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In 1492, Henry VII held a month-long tournament with minstrels, stilt-walkers, jesters and rope dancers, with revelry spilling from palace to Richmond Green – all to the sound of splintered lances and men crashing to the floor as jousting took centre stage. Less than 400 years later, a football club named after the town started playing ‘rugby’ on the very same ground. It was then that things got interesting.

Edwin H. Ash wasn’t a king, but, in 1861, he did start an army. He worked in the local military college and, when he came to the town for work, he brought with him a routine of playing ‘football on public streets on Shrove Tuesday’, and so he started up his own team, Richmond FC, naming it after his adopted home.

In Richmond Green he found the perfect pitch and, ignoring the rules barring anything but bowls and cricket to be played, put up some posts to get the ball rolling. The rules played were pretty loose and a jumble from assorted schools, but the growing presence of Old Rugbeians in the side did have an influence.

They officially became a club with all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted in the season 1863-64, and soon caused a stir attracting crowds of 400-500 people from the start. People were shocked by what they saw, especially in the rain, with one commentating (according to the author EJ Ereaut, who wrote Richmond Football Club 1861-1925), that players’ ‘white flannels from time to time took the most grotesque appearance’. This was a problem solved a few years later when captain EC Holmes (this being a time when initials were all important), was inspired after seeing the Belgian army on parade in London and created Richmond’s kit of red, black and old gold, although ‘old gold’ wasn’t a phrase used by the first fashion commentators. Bell’s Life of London, the sporting chronical of the time, did however approve, describing it as a ‘broad striped jersey composed of red, black and yellow easily discernible and warm and comfortable looking’.

The opponents ranged from Barnes and Blackheath, to Clapham Rovers, Forest Club (Leytonstone) and Fifteen Men of the North – a side they faced in 1866 and Ereaut presumed to be ‘forerunners to London Scottish’. And eventually they’d have a big say in setting up the RFU in 1871, with Ash initiating a meeting of the founding eight clubs and also ending up as treasurer with the wonderfully named Algernon Rutter as chair (also of Richmond).

Even back then, as Ereaut noted in his foreword, Richmond FC was known for having an incredible amount of ups and downs compared to other clubs. At least, then, they were prepared for what was to come.

Almost 150 years after Fifteen Men of the North came to Richmond Green, the fifteen men of London Scottish came to play Richmond in September 2018. Travelling literally no distance at all for an away game at their own ground, Scottish and Richmond’s lives have been intertwined since they both found themselves at the Richmond Athletic Ground in the late 19th-century. 

Back then, the ground was more known for its bowls, tennis, horse show and cricket, but these days rugby is the dominant force. Cricket still has a presence though, albeit in the form of the original pavilion which now sits on an elevated perch having been raised to make way for changing rooms beneath. It’s here that we meet Peter Moore, the club chairman, who, according to another stalwart Jen, the secretary/treasurer, is one of the main reasons the club is still here today. 

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Peter is well prepared for our chat. He hands over a file that’s an assortment of cuttings, books and old programmes. Two are from the same season, 1998-99, the first against Newcastle in September, with president Tony Dorman beginning his notes full of optimism for the season ahead, noting the ‘magnificent’ Madejski Stadium, how history was being made and extolling the virtues of the move to the Thames Valley area. 

Even against a Newcastle side with 12 internationals including Va’iga Tuigamala, Jonny Wilkinson, Rob Andrew, Doddie Weir et al, Richmond were not far behind with nine stars affixed to names on a team sheet that included Allan Bateman, Agustin Pichot, Craig Quinnell and Ben Clarke.

The second programme, against Bath in March, still had those names, but even with Dorman still dutifully sounding optimistic, some words always lower any tone, ‘administration’, being one of them. 

It’s a chunk of Richmond’s history that has been told many times from many angles, but what happened in the late-90s paved the way for where they are today. Peter was right at the coalface of it all, just as he is today. Two things remain constant with Richmond, from Peter’s first season as a player back in 1970 to today; their pioneering tour spirit – a trip to East Africa taking in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya was among his first – and the opportunity for a player to go from the fifth team right to the first, even though they’re now in the Championship.

A lot happened between then and now, firstly Richmond continued to maintain their presence among the contenders in English rugby throughout the 70s and 80s, then a gradual slip in the 90s, and then professionalism was brought to the club by Ashley Levett. 

“He had no connection to the club,” says Peter of Levett, “he had a commodities broker trading business and was based in Winchester – his son played mini rugby there I believe. 

