It’s not so easy after all, is it boys? This AFL coaching caper might not be the soda you’d suggested in your presentations to those various club sub-committees who ended up offering you jobs.
You can wear the nattiest suit, put together the slickest power-point presentation and spout coach-speak gobbledegook till you’re blue in the face but all that counts for nowt when the ball is bounced on game day – and you’re the one running the show in the coaches’ box.
Tactics can’t be mapped out on a white board, or slide projector, or gleaned from a text book. The game doesn’t flow in neat lines; it veers here, there and everywhere. There’s no pattern to it; it’s about as inexact a science as you can get. Successful coaches have to rely on gut feel, a watertight game plan, sharp tactical awareness and the ability to think clearly under major duress. Moreover, they need to have deft man-management skills, and a talent for lucid communication and making inspirational speeches. In short, it’s a monumentally tough gig.
The performances of Mark Harvey, Dean Bailey, Ross Lyon and Matthew Knights this season – all of whom are in their first or second season in the job – have been revealing.
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For a while they have all talked a great game as assistant coaches, and had a mastery of the gibberish that passes these days for a knowledge of the game, they’ve spent a good part of their brief senior careers just trying to keep their head above water and not drown.
Their game plans have come under heavy scrutiny, and criticism: Harvey for producing a Fremantle team that lacks any cohesion or spirit, Bailey for trying to institute a possession-orientated game plan at Melbourne that his underskilled players simply can’t execute, Lyon for stifling the creative life out of St Kilda, and Knights for quite the opposite – paying scant regard to defence at Essendon while pushing his players forward in a reckless attempt to score at any cost.
Harvey’s team allowed 16th-placed Melbourne to win on Sunday after spotting them a 50-point lead at half-time. It was the sort of result that can ruin seasons, and leave indelible stains on coaching careers. His evasive, monosyllabic, confused performance on two TV football shows on Monday night suggested he was as far as ever from finding the solution to his perennially underperforming Dockers.
At St Kilda, supporters ask why Lyon – with Justin Koschitzke, Nick Riewoldt and (an admittedly ageing) Fraser Gehrig in his forward line, and Stephen Milne waiting for the crumbs – would want to do anything other than bomb the ball long towards them, rather than circumnavigate the flanks at the speed of an arthritic tortoise. As a spectacle, the Saints’ tentative forays forward are truly painful to watch. Only a profoundly lucky win over Richmond at the weekend prevented them from sliding into the bottom eight, where Melbourne, Fremantle and Essendon are firmly anchored.
At Melbourne, Bailey has similarly paralyzed his team with over-coaching. As soon as the Demons were given their heads after half-time against Fremantle on Sunday – having bugger all to lose at that stage — they played with a freedom and gay abandon that should have Bailey now privately reviewing his methods. Ditch the mumbo-jumbo and keep it simple.
Knights has got his team scoring a few goals, and occasionally stringing some breathtaking passages together, but the Bombers leak goals at the other end in a torrent. It is no recipe for sustained success. Or a long coaching career.
As the Carlton and Hawthorn premiership coach David Parkin once noted: “Until you’ve coached for three or four years, you’re only really practising on your players.’’
The trick for Harvey, Knights, Bailey and co will be surviving those three or four years. As things stand, they may never get a turn in the driver’s seat without having their ‘P’ plates on.