If Michael Voss thought life was tough as a young player starting out in the early 1990s with the Brisbane Bears (aka the flea-bitten Bad News Bears) then the game is about to throw up a challenge for him that could make those bleak times seem like endless, sun-soaked salad days.
The home-grown, all-Queensland boy has all but been anointed as coach of the AFL’s new Gold Coast franchise, set to open for business from 2011. For the AFL, desperate to get a toehold in that burgeoning population centre, it’s a perfect fit: the local lad and three-time Brisbane premiership captain returning home to pioneer Aussie Rules’ push into south-east Queensland. Photogenic, intelligent, forthright and popular, Voss is the marketing man’s dream.
But hang on one second. In listing his qualities, we’ve just about assembled the prototype of the modern coach, except for one small but telling thing: experience.
Voss has not coached a team before, nor has he been an assistant. His training for a senior position since retiring as a player in 2006 has largely consisted of stints behind the microphone as a Channel 10 commentator. That gig involves him running a segment called the NAB Analyser at half-time when he focuses on the various tactics employed during the first half. Sometimes this assessment has been so obtuse — especially during one particular explanation of kick-outs from full-back — that it has had one or two seasoned coaches scratching their head in bewilderment and asking: just what is he on about?
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There is also an interesting chemistry playing out between Voss and his fellow-commentator Malcolm Blight. Voss, the blue-eyed boy and coach-in-waiting, versus Blight, the two-time premiership coach and gnarly veteran observer of the game. Their by-play has occasionally been revealing.
In a recent match, when a Geelong player missed a relatively simple shot at goal, Blight asked Voss: “Well, Vossy, you’re about to become a coach: what message would you send out to that Geelong player?” Voss, clearly surprised by the question without notice, stammered: “I don’t know.” Blight couldn’t help himself: “Well, you’ll be a good pick-up (as coach) then.” It was the old bull letting the young bull know who was boss.
Voss will get plenty more of that if he decides to accept the job. Free advice, and criticism, will come from everywhere. He’ll need to have not just a sharp brain but a thick skin.
History shows that first coaches of start-up clubs end up being shafted fairly early on in the piece. Witness Gerard Neesham, John Cahill, Ricky Quade, Peter Knights, Ron Alexander and Graham Cornes. Of that lot, Neesham and Cornes lasted the longest — just four seasons. Coaches of start-up teams with no previous coaching experience, well, in recent years, the idea has been considered preposterous.
Voss could do worse than ask Knights, the first Brisbane Bears coach, how difficult it was at Carrara in the 1980s, and the traps to avoid. Or Shane O’Sullivan, who was Knights’ football manager in those difficult days.
The AFL will surely provide the new Gold Coast outfit with 10 times more support than the VFL ever gave Knights, O’Sullivan and co — it’s clearly in their interest to make this thing work, and sooner rather than later — but still there are some obstacles that the league won’t be able to help Voss overcome.
How do you bring together a group of disparate young players? How do you make them gel as a team? What’s your game plan? What tried-and-tested method are you going to fall back on when the losses start to mount?
“It’s not just coaching a footy team. In a sense, that’s the easy part,” O’Sullivan told Crikey.
“It’s handling 44 very different characters and getting them pull together, in the one direction, as a team. Also, you’ll be the public face of the club, everyone will hang on every word you say.
“The coaching caper is so tough these days, somewhere along the line you’ve got to do an apprenticeship. When times get a bit tough, as surely they will, you need that experience to fall back on.”
O’Sullivan is in no doubt that Voss will one day be ready to coach an AFL team — just not the Gold Coast team, just not now.
Some time soon, the freckle-faced boy wonder will be presented with a contract to coach the new team. But seen in a certain light and from another angle, it could easily be mistaken for a coaching death warrant.