“I think he talked to a few friends and thought it would be interesting to find a rugby club and get in there at the beginning of professionalism. I believe he visited Leicester and Bath too, but got a more positive response from Richmond.”

The introduction of the league system in England and, ironically, other clubs finding inventive ways to ‘pay’ players, had meant Richmond had started to slip, finding themselves in the third tier – albeit looking good for promotion – as Levett arrived on the scene. “I came to the AGM when the proposal was put forward for Ashley to effectively take control and inject £2m,” explains Peter. “The committee put it forward and had done all the due diligence and documentation, and then there was a vote. Some hardliners said they couldn’t support it and it would all end in tears because there was no business plan as such, but the majority of the members voted to give it a go.

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“I voted to do it,” admits Peter. “I thought better to have a go and fail, than to not do it at all.”

When approached to get involved directly with the professional set-up, despite a career as a chartered account, Peter refused to get involved in the finances because he ‘couldn’t see how it could work’, but, as he’d been looking for a new challenge, took on the role of general manager. “I was happy to do anything else, run the matchday, change the toilet paper, anything but the finances.

“I just didn’t know how we could go from 700 people watching – and members were coming in for free - with a team of amateurs to become a professional outfit. When we set off in 1996, we had 320 season ticket holders, Leicester already had 6,000. 

“The season ticket cost peanuts, and I remember there was uproar when I introduced a £5 entry charge for members –the concept of paying to watch when you’re a member was completely foreign.”

Contracts had been offered to the squad that gained promotion, but with many too close to 30, and with career paths already well underway in other directions, only a handful took up the offer and so recruitment was in full swing by the time Peter started his new role. “By the time I arrived in September we were in the process of going from having one employee to, by the time we got to end of October, having 60 or 70 and we were suddenly recruiting the likes of Scott and Craig Quinnell. All this seemed to be going on without a business plan either – at least not one I’d seen.”

England’s Ben Clarke had arrived together with Levett, who had even brought him along to some of his presentations to the club, and John Kingston was in charge. When the first home league game came around, 15 new players had arrived with salaries ranging from £20,000 to £90,000 with a few ‘undisclosed’ pay packets. But Peter’s bigger problem was dealing with the locals, especially when Newcastle arrived early in the campaign. “That match was a nightmare,” he admits. “Nobody knew how many people would turn up and there were thousands, we had no facilities to pre-sell, so we’d put booths to try and sell on the day, but everyone turned up at five to three thinking they could just get in and they couldn’t.

“There must have been six or seven thousand people queuing up, there were ticket touts and in the end we had to shut the gates – I was supposed to be running the ground, but I just wanted to hide. It was just beyond our comprehension that suddenly this many people could arrive when you were used to 300-400. We didn’t even have any turnstiles - we still don’t!”

Without knowing the full extent of the figures until later on, even when promotion to the top-flight was gained, Peter knew that the numbers didn’t add up. “We had Oracle who were probably the biggest sponsor in the Premiership at the time on about £500,000, central funding was about £600,000, but our wage bill was £2.5m so there was a shortfall of about £1.4m. With only 15 or so home games, however many people you brought in wasn’t going to close that gap, that was evident, so by the end of year two Ashley was in for £4m.”

After discussions with Kingstonian FC and Harlequins, the answer to getting more bums on seats was the newly-built Madejski Stadium in Reading. “If ever it was going to succeed then that was going to give it the best opportunity,” admits Peter. 

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More big names arrived to help fill the stadium, and Peter again dealt with the details. “It was completely different being in a football stadium, even with the stewards, I had to address about 50 of them, and explain that, ‘this is not a war zone, you don’t have separated sections, this is not tribal, people are allowed to drink and walk up and down, you’re here to give information and direct people’. Even after that the biggest number of complaints were due to the aggressive nature of the stewards.”

Attendances topped at around the 11,500 mark, with the average closer to the 6,000 mark, a core support had been lost but new fans were emerging, although the progress was much slower than expected. “We were forecasting for a loss of £1m for year four, and I think we needed a crowd of about 9,000 paying fans to break even.”

They never got that far. Accounts for 1997/98 were due to be filed as the season drew to a close in 1999 and, as with any business making a loss, they had to prove they were a going concern and have either the bank or an individual underwrite the loss. Having sunk more than £6m in to purchasing the controlling share of the club, the ground and then the ongoing costs of professionalism, the buck stopped with Levett and he duly stopped the bucks.

After a board meeting in Winchester, Levett confirmed his intentions. The next day, the club faced Leicester in a cup quarter-final and won 15-13. “I remember kissing Ben Clarke after that win because I thought Ashley might change his mind,” recalls Peter.

