's calamity, has noted Vandenberg's enthusiasm for teaching young players and modelling his revered preparation.
"It's very important to help develop the young guys because they're the future of the club," Vandenberg said. "If you want to achieve anything, you have to fast-track their development.
"I'm fortunate enough to live with Harry Miller at the moment and it's been great watching him develop over the past 12 months, and he's being rewarded with the game against Sydney."
Schwab observed that the relentless midfielder could be demanding of others in setting standards for their preparation, but Vandenberg said a forthright approach must be well measured when dealing with younger players.
"It's a balancing act between developing a good, friendly relationship but also being strong and stern to get the message across. You need to have that balance right," he said.
The skipper might expect to be tested more in the critical task of bringing talented senior - and notably individual - players such as Crawford and Everitt behind his message, but Vandenberg betrays no apprehension.
"I think older people probably understand the value of honesty better, so with people like Spider (Everitt) and the other older guys, I just feel that if you're honest with them and you're up front and you've got nothing to hide, then they'll respect whatever decision you make," he said.
Hawthorn's pre-season venture to the Kokoda Trail raised eyebrows and drew cynicism, but it was at the location of this famous World War II field of battle that Vandenberg drew a sharper appreciation of how a group of men might be most effectively led.
"Kokoda was a fantastic experience. We saw a hell of a lot of leaders within the football club," he said. "The beauty of it was we were led not by the footy club but by outside people who were ex-military.
"One thing I did learn from them was the empathy they had for the group. They understood that everyone's personality is different and we all react in different ways, but by the same token, it's very important to be strong and stern with the group as a whole. That's something I have taken on board."
It is one of many threads upon which Vandenberg has drawn his approach to leadership. "I have a number of confidants and mentors across a broad range of disciplines, including business and sport - family members, obviously," he said.
"It's just good to have a chat to people from all walks of life to get their views on it, and you take from any interview with those what you will and try to digest it all and make it applicable to football."
In a salute to his unusual path to league football, Vandenberg still takes advice from Trevor Larkin, his coach from his days playing senior football at Wentworth in NSW, and Grant Williams, his coach in his amateur years at Uni Blues, who is now football manager at Carlton.
"I didn't come through the same system as everybody else, and I was quite focused just on my uni when I was a young bloke," Vandenberg said. "They indicated to me that if I had a crack at it, I'd probably be able to make at it at AFL, so I owe those two blokes a great deal."
David Parkin, the revered former Hawthorn and Carlton coach, is a constant sounding board and guiding hand for Vandenberg. Much of Parkin's advice Vandenberg prefers to keep to himself. "The main message that comes from Parko is to really concentrate on making sure that you're still going about your football and then you're extending yourself to your teammates," he said. "That's been some great advice that I have taken on board."
The most influential figure in Vandenberg's life and football career has always his father, Peter, a Mildura farmer with a deep country football pedigree.
"I always said of my father that he's my greatest supporter, along with my mum, but he's also my greatest critic," Vandenberg said. "I think it's very easy to take advice from someone when you know it's going to be honest, and the best thing about my father is that's he's going to give me some good, honest advice. "If I'm not playing well, he'll tell me, and if I've had a good game, he'll say, 'That wasn't too bad, son'."
Already, Peter Vandenberg has had an influence on his son's new career development. On the day he was named captain, Vandenberg appeared before the media with a designer beard he had nurtured over the summer. The next day, the call came from his dad.
"I can't remember the exact words but it was along the lines of, 'Better get that fluff off your chin there, son'," Vandenberg said. "Dad wasn't real keen on it, so I thought it won't hurt to whip it off. He likes to keep it pretty conservative, being from the country." Up the Mallee way, that is. From where a junior battler became an AFL captain.