The blood on the floor is deep and only going to get deeper. Three AFL coaches have either been sacked or resigned in the past month; a fourth, Essendon’s Kevin Sheedy, is likely to join them within weeks and a fifth, the Kangaroos’ Dean Laidley, finds himself at an odd impasse with his club.
By season’s end, it is possible that five clubs will have installed new coaches for 2008, almost a third of the 16-man field, giving further credence to the notion that AFL coaching is increasingly a job for those with a death wish. Along with bungee jumping, storm chasing and shark feeding, it now clearly qualifies as an extreme sport.
In the ultra-competitive environment of the AFL, Neale Daniher at Melbourne, Fremantle’s Chris Connolly and now Pagan became victims of their clubs’ desperate need not just for success, but clear signs their teams were heading in the right direction. Sheedy, 59, is living on borrowed time.
Yet those clubs, and others toying with the idea of change, should lift their gaze from their navel, and look down the Princes Highway to the home of the Geelong Football Club where, in this sleepy backwater, an astonishing revolution in thinking has taken place in the past seven years.
Geelong’s chief executive, Brian Cook, and president, Frank Costa, have accepted under-achievement and inconsistency from their Cats with a shrug of the shoulders and an almost Gallic amount of phlegm. There have been trying moments, undoubtedly, but Cook and Costa have stuck by their coach, Mark Thompson, with a loyalty that has defied most supporters’ thinking – and certainly AFL convention. They knew in their bones they recruited the right man for the job, backed their judgment, and have supported Thompson to the hilt.
This, despite a Geelong formline that reads 7 th in 2000 (Thompson’s first year at the club), 12 th , 9 th , 12 th , 4 th , 5 th and 10 th last year – hardly the sort of record that inspired confidence in their labrador-like loyalty to Thompson, or one that marked the coach out as the new Jock McHale. Even as recently as March this year, Thompson was second favourite in a poll listing which coach would be the first sacked this season.
Yet, the faith shown in Thompson is now being repaid in spades. After 16 rounds, Geelong is three games clear at the top of the ladder and a strong premiership favourite. The coach has assembled a team that has strength through every line and last week was compared by Bulldogs coach Rodney Eade to the great Brisbane sides of the early part of the decade.
To help bring about this stunning transformation, Cook and Costa instigated an extensive review of their football operation in the off-season. They took strong steps to rectify the perceived problem areas, appointed a strong football man in Neil Balme to the post of general manager of football operations and worked hard to empower the players to show some leadership and backbone, on-field qualities that have been sorely lacking during Thompson’s reign.
If Geelong can win the flag, the experience down at Skilled Stadium will surely act as a salutory lesson for the other 15 clubs. The era of short-term thinking and quick fixes may now give way to a more enlightened approach where coaches will be given time and support to build dynasties. (Dynasties, of course, being a relative term within the socialist AFL framework of drafts, salary caps and revenue sharing.)
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Patience. Not just a virtue; perhaps the secret to victory on the football field as well.