By sports editor Russell Bennett
The Gippsland Power’s revered ‘Centre of Excellence’ in Morwell has long been regarded by many as the house that Peter Francis built.
And yet most of those people would have no idea how true that assessment really is.
He drew up the plans, acted as the owner-builder, and did the project management of the site that’s now the envy of football clubs Australia-wide.
And most would never know.
On Thursday, in typical understated fashion – but after a staggering 25 years at the helm – Pete locked the front door of that house of his and walked away for the final time as the father figure of the Gippsland Power.
All throughout the day, and in the days prior, countless visitors would walk through that door to wish the beloved talent manager well in his retirement, and he’d greet them like he would anyone else – by name, with a knowing look, a warm smile, and a genuine handshake.
The respect Pete gives is matched only by the respect he receives.
When he started with the Power, it was operating out of then talent manager Ray Byrne’s garage in Warragul.
The “mobile club”, as Pete called it, would play and train out of the visitors’ rooms at Morwell.
And now there are 80 people involved, working behind the scenes at the club that has academies starting from the under-12s, to girls and boys teams right throughout the age brackets all the way up to the NAB League.
In a sign of just how far the club has come, Pete’s sister, Kate, come down last week from the farm in Heathcote. She’d never seen the Centre of Excellence before, and didn’t know what to expect.
Understandably, when she saw it, she was blown away.
Pete’s been a guiding light in the careers of young footballers for decades, but now he’s retiring to the Mornington Peninsula with his darling wife of 39 years, Robyn.
Fittingly, his final day at the Power fell on the same day as their wedding anniversary.
Pete grew up in Heathcote, and went on to play 158 games across stints with Carlton, Fitzroy, Richmond, and Essendon.
His most famous game as a player came on the biggest stage of them all, when he was a key part of the Blues’ five-point 1979 premiership win over their arch nemesis, Collingwood.
The now 61-year-old credits his lasting career in football to that fateful day.
“What defined it was that premiership,” he said, his athletic frame leaning on some exercise equipment next to his office inside the Centre of Excellence.
“It was 40 years ago this year, and I think that’s defined my life in footy.
“I was lucky enough to get a couple of kicks, and I really think that’s been what’s helped me move along and be able to work in an industry that I’ve loved so much. It’s really been my hobby.”
He’d never admit it, but Pete oozed class on the wing.
Yet he gave an insight into just what’s transformed him into the beating heartbeat of the Power.
“As a player, I never felt like I was a walk-up start,” he said.
“I always played on the edge, because I thought in any particular week I could be dropped and, looking back on it, it was stressful.”
That’s exactly what NAB League players go through on a week-to-week basis.
The pressure to perform, the bitter disappointment of rejection, the euphoria of the ultimate success, the importance of sacrifice, and the pay-off of pouring blood, sweat, and tears into a playing career – Pete knows what today’s players are going through, because he’s been there.
“That’s what you hope to pass on to them – that you’ve been there, that you’ve seen it,” he said.
“There are no shortcuts, and that’s the cold, hard reality.
“You might have all the ability in the world, but it’s still going to take a lot of hard work.
“I’ll always remember Robert Walls saying to me that nothing worthwhile in life comes easy. It takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears along the way – and it’s so true.”
And it was another Carlton great, Alex Jesaulenko, who Pete will always remain indebted to. Decades ago he hit him between the eyes with the cold, hard reality that if he didn’t get fitter, harder, and stronger he wouldn’t make it.
Again, sound familiar?
“I know how hard it is to play – I know how hard it is to get a kick. It’s not easy out there, and you never forget that,” Pete said.
After his playing career, he went into coaching.
He even led the Power for six years before Ray Byrne took up the talent manager’s role with the Bendigo Pioneers – leaving the Gippsland seat vacant.
Pete wasn’t sure if he was ready for it, but he grabbed the opportunity with both hands – and generations of players have been so much better for it.
“I can’t thank Ray enough for getting me down to coach, and being able to do the talent manager’s role for the past 19 years is a dream come true for a farm boy from Heathcote who just dreamed about playing AFL footy,” Pete said.
When speaking about today’s players, he simply said he’s “in awe”.
“These kids at the Power really fight so far out of their weight division,” he said.
“The size of the region is massive, the population is the smallest to pick from, we’re playing city sides where the ratio would be three to one, and we train one night a week.
“Our biggest enemy is the travel.
“They don’t just have to travel hours to training – the top-end (players) are travelling all over the country. It’s a massive, massive undertaking.