He didn’t. And so the stalwarts of the club quickly assembled to come up with a back-up plan as the club went into administration. So secretive were the meetings, they hid out in the only place you’d never expect to find a Richmond FC meeting – upstairs in the Triple Crown, the unofficial pub of London Scottish. “There’s two types of trading,” says Peter, “wrongful trading is when you’re insolvent but you’re still going on, the other is when you know you’ve got problems but you’ve got a plan, we were the latter. Other clubs were too, but they’d find ways to fudge it.”

The administrator began cutting costs instantly with some squad players departing, leaving the bare bones of a side to finish the season. Every unnecessary cost was removed, including an academy squad bus for an away trip – a cost picked up by Agustin Pichot. Ben Clarke’s parents even chipped in as the hat went round the members.

A fightback had been on the cards with investment in place, but it was EFDR (English First Division Rugby) who finally turned the lights out on Richmond. Set on reducing the top flight to 12 clubs from 14 (having increased it due to England’s absence in Europe), in Richmond and London Scottish (who were a busted flush financially too) they found a solution. With Richmond in administration and London Scottish going into liquidation, the shares of the clubs in EFDR (giving them the right to play in the First Division) were there for the taking. London Irish set up a company to negotiate their purchase from the respective administrator or liquidator, thereby taking away the club’s right to play in the top division.  “There had been an offer to the clubs earlier in the 1997/8 season by EFDR of £500,000 for any club who took a voluntary relegation, or £1,000,000 if two clubs would merge or £1.5 m if three clubs would agree to merge, so effectively London Irish had achieved that,” explains Peter.

When it came to the crunch meeting with the EFDR, none spoke up for Richmond, and they were cast adrift and, together with London Scottish, were ‘merged’ with London Irish, which amounted to adding their logo to a sleeve for a season or so. “One of them (from the EFDR),” explains Peter, “said to my colleague, ‘I don’t care if you’ve got £30m in the bank, you’re not going to be in the Premiership next season’. Or words to that effect.

“We could’ve gone to court, but the administrator wouldn’t spend money,” says Peter. “We couldn’t guarantee we’d be in the Premiership so the investors wouldn’t commit.”

With that door closed, the next opening was re-entry into the leagues, with level four having been discussed. A June fixture list arrived and Richmond were nowhere to be seen. “The RFU had not faced anything like this before,” says Peter. “They said they could bring us in at level 4 if we could show we had the players, so I went to them explaining we had an under-21 side that had just won their championship, a second team and some of the guys who were with us before professionalism were staying, but it was too late.”

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A season in the wilderness with only friendlies to play followed, before the RFU found a place for them in the league pyramid – at level nine. “Everyone had this perception of us as the posh boys, rich Richmond,” admits Peter, “so we decided that we would not complain, we would be humble, carry on and take our medicine. Even at that level, we would have a lunch before every game and we would invite the opposition committee. If there were just six of us we’d still have lunch to foster as much good will as we possibly could going up through the levels.” 

On the plus side, the membership had rallied to raise funds to put the club back on the right path, individuals had put money in to buy the controlling share of the ground’s lease and they at least could start holding ‘board’ meetings in the clubhouse instead of a rival’s pub. 

Hooker Andy Cuthbert was made redundant on the same day as his girlfriend, now wife, Michelle, who was then the full-time club physio. He’d been with the club since he was 18, joining ‘because David Sole was there’.  “We weren’t married yet,” explains Andy, who still catches the first team and turns out for vets at Richmond, “but we lived together and the administrators came in like the Grim Reaper and, suddenly, we went from two incomes to both out of work. I was 31, had done my couple of years of professionalism but never made loads of money. The house was half renovated, so we couldn’t let out, I was stuck in the area, so I just went back to my old job.

“I did go over to London Welsh and speak to Clive Griffith, who was coach then, and he’d come from rugby league and said, ‘you’ve got to remember you’re just a piece of meat now’, so I kind of thought,’ I don’t want to be a piece of meat, I’m 31!’. I wandered over to Richmond and they were having a meeting to save the club, so I said ‘what’s going on then?’ 

“That year, we had a good under-21 side and we kept a lot of them who were very good players and then there were my old mates from before the professionalism, so I came back and started playing in Herts/Middlesex 1. In two years, I went from playing against Gloucester or at The Stoop and now we’d be on council parks, being careful not to walk in dogshit beforehand.”

