Fred Clarke: The Teenage No.17 (by Rhett Bartlett)
Fred Clarke, who died Monday, August 17th 2020 aged 87, was the first Richmond player to wear the famous No.17 guernsey after Jack Dyer's retirement.
A gifted defender for Heidelberg Football Club, Clarke was signed by Richmond in January of 1951, having just turned 18 years of age. He was recommended to the club by former Collingwood and Richmond premiership player Horrie "Tubby" Edmonds.
Clarke was employed at the Heidelberg Gas Works, where he hand-shovelled coal into the furnaces which produced the domestic gas.
Playing well at half-back and full-back in the March practice matches of 1951, he debuted in the opening round of the season against Footscray wear No.17. The number hadn't been worn in a game since Dyer's retirement after the 1949 season.
After 3 Senior matches and 6 Reserves matches, Clarke's season was interrupted by compulsory National Service, which had been re-introduced for the Korean War. All males aged 18 years of age were required to undertake 176 days of military training.
The following season was his best at Tigerland, playing in 14 games but in 1953 he suffered from a thigh injury in the Rd 5 match against Geelong. It was his last Senior game. He was 20 years of age.
The injury plagued him during his attempted comeback, and the following year he re-tore his thigh muscle, and then slipped carrying a load at his workplace.
Reading the tea-leaves he relinquished the No.17 guernsey to Bob Dummett, and was cleared to Maryborough in 1954. He found his way back to Heidelberg in 1956 and the timing was perfect, playing in 4 premierships (he had played in one with them when he was 15 years old as well).
Heidelberg named him in the back pocket of their Team of the Century, and he was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2007.
In a forerunner to what we experience in the current digital age, Clarke's first day at Tigerland was documented in a remarkable series of 8 photographs across 6 pages in Richmond's 1951 Souvenir History Book, published to coincide with the Golden Jubilee celebration of the Commonwealth.
It was basically a propaganda article - come to Tigerland and enjoy the same first-class facilities and onboarding process like teenager Fred Clarke receives.
Under the heading of "Introduction of New Player", readers saw photographs of Clarke, in an open neck shirt and jacket, listening to President Harry Dyke and Secretary Maurie Fleming in the club's training room.
"In Fred's case," the history book wrote "he became immediately popular with everyone because of his frank and manly bearing."
The publication says that "frequently in conversation, after the game you will hear a trainer praise the work of one of his charges as you would hear a horse trainer talk of the ability of one of the brilliant horses under his charge."
If you were in doubt that these staged photographs were not representative of the club's onboarding process, the publication was at pains to point out that "we again stress on our members and all intending League players that the comments and series of pictures shown are typical of the treatment received by a player who has been successful in winning his place on a club final training list."
After a tour of the club's Committee Room and seemingly with his first day over, Clarke is reminded that should he have any problems with his on field performance to discuss them with his coach Jack Dyer, any issues relating to his footy gear are to be brought before Charlie Callender, injuries to be reported to the Club Doctor and Head Trainer, and the "many little personal problems associated with his career" to be brought to the notice of Harry Dyke and Maurie Fleming whose duty it is to keep the player "psychologically contented."
Clarke himself is giving the final word of the article, "A man starting with the Tigers has got something to follow. When I see the famous players and officials who have been associated with the Club, all I can say is "I, too, will do my best for the Club."
Fred Clarke finished his Richmond career with 21 Senior games, and 14 Reserve games. His son Neil "Nobby" Clarke played 135 games for Essendon including the 1984 and 1985 premiership. He died in 2003 aged 45.
(written by Rhett Bartlett)