“The Power has always had this reputation that we’re a really hard team to play against. We’re really fortunate because the ethos of the NAB League – or what was the TAC Cup – is to develop every boy or girl to their maximum potential, on and off the field.”
But the Power doesn’t just develop quality footballers – it develops quality people.
And, through Pete and the small army who’ve played a significant part in the club along the way, it’s not hard to see why.
“I know what our culture is – I can articulate it. It’s an on-field, and an off-field culture and it’s one that we’ve set and we really control – it demands 100 per cent buy-in,” he said.
“Off-field, it’s also one of respect – respecting the staff and the people who’re looking after you, and coming in and not just saying “how’re you going mate?”. It’s coming in and speaking to them by name, asking them how their day’s been.”
Once again – sound familiar?
Two other traits of the Power culture are fearlessness, and pride – and, again, it’s not hard to see why, with Pete leading the way for so long.
“Our kids have a real burning desire to play for their entire home region,” he said.
“We’re a regional side – Gippsland – and they’re very proud Gippsland people.
“We’re very big on our players acknowledging their home clubs. They do deserve due credit – they’re the ones who get them through to us, and we put the finishing touches on them.”
Pete could rattle off an endless list of names that he credits for getting the Power to where it is today – on field, and off.
And he would, if given the chance.
But, ultimately, it all comes back to the players.
“You really feel for the modern-day player – the game is harder to play than when I played, and the game is better,” he said.
“The players today are far more skilled – they’re amazing.”
And if the pressure to perform isn’t enough, they’re also more open to uneducated, often faceless criticism – particularly on social media.
“I know, as a player, I hated something derogatory written about me in the paper,” Pete said.
“Now you can’t even get away from it – and I feel for the players in that way.
“There’s no way known you won’t see it – and some people can be cruel. They don’t understand how hard it is to play.”
And it’s the players who’ve given him such incredible footy memories – enough to last a lifetime.
“In the 2010 AFL Grand Final we had 11 players on the ground from the Power, and no other TAC Cup club had done that – a quarter of the players on the two teams that day were from one twelfth of Victoria,” he said.
“I was really proud of that day, and to see them do what they’ve done since.
“And building really strong programs – that’s another thing I’m so proud of.
“We’ve got those 12, 13, and 14 (year-old) academies coming through now feeding in and it’s mind-blowing how big it’s become, and it probably needs someone with a lot more energy than me to really come in and take it further and go on with it now.”
Pete’s pride in the Power’s evolution and its achievements over the years is endless – just like his respect of anyone who’s played a part along the way.
“It’s such an amazing turnaround from where we were in those visitors’ rooms at Morwell,” he said.
“It’s just come so far to get to this point, and it’s definitely not just me – there have been a lot of people doing a lot of things along the way, and our staff have been absolutely amazing over the journey – past and present.”
And with the Centre of Excellence, Pete knows the Power has a home befitting its reputation.
“The competition demands that you have a Centre of Excellence, and when I first designed it this was my way to bridge the gap a little bit – if we could – on the city teams,” he explained.
“This is my legacy.
“Wherever you go, you always leave a little bit of yourself behind – it’s always there, and you can come back to it and appreciate it. I think that’s what this is – this is my legacy to the Gippsland Power, that I’ve been able to leave them with this and Scotty (McDougal) will come in and take it forward from here.”
Scott McDougal is taking the reins from Pete moving forward, and he needs no introduction to anyone at the Power or in wider Gippsland footy circles.
His involvement, too, spans decades.
“He’s a great fella, Scotty, and he’ll do a brilliant job – I’m so confident of that,” Pete said.
“I’m leaving the club in really good hands, and he’s the perfect person to take it from here – this role demands that you go above and beyond, and I feel I’ve always done that and I know Scotty will do exactly the same. He’s definitely the right man – it’s his dream job, just like it was mine.”
After his last game with the Power as talent manager – the preliminary final loss to the Eastern Ranges at IKON Park – he knew the time was right to walk away.
Robyn was waiting for him in the car, as she had so often in the past.
“We met when we were 18, and we were married at 22,” Pete explained.
“The kids started to come along at 25, and I’ve pretty much been an absent dad the whole time.
“Robyn’s really brought the kids up – and she’s been absolutely incredible.
“Now I owe it to my family to give some time back to them, and that’s what I intend to do before it’s too late.”
Pete’s heart belongs to his family – Robyn, his kids Scott, Prue, and James, and his grandkids.
And his soul? Well a big part of that will always be Gippsland’s power.