Denis Pagan woke up one day last week and found himself blamed for every problem that has ever bedeviled the Carlton Football Club. From under-pumped footies at training to the barely-warm sausage rolls in the social club, it has all been Denis’ fault. For a while there, it looked as though he was going to cop the rap for global warming, Al Qaeda, the drought, equine influenza and George W Bush as well.

How the curly-headed coach must rue the day he decided to chase the big bucks and leave the Kangaroos – the club where he won two premierships, garnered a win rate of about 65% and built a coaching reputation that was virtually bulletproof – to join the rabble at Optus Oval.

It was his former captain Anthony Koutoufides, no less, who got the ball rolling last week. Writing in his autobiography (ghosted by one of the Carlton cognoscenti, Tony de Bolfo), Koutoufides said that Pagan was unfair, inflexible and frustrating. He described Pagan’s coaching style as hopelessly outdated. Oh the treachery, the betrayal. Macbeth had nothing on Kouta.

The baying media pack, led by the running-dog Blues supporters among them, have had a field day with the story. Pagan has so far kept his dignity and restrained himself from returning fire.

Only because we strive for fairness at Crikey, and purely in the interests of giving the downtrodden a voice, here is an alternative view of events at the once-great Old Dark Navy Blues.

Pagan arrived at Carlton at the end of 2002 and what he found was a schemozzle. The Blues had come off a wooden spoon that year and had the oldest playing list in the AFL. Yet the players, led by the million-dollar man Koutoufides, were somehow the highest paid in the league.

The same players had been empowered under David Parkin, and then Wayne Brittain, to run the show themselves. That was fine in 1995 when the club was brimming with champions such as Kernahan, Silvagni, Bradley, Williams and co. But in 2003, most of those guys had gone and what was left was essentially a bunch of veterans, journeymen and no-hopers, all of whom had been given this massive sense of entitlement.

For Pagan, this was akin to the lunatics taking over the asylum. They flitted in and out of weights sessions when they felt like it and had a similarly unstructured approach to game day. Pagan, who – there’s no getting away from it – can be ruthlessly tyrannical, jumped all over this freedom of expression and made it clear that he was the boss. He made it compulsory for every player to attend every session.

A rift emerged because the older players were not used to such a hardline approach from the coach. They yearned for the good old days under Parkin and Brittain. And why wouldn’t they?

No sooner had Pagan arrived at Optus Oval than Carlton was whacked about the ears by the AFL for salary cap breaches. The club received a record fine of $980,000 and was banned from first and second round picks in the draft for two years. This led to an upheaval, hardly of Pagan’s making, in which player payments had to be drastically cut. Camporeale, for example, was on $450,000 a season and the club wanted to trim his sails back to about $300,000. The dispute resulted in him leaving for Essendon.

As for a game plan, Pagan tried to institute a high-possession strategy but the players’ appalling skill levels meant the ball was turned over repeatedly. It simply couldn’t work until they were re-taught the basic skills. He then switched to a back-yourself-and-run, long-kicking approach last season which brought early rewards but was quickly dismantled by other clubs. He was damned by the player list he inherited and the draft restrictions he was saddled with.

Koutoufides claims other senior players share his views about Pagan’s shortcomings. It would be interesting to hear then what Adrian Carazzo, Heath Scotland, Kade Simpson, Eddie Betts, Adam Bentick, Bryce Gibbs, Marc Murphy, Jarrad Waite and Setanta O’hAilpin have to say about that. Their careers all progressed under Pagan. Perhaps they’d have a different view to their captain’s. If so, it has not been reported.

Other players, such as Brendan Fevola, a serial nitwit and repeat offender, owe Pagan their careers. The coach showed him incredible loyalty when most other people would have simply showed him the door. Another supposed leader at the club, Nick Stevens, sulked when he was overlooked for the captaincy last year. This is the sort of unprofessionalism Pagan had to deal with.

While Pagan has been well and truly strung up by the lynch mob, no-one else at Carlton has copped a scratch. Certainly none of the entrenched powerbrokers. Stephen ‘’Sticks’’ Kernahan, for example, has been on the Carlton board since 1997. On Kernahan’s watch, the club has been found guilty of massive salary cap rorting, the penalties from which are still hurting the club today. But who’s still among the men of influence in the Carlton boardroom? Who’s been totally conspicuous by his absence – and silence – while his former coach cops it in the neck? Yep, good old Sticks.

No, it’s a rum business this character assassination. As any half-decent journo will tell you, there’s always another side to every story – especially headline-grabbers extracted from autobiographies.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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