As there is so much expected from the No.1 draft pick in the National Draft, it’s easy to understand why they may feel pressured to succeed in the AFL. However, this was not the case for Darren Gaspar, who was drafted by the Sydney Swans at pick No.1 in the 1993 National Draft.
“I’d been playing some good footy in the WAFL (West Australian Football League) and was pretty fit comparatively to most of the guys that I came up against, so I knew I’d go OK,” Gaspar says.
Gaspar would go more than OK at AFL level, with his career beginning for Sydney against Adelaide in Round 3 of the 1994 season. Despite enjoying the experience, his greatest memory of the game was receiving a blast from his coach Ron Barassi after getting out-marked in the backline.
Much to the surprise of the football world, he would leave the Swans after only two seasons.
“Sydney was offering a one-year deal, which I was close to accepting, however, the deal was pretty ordinary.”
Richmond was given pick No.3 in the 1996 Pre-Season Draft as compensation for losing Stuart Maxfield to Sydney. The Tigers’ coach at the time, Robert Walls, was very eager to secure the services of the young full back and committed to using the compensation pick on Gaspar.
“I met with Robert Walls and flew down to Melbourne for a day of discussions,” he says.
“The next day I had a meeting with my then girlfriend, now wife, and we weighed it up, and said what the heck – let’s go to Melbourne.”
The prospect of playing home games at the MCG and attending the Tigers’ come-from-behind win over Essendon in the 1995 semi-final made it an easy decision.
He quickly proved his worth at Richmond as a full back and was given big tasks to carry out by Walls at the tender age of 19.
“He [Walls] played me on Jason Dunstall and Tony Lockett in my first five games at the club.”
Gaspar was determined to give his absolute best with Richmond and made several sacrifices to ensure that it was achieved.
“I had the view that I was living on the other side of the country for work and I wasn’t going to mess it up,” Gaspar says.
“To give you an idea – I’d not drink at all from the 1st January till the last game, as a sacrifice to give me the best chance to get the job done and give me an edge over opponents.”
His professional approach off the field was rewarded with consistent performances on the league’s finest full forwards, and he was recognised as one of the leading defenders in the competition with his All-Australian selections in 2000 and 2001.
Gaspar was strong overhead and a terrific spoiler, which made him hard to beat in one-on-one contests. His best year would come in 2001, winning the club’s best and fairest and playing an integral part in Richmond’s September campaign. He led the Tigers’ defence in their last finals win over Carlton in the semi-final and distinctly remembers the game.
“I’ll never forget the last quarter when we’d finally sewn it up,” he says.
“Big crowd, great atmosphere, siren and the celebration.”
Following his breakout year in 2001, he became the most highly sought-after defender in the land and was offered a large sum of money to return home to Western Australia and join the Fremantle Dockers. Loyalty would prevail for Gaspar and he was committed to see out his remaining years with the Tigers.
“I loved living and playing footy in Melbourne,” Gaspar says.
“Richmond had become a big part of my life and I wanted it to remain that way.”
Although suffering a number of injury setbacks towards the latter period of his career, he was still the focal point of Richmond’s backline when fully fit. After just five games into the 2007 season, Gaspar would unexpectedly announce his retirement from league football at 31 years of age.
“Terry Wallace told me that he had adopted a youth policy (after we’d lost the first five games) and that I wouldn’t get a game ahead of younger players – regardless of how I performed.”
He was incredibly disappointed and opposed the youth policy, as he felt as though he had more to offer the Richmond Football Club.
“I retired on the basis that I felt that there was no point in continuing working under those conditions.”
It was the end of a brilliant career for the gifted defender, which lasted 228 games over 14 years in the premier competition and undoubtedly exceeded the expectations of the No.1 draft pick label.
Having played on many superb key-position forwards, he regards North Melbourne legend Wayne Carey as one of his most difficult opponents.
“Whilst I don’t feel he every really got the better of me, I could see how he was such a great player – very smart, knew how to work the angles, which is difficult playing from centre half-forward.”
According to Gaspar, former Essendon spearhead forward Matthew Lloyd was also in the same category as Carey.
“When Essendon were the best side in the comp, most people would have found him difficult. For example, when you’ve got Chris Heffernan, Blake Caracella and Justin Blumfield running out of the midfield kicking lace out – life can be nerve-racking.”
Gaspar was fortunate to play alongside many talented players with the Tigers, noting Duncan Kellaway for his determination, Matthew Knights for his footy smarts and Matthew Richardson for his durability, fitness, speed and strength.
He significantly benefited from balancing study and the demands of AFL, seeing as it helped him with his concentration skills on the field.
“I found that when I had study or part-time work, I played better footy.”
Around the same time Gaspar retired in 2007, he and his wife welcomed twin girls into the world. This allowed him to move on from football in what he describes as a “wonderful time”.
The Richmond life member is back living in his native Western Australia with his family and runs Centia Private Financial Office, which is a financial advice business based in Subiaco.
He also calls special comments with Tim Gossage and Brett Phillips for SEN’s radio broadcasts of West Coast games at Patersons Stadium.
In his time away from work, he enjoys spending it with his family and going fishing during the night.
Even though he may live quite a lengthy distance from Punt Road, Gaspar still supports his beloved Tigers and is confident that they will feature in the finals next year for the first time since 2001.
“We’ve got a good structure and the club is in the best position it has been in many years, with Brendon Gale as CEO and Damien Hardwick as coach.”
Mitchell Wood is a first-year Bachelor of Sport Journalism student at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter: @Mitchell_Woody