Increasingly for AFL clubs, the season is as much about managing expectations as it is about win-loss ratios. Like political parties in the lead-up to an election, football clubs do not want to be seen as shoo-ins before the big game. They’d prefer to be viewed as the battling underdog rather than that most ugly of sporting ‘f’ words, the favourite.
At every opportunity they will try to talk down their chances and dampen expectations, while at the same time talking up the prospects of the opposition. It’s become a quaint sideshow to the serious business of what happens on the field.
Essendon began the year with two barnstorming wins. So what does mastercoach Kevin Sheedy say when wheeled out for a media conference prior to round three? That Geelong is the Victorian team most likely to win the premiership this year!
With what appeared to be a straight face, the old fox said: “At Essendon, we are probably trying to get out of the bottom four, along with Carlton, but Geelong is saying we’ve been getting these draft choices for six or seven years and … they are ready to go.”
Masterful. Brilliant. In the blink of an eye, Sheedy had deflected the attention from his own team and turned the heat up on poor old Geelong, coming off a woeful 2006 and without a premiership to its name since 1963. Only a spinmeister of his experience and audacity would attempt a stunt like that. Yet to some extent it worked, the papers next day dutifully carrying his quotes.
Conversely, Fremantle, Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs were tipped by most pundits to make the final eight this year. After three rounds, they are all struggling big-time and have managed just one solitary win between them. They are all now not just desperately trying to find some form and confidence, but trying to manage the weight of expectation from increasingly restless fans who had been told to expect a welter of wins, and primed themselves accordingly.
Richmond coach Terry Wallace probably knew his team would struggle to make an impression this year. Which is why, two days before the season started, he made the extraordinary statement that the Tigers would start to peak in 2009 and “a decade of opportunity” would kick in from 2011.
Tigers fans are perhaps not known for their calm and reasoned thinking but they’re not complete dills either. One wonders how gullible Wallace thinks they are – and whether they swallowed that clap-trap along with their Weeties the morning that story appeared.
Wallace is entering the third year of a five-year contract. When he was signed up, much was made of his five-year plan that would transform the serial underachievers at Punt Rd into habitual winners. All that seems to have been conveniently forgotten.
Wallace now prefers to talk about the pot of gold under that distant rainbow, about that promised land of milk and honey way over the horizon. What he is really doing is dampening any expectation about the Tigers’ prospects in the short-term.
No longer does spinning end with the cricket season. As with politics, spin-doctoring is now a rusted-on part of the AFL landscape. Some of it is artfully done; most of it, however, can be filed under the heading of ham-fisted propaganda.