Andy is pragmatic about his own professional career. “I’d given it a go,” he says. “And, to be honest, I was never first choice. When we were semi pro, first choice was Brian Moore and there were times towards the end of his playing when he wasn’t as fit as I was, but he had that game management, all that experience and could also encourage people around him in a way that I couldn’t. Then the hooker after him was Barry Williams, who had just come back from a Lions tour. On his day, he was always better than me, but not sure he had enough of those days for us. I still got a lot of game time though.” 

Enough game time to pull together more than a few memories. “I remember playing against Saracens and they had Francois Pienaar, Michael Lynagh, Philippe Sella, Richard Hill and Kyran Bracken, we had Ben Clarke and the Quinells – names all over the place. I used to play against our loosehead Dan McFarland at my old club up north and, after the game, we went for a fag behind the stands and couldn’t believe how ridiculous it all was. We used to play on a hill on the outskirts of Leeds watched by one man and a dog and now we were on Sky with big crowds and playing alongside these galacticos.”

Although, like many, he was incensed by the clubs treatment by the authorities, Andy – as captain – led from the front. “It didn’t challenge us to start with,” he says of the lower echelons of the pyramid. “We won six Surrey Cups, went 83 games unbeaten, one person said having us in the London leagues was like having ‘whales in a goldfish bowl’. It wasn’t good for anyone, there were a lot of players who could’ve played a good level of rugby who committed to Richmond. I had a good time, my best man was the coach, I was captain, my wife was physio, I had a load of mates playing and we were going around the London leagues winning and having a few beers – it prolonged my career to be honest.”

It also brought it to an abrupt halt, for a time anyway. “I got hepatitis B, a blood injury, from a head clash in a league game, and then had acute liver failure. It wasn’t immediate, but my bowels went, then I went bright yellow and I just couldn’t keep concentrating on doing anything – I slept for 14 hours a day. The thing is it’s seen as a ‘dirty’ disease, caused by sex or drugs, so I pretty much had a stand-up fight with a consultant in a hospital who didn’t believe how I got it. 

“There was a 96 per cent chance of survival which still left four per cent, and as Michelle was pregnant, I did a will and all those bits, but after three months I was pretty much recovered – until I went on tour and I was a bit dicey for another two months!” 

Now completely recovered and turning out for the Richmond’s vets side the Heavies (part of 150+ year front row), Andy can look back on a job well done. “I played in every league for Richmond from one to nine, except four,” he says. “I’m not particularly proud of my career, I’m not not proud either, I was lucky to have been reasonably good, and had some fantastic times.”

Any specifics? “The tours,” he says. “South Africa, Argentina, Canada, major tours – not many clubs do it like we do. Take a player on tour and keep them for two years, take them on two and you’ve got them for life, the friendships you build on them are that strong.”

Does he wish the decision to turn professional was never made? “There’s no point bitching about it,” he says.  “Lots of people think with 20/20 hindsight, they wouldn’t have done that, but I’ve got a feeling if we’d never taken the opportunity we’d have ended up in a worse place. A club with no ambition, who wants to play for club like that? Better to take the risk and fail than not take it, you don’t want to be like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront saying you could’ve been a contender.” 

After successive promotions from level nine to five, Richmond took four years to gain each of the next three promotions, seeing the likes of Ealing Trailfinders and rivals London Scottish pass by en route to the Championship. When the Championship finally beckoned, it seemed to take everyone by surprise, including director of rugby Steve Hill. “The club wanted to finish top four which I actually thought was a bit of a lofty aim, given we’d only finished seventh the season before,” says Steve. “But we had this fantastic away win at Rosslyn Park at Christmas and that put us top of the league. 

“We came back after Christmas, got a few good away wins and then suddenly promotion looked possible. Then we went to Hartpury College, who were the other contenders, three games before the end of the season, and with virtually the last play of the game we beat them with a bonus point, scoring our fourth try. We were promoted, it was amazing, surreal, fantastic.

“Suddenly, it was mid-April and it was ‘Christ, next season we’re going to be in the Championship’.”

Like many in the national leagues, the club had started paying a nominal amount of matchday fees at level four – “£80 if you started, £150 if you won,” Peter had told us earlier. While those figures had increased, not by a significant amount, and there were no plans to go full-time or have a tilt at the Championship. The figures, the club were very aware, didn’t add up. Even though the central funding contribution went from around £9,000 travel expenses in National One up to £500,000 or so in the Championship, but the full-time wage bill would chew that up. As Peter also pointed out, “if you put everybody on salaries, what happens if you go straight back down? We had to manage that swing carefully and I wanted to have something left in the bank to give us the best chance of going back up again.”

The money on the table – same for every player, around £300 if you’re in the matchday squad, then a £200 win bonus – was never a factor. Peter and Steve weren’t asking their players to go full-time or give up their jobs, but instead commit to more training, a pre-season that started a fortnight after their last match and to play against sides that would be fully professional, able to hone their skills and physiques on a daily basis. 

“We didn’t want to bankrupt the club to stay in the league,” says Steve, “it wasn’t worth it, so first we actually asked the RFU if we could turn down promotion, but we never got an answer – I don’t think they knew to be honest. 

“Then we met with all 80 male players, we explained that if we’re going to go for this, it means we’re going to have to do more training, be more committed, they’re not going to be able to go away for stag dos, weddings and holidays in the middle of the season, because we were going to be in the Championship so they had to be tied into it.”

“Steve asked them to give us one season,” says Peter.

“We asked if there were any reservations and no person came back to us and said, ‘no, we don’t want to go for it’. We lost two players for different reasons, but the rest of the squad said, ‘let’s give it a go’.”

Typically, what was lacking in the pay packet, was made up with a promise of a good tour at the end of season. “I said whatever happens there’s £40,000 in a pot to go on tour,” says Peter, “even if we’ve lost every game – I think that swung it.”

Meanwhile Steve put in place everything he could to prepare his squad, from the addition of the highest level of medical cover (‘a lot of professional clubs aren’t as well covered’, he says). The coaching set-up was strengthened all fronts including S&C with Ian Taplin (of Wasps) and setpiece with Adam Jones helping out from neighbours Harlequins. To help the players working in London, deals were struck with gyms in the city to help with the programmes, and a few new faces arrived, including former London Welsh captain Matt Corker, as player/lineout coach. 

Nothing, however, could really prepare them for their first game. “Jersey were massive, I’d never seen anything like it, their bench weighed more than my fifteen,” admits Steve. “The difference was ridiculous, when our reserve front row came on, we were probably losing four stone to them – per man. We got humped, and even our supporters thought ‘oh God, what’s this season going to be like?’

A few humpings later, and Richmond began to settle, with the first win coming at game nine – against, would you believe, London Scottish. “We won with the last kick of the game and just had the biggest party,” says Steve.

 With rumours of London Welsh’s demise starting to find their way around the corner from the Old Deer Park, Steve pushed his side to save themselves on merit, not default. “We didn’t want to not get relegated just because London Welsh had gone bust,” he says, “so we pushed to finish ahead of at least one other team – and ended up winning three of the last four games and finished above Rotherham.”

The following season was even better, winning nine games to secure ninth, but the bigger  story was not so much the result, but what the players were doing to get the results.

“Look at Jesse Liston,” says Steve, going through his squad. “He’s a fitter, and works from seven until four on a building site in Chingford, Essex, on his feet fitting windows, up on roofs, and he finishes work, drives here around the North Circular, which takes a good hour and a half. When he gets here, he hits the gym for half an hour, and is out on the training pitch at 7.30pm. When he finishes, he’ll have food at the club, get back home about half ten and then on the site again the next morning at seven.

“Joe Tarrant, who left last year, spent two years driving up from Bournemouth for training and matches. He’s a prop and an electrical fitter and one week he was doing a job in Merthyr Tydfil, but drove for three and a half hours to get here so he wouldn’t miss a scrum session with Adam Jones. After the session, he drove straight back to Wales to finish the job.”

Steve’s role also encompasses the hugely successful women’s side (a big factor in keeping the Richmond name at rugby’s top table over the years), the minis and youth, so he’s better placed than most when it comes to looking at the club’s future, which definitely doesn’t include another stab at Premiership rugby. “I don’t think the people in charge of this club would ever take that risk again,” he says. “Why would they? Nobody who wants to play for Richmond is here because of that, they’re not here for the money.

“There are big plans to redevelop the whole site though; a new stadium, a couple of 3G pitches – this could become one of the biggest and best rugby centres in Europe and I think that’s a fantastic thing to aim for and be sustainable too. But Premiership rugby? No.” 

Words by Alex Mead. Pictures by Oli Hillyer-Riley

This article was taken from Issue 4 of the RUGBY journal

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Issue 6 Henry Slade, New Orleans, Loughborough Lightning, Liverpool St Helens, John Dawes, Brad Barritt – Russell Earnshaw & John Fletcher, Heather Fisher, Ampthill, Auld Enemy